Saturday at Noon (by jfclover)

Summary: When Joe’s life takes an unexpected turn, Adam Cartwright – detective – searches for answers.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: MA
Word Count:  12,100


We only dressed in suits and ties for weddings and funerals. Happy times and sad times, but the four of us dressed in our Sunday best on Saturday morning and left the house together. The ride was a quiet affair; no one had much to say. The previous week’s events had taken us all by surprise, especially my youngest brother, Joe. But, what affects one of us affects us all, and we were all in this together.

*****

Chapter 1

One week earlier

It wasn’t a pretty sight, but it wasn’t a common occurrence either, and I spied on my young brother from a distance. Catching a glimpse of me would cause all-out war and that wasn’t my intention at all. I lingered in the shadows like a Pinkerton stalking his prey, but I promised Pa I’d keep an eye on the kid. So, here I stood when I could’ve been sitting in front of the fire reading my newest acquisition.

As Joe stumbled out of the saloon, he adjusted his hat. Pulling it forward, he patted the crown as though he couldn’t remember whether he’d put it on or not. When he located his horse, tied just a few feet from the batwing doors, he stroked Cochise’s muzzle and patted him gently. I wasn’t close enough to hear although I suspected he was whispering foolishness or singing some barroom ditty to his preferred mount.

From the nearby alley, I crossed my arms and watched the show. Losing sleep wasn’t my idea of fun, but when Joe didn’t show up for supper, Pa chose me to find his wayward son and escort him home.

We woke this morning to clear, blue skies, and the three of us set out after breakfast to finish digging postholes. The weather hadn’t cooperated all week. We’d fought off heavy clouds, lightning and thunder, and sudden downpours, and we were all primed to lose our tempers if anything didn’t go just right.

When Joe said he wasn’t feeling well, I told him to go home. He left camp only he didn’t head for the house; he rode straight to Virginia City to meet with his girl, Charlotte. A young boy had delivered a note the day before and when Joe wouldn’t share the message, I should’ve known why he wanted to leave but, in all honesty, I never would’ve guessed what the girl had to say.

Joe’s first try at mounting didn’t go well, and I nearly rushed from the shadows when he landed butt-down in the dirt. It was a pitiful sight, but he managed to get on all fours and push himself back up. Unexpectedly, though, Cochise shied and nearly crushed his right hand, but Joe saw the hoof bearing down just in time.

I wanted to cheer when he finally managed to seat himself in the saddle. Though I didn’t carry a pocket watch, I bet it had taken a good fifteen minutes for him to accomplish that single task. The ride home could prove interesting.

Joe headed in the right direction, and I slipped down the alleyway to a railing behind the saloon where I’d tethered my horse so he wouldn’t be seen. Janine, a working girl from the Silver Dollar, was sitting outside smoking and she caught my eye.

“Adam Cartwright,” she said.

“Evening, Janine.”

I untied Sport and thought that was the end of the conversation until the barmaid called me over. “Do you have a minute?”

“A quick minute,” I said. She sat on the wooden stoop and patted the spot next to her. I sat down, which felt good after spying on Joe for so long. “What’s up?”

“Your brother’s in a bad way, Adam.”

“I noticed that.”

“No, I don’t mean the drink. I’m talking about the reason for the drink.”

I studied the young barmaid for a moment before I spoke. She was a pretty girl, a year or two older than Joe, and I’d seen them sitting together, laughing and having a good time, on several occasions. Joe had a lot of female friends. He was that kind of guy, easygoing and attentive, and women enjoyed his company. “Did Joe say something I should know about?”

“We talked.”

“And?”

“It’s not for me to say, but he’s hurting, Adam.”

“I figured as much. Did he tell you why?”

“We talked.”

Same answer as before. “You’re not going to tell me, are you?” Silly question but I had to ask.

“Joe’s a good man. I wish you could help him, but I don’t think anyone can. Hell, I wish there was something I could’ve said or done to make things better, but Joe needs to work this out on his own.”

“Work what out?”

“Don’t make this any worse for him than it already is, Adam.” Janine stood from her seat. “Goodnight.” She swung the back door open and slipped inside the saloon.

After retrieving Sport’s reins, I didn’t mount as quickly as I should have. I walked my horse through the alley back to C Street and contemplated what Janine had said. Joe was in trouble, but the possibilities were endless. If he’d met with Charlotte, which I assume he did, whatever took place was a mystery to me.

Charlotte Ann Marker was a social butterfly. Fancy dresses and showy jewelry were important to her. A gala event with the right kind of people was a must for any social climber, but none of those things mattered to Joe. He was a good-natured kid who liked to have fun. Riding through an open field or an afternoon picnic with his best girl suited him just fine. Hoity-toity didn’t interest him, but Charlotte had somehow—I don’t know. Mesmerized him?

So, when the young lady broke things off, I was happy that Joe had been set free. I didn’t say anything, none of us had, but Pa and Hoss and I knew from the start that the couple had no future together.

Joe had been taken in and had fallen for the self-absorbed beauty. She was attractive—blonde with dark brown eyes—and in my opinion, she was extremely manipulative. Joe had tried to show her the ranch, but cowboys and cattle didn’t set well with her. Why Joe ever struck her fancy was another unsolved mystery.

I galloped out of town and headed down the road leading to the Ponderosa. I’d wasted enough time pondering, and the last thing I needed was Pa jumping all over me for not doing my job properly, but I didn’t have far to ride. I pulled Sport to a quick stop when I spotted a rider-less Cochise. Sitting on the side of the road was my drunken excuse for a brother.

Leaving my mount next to his, I knelt down next to my young brother. “Time to go home, buddy.”

“Leave me alone, Adam.” With his elbows propped on his knees, he covered his face with his hands.

“It’s late, Joe.”

“Then go.”

“I can’t do that.” I expected his words to be slurred, but he was quite coherent, considering. “Come on.” I grabbed his arm and tried to pull him to his feet, but he shrugged me off.

When a strong gust of wind blew through the trees, Joe shivered, but his hands still covered his face. “Go away, Adam.”

I closed my eyes and prayed for patience before I wheeled my legs out from under me and sat down next to my brother. “Pa’s worried, you know, and that’s why I’m here so you might as well tell me what’s bothering you.”

Joe shook his head. His hands came away, and a glint of moonlight showed tears streaking each side of his face. He looked skyward and took a deep breath. “You don’t want to know.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, little brother.”

“I’m in trouble, Adam.”

“Charlotte?” No answer. “I thought the two of you broke up.”

Joe shook his head. “Not anymore.”

Joe’s the one who’d been drinking, but I was having a hard time comprehending. “You’re back together?” Joe tried to push up from the ground but his legs gave way. He braced himself with his hands and tried again, but his efforts were futile. “Let me help.” I steadied him on his feet. “Can you ride?”

Whether I expected an answer or not, Joe grabbed hold of a tree branch and the contents of his stomach spilled on the ground. The kid was in no shape to ride anywhere. Shivering more from drink than from the cold, I slipped my jacket off and wrapped it around his shoulders. He mumbled something I couldn’t make out?

“What’s that?”

“I’m getting married Saturday at noon.”

*****

Chapter 2

“You’ll need to dress for dinner, Charlotte. We’re entertaining tonight.”

“Who, Papa? Anyone I know?”

“Judge Carver, dear. His wife and children are out of town, and I thought it’s the least we could do.”

