Part Five: The Dissolving Dream

"I'm afraid we have no rooms, left sir. Only a suite. I don't know if that would suit you? We are very busy, after all, what with the Charity Ball taking place tonight. Nearly every room in the city is booked, but we did have a cancellation on one suite."

The man standing at the front desk of the Washington Hotel was neatly dressed, but his suit was shabby and shiny around the seams and he looked rather dishevelled. Looking at the list of prices displayed behind the clerk, the man calculated that he had enough money for one night.

"A suite will be perfect. Perhaps you could arrange for some hot water to be brought up?" He could see the sense of doubt on the clerk's face and produced his wallet. "Would you like me to pay in advance?"

"Oh, that won't be necessary, sir! Not at all!" Nevertheless, the clerk was obviously relieved that his customer had the financial wherewithal to pay his bill and was not impecunious after all. But you simply could not be too careful! Beckoning a porter over, he gestured towards the guest register. "If you would just like to sign in, then you can get settled into your room."

The man nodded and scrawled a large confident signature in the book. His gaze flicked over the other entries and it took all his powers of composure not to exclaim outloud when he saw an entry that boldly proclaimed "Mr and Mrs Joseph F Cartwright."

"Would that be one of the Ponderosa Cartwrights, from Nevada?" he enquired.

"It would indeed. One of the most prominent families in this part of the world. Mr and Mrs Cartwright are returning from honeymoon and will be the guests of honour at the ball tonight."

Schooling his face to impassivity, the man managed to suppress his surprise. Dismissing the hall-porter with an imperious wave of his hand, he picked up his travelling bag and walked upstairs to locate his suite on the second floor. As he climbed the stairs, a beautiful young woman glided towards him, with deep chestnut hair piled intricately on her head in glossy curls. Her dark eyes met his own with a merry twinkle and he caught a hint of her scent as they passed one another on the stairs.

"Good afternoon." Her voice was low and melodious and her smile curved her rosebud mouth irresistibly upwards at the corners, so that a dimple appeared in her right cheek.

The man managed to respond, but something compelled him to stop and watch as she reached the foyer and then walked out of sight. Only glimpsed for a second, yet she stirred something in his soul, something he had thought was long dead and buried. Was it possible to meet someone and instantly fall in love? Reason dictated against it, logically it was impossible, but he could not deny the feelings stirring in his breast. The power of the emotion shocked him to the core of his being. He walked wearily along a luxuriously carpeted hallway until he came to his suite

It was pleasant and well appointed, containing everything he required and with tall french-doors that lead to a balcony. He flung them open and stepped out, savouring the fresh air. Soon there was a knock at the door and a porter arrived with copper cans full of steaming hot water. It was time to prepare. There was a lot to do with before the Ball that evening. He could not let this sudden infatuation interfere with his purpose.

After washing off the grime of travel and carefully shaving, the man felt suddenly exhausted. He looked at his reflection in the pier glass and gave a shrug. Not exactly head turning, but he would pass. The bed looked incredibly comfortable and there was enough time for a brief nap after all. It would refresh him and make sure he could deal effectively with Joseph Cartwright at the ball that evening.

He was awoken some hours later by a peal of laughter, obviously coming from the balcony of the adjoining suite. Creeping over to the window, careful not to be seen, the man saw a slender figure, dressed in a white satin gown, that clung to her curves. He recognised her immediately and his heart seemed to beat a little faster. Surely this was fate?

"You spoil me dreadfully!" She was obviously talking to someone inside the room. "Roses every day and now these." Her hands flew to her ears, where a pair of diamond chandelier earrings caught the light evening light. "They are so beautiful that I don't know how to thank you."

Joe grinned lazily and strolled out onto the balcony, to enclose her within his arms. "I can think of one or two things you could do to thank me!" he said suggestively and then bent his head down to kiss her in a certain spot beneath her ear, revelling in the frisson of delight that shivered through his body as his wife pressed suggestively against him. "For a start, I want you in that bed, wearing nothing but those earrings." His mouth covered hers, effectively stopping her unconvincing protests and then swung her up into his arms and walked back into the room, kicking the doors behind him and shutting them in their own private world.

In the adjoining suite, the man scarcely dared to breath. How ironic that he should land up in the next-door suite to Joe and yet discover his quarry was married to the very woman he had fallen in love with. This certainly added a new dimension to his plans.

