Chapter Eight

"She's a fine girl," Ben remarked, taking down the family Bible and opening it. "And a part of this family."

He looked at the page, with a long list of names and dates inscribed upon it "Catherine Rose – you remembered."

"She was my little sister, and I could never forget her," Adam whispered, looking at the inscription from so long ago, written in his father's strong hand: "Rose Anne Cartwright – dearly beloved child of Ben and Marie Cartwright."

"No, you never forget," Ben agreed, then picked up the pen and added a new entry – Catherine Rose Cartwright.

They looked at one another with a new understanding – two parents who had each loved and lost a child. The sorrow and the joy bound them together in a way that had never existed before and spanned whatever differences there had once been, coaxing their hearts back into complimentary rhythms.

Blotting the entry carefully, Ben ran a loving finger of the inscription that detailed the brief life of his own daughter, the child who lay up by the lake with a single white rose clasped between her tiny hands.

"The first of a new generation," Adam mused. "I wonder when you'll add another entry?"

"Do you have something to tell me?" Ben felt secure enough now in his relationship with Adam to make a joke, but he was stunned by the look of misery that crossed his son's face.

"No. Catherine is my first and last child."

"You can't be sure of that. I know Marie and I sometimes despaired of having another baby, but then Joe came along and made our lives complete. Don't deny yourself the possibility of happiness, Adam."

"It's different for me." Adam stood up and walked over to the stove, carefully keeping his back turned. He could not look at his father and manage to break this news.

"After I had that accident that hurt my back, when I was building the house for Laura, well things haven't been the same. To put it bluntly, I'm not the man I once was."

He forced himself to turn around and meet the compassionate gaze of his father. "I thought time might sort things out, but it didn't. I've been to doctors all over – in Boston, New York, London, Paris – you name the specialist and I've probably seen him. But I have to face facts – I'm never going to be able to father another child."

"Oh Adam." There was a world of understanding and love in Ben's voice. "I never knew. I never even thought about such a thing."

"The doctors tell me it's not uncommon after a spinal injury," Adam said in a tight voice. "But I can't help wondering if this is my punishment. I gave my child away, so why should I be trusted to have another one?" He thumped his hand hard on the wall, welcoming the pain that flared up.

"There are so many things in life we can't explain, that we simply have to endure." Ben thought back to all the tragedies that he had experienced and his heart wept for his son. He would have given anything to have spared his son this pain.

"You won't tell Hoss and Joe, will you?" Adam pleaded. "I wanted to tell you, but I couldn't bear it if they knew as well."

"Your secret's safe with me," Ben promised and embraced his son, trying to take away a little of the pain, to ease his sorrow just a fraction. That was what fathers did – they tried to comfort and protect their children, no matter how old they were.

Unable to hold back his emotions any longer, Adam did something he had not done for more years than he could remember – he wept in his father's arms.


Epilogue

"You took your own sweet time!" Sally protested. "I was beginning to think I'd never see you again!"

"I told you I'd be back. Just had to make sure the coast was clear." He looked around the busy saloon and saw his brother was engaged in a game of cards. "You coming?"

"Is that any way to treat a lady?" Sally giggled, grabbing his hand and pulling him towards her room.

"Sshh! I want to keep some secrets from my family! I don't want everyone knowing my business!"

In the dark safety of the hallway, he pulled her into a tight embrace that almost took her breath away, his hands firmly caressing the rounded curves of her buttocks, pressing her close to his demanding body.

"You Cartwrights – you're uncontrollable!" Sally opened the door to her room and ushered him into her room with a broad, welcoming smile.

Joe pushed his hat back and surveyed the cards with interest, before taking a long pull of beer. "Anyone seen Hoss?" he enquired.

The other players assumed innocent looks.

"He was over by the bar, last time I looked," Andy Martin said, exchanging a broad wink with the other players as Joe looked back down at his hand. Every man deserved a little privacy, after all. And only a fool would get on the wrong side of Hoss Cartwright.

"I just hope he's keeping out of trouble," Joe mused, pondering his next move. "It's real hard being the responsible member of the family!" A happy smile spread across his face. "Now boys – who wants to see me?" he challenged and settled back to enjoy the evening.

THE END