Her father had mentioned the man before though she’d never met him in person. If he was a judge, he was old and frail and boring but for her father’s sake, she’d make the best of the evening. Deciding on the blue satin she’d seen in a window dressing and bought on sight, she’d outshine everyone at the table. With the waist cinched tight, she’d have trouble eating properly, which, of course, would give her the air of a society princess, and Papa would be proud of her sense of style and grace.

The Storey County judge sat directly across from her at the dining room table. With his wife and children on holiday in San Francisco, he was grateful for the invitation.

“That big house gets lonely with Marion and the children away. And,” he said, “the dinner is superb as is the company.”

Harold Carver was an attractive man. Tall and lean, though probably her father’s age, he had a presence about him that caught Charlotte’s eye. When she noticed him staring at her more than proper society would’ve allowed, she responded timidly at first, but the subtle eye contact had become kind of a ruse, a game she enjoyed playing. Dinner with the judge hadn’t been boring at all.

When Judge Carver followed her father to the parlor for an after supper cordial, she stood in the doorway partially hidden, but she was close enough to see the older man glance her way when Papa wasn’t looking. The game had become more daring, and she’d become giddy and childlike in her attempt to distract the judge from her father’s boring accounts of the banking business.

It wasn’t meant to happen, and it never should’ve happened, but when the judge offered a pleasant thank you for having him to dinner before leaving their home, he touched his lips to the back of her hand, and an undeniable desire to toy with him again seemed quite appealing.

More than a week had passed before she encountered the judge again. A chance meeting; at least, she thought it was until he proposed that they should meet again, privately. She was drawn to him in a most unlikely way, but just the thought of that one-time kiss had weakened her resolve and she heard him out.

“Dinner one night?”

“Oh, I don’t think that would be wise, Mr. Carver.”

“Discreetly, of course. I know a little place . . .”

“And what are your intentions, Judge?”

“Let’s wait and see.” He reached for her hands and planted a soft, warm kiss on each. “Call me Harold. Eight o’clock tomorrow night?”

Heat warmed her heart and she dipped her chin. “I don’t know that I could get away at that hour . . . Harold.”

“You’ll find a way. I’ll have a carriage waiting.”

Without the formality of a proper courtship, Charlotte had agreed to the judge’s proposal. There would be no one to chaperone, no one to interact if the situation became unpleasant. But the judge was quick to take liberties, and she let him. He kissed her lips and his fingers roamed her delicate frame in such a way that she found herself surrendering to his touch.

His hands never left her body, and she savored the way his fingers tingled like fire against her skin. After splaying the front of her bodice, he covered her breast with his lips, and she arched her back in acceptance. In the heat of the moment, she dared not say no to his advances and, in all honesty, she wanted to cry out for more.

The romantic candlelit dinner had been her undoing. How could a man she barely knew be so desirable? Lying back on the seat of his carriage wasn’t a proper setting for such acts of heat and passion, but the buggy was hidden where no one would ever find them and discredit either party’s behavior.

The night filled with hunger and desire had ended too soon. He buttoned her blouse and helped her to sit up. Self-conscious and not able to look at him directly, she fussed with her hair and tidied her skirt over the buggy’s bench seat. “I must get you home,” he said, “but I’d like to see you again, Miss Marker.”

“So formal?”

“Charlotte.”

She should’ve ended things then and there, forget the night ever happened, and say no to the judge. Nothing about cavorting with a married man made sense, but she didn’t want to say no. She wanted to see him again. She needed to see him again and if they were discreet . . .

“I’d like that very much, Mr. Carver.”

“So formal?”

Charlotte’s coy smile served as an answer.

“Tomorrow at noon?”

“Noon?” Her heart fluttered. Surely, the judge wouldn’t want to meet in broad daylight.

“I don’t hold court between eleven-thirty and one-thirty,” he said, “but only if it’s convenient for you.”

“Where would we meet?”

“The Southside Inn.”

Charlotte shook her head. “I’ve never heard of the Southside.”

“It’s modest but nearby.”

She knew what he was asking, but she was a nice girl, and girls of her standing didn’t meet men in broad daylight when their wives were away on holiday.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“It’s up to you, Charlotte. I’d never ask you to do anything you were uncomfortable with.”

“I’m not sure uncomfortable is the right word. Foolish might be a better choice.”

“To some maybe, but not for people like us.”

Had he read the signs? Had she given herself away? He knew she wouldn’t say no, not after she’d let him . . . and on their first night together. “I’ll need directions,” she said.

*****

Harold arrived early. He’d brought a bottle of whiskey and she accepted a drink. There wasn’t time for formalities, she knew that, but she was grateful for the small distraction before she turned herself over to the older man like a common whore.

Her rapid heartbeat could give her away, and she drank the foul tasting alcohol as though it were water. This wasn’t a dream; she’d come of her own free will, and when he crouched down in front of her and eased her knees apart, there was an unspoken urgency in the way his hands crept up her legs.

She’d have to disrobe. He’d expect that, wouldn’t he? No one but her lady’s maid, Hannah, had seen her fully unclothed since she was a baby. Sprawling naked on the bed and spreading her legs so he could push his way inside seemed so vulgar and improper for a lady of quality. A common whore. The words rang through her head like a mantra.

The little pearl buttons were unfastened first and her blouse fell open. The ties of her cotton chemise came next, and he stared at her breast as if it were a grand prize. He took the empty glass from her hand. “You’re so beautiful,” he said. She felt his heat, and when he reached for her shoulders and laid her down on the bed, a shiver of impish willingness came so unexpectedly; she blocked any regrets she might’ve had.

His hardness pulsed through the thin material that separated them from complete physical contact, but the last of her clothing soon fell away, as did his, and she wanted to look. She wanted to see what she’d only read about in books or giggled at with her friend, Stephanie, but she was too self-conscious to let her eyes trail down his naked form.

She lay on a bed in a seedy hotel, her first encounter with a man who was eager to have all of her. In the time it took for him to climb on top, she’d gone from social climber to gutter rat, but she had accepted the game on her own terms. Was it so impossible to think that she wanted him too?

“No regrets?”

His words caught her off guard and she bit her bottom lip. His hand eased between her legs, and she tensed momentarily, but when his icy-blue stare met hers, she found him wanting, and she damned any social protocol that required her to remain pure and refined her whole life. She wanted him too.

“No regrets,” she whispered so softly she wasn’t sure he could hear. He mumbled something in return and proceeded with slow, sensual kisses down her chest and stomach until the whole of his face disappeared between her legs.

Gripping the bed linens, she turned her head to the side. Such intimate folly was shameful. Her cheeks flushed and her body became rigid as his tongue fluttered against the maiden region that nice girls saved only for their husbands.

A soft moan escaped unexpectedly. His actions had become even more terrifying and degrading than when she first lay naked and exposed in front of him. She felt paralyzed and ashamed, but her soft gentle whimper soon became a frantic cry for more. Pain and fear. Harold’s tender touch had brought out the woman in her. She’d left the little girl behind. Joe Cartwright and his gentlemanly behavior had given way to heat and passion with a man at least twice her age.

When their time together was over, Harold proposed a schedule of days they could meet. Since neither could be seen in public, the discreet, little hideaway seemed more than appropriate. He suggested Monday, Wednesday, and Fridays, and Charlotte readily agreed.

She still had much to learn, but she’d show him a different side of her next time they were together. Taking the reins in her hands, she could be aggressive too. She was young and beautiful, and eager to show an older, sophisticated man how a girl her age could pleasure him more than his wife of twenty-five years ever could.