His evening suit was of an old-fashioned cut, but it was well made and still looked smart. The man took great care with his appearance, brushing his hair back in two smooth wings. He was still not reconciled to his thinning hairline, but there was little he could do about it. Eventually, he was satisfied with his preparations and took one last look at himself in the mirror and prepared to meet his nemesis.

Of course, he did not actually have a ticket to the Ball, but he was accustomed to living on his wits and was confident he could gain entry. How difficult could it be, after all?

The foyer of the hotel was full of smartly dressed people, and an excited buzz of chatter filled the air. A string quartet was tuning up in the ballroom and hotel staff hurried back and forwards, attending to the guests' needs. It was easy of the man to integrate himself into a convivial group and join their party.

"I wasn't aware Joe Cartwright was married," he ventured, after exchanging initial pleasantries.

"It was a whirlwind romance," a middle-aged lady seated to his right confided. "They met here in Sacramento, fell in love and went back to the Ponderosa to be married. She's French, you know. But then, you would guess that from her name – Marie-Louise. A beautiful girl and they seem very happy."

Another lady snorted. "I still think they could have had a proper wedding, right here, instead of going to the back of beyond. Why, it's still a virtual wilderness out there!"

Her companion patted her hand soothingly. "They wanted a small wedding, my dear. Just close family and friends."

"Are the Cartwrights a large family?" the man asked ingenuously. A host of people rushed to answer his query

"Oh no! Not at all! There's just Joe, his father and two brothers."

"But one of the brothers left, over four years ago and dropped out of sight."

"The family were devastated, don't you know? They tried everything to find Adam, but it seems that he didn't want to be found. Disappeared without a trace."

"Such a dreadful pity – it must have broken his poor father's heart."

There was an awkward pause in the conversation, but then the quartet began playing some soothing music and conversation resumed. The man was no longer interested in idle chatter: he was just waiting for Joe to arrive. He moved away surreptitiously, sitting carefully to the side of the ballroom, almost obscured by a large parlour palm.

"We're going to be dreadfully late," Joe observed, fastening his cuff links without looking, totally absorbed in watching Marie-Louise repair her coiffure in the mirror. The way her slender neck curved and those tendrils that curled so beguilingly… well, how could a man concentrate with such a sight before him? Joe sighed and wished they did not have to go this confounded ball tonight.

Marie-Louise looked over her shoulder and smiled, knowing exactly what was going through Joe's mind. "So, we will be fashionably late! And whose fault is that?" she teased.

"Yours!" Joe said firmly. "You are altogether too delicious and too desirable for any man to resist, far less your helpless husband." He shot her an admiring glance

Marie-Louise finished arranging her hair and bestowed a bewitching smile on him. "And you are the most handsome man in Nevada."

Joe looked affronted. "But this is California!" he protested in mock-indignation.

"Exactly. So you will have to be extra attentive to me tonight!" Judging by the contended smile on Joe's face, this would not be a problem.

A lively waltz struck up just as they entered the ballroom. Joe walked into the centre of the dance floor, gravely bowed to his wife and then the couple glided effortlessly into the dance. They were well-matched and perfectly attuned to each other, gazing deeply into one another's eyes, impervious to the hoards of people watching their every move as they whirled around the dance floor.

The man observed the couple carefully: Joe had not changed a bit, despite the passage of time. He was still as boyishly handsome as ever, with smooth, unlined skin and clear green eyes. He was a perfect foil to his wife and this aroused a pang of envy in the man. He looked at Marie-Louise and his heart cried out with the injustice. What price would he not pay to be the man holding her in his arms, to be the recipient of her love?

At last, the music stopped and well wishers surrounded the couple. It was now or never. He knew that he could wait no longer. Patting his vest pocket in a reflexive action, the man rose slowly to his feet and pushed through the throng.

"Joe?" He reached out and tapped Joe's shoulder. "It's been a long time."

There was something uncannily familiar about the voice and Joe whirled around, a look of startled expectation on his face. He looked at the man carefully and then broke into a wide smile.

"Adam? Is it really you?" Not waiting for an answer, he pulled his brother into a warm embrace, scarcely able to believe what was happening. Despite the outward changes and the look of world-weariness, Joe knew his brother instantly and reacted with instant joy.

"It's been a long time," Adam agreed wryly, pulling back. "Four years, give or take."

