The True Character of a Man (by Hazelmom)

Summary:  It is never wise to underestimate the middleman, whether you’re ‘society’, a kidnapper, or family.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA
Word Count:  17,540


 

“So what should we do with ‘em, Adam? Do you think they would like to see a round-up?” Hoss’ mouth was struggling to both eat and talk at the same time.

Adam didn’t look up. “They don’t want to go on a round-up, Hoss.”

“Well, let’s have a party, a square dance!” Joe speared the last piece of roast beef a second before Hoss got there. Hoss grunted his dissatisfaction and moved onto the last of the mashed potatoes.

“That’s an idea,” Ben said, sitting back. He long ago gave up fighting his sons for extra helpings.

Adam winced. “I don’t know. They aren’t going to be here that long, probably not more than a week. You just gotta understand that they aren’t the kind of folks that square dance or spend time with cattle. They’re…different.”

Joe pointed a fork at Adam. “But they are people, right?”

Hoss chuckled. “That’s a good question, little brother. Adam, you sure they ain’t statues or something?”

Adam smirked. “Very funny.”

Joe cocked his head. “Honestly, I don’t get it. You’ve been uptight about this ever since you got the letter.”

“There’s nothing to know. They’re from Boston, and they’re used to a…different sort of lifestyle.”

Hoss furrowed his brow in confusion. “People from Boston don’t like to have fun?”

Ben choked on his coffee. Adam pushed his plate away. “I gotta’ get out to the East Pasture before the day gets away from me.”

Joe started to protest, but Adam ignored him. He put on his black hat, tipped it at his father, and disappeared out the door.

Hoss looked at his Pa. “I don’t get it.”

Ben sighed. “They are from old money. People with money like that spend time with other people with money.”

“We have money,” Joe said.

“We don’t have old money, Joseph. We aren’t interested in where someone was born or where they live. To us, people are people. It doesn’t matter if they have money or what bloodline they come from.”

“In other words, Adam’s friends are snobs,” Joe said to Hoss.

“Listen, Joseph, these people are going to be our guests. We do not refer to guests in those terms.”

Hoss gave Little Joe a look. “Pa’s right. Just ‘cause these folks are different doesn’t mean we can treat them low.”

“You don’t remember the Houghtons of San Francisco?”

Hoss looked at him speechless. He looked down for a moment and then pushed his plate away much in the way of his older brother. “I gotta go…riding fence.”

“Aw Hoss, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean nothing by it.”

Hoss walked away, head down, and then slammed the door behind him.

Ben glared at his youngest son. Joe threw his arms up. “What’d I do? I didn’t mean nothing.”

“Adam’s friends are not the Houghtons of Boston. Adam does not know people like that. There was no call to go reminding your brother of something like that.”

“It burns me though how people think they can look at Hoss and understand the kind of man he is. I don’t like it, and people with ‘old money’ tend to be those ‘kind’ of people.”

“Joseph, we are not going to go digging up problems where they don’t exist. I want you on your best behavior this week. We may be common people, but we do not judge people we don’t know. That wouldn’t make us any different than the Houghtons of San Francisco, would it?”

Joe’s face reddened and he shook his head. “No it wouldn’t, Sir.”

“Fine.” Ben pushed away from the table. “I think we all have plenty to do this afternoon. Might I suggest you apologize to your brother about bringing up an incident that he has tried very hard to forget? You know how sensitive Hoss can be.”

Joe nodded and followed his father out the door. Joe was a reasonable man, and his father had a good point, but he protected his own and no amount of reason would get in the way of that.

*****

Ben rode for an hour before he found his oldest son. Adam was fixing a piece of fence — so involved he didn’t see his father until Ben Cartwright was slowing Buck to a walk. Ben stifled a smile. His oldest could concentrate on something like no one else he had ever known, even a piece of broken down fence. Adam stood up, wiping dirty hands on his black jeans. “Do you need something, Pa?”

Ben slid off Buck and approached his son. “Nothing much. Just riding fence.”

Adam scratched his neck and waited.

“Yeah, well, I did want to talk to you before your friends arrive tomorrow. I think Joe’s right. You have been nervous since you got their letter.”