*****

Chapter 3

Nights can last forever when sleep won’t come. I tossed and turned. I kicked my covers off and pulled them back on. I’d even lit my lamp and tried to read, but even Dickens couldn’t distract me from Joe’s undeniable mention of marriage, but why had Charlotte wanted him back, and why in God’s name had he said yes?”

Pa had waited up, and after returning from the saloon, I told him Joe wasn’t feeling well and that a conversation would be easier over breakfast. Pa didn’t like what I said, but he didn’t argue the point either. “I’ll get him upstairs,” I said, still holding Joe upright. “You go on to bed.”

I pulled off the kid’s boots and unfastened his gunbelt without him even knowing I was there, but when I tried to undo his belt buckle, he pushed my hand away. “Don’t,” he mumbled.

I thought it odd that his belt would be a stopping point, but I let him have his way and pulled a blanket up over him and his dirty work clothes. “Goodnight, Joe,” I said and closed the bedroom door on my way out.

When Joe came down for breakfast the following morning, I wondered if he’d slept at all. I certainly hadn’t, but he managed a decent “good morning” and I acknowledged his presence. As I poured myself a cup of coffee, I recalled Charlotte and Joe’s first meeting, an innocent Sunday social.

Edgar Alvin Marker was a banker and major stockholder in several silver mines throughout the Comstock. Having more money than any one man deserved, he made sure his only daughter attended the finest school in the country. Accompanied by her mother and her personal maid, Hannah, Charlotte was educated at the Hartford Female Seminary in New England. After returning just a few days ago, Marker was eager to present his daughter to the more affluent citizens of Storey County, and Charlotte was proudly introduced to the Cartwright clan.

I could see the twinkle in Joe’s eyes when he took her gloved hand and brought it to his lips. “Joe Cartwright,” he said. “My pleasure, Miss Charlotte.”

“That’s Little Joe Cartwright, ma’am,” Hoss teased.

Joe turned and scowled, but the look was short lived. “Would you mind if—well if I came calling sometime?”

“I’d like that very much,” she replied.

Edgar Marker was probably seething at the prospect of his only daughter being seen in public with a common cowboy like Joe Cartwright, but he handled the situation with grace. “We must run along now, dear. It was a pleasure to see you again, Ben, boys.”

Taking her father’s arm, Charlotte started away but when she looked over her shoulder, Joe winked and tipped his hat. The courtship of opposites had begun.

With breakfast behind us, we had a half-day’s work ahead. Dig the remaining postholes, and we could take the rest of the day off. Joe’s eyes were about half closed after drinking who knows what the night before, and I didn’t think he’d be worth his salt but I was surprised. He was the first to grab a shovel and strike the hard earth.

“Come on, fellas,” he said. “Let’s get the job done.”

According to Joe’s announcement the night before, the wedding was seven days away. I was the only one who knew besides Janine, but I hadn’t been told why. Of course, I had my suspicions, but I was waiting for Joe to spell it out. That hadn’t happened.

Volunteering to unharness the team and unload the last of the fencing was far from normal; in fact, getting out of work was Joe’s specialty but not today. After taking off my hat and setting my gunbelt on the sideboard, I strode back out to the barn. It was time for a talk. Joe turned abruptly when he heard my footsteps and his hand slipped over his gun. “What do you want?”

“Hello to you too,” I said.

He pulled off his hat and ran a hand through his hair. “I’m sorry, Adam.”

The apology came quick, and I wasn’t prepared for Joe to express remorse so readily. Launching straight into a lecture wouldn’t bode well; I had to choose my words wisely.

“I know why you’re here,” Joe said before I could sort my thoughts. “I’ll tell Pa tonight.”

“Need some help?”

“Yeah,” he chuckled. “You take my place and I’ll move to—to Paris.”

“Paris? Do you even know where—”

“Does it matter?” Joe shot back. “It’s far away, right?”

“Yeah, it’s far away.”

Joe sat down on an overturned bucket and stared at the ground. “It was never my intention, you know.”

“Intention?”

“To . . . you know.”

“No, I don’t so why don’t you tell me.”

He sighed as though an explanation was unnecessary. “We did the deed, okay?”

“Oh.” I knew the answer already, but I wanted to hear it from him.

“She—it was her idea to—I tried to stop her but” —Joe glanced up at me— “she’s a very persuasive girl, Adam.”

“Are you saying she forced you?”

“No,” he growled, “she didn’t force me, but when she loosened my belt, I cautioned her, but she giggled like—like a schoolgirl and slipped her hand between my—and you know what it’s like, brother. How could I say no?”

“And now?”

“Come on, Adam. I know you’re not stupid.”

“She’s with child.”

“So it seems.”

“And you agreed to marry her.”

Joe took a shuddered breath. “It’s my own damn fault, brother. I got myself into this mess and I’ll make the best of it. It’s not like I have a choice.” Joe stood and spun on his heel. “God,” he said and fisted his hands with anger. He struggled for control but I could hear the desperation in his voice. “It never should’ve come to this. I hate my life.”

“Listen, Joe—” But I was too late. The kid drove his left fist into a wooden upright. When his fingers grew twice their normal size, we summoned Doc Martin.

“Three broken fingers, son,” Paul said. “How do you manage these things?”

“It was easy, Doc.”

I had to give the kid credit. He actually told Doc the truth.

After supper, I asked Hoss to help me in the barn. Doc had come and gone. He’d splinted Joe’s left hand and told him to stay in bed for the rest of the day. Pa would stay in Joe’s room until the kid fell asleep.

Hoss’ mouth dropped open and stayed that way when I told him about our young brother’s predicament. “You can’t be serious,” he said. “Ain’t there a way outta this?”

“Any suggestions?”

“I dunno. Is he sure he’s the father?”

“We have to assume. He lost control, Hoss. He did the deed, and he pays the price.”

“Well, it ain’t fair.”

“Maybe not, but what else would you have him do?”

Hoss didn’t answer. He pushed his hands deep in his pockets and with downcast eyes; he walked back to the house. When I finished the chores, I joined him in front of the fire. Nothing more was said. Hoss was hurting as much as Joe. Those two were joined at the hip. My overgrown brother would truly be lost without his best friend.

As the clock struck ten, Pa stood at the top of the stairs. His slow, stilted walk gave him away, and I knew Joe had told him the truth. “You knew all about this,” he said, directing his voice to me.

“He told me last night.”

“Hoss?”

“Yeah,” he said without looking up. “I just heard.”

Pa moved toward his chair and reached for his pipe. He tamped the tobacco and lit a match, but what could he say that would have made a difference? He could’ve ranted, I guess, but we were too old for the “birds and bees” talk. Hoss and I were well aware of the consequences, and so was Joe. The kid wasn’t naïve, and he wasn’t careless. He’d been seduced by a beautiful woman.

*****

Chapter 4

Why hadn’t she considered the possibility? The bouts of sickness she hid from her mother, Papa, and Hannah was becoming more of a distraction than she cared to admit. That horrible dizzy feeling that caused her to remain locked in her room long after breakfast had been cleared from the table had become a grating annoyance. Stupid, stupid girl.

At noon, she would meet Harold at the Southside. He’d been considerate and thoughtful, but he had to know what might happen. He would also know how to remedy the situation before an explanation was warranted concerning her expanding waistline. Her breasts were sore and tender and she took it as a sign, but she couldn’t talk to her mother, not even her friend, Stephanie. She couldn’t tell anyone but Harold.

She summoned Hannah to help her dress. The blue plaid was gathered at the waist, looser than most, and seemed appropriate for an outing with her girlfriend, or so she would tell her mother before she left the house. Stephanie Hinds had served as her only confidant for the last several weeks, but she didn’t need to know every little detail.