Joe nodded, still holding onto Adam's hand, as if he was afraid his brother would simply disappear once again. "Too long. We haven't heard from you since you left Sacramento. Pa was so worried. Well, we all were. What happened? You never wrote to us and we couldn't find you."

Adam shrugged. "It's a long story. I don't think this is either the time or the place," he announced firmly, slipping back into the role of elder brother with an ease and familiarity. Joe struggled not to smile: some things never changed!

They made their way out to the foyer, where several chairs and sofas were arranged in conversational groups. Joe signalled a passing waiter and requested a bottle of champagne to be brought.

"We have to toast your return!" he announced.

Adam gave a half-smile. "And your marriage, I believe? Congratulations, to both of you."

He struggled to keep a neutral expression on his face as Joe and Marie-Louise smiled happily at one another and entwined their fingers. Their contentment was palpable and Adam wished he too had someone to share his hopes and dreams with.

"Thank you," Marie-Louise said, jerking herself back to reality. She looked into Adam's eyes and was shocked at the desolation she found there. He was perched on the edge of his seat, shaking with suppressed emotions and appeared to be desperately clinging onto the last vestiges of control. "It is lovely to meet you," she continued, trying to keep the conversation going. "Joe and his family often speak about you."

"You are coming home, aren't you?" Something about Adam was very wrong, Joe realised.

"I…. I'm not sure." Adam rubbed his head wearily. "I don't know anything, anymore."

Leaning forward, Joe put a comforting hand on his brother's knee. "I know that I missed you. And now I'm happier than I ever thought I could be. There was only one thing that stopped our wedding from being completely perfect – and that was because you weren't there to share our happiness."

The champagne arrived and Joe opened it with a deft flick of his wrist, filling the three fluted glasses to the brim, then raising one in a toast. "To new beginnings!" Marie-Louise and Adam echoed the sentiment.

"Will you come with us?" she asked. "Joe and I are travelling back to the Ponderosa tomorrow. Why don't you join us? That way, I could get to know you a little better."

"You might not like what you find out." One side of Adam's mouth twisted in a grimace. "I'm not the man you've heard about."

Joe sat up very straight in his chair. "What sort of man are you, exactly? A liar? A cheat? A thief?"

"Of course not!" Adam protested, discovering that Joe's opinion mattered very much to him. "I'm none of those. I'm just, well, what you see before you. No one very important. No-one at all, really." He bowed his head sadly.

"You are my brother, Adam Cartwright and I'm damned proud of that!" Joe's voice rose and several people looked curiously at the elegant lady and gentleman and their rather down at heel companion. "Nothing can ever change that, Adam. You are still my brother and I still love you!"

Under other circumstances, Adam would have been mortified to have such a proclamation of love made with such ringing certainty in a public forum, but this was different. Somehow, Joe was managing to sweep away all his self-doubt with his steadfast loyalty. Just a few hours ago, he was dreading this meeting, wondering if he could even look at Joe without flinching, but now he thought his brother might just be the one to save him from the misery that threatened to overwhelm him.

"Will you come home with us?" Joe's voice broke into his reveries.

Adam reflected on this for a moment. "Yes, I think I will. I have to explain to you and Pa and Hoss about what happened. I owe you that much."

"You don't owe us anything!" Joe assured him. "We won't pry into your life – that's private and you can tell us if you want to. But it doesn't really matter. As long as we know you are happy and safe – nothing else is important."

The compassion and understanding was too much for Adam to bear. Had Joe been aloof or dismissive or determined to find out what was behind his brother's long disappearance, then Adam would have been prepared. But this steadfast, unshakeable love and acceptance was a different matter. It gave him the courage to continue.

"I failed," he said, his voice so soft and low that Joe and Marie-Louise had to strain to hear his words. "I tried to make a new career for myself, but there was so much to learn and so many younger men, with better qualifications. I just couldn't make any headway and so I started to drift. I took jobs in San Francisco and San Diego oh, I travelled all over, but I never seemed to make any real headway. The big opportunity that would make my name just never happened. And the longer I was away, the more difficult it became to even think about coming home – empty-handed, with nothing to show for my time."

For as long as he could recall, Adam had always been sure of his place in the world: the beloved son, his father's right-hand man; the gifted scholar; the older brother his siblings looked up to and tried to emulate, with varying degrees of success. Life had seemed so easy. To be faced a world that simply ignored his talents was difficult to accept and for some time, the lack of progress had threatened to overwhelm him with bitterness. Now, at last there was a glimmer of hope.