Adam turned and looked out over the meadows. “I don’t know, Pa. School was a long time ago. I was young, lonely, and, frankly, a little awed by their prestige.”

“You don’t really consider them friends?”

Adam shook his head. “No, they were. I think they saw me as something different, exotic. I didn’t fit in any specific category. They helped me a lot. Opened doors. They were friends.”

“I don’t understand then.”

“I think they knew an idea. I don’t know how well that’ll translate once they’re here. I don’t know if they’ll understand who we are.”

Ben smiled. “You, like your brother, Joe, are over-thinking this. Give them a chance. They may be…surprise you.”

Adam looked down, his boot tracing a line in the dirt. “I don’t want them to misunderstand who we are.”

“It doesn’t matter. As long as we know who we are, that’s all that matters.”

Adam pushed his hat back on his forehead. “Okay, Pa. I won’t worry about it.”

Ben nodded at his son. “Good. Let’s put this behind us and enjoy your visitors.”

Adam nodded and waited as his father mounted Buck and turned back toward the ranch. For awhile, he just stood there and watched his father gallop away. It never failed to fascinate him that he was part of a dynasty that stretched further than a man could ride in two days. When he was a boy, he would watch when a man rode off, aware that when he disappeared over the horizon, it would still be Ponderosa country. It always left him with a sense of awe.

*****

The stagecoach seemed dustier than usual. Adam kept wondering what kind of shape his friends would be in as the horses came barreling towards them. He turned to Hoss and sighed. He had wanted to ask Hoss if he’d be okay with being called Eric for the duration of their visit. He’d never gotten around to explaining the mountain name for his friends, but it somehow seemed like the wrong to address it now.

The coach stopped with a jerk and Adam winced. He hoped that nothing else about the journey had been strenuous. The dust settled and a sharply dressed gentleman climbed out; Joe approached with a greeting but Adam shook his head and whispered, “Gambler” under his breath. Then a sea of pink muslin appeared and a woman with dark hair appeared. Adam offered a hand, and she took it daintily. She hopped down, and behind her came another vision in yellow with golden hair who smiled thinly and took his proffered hand. She jumped lightly and took her place next to her pink counterpart. Then a tall, thin man disembarked, and smiled broadly at Adam. “Adam! How long has it been?” Adam shook his hand heartily. Another man appeared, larger, and laughed, “Adam, you’re a regular cowboy. Who knew it was possible?”

Adam laughed in spite of himself, and turned to his family. “Let me introduce my family. This is my father, Ben: my youngest brother, Joseph: and…” He hesitated in front of Hoss who was, as usual, smiling widely across his broad face, blue eyes twinkling. “This is my brother, Eric.” He couldn’t go any further. They looked at his family and smiled. Adam smiled back at them. “Welcome to Virginia City.”

The thin man moved forward. “Hello, my name is Stanford Rhineholt. So glad to be here.” He shook hands with all of them. He turned to the women. “This is my wife, Beatrice, and my little sister, Sophia.”

The woman in pink nodded while the woman in yellow looked around her with a slight frown on her face. Ben clapped his hands together. “It’s been a terribly long journey. I’m sure you’re exhausted. What say we go over to the hotel for some lemonade while the hands load up your things? The Ponderosa is yet another hour by carriage.”

Stanford nodded, and Ben led the party over to the hotel. Beatrice shook her yellow skirt, and then turned to Hoss. “Please make sure that my bags are covered. The dust in these parts can get into everything.”

He nodded and gestured to Hemp and Sam. “Fellers, could you make sure there’s canvas over Ms. Beatrice’s bags please?” They nodded and he turned to escort her, but she was already marching across the street, holding her skirts off the dirt road.

*****

“This beef is amazing,” Beatrice lifted a piece on her fork. “I had no idea that there would be anything but beans and jerky out here”

Joe smirked. “I’m glad we could surprise you.”

Young Sophia giggled next to him. Joe had spent the last few hours being the epitome of Cartwright charm, and the young woman hadn’t left his side the whole time. Adam threw him an annoyed look, but Joe ignored him, and turned to smile brightly at the girl.

Stanford looked across at Adam. “Well, we know all about your mother’s family, and you also talked quite a bit about your time in New Orleans so we have heard about Joe’s family, but we know almost nothing about Eric’s family.”