After flicking the horse’s reins, Charlotte drove her usual route to the inn and picked up the key to number seven at the front desk. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at noon, and the owner, Carl, had been paid well to keep his mouth shut. He handed her the key and wished her a pleasant afternoon, and because she’d arrived later than intended, she rushed up the stairs to their room where Harold would be waiting.

“I’m sorry,” she said as she hurried through the door of their little hideaway. She couldn’t make love, not today. The matter had to be discussed immediately.

“Come here,” he said.

He sat in the only chair, and he pulled her down on his lap. He wanted her to feel how firm he’d become just watching her walk through the door. His hands slid up her back and he tried to pull her close, but she stopped him. “We need to talk,” she said.

“Not right now, darling.”

He tore at the front of her dress with fingers that were eager to open the door to instant gratification, and Charlotte lost her nerve. He touched his lips to her right breast and pulled her hips forward, closer to his thick, hard shaft, and she nearly cried with delight. She wanted him pulsing inside her. She craved everything he offered.

After her dress pooled in a heap on the floor, he dropped his trousers and his shirt hung off his shoulders in his rush to get inside her. It wasn’t a game anymore. No foreplay, no seduction, only a desperate need to submit to the fury that fused them together as one. Harold might have been satisfied with a quick romp with a pretty young girl, but Charlotte was insatiable; she continually begged for more.

“I have to go, sweetheart. I have to get back to court.”

“Wait,” she said. “You can’t go yet.”

He chuckled softly. “I can’t go again, darling. I’m done in.”

“No,” she said. “You misunderstood.”

“Make it quick Charlotte. I need to get back to town.”

Pulling the sheet up with her, she sat up in bed. “I’m pregnant.”

Harold’s shoulders dropped, and his blue-eyed stare darkened. Was he blaming her? He dropped down in the chair and dragged his hands over his face. “How far along?”

“I—I don’t know.”

“Have you seen a doctor?”

“No.”

“But, you’re sure.”

“I can’t have this baby. I can’t, Harold.” He stood to his feet and paced toward the door then back to the bed. He was upset but so was she. It wasn’t her fault. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll find someone.”

“Who?”

“Chinatown.”

“No!” She pulled the sheet up with her and stood in front of him. “Think of something else. I won’t go down there and have some Chinaman butcher me.”

“What then? There aren’t a lot of alternatives, Charlotte.”

“I don’t know.” Panic rose and a flurry of unexpected twinges made her shiver.

“Are you seeing anyone besides me?”

“Are you serious? No,” she cried. He reached for her shoulders but she backed away. “Before I met you I was.”

“Who?”

“It doesn’t matter. We broke up when you and I became a couple.”

“Who?” Harold demanded.

The anger in his eyes frightened her. “Joe Cartwright.”

*****

Chapter 5

Charlotte had asked Joe to escort her to church the following morning, and he set out in the buggy a few minutes before we left the house. “She says we need to be seen together.” Dressed in a white shirt and black string tie, he barely made eye contact before slipping out the front door.

In the pew adjacent to ours, nestled between Charlotte and her mother, her father an arm’s length away, Joe held his fiancée’s hand in a polite show of affection. Marker’s face was unreadable, and I wondered how he felt about the upcoming nuptials. Charlotte marrying a cattle pusher probably wasn’t what he had in mind for his well-educated daughter.

With the benediction over, we stood from our seats. I glanced at Joe, I’m sure we all did, but he turned his attention to Charlotte. He’d loved her once. Maybe they had a chance at happiness after all.

Joe was obviously stressed, but Charlotte seemed rather happy and carefree, and her casual demeanor struck me as odd. Planning a private wedding to a man she chose to discard just a few weeks ago would make any normal person a bit jittery or at least unsettled, but Charlotte wore a smile on her face and barely acknowledged my brother’s presence.

“Ben,” Marker said and extended his hand after we’d all gathered in front of the church.

“Edgar,” Pa replied.

Edgar Marker wasn’t a tall man, nor was he thin or in good shape. He’d sat behind a desk for too many years and had become soft and overly sure of himself. After thumbing his suspenders, he rocked back on his heels with an air of confidence he carried over from his office setting to the churchyard. He could make or break a man. He could grant a much-needed loan or seize a man’s property and force him to live in the streets. He was a powerful man but so was Ben Cartwright.

Joe was still an impressionable kid, and Pa was losing a son to a family who viewed the world differently than we did. I think that’s what Pa feared the most. Could a man as ruthless and heartless as Edgar Marker influence Joe? The man’s greed and ambition were an ever-present deterrent to those who knew him well. And, it seemed, he’d passed those traits on to his daughter.

“It appears we’re to be related, Cartwright.”

“Yes, so it seems,” Pa said.

“You don’t sound pleased.”

Pa forced a smile. “It takes some getting used to.”

The atmosphere was highly charged. Pa didn’t think much of Edgar Marker, and the two devoted fathers, opposite in stature but similar in temperament, sized each other up with few words between them. I tried to look disinterested, but there was no happy ending for my brother, and I glanced at Joe and Charlotte again, but the ultimate question remained. Why had she seduced him?

Joe helped Charlotte into the buggy. He planned to picnic down by the lake, and I had an unexpected vision of him backing Charlotte up close to the water—no, Joe would never do such a thing, and I shook the ridiculous thought from my mind. I loosened Sport’s reins. I had to think things through. There had to be a way to stop the wedding without resorting to images of a drowned fiancée.

*****

“Adam? Is that you, son?”

Though I smelled the sweet aroma of Pa’s pipe before he called out my name, I didn’t think he’d be awake at this hour. Using the fireplace’s golden glow for light, I headed down the stairs and joined him for a midnight talk. Joe and Hoss had gone to bed earlier, but I doubt either of them was sleeping soundly. The last couple of days had been rough, especially for Joe, but the upcoming marriage to Charlotte had us all feeling heavy and off-kilter.

“Has Joe said anything else?” Pa asked.

“No, not really. My guess is he’s too ashamed to say anything at all.”

“Well, he should be. Didn’t I teach you boys—”

“Pa, I don’t think Joe had a choice.”

“What does that mean?”

“Just hear me out because I’ve done a few calculations and things don’t add up.”

“Go on.”

I leaned forward in my chair. “Charlotte had already broken up with Joe and then, out of the blue, she wants to see him again. Remember? Remember that night?”

“I remember.”

“After at least a month apart, she summons him and, I’m sure Joe’s kicking himself now, but he agreed to meet her. In fact, he took her out to dinner so they could talk, but Charlotte hadn’t planned on talking. She planned to seduce him instead. Joe said they’d never—you know, before that night. It makes no sense, Pa. And now, she says the baby is his.”

“And you don’t think it’s Joe’s child?”

“Do the math, Pa.”

Pa crossed one leg over the other. “When you put it like that, I’m not sure what to think. But why? Charlotte’s a lovely girl, a pretty girl. She could have any man she wanted.”

“Exactly. She’d already thrown Joe away, so why would she want him back? Why the seduction?”

“Still, Joseph should’ve known better.”

“Oh, come on, Pa. The kid is nineteen years old. If a woman had undressed me at that age, well—”

“Well, what?”

“Could you have walked away?”

Pa cleared his throat. “Of course, I could.”

“Nineteen, Pa.”  Adam remembered when he was that age, but he’d been in Boston. Pa never had to know, and he was smart enough to take precaution. “You’re saying there was never a port in the storm that you didn’t—”

Pa pounded a fist on the arm of his chair. “That’s enough, Adam.”