"Never empty-handed," Marie-Louise assured him. "You bring yourself and that is a great and wonderful gift. It is all your family could ever ask for."

""You had the courage to try," Joe affirmed. "You saw an opportunity and went out in pursuit of it. That was a brave thing to do. And now you want to come home – I can see it in your eyes, so don't deny it!"

His vehemence gave Adam further hope. "Of course I want to come home – if there's still a place for me there."

"A place for you? Of course there is – we haven't rented out your old room or anything like that! And we've missed your advice and ideas in all sorts of areas. But, most of all, we've missed you. Since you left, there has always been a gap, as if one of the shingles on the roof was slightly out of line with the others. We need you and I think you need us too."

"Families like yours are very rare, Adam," Marie-Louise added. "They are capable of infinite love and give it willingly and joyously, whether you feel you deserve it or not. They need to give you this love and," she paused slightly, her gaze so pure that Adam felt should could see into his soul," I think you need to accept it. For your own peace of mind. And because your family deserve no less."

"Beautiful and wise – you are a lucky man, Joe!" Adam tried to make a joke of it, but he could not dismiss the emotions he felt towards Marie-Louise. The longer he was in her company, the more he fell in love with her, with a woman whose only feeling towards him was her obvious and manifest sympathy.

"I am the lucky one," she said softly. "I wake up every morning and give thanks that the Good Lord gave me Joe and his family. My family – well, they weren't loving, or supportive like yours are, Adam. When you need someone to talk to, I know they will be there for you. For that is what love is about. True love accepts what is, without question. There is no need for explanations, not to the people who really matter. And if others wish to speculate idly – what does that matter? We know the truth – you had a dream and the courage to follow it. That makes you a great man, in my opinion." She leant forward to kiss Adam gently on the cheek. "Never lose faith in yourself," she whispered.

Sitting back, Adam felt a sense of peace infuse his body, and for the first time in weeks, he felt as if he might just be able to sleep soundly. All the turmoil of the past few months had been swept away, as surely as the incoming tide obliterates footprints in the sand and he could begin to look forward to the present. For so many years he had restlessly travelled onwards, but know he could see his ultimate destination was a house built of stout logs, near the shores of Lake Tahoe, a place where he had invested so much of himself, so that the very trees seemed to hold part of his inner essence.

He fingered his watch-chain meditatively, looking at the charms and running them through his fingers as he reached a resolution. He would go home and begin again.

There was still some champagne left, so Adam filled the glasses once more. "To new beginnings!" he laughed. "And to all the Cartwrights – wherever they may be!" He threw Joe a scathing look. "Go on, man! Kiss your wife, for heavens' sake, before I leap in and do it for you!"

Needing no second telling. Joe picked up Marie-Louise's hand and kissed it, his eyes never leaving hers, the gaze burning with love and devotion. Then he raised his head up to meet hers, placing one hand on the nape of her neck where it lingered among the soft curls and pulled her close until their lips met in tender passion. Adam tactfully occupied himself by reading the label on the champagne bottle, knowing that this love would surely deepen with time. Somehow, he would have to learn to love Marie-Louise as a sister, but nothing more. That was the very least he owed Joe.

The suite felt very large and lonely to Adam, he soon gave into the weariness of his body as he sank into the plump feather mattress. Tomorrow he was beginning afresh and starting his new life.

This will be the third time I've come back to the Ponderosa, he realised.

First, arriving at the land as a small boy, when the Ponderosa was only a dream in his father's mind. How hard they had worked to build the house and develop the ranch. Clearing the land, learning how to ride and tend stock, and even learning how to love a new mother. He knew these experiences had shaped him, fashioning the man he was to become. Then, coming home after college, adjusting to the unaccustomed rhythms of hard work and re-establishing his relationships with his family, only to discover the deep joy of familiar surroundings and the satisfaction of working in unison with his family. And now? Well, it was a new beginning. He was ready for that.

I'm one of three brothers, I had three mothers, so maybe it makes sense that I should have three starts at my life.

With that comforting thought, Adam snuggled down into his pillow and fell soundly asleep.

Adam felt as if he had only been asleep for a few minutes before he was shaken abruptly from his slumbers by a familiar cry that had him leaping out of bed and running towards the door.