Hoss looked up from the meal he was so painstakingly dissecting. “Me?”

“Yes, Eric, you’ve always been something of a mystery to us. Adam comes from the Stoddard family which is an old family name in Boston, your brother Joe comes from a refined French family named de Marginy, quite well regarded, but we know almost nothing about you. Adam was always somewhat tightlipped about you and your family.”

Ben put down his knife and fork, frowning slightly. Hoss cleared his throat. “Well, the first thing my older brother should’ve told you is that the only folks who call me Eric was the schoolmarm I had as a boy and the undertaker I’ll have when I die. Folks around here just call me Hoss.”

Beatrice blinked. “What sort of name is that?”

“It’s an old mountain expression that means big, friendly feller. My uncle Gunnar gave it to me.”

“I see.” Beatrice looked as if she had swallowed something sour.

“Please tell us about your family,” Stanford said.

“Well, it’s sort of a funny question, I suppose. I never thought of myself as anything but a Cartwright.” Hoss looked to his pa.

Ben nodded. “Family names don’t make a man out here in the west.”

“Yes, but you live and die by your family, isn’t that right?”

Adam turned to his old school friend. “True, but family has a different meaning out here. We don’t take much stock in who’s related to whom. We focus on a man’s character, not his heritage.”

Stanford looked at his wife and she quietly went back to eating. For a few moments, there was nothing but silence. Then Hoss sat back and said, “Well, it ain’t no secret, really. My ma was a Borgstorm. She was born in Sweden. She came over with her brother Gunnar, looking for work after a few seasons of crops failed on the family farm. She was working in a mercantile when my pa met up with her. Ain’t that about right, Pa?”

Beatrice looked up. “I see. She was a simple shop girl. That certainly explains things.”

Ben’s eyebrows shot up. “What sort of ‘things’ does that explain, Mrs. Rhineholt?”

Ben’s imperious tone had no impact on the woman. She looked directly at him. “Well, clearly his mother’s family doesn’t have the status of his brothers’. She was a peasant woman. I’m sure that’s why no one talks about it.”

Joe frowned. “We don’t avoid conversations about Hoss’ family.”

“Well, Adam was never very forthcoming about it. At least, that’s what my husband has always told me.”

Adam winced. “I don’t remember ever being reticent about Hoss or Joe or anything about my family. I’m sorry that I somehow gave you that impression.”

Beatrice looked at her husband, but he was studiously avoiding her gaze. Around the table, no one said anything. She sighed deeply. “It appears that I have offended, and for that I am truly sorry.”

Hoss wrinkled his nose. “Aw, don’t trouble yourself, Ms. Beatrice. I ain’t got no shame about my ma or her family. Being a peasant ain’t so bad. I reckon I don’t mind it a bit.”

Sophia tittered, but Beatrice looked at her sharply and she stopped and then no one said anything. Hoss flushed red and looked down at his plate. Ben grunted his disapproval, and Adam heaved a deep sigh, looking to his old friend for rescue. “Well, Stanford, why don’t we sit in front of the fire and have a cigar?”

“Capital idea, Adam. Just the ticket.” He turned to his wife. “I’m sure that you and Sophia are exhausted after the long ride. I don’t think anyone would be offended if you retired for the night.”

Beatrice pursed her lips and gestured for Sophia, who smiled once more at Little Joe before trotting off after her sister-in-law. Adam could swear Joe winked at her before she turned and he resolved that tomorrow he would have a serious talk with his little brother. Hoss got up from the table slowly, but didn’t join the men at the fire. Ben noticed, and gestured for him, but Hoss shook his head. “Sorry, I’m all done in, I guess. I’m just going to check on the new colt, and then head up for the night. Good night, fellas, and you too, Mr. Rhineholt.”

Ben noticed a heaviness in his step as he left them, and it reminded Ben of those times when Hoss was a boy, and he’d come home after a bad day at school. He always shrugged it off; told his pa everything was fine, but Ben could always tell. He’d wait until he got Joe alone, and the little boy would tell him all the names the boys and girls called Hoss and the dirty tricks they played on him. It was easy then to reach out to the boy and talk to him, guide him through the pain, but that boy was a man now, and Ben could only hope that those earlier lessons still resonated.