“Well, you’re a better man than I.” I stood from my seat and moved behind the settee, and then I didn’t know what to do or where to go.

“Sit back down, son. I realize what you’re saying, and maybe it wasn’t all Joseph’s fault, but that isn’t going to help him now.”

I pressed my hands on the sofa table. “The timing isn’t right, Pa. If Joe’s the one who got Charlotte in the family way, and I don’t believe he was, there wouldn’t be signs of a baby this fast.”

Pa shifted in his chair; he tapped his index finger against his lips. That’s how Pa mulled, and he had a lot to mull over.

*****

Chapter 6

Charlotte slid her hand across her forehead. Feeling hot and miserable, she wished it would all go away. Why hadn’t Harold been more careful? She picked up the “too tight” dress and threw it across the room. “Damn it,” she cried as Hannah walked through the door.

“The dress not fit, Miss Charlotte? I can let it out some.”

“Find me another,” she barked. Charlotte had woken in a foul mood and was frustrated over her bulging figure. “I’m sorry, Hannah. I didn’t mean to shout.”

“That all right, Missy. I have that dress ready by tomorrow.” When another bout of dizziness struck, Charlotte sat down on the edge of her bed. “You feel all right? I bring you a hot cup of tea. That’ll settle your stomach right quick.”

“I have to leave within the hour so don’t dawdle.”

The tea helped some, and she’d worked her way into one of her looser dresses, but she felt fat and ugly. Harold would be disappointed when he saw her but it couldn’t be helped. She wasn’t sure she could even enjoy herself with so much distracting her mind.

She pulled up in front of the Southside Inn, and Carl handed her the key. The buggy ride had served her well and she felt her old self, no more burden of the child growing inside her.

“Hello, my love,” she said as she dashed across the room and wrapped her arms around her lover.

Harold pulled her hands away and sat her down on the edge of the bed. “I have a plan.” Reaching for him again, he settled her back. “Talk first. Fun later.”

“What can be more important than—”

“I have a plan,” he repeated.

Charlotte settled her hands in her lap. She took a deep breath. “What’s the plan?”

“Marriage.”

“Oh, Harold. Do you mean it?”

“No, no, no, I said that wrong, darling. You know I can’t leave my wife, but I’ve come up with something even better.” He took her hands in his. “I want you to get back with Joe Cartwright.”

“Why?” Charlotte cried. “No, I can’t. I won’t.”

“Listen to me.” Harold knelt down in front of her. His hands roamed up the bodice of her dress, and he felt her immediate reaction when his thumbs brushed against her breasts. She closed her eyes and covered his hands with hers. “In a minute, darling. You have to hear me out first.”

“Okay, I’ll listen.”

“Joe Cartwright is a boy, an innocent boy who will never suspect a thing.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You will.” Harold’s pants grew tighter as he caressed the most desirable woman he’d ever known, but he had to concentrate on what was important, and he tried to tame the blasted beast so he could help her visualized his plan.

“You’ll need to seduce the boy first.” Harold judged her reaction, but there wasn’t one so far and he continued. “In a month’s time, you can tell him you’re with child. I know Ben Cartwright. He’s an honorable man, and he’ll make sure his son does right by you. The two of you will be married and our problems will be solved.”

“Married—” she screeched. “I don’t know, Harold. Joe’s not like that. He never tried to—to take advantage.”

“Then it’s up to you, darling. God knows you can seduce a man with just one look.”

“But I’m probably two months along.”

“The boy doesn’t know that. Tell everyone the baby came early. No one will be the wiser.”

Leaning away from Harold, Charlotte pressed her palms to the coverlet and locked her elbows. Joe Cartwright was only nineteen, but he wasn’t stupid. She’d broken things off after she’d met Harold, and now she was supposed to seduce him like . . . like a practiced whore. The only man she’d ever given herself to was Harold. Encouraging Joe in that way . . . seemed so . . . so daring, so crass.

“No, I can’t. It won’t work.”

“Yes, it will, Charlotte. You make it work or it’s Chinatown. That’s all there is to it.”

“And then what? I become a rancher’s wife and live on the Ponderosa? No, Harold. I won’t hear of it.”

“No, you’re right.” Harold sat back in the chair. “You’re father,” he said.

“What about my father.”

“Encourage him to offer the kid a job at the bank.”

“You’ve got to be joking. Joe would never go for that. He’s a cowboy, Harold. He loves that stupid ranch.”

“Change his mind.”

“But I—”

“Then we’re over, darling. As much as I regret saying this, our time together will have to end.”

Charlotte leaned forward. She couldn’t leave Harold. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Dead.”

“All right. I’ll try.”

“Remember who’s in charge,” he said, his eyes piercing her very soul. “You are, darling. You say the word and that boy is putty in your hands. I have no doubt he’ll agree to everything. With a wife and a child on the way, a man does what he has to do, and if working for your father will make you and the baby happy, he’ll give up ranching altogether.”

“You think so?” Charlotte breathed in deeply and then smiled. “Maybe you’re right.”

Harold reached for her hands. “I know I’m right. You’re a smart woman, Charlotte, smart and sensual. The kid doesn’t stand a chance.”

“You and I will still be together?”

“Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.”

She reached for the buttons on her blouse. “Promise you’ll never leave me.”

“I promise.”

*****

Chapter 7

Joe and I left for town to pick up supplies, but I had more on my mind and I needed his help. After stopping in front of the mercantile and handing Jake our list, I told the clerk we’d be back shortly to load up. Checking for mail was the number two reason for coming to town, and as we walked down the boardwalk together, I questioned my brother.

“Can you think of any reason Charlotte would lie to you about the baby?”

“Why would she lie, Adam?”

“That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”

“Well, don’t.”

Joe was short-tempered, but that was expected. I would’ve been too if I had no other options, and then he hesitated. I stopped and turned my head. Joe stood in front of one of the newer shops in Virginia City. Displayed on a mannequin were a gentleman’s blue suit, white shirt, and a maroon cravat.

“Think I should buy a new suit?”

“Hold off for now,” I said.

Joe shrugged his shoulders. It wasn’t like we came to town every day and time was running out, but Joe didn’t object to my answer. We stopped in front of the post office and I asked Hank if we had any mail. He handed me two letters for Pa. I thanked him and slipped them in my pocket. “How ‘bout a beer?”

“You buyin’?”

“Shylock.” The term gave me an idea though. The heartless creditor. Edgar Marker. “What about Charlotte’s father?”

“What about him?”

“Have you talked to him about—I don’t know? Charlotte or the wedding?”

“What? Why would I do that? Pa’s mad enough. He’s barely said two words to me, and I don’t need Charlotte’s father telling me what a rat I am.”

“I’m trying to make sense of all this, Joe.”

“Well, don’t bother. What’s done is done.”

After entering the smoke-filled saloon, I ordered two beers and threw two coins on the bar. “Thanks, Sam.” We found an empty table and sat down.

Joe tipped his hat to the back of his head and took a long draw. “Probably my last,” he said. “Don’t think I’ll be hittin’ saloons anytime soon.”

Quickly, I changed the subject. “Where do you plan to live after Saturday?”

“I don’t know yet. I’m meeting Charlotte tomorrow night. Guess we’ll come up with a plan then.”

“Okay.”

“Maybe I should become a banker, work for her father. Do bankers drink?”

“More than most.”

“Good to hear.”

“Living on the Ponderosa is the only thing that makes sense, Joe.”