Looks like Joe still hasn't grown out of those nightmares! Adam thought, shaking his head to get rid of the last vestiges of sleep.

The next-door room was completely dark, but a faint light from the hallway allowed Adam to see his brother sitting bolt upright in bed, still in the throes of his nightmare.

"Little Joe? It's all right. I'm here." He touched Joe on the shoulder, feeling how violently the small body was trembling. "Quieten down now – you'll wake up Mama and Pa."

"I was scared, Adam!" hiccupped the child, squirming into his brother's lap for comfort. "I had a bad dream and I was scared." Joe reached up and snuggled his tear-stained face into Adam's chest.

"I know," soothed Adam, rocking back and forth. "I know just how you feel. I had a bad dream too. The worst dream I've ever had." It was such a relief to realise that it was just a dream, and not reality! "But it was only a dream – it wasn't real and you don't need to be scared any more. I'm with you."

Gradually calming down, Joe regarded him solemnly, curls standing wildly on end and sucked his thumb while he thought. "Maybe if I sleep with you, we won't have bad dreams no more?"

Adam seized at the suggestion, not wanting to be alone after all the turmoils his unconscious mind had subjected him to. "That's a very good idea, Little Joe." He picked up his small brother and perched him on his hip, cuddling him close and deriving immense comfort from the simple act.

Marie met them in the hallway, looking tired and worried. "Another bad dream?" she whispered, looking at both of her boys anxiously.

"Both of us," Adam replied. "But we're alright now, aren't we Little Joe."

Nearly asleep again, Joe just nodded sleepily, and continued to suck his thumb.

"Sleep well," Marie said, kissing her baby goodnight. "And have golden dreams this time. You are safe here and nothing can hurt you."

Adam settled Joe into bed and then climbed in beside him.

It was only a dream! he reassured himself, but he could still feel the despondency and anguish of the man in his nightmare; the lonely man, with his dreams in tatters. Don't be silly, dreams don't mean anything. It doesn't have to be that way - the future hasn't been written! Adam thought desperately, but he was unable to dismiss all the events that had unfolded in his mind, all those stories from across the long years. At his side, Joe wriggled in his sleep and Adam reached out to draw him close, finally finding the solace he needed in the small, warm body in his arms.

The next day, Ben took his son aside. "I collected a letter for you today when I was in town. It's from that college back east…"

He got no further, as Adam seized the letter and then stood there, just looking at it in awe and wonderment.

"Aren't you going to open it?"

For a moment, Adam was afraid, dreading bad news, but then he conquered his fear and slit open the flap with a shaking finger. His eyes flew across the text then met his father's concerned gaze with utter joy. "I got in! They accepted me!"

Ben enfolded him in a hug. "I'm so very proud of you, Adam. I know how hard you've worked and this is no more than you deserve. Congratulations, son."

Adam smiled with utter contentment and went back to examining the cherished letter, impervious of the drama unfolding on the sofa, where Hoss was listening to Little Joe's latest tale of woe with a growing sense of despondency as his brother attempted to explain how he had lost six of Hoss' prize marbles.

"It was all Annie-Mae's fault," Joe said earnestly. "She's a nasty girl and I don't like her. I don't like any girls!"

Hoss considered this carefully. He tended to get on rather well with most of the girls in his limited circle of acquaintances. "I don't know, some girls are real nice, once you get to know them." Then he suddenly realised how adroitly he had been diverted. "Anyhow, I don't care! All I want is the rest of my marbles back. You had no right to take them, so just go and bring 'em down here

Sensing even Hoss' legendary patience was severely tested, Joe did as he was bade, scampering up the stairs at full tilt. At the top, he paused, to add a final word. "The only girl I like is Mama! And I'm never, ever getting married." He poked out a small, pink tongue to emphasise this point.

Trying not to laugh, Ben looked at the clock and saw it was growing late. "And where is your mother, boys? It's nearly dinner time."

"She went out riding hours ago," Adam said. "She should be back by now." He had the strangest feeling, that left him feeling as helpless as a newborn baby.

There was a sound of galloping hooves from the yard and three faces turned expectantly towards the door. Upstairs, Joe ran happily to his bedroom window and watched as his mother rode full-pelt towards the house. Then there was an earthshaking crash and Adam suddenly knew he was starting to live the nightmare all over again. Only this time, he knew he would not wake up. Sometimes, dreams do come true.

The End