“Why’s that?”

“First of all, you’re no banker and secondly, you can’t ride back and forth every day just to go to work.”

“Oh, yeah?” His eyebrows shot up. “Maybe I’d make a good banker.”

“Hogwash. You’re no more a banker than Santa Clause.”

“You don’t know that.”

“This isn’t like you, Joe. What’s happened to you?”

Joe finished his beer and waved at Sam for two more. “Fate has a way of changing a man’s thinking, Adam. I have a child on the way, and I’ll do everything I can to make Charlotte and the baby happy so just leave it alone.”

“I can’t.”

“You better start, Adam. You’ll be an uncle soon.”

My skin crawled at Joe’s remark. He’d dived right into this charade, no questions asked. Maybe I was in the wrong. Maybe Joe was right and things would work out according to the fantasy life he’d built in his mind.

“One more question and I’ll leave it alone.”

“Fine. Shoot.”

“Has Charlotte been seeing anyone else?”

“How would I know?”

“No, I guess you wouldn’t. Okay, one more.” Joe rolled his eyes. “Who’s her best friend?”

“I don’t know. Probably Stephanie?”

“Stephanie?”

“Yeah, Stephanie Hinds. You know her. She’s that little blonde that’s at all the Saturday night dances.”

“Oh, usually comes with her brother?”

“That’s the one.”

I didn’t know many girls Joe’s age, but I remembered the cute little blonde. She was the first to fill her dance card most nights, but she looked about twelve years old so I often turned my back if she headed my way.

“Why don’t you drive the buckboard home?” I said. “I have a few more errands to run. I’ll rent a horse from the livery when I’m finished.”

“If that’s what you want.”

I slid my second mug of beer across the table to Joe. “Enjoy this, banker boy,” I said. “I’ll see you at home.” I needed to meet with Miss Hinds.”

As Joe polished off another beer, I walked straight to the livery and rented a smart-looking chestnut. “I’ll have someone bring him back tomorrow,” I told Laredo, the longtime smithy.

“Good enough, Adam.”

I’d met Stephanie’s brother, Philip, at a community meeting to address the issue of building a proper schoolhouse for children in the area, and he seemed like a decent sort, but I wasn’t interested in talking to anyone but the little blonde. After tying my horse to the rail in front of their house, I walked up the porch steps and knocked on the front door, but no one answered.

“Hello,” I called. “Anyone home?”

A girl rounded the corner of the house dressed in overalls and a kerchief that covered her hair. “Hello,” she said. “Are you looking for Phil?” After wiping her hands on a rag, she reached out to shake my hand. “I’m Stephanie.”

“Adam Cartwright, and actually, I rode out looking for you?”

“Me? I’m dirty but flattered. I’ve been working in the garden all morning.”

She was a cute little thing, not a raving beauty like Charlotte, and friendly, too. I understood why it didn’t take long to fill a dance card. “Good crop this year?”

“Yes, sir, but I bet you didn’t ride all this way to talk about carrots or string beans.”

“Actually, no.” I smiled at the perky little girl, but on second look, she wasn’t a child at all. “Can we sit a minute and talk?”

“Not till I pour us each a glass of lemonade. I’ll be right back.”

Stephanie hadn’t changed her clothes, but she’d washed her face and hands. She’d taken the cloth off her head and shaken out her hair. She handed me a full glass and pointed to the front steps. “Will this do?”

“Perfect.”

“What did you really come here for, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Call me Adam.”

“All right.”

Stephanie seemed more serious now, more grown-up than before. “I wanted to ask about your friendship with Charlotte.”

“Charlotte Marker?”

“That’s right.”

Stephanie sipped her drink and set the glass down on the porch step. She crossed her arms over pulled up knees. “What about her?”

“Well, she and my younger brother—”

“Oh,” she said, sounding surprised. “You’re Little Joe’s big brother, right?”

“That’s me.”

“I’m sorry.” She fisted her hands and tapped her knuckles against the sides of her head. “I didn’t make the connection. You two don’t look alike at all.”

I smiled. How many times had I heard that one?

“Anyway, go on,” she said. “I’ll stop interrupting.”

“Joe and your friend, Stephanie, broke up a few weeks ago, and I wondered if you knew anything about—I guess I want to know if you and she had talked about why she wasn’t interested anymore.” I wanted to kick myself for sounding like a ten-year-old schoolboy. Nothing I said came out right, but Stephanie seemed willing to talk.

“It’s not a new story, Adam. Boy meets girl. Boy courts girl. Girl meet someone new and moves on.”

“Oh, so she has a new beau. That makes sense.”

“I guess,” she sighed. “She sees him three days a week, but she won’t tell me his name. It’s some big secret. Some big mystery man that she won’t talk about.” Stephanie chuckled. “Charlotte and I are best friends, but her lips are sealed.”

“That’s how things work out sometimes.” Talk about opposites. How had these two ever become friends?

“You know, it’s strange, Adam. Charlotte’s never been so secretive before. She told me everything about your brother. I thought she liked him a lot and then bang!” She smacked her palm with her fist. “She and Joe were finished and she hasn’t said a word to me about the new guy other than he’s outta this world. Usually, she crows about—I guess I shouldn’t say such things, but she’s always been kind of a showoff when it comes to the “men” in her life.”

I stood from my seat on the steps. “Thanks for the lemonade,” I said. “And thanks for chatting with me.”

“I hope Little Joe doesn’t feel too bad. He’s a great catch if you ask me.”

“I’ll tell him you said so. Thanks again.”

I untied my rented horse and found a grove of trees close to the Marker mansion where I could observe the comings and goings of everyone in the family. Charlotte drove her buggy up the winding drive to the house not long after I’d secured the chestnut and peered through the thick band of trees.

It was somewhere between lunch and dinner, I’m sure Hoss’ stomach would know the exact time, but I wondered if she’d been with her new beau. I don’t know why I was so consumed, but I’d check back again tomorrow and the day after if I had to. The answers were out there somewhere.

I didn’t say anything to Joe about meeting with Stephanie Hinds or staking out the Marker’s mansion. There was no reason unless I discovered something worthwhile, but the odds were slim that Charlotte’s whereabouts would prove anything other than she was getting ready for the wedding. Still, with the marriage planned for Saturday, surely the relationship with the mystery man had ended.

I pretended to read after supper, but the words blurred on the page. I was a good actor if I needed to be, and I kept my eyes glued to the book until bedtime. Pa had plans for us the following morning, and I would have to wait a day before I rode and hid behind the little grove of trees. Time was running out.

*****

Chapter 8

Harold rolled to his side. His heart raced and his labored breathing was apt to spoil the moment, but if he dropped dead from overexertion, it was a helluva way to go. Charlotte walked her fingertips up his chest. The woman was ready to go again, but he needed more time. He hoped after Saturday, after she married the Cartwright kid, some of the pressure to perform would be lifted. Not that he didn’t appreciate everything she did for him, but his wife was home from holiday and things would have to simmer down.

“Is everything set for Saturday?”

“I suppose it is,” Charlotte said, her hand moving leisurely down his chest.

“Young Cartwright might surprise you, darling.” It was time she thought of someone other than herself. He’d enjoyed every aspect of their lovemaking; her willingness to try new things and her aggressive behavior had been sort of an added bonus.

“Surprise me how?”

“In the bedroom, of course.”

She grabbed her lover’s chin and turned his face to meet hers. “How can you say such a thing?”

Harold chuckled. “The boy is young and healthy, Charlotte. Surely, he has needs of his own.”

“I don’t plan to—to actually sleep with him. You should know that.”

“Don’t be naïve, darling. You’re an attractive woman. Living in the same house and sleeping in the same bed—the boy isn’t made of stone.”

“That’s his problem, not mine.”

He had to make her listen to reason. His wife would grow suspicious if he behaved differently than before she’d left on vacation. “Give him a chance. Let him have his way with you. Being a good wife changes nothing between the two of us.”

Charlotte laid her head on his chest. She entwined her fingers with his. “Are you sure?”

“Absolutely, darling.”

Hell, maybe she’d fall in love with the kid and his problems would be solved. Maybe his relationship with Charlotte had run its course. Maybe it was time to move on. Lay low for a while, make sure Marion wasn’t suspicious, and he could dig his spurs into another young filly and enjoy another wild ride.

*****

Chapter 9

Jackpot! Charlotte drove her buggy back down the winding drive until she hit the main road. When she took the fork that would take her to Gold Hill rather than Virginia City, I thought it odd at first, but I continued to follow at a reasonable distance. She slowed the buggy and turned right onto a side street then right again before slowing the horse to a stop. She raced up a set of broken stairs at a hole-in-the-wall called the Southside Inn.

After tying Sport outside the front door, I took a chance and stepped inside. A clerk stood behind the desk and I walked up and leaned heavily against the counter. “I’d like some information.”

The bespectacled little man didn’t say a word.

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s do this another way.” I dug in my pants pocket, pulled out a five-dollar gold piece, and set in on the counter.

The man shook his head. I set a second coin in front of him. “That better?” He started to walk away. “How much?”

He pushed the glasses to the top of his balding head, glanced up the stairs and back at me. “Twenty.”

I pulled out two more and stacked the four coins neatly in front of him. “Who’s the girl?” If he lied about her, he’d lie about the man too.

“Don’t know.”

I reached for the coins, but he covered my hand with his.

“The gentleman is registered as H. Carver.”

“Carver?” I repeated. I only knew one man by that name. “How often is he here with the lady?”

After another quick glance up the stairs, I had my answer. “Monday, Wednesday, Friday.”

“For how long?”

“A few weeks, couple of months, I guess.”

I set another piece of gold on top of the stack. “You never saw me.”

Harold Carver, Storey County circuit judge, had signed his own name to the register. I mounted Sport and rode home. The prominent pillar of the community had to be as old as my father. He had a wife and three or four children, and he was playing fast and loose with a young girl more than half his age. Ugly thoughts played through my mind, but I couldn’t prove anything other than I was ninety-nine percent sure my brother wasn’t the baby’s father.

I didn’t bother to stable my horse when I arrived home. Pa sat behind his desk and after throwing my hat on the chair just inside the door; I stood in front of him and tried to contain the inner Adam that was dying to celebrate and pat himself on the back for a job well done.

“I have news,” I said. Pa had questioned me the other day on my whereabouts, and I told him I didn’t have enough information, that I’d only be making assumptions. Now, I had facts.

“What news?”

“Our Miss Charlotte has been a busy girl.”

“I’m sure she has, son. The wedding is only a few days away.”

“Joe’s bride-to-be hasn’t been planning a wedding, Pa. Hell, I don’t even know if she remembers what’s taking place on Saturday.”

“Adam,” Pa said. “You’re not making any sense.”

“It’s an ugly story, Pa, but today I struck gold.” Pa sat back and listened while I explained what I knew so far. Stephanie. Judge Carver and Charlotte. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at the Southside Inn. Pa hadn’t interrupted, but his facial features hardened as the story progressed. He let me state the facts as I knew them, but I had one more thing to say. “The baby.”

“What about the baby?”

I shook my head. “It can’t be Joe’s, Pa. I’d bet everything I own that Judge Carver is the father of that child.”

Pa stood and rounded his desk. His eyes met mine. “You couldn’t be mistaken about any of this. Am I right? You’re absolutely sure?”

“Absolutely.”

“Does Joseph know?”

“Not yet.”

*****

When Hoss and Joe entered the house late that afternoon, Joe was laughing. If anyone could lift the kid’s spirits, it was Hoss, and I wanted to praise him for his innate ability to accomplish what no one else could. The wild childish giggle from our distraught little brother was a godsend to my ears.

“Hoss just—just,” Joe laughed so hard he couldn’t finish his story.

“It weren’t that bad, Little Joe, now cut it out.”

Joe shook his head and waved his hand as if trying to clear his mind of his brother’s mishap. Whatever Hoss did or failed to do had brought tears of laughter to Joe’s eyes, and I wasn’t about to spoil the moment. The news about Charlotte could wait.

An hour passed before we sat down for supper, and I could tell Pa was anxious. I was too, but I was better at covering. When all the facts were laid out on the table, I often checked for reactions before I responded, but Pa couldn’t wait any longer. “Adam has been doing some research, Joseph.”

“Research?” Joe asked. He looked at me. “I wondered why you’d skipped out on us.”

I glanced at Pa. Joe was close to the mark only I wasn’t the one skipping out or should I say, stepping out on my fiancée. It didn’t matter.

“Just listen, Joseph.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ll try to make this simple, Joe, but you need to hear me out.”

“I’m not ten years old, Adam. Say what’s on your mind.”

Nerves had gotten the better of me, and I’d started out all wrong. I cleared my throat. “I realize you’re not ten and I apologize if it sounded that way, but there are things going on that you need to know about.”

“Go on,” he said.

“I’ve been led to believe that Charlotte is having an affair with a married man.”

Joe’s eyes narrowed as he contemplated. “Led to believe? What the hell does that mean?”

“Language, Joseph.”

“Ah, come on, Pa. He tells me the girl I’m marrying on Saturday is carrying on with someone else. Did he tell you already? Did you believe him?” Joe shot up from the table. “Of course, you believed him. Adam doesn’t lie, does he?”

“That’s right, son,” Pa said evenly. “Adam doesn’t lie.” Joe tucked his hands in the back of his belt and walked toward the fireplace. “Please, son. Come sit down and hear your brother out.”

“Fine.” Joe plopped back down on is chair. “With who? Who do you believe she’s seeing?”

“Judge Carver,” I said flatly.

“You’re joking, right? That man’s about a hundred years old.”

“I know.”

“Adam saw Charlotte enter a hotel, son. He checked with the clerk, and it seems they have a standing engagement to meet every other day at noon.”

Joe didn’t say another world. He cradled his head in his hands. I could hear him breathing though I couldn’t guess how the information had made him feel.

“You sure about this?” Hoss said.

“Can you think of another reason a man and a woman would meet in some fleabag hole-in-the-wall?”

“But why would she do such a thing to Joe?”

“I can’t answer that, Hoss.”

Joe looked up. His eyes glistened, but he maintained control. “Why did you follow her?”

“I talked to Stephanie Hinds.”

So far, I’d only laid out the facts; I hadn’t softened the blow, but I was doing this for Joe, and I hoped he understood why. While the rest of us kept silent, he was still trying to process. He needed to figure this out on his own, and when he put two and two together, he asked the one question that was on all our minds.

“The baby isn’t mine, is it?”

“I doubt it,” I said, “but I can say for sure.”

Joe chuckled. “She’s quite a girl, isn’t she?”

Hoss’ face scrunched up. “Huh?”

“I met with her last night. She asked me to move into the mansion and work for her father. I didn’t understand why she’d even think such a thing, but now it’s clear as day.”

“Huh?” Hoss repeated.

Poor Hoss. He was so lost.

“She’d never have to leave her lover, brother. She could carry on forever and still look respectable. Marrying me was only a cover, a legitimate father for the baby.”

“I can’t believe that of Charlotte,” Hoss said.

“Believe it, brother.” Joe looked at me. “I’m sorry I doubted you, Adam.”

“I’m sorry it came to this, Joe.”

*****

Sometime after midnight, Joe came to my room and sat down on the edge of the bed. “I need a favor,” he said.

I rubbed my hands over my eyes. “Right now?”

“I couldn’t sleep.”

“I have no doubt.” I leaned up on one elbow. “What do you need?”

“What time do they meet?”

“No, Joe. Don’t even think about it.”

“I have to, Adam.”

Through a haze of interrupted sleep, I tried to think.

“If I catch them in the act, I have proof.”

The kid had a point but he was walking into dangerous territory. Anything could happen, but he was right. They’d have to be caught red-handed or the marriage would still take place. “Not until Friday, but there’s one condition.”

“What’s that?”

“I go with you.”

“No, this isn’t your problem.”

“That’s the condition, Joe. Take it or leave it.”

His hands lay on his lap and he interlocked his fingers in a nervous fashion. “Okay,” he mumbled. “Goodnight.”

*****

The pictures I conjured up of Charlotte and the judge were disturbing, but Joe had a day and a half to ruminate over Charlotte’s deception and the fact that she was sleeping with a much-older man. When I rolled out of bed Friday morning, I found Joe already sitting at the breakfast table. “Morning,” I said. “You’re up early.” I didn’t expect an answer, and I reached for the coffee pot and poured myself a cup. “We don’t have to leave before ten.”

Joe nodded.

“They meet around noon in Gold Hill.”

“Okay.” Joe wrapped both hands around his cup, but his hands were unsteady. My brother wasn’t in the wrong, but the guilty look on his face said otherwise.

“We don’t have to do this,” I said.

“Yeah, we do.”

Joe paced back and forth the better part of the morning. We should’ve left with Hoss and gotten some work done, burned off some of the kid’s nervous energy; instead, Joe and Pa and I listened to the grandfather clock chime away the passing hours.

“I’ll saddle the horses, he said as the hand approached ten.” Joe fastened his gunbelt and slipped his jacket and hat on before heading out to the barn.

“Don’t let that boy out of your sight. He worries me, Adam.”

“Joe won’t do anything rash, Pa.”

“I’m not so sure.”

“I’ll make sure.” I fastened my own gunbelt. “He’s just upset over this whole stupid mess. Joe accepted responsibility. He did what he thought was right and assumed the girl had been upfront with him. I burst in with a different truth, which gives him every reason to verify the facts for himself.”

“All the same, I want you to watch out for him.”

“I always do, Pa.”

*****

Chapter 10

Her day dress lay in a heap on the floor while Harold’s suit coat and trousers were neatly positioned over the back of the chair. They had plenty to discuss with the upcoming nuptials, and the addition of Joe Cartwright in Charlotte’s life.

Harold was pleased with his plan, a father for the baby and a husband to satisfy Charlotte’s needs. The girl was like a firestorm, always wanting more, and he was growing tired of her constant demands. Like his last encounter with a woman similar in age, he was no longer in charge. He’d cut all ties with her, and it was time to cut the ties with his newest paramour too.

After the wedding on Saturday, he’d talk to Charlotte about ending the affair. She’d be in good hands with the Cartwright boy. Besides, a kid of nineteen could match her endurance. Life had become too complicated. It was time to say goodbye.

As a circuit judge, his standing in the community had to remain impeccable, and he had a spotless record so far. The other young girl and gone away quietly, but he worried about Charlotte. She was a different sort, but the affair had served its purpose; he still had the wherewithal to attract and seduce a beautiful young woman.

Her fingers traced across his shoulders, but her sensual caress was more of a distraction than pleasure. Neither his mind nor his body was reacting the way it should, and he realized he’d made the right decision.

Charlotte didn’t seem to notice, but Harold turned his attention to the unexpected commotion outside the hotel door. And when the door burst open, he grabbed the quilted coverlet and tried to hide their naked bodies from the three unexpected intruders.

“I tried to stop ‘em, Judge,” Carl pleaded, “but when the kid grabbed the front of my shirt—I’m sorry, Judge. I couldn’t keep either of ‘em from racin’ up the stairs.”

Joe and Adam Cartwright stood inside the doorway. Carl ducked and ran. Joe smiled at his bride-to-be. “Afternoon, Charlotte.”

“What are you doing here? How—how did you find us?”

“Does it really matter?”

“Joe, please,” she cried.

“Please what? Please leave? Please tell the world that the judge’s baby is my own? There’ll be no wedding, Charlotte. The honeymoon’s over unless you want to spend the next few days with your lover. Mrs. Carver won’t mind, will she, Judge?”

Joe tipped his hat to the naked couple. He turned to walk out the door, but he grabbed hold of the frame and spun back around. “Wish I could say it’s been nice knowing you, sweetheart, but I’m not feeling very sympathetic right now. Goodbye, Charlotte. Goodbye, Judge.”

*****

Epilogue

I was never so proud of my brother as the day I stood next to him just inside room number seven at the Southside Inn. The kid had matured overnight. Pa had nothing to worry about, and I told him so when we returned to the house. Of course, we’d stopped for a couple of beers first, but Joe had reason to celebrate. He was a free man once more.

Though I probably should’ve praised his calm demeanor, Joe knew I was pleased that he’d handled the situation with grace and a maturity I didn’t know existed. His well-thought-out lines had cut the unlikely lovebirds clear to the bone. But today was a different kind of day.

Saturday at noon, the four of us stood side-by-side in our Sunday best. We weren’t standing inside the church listening to blessed vows; instead, we stood for the graveside service at the Virginia City cemetery. With our heads bowed, the same local preacher, who would’ve performed Joe and Charlotte’s wedding, told of His glorious presence and how we should rejoice in the midst of our sorrow.

Two people were dead: Charlotte and Judge Carver. The sheriff in Gold Hill said it looked to him like a murder/suicide, and I felt sure he was right. The judge couldn’t face his wife or the shame he’d brought to his family. Charlotte had been the cause of that shame.

It was a sad day, though. So many lives ruined, but as Reverend Scott read from the bible, Joe mourned the loss of a girl he’d once loved and a baby he thought was his. Though he might cry today, tomorrow was for new beginnings, for charting a new course, and he would find his way.

Pa and Hoss flanked him on either side, a protective shield for a boy who’d been to hell and back in just a week’s time. I’d never asked how he felt about becoming a father. As far as I knew, no one had; we were too wrapped up in the announcement of an unplanned child and—what some would call—a shotgun wedding.

Joe would bounce back. It would take time, but that burst of laughter between him and Hoss showed me he wasn’t entirely broken. He was a darn good kid—a man actually—and he didn’t deserve the evil game Charlotte and the judge felt forced to play.

Little Joe wasn’t so little anymore. No longer was he a boy who needed constant supervision or protection. He’d fought the battle by taking the higher ground and proving his worth as a man. Pride was only part of what I felt. I reached for his shoulder and squeezed the bulging muscles that hadn’t been there a year ago.

Maybe next Saturday night at Asa Cummings’ barn dance, Joe would see what I’d seen—and thought she was worth her weight in gold—in the little blonde who had no problem filling her dance card. The splint wouldn’t be gone from his hand, but a simple inconvenience like that wouldn’t slow a man like Joe Cartwright down.

***The End***

4-2017

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