*****

The two men talked late into the night. Adam questioned him doggedly about the buildings going up in New York; buildings that were more than 20 stories high. Stanford shared his passion for architecture, and had brought drawings of them he’d commissioned for Adam. The two of them pored over them intently. It was the third time Stanford yawned that Adam finally took the hint. “I am so grateful for these drawings. I could stay up all night going over these with you, but what kind of host would I be?”

Stanford patted him on the back. “You’ve been wonderful. I’m happy to be here, and I am sorry about the discomfort from earlier.”

Adam looked down for a moment. “Stanford, I talked about Hoss when I was in Boston; I’m sure of it.”

“Well, not much. We used to speculate as to why he was such a mystery. You know, some families keep their secrets in a closet.”

Adam shook his head. “I have nothing to hide about Hoss.”

“He’s quite different than the rest of you.”

“Not really,” Adam said, still unwilling to look at his friend.

“Oh, Adam, he’s quite unique. I would never put the two of you in the same family, let alone in the same room. Where you’re intelligent, he’s…“

Adam put up a hand. “Stanford…it’s getting late. We have a picnic tomorrow, and I have no doubt the ladies will be ready quite early.”

Stanford smiled into the brandy glass in his hands. “As I said earlier, you are a wonderful host, Adam.”

******

Hoss lifted the biggest basket Hop Sing had, and pushed it onto the wagon.

“What’ve you got in there?” Joe asked as he walked up.

Hoss smiled. “All the fried chicken Hop Sing could make up in 2 hours, ‘tater salad, chocolate cake, and watermelon.”

“Yeah!” Joe pumped his fist in the air. The Cartwrights were hardworking people, and a picnic was a real treat. Sophia came up in a fetching blue gingham. She smiled at both men, but before Joe could take her arm, Hoss lifted her up and into the wagon. Sophia squealed, but offered no resistance. She settled into her seat. “Hoss, you’re like a big, strong bear!”

He blushed and grinned. “I reckon I am.”

“Sophia!” The girl looked up and saw Beatrice approaching with Stanford and Adam. “Remember yourself!”

The dark-haired girl hurried to smooth her skirts, and brush curls out of her face. Beatrice wore an emerald green dress, and it showed off her striking blonde hair. She took Adam’s proffered hand, and stepped daintily onto the wagon. She looked down at him. “Do we have blankets to sit on?”

“Of course, Ms. Beatrice,” Hoss said, holding up several quilts. She smiled thinly at him.

“Oh, Beatrice, did we remember the poetry books?” Sophia asked.

“Oh, please, child, no more Emily Dickinson. I can’t hear another stanza of her drivel.”

Sophia bit her lip.

Adam stepped in. “Well, how about some Tennyson? I have a nice book of sonnets.”

She smiled brightly at him, and he trotted back into the house. Then she turned to Hoss. “Do you read Tennyson?” But before he could answer, Beatrice hissed into her ear. It low, but audible all the same. “Leave him alone. I’m sure he can’t read, Sophia.”

Everyone stopped, dead, Beatrice’s words indelible in the air. Joe threw his hat on the ground. “Excuse me, Ma’am, but my brother can read and he can write and he can do figures just like anyone else!”

“Joseph!” Hoss boxed his brother on the head. “You treat our guests with respect!”

Adam was there in time to see Hoss scold his younger brother.

“But she said…”

“No, Joe, Ms. Beatrice was having a private conversation with her sister. It wasn’t our business.” Hoss nodded at her. “Sorry about this, Ma’am. Joe’s a little brisk sometimes, but he don’t mean nothing.”

Beatrice shifted uncomfortably. “Again, I’ve erred.”

“All right, that’s enough,” Adam said. “No more bickering between the two of you, and, Joe, you keep a civil tongue. You hear?”

Joe kicked up some dirt for a moment, and then looked up at her. “I’m sorry, Ms. Beatrice. I get a little…protective about Hoss. Guess I worry that some people don’t understand him that well.”

Hoss sighed. “Joe, that ain’t your concern. Since when did I look like I couldn’t take care of myself?”

Stanford climbed up next to his wife and looked at Hoss, “It’s just that we know the least about you. I’m afraid that we’ve come to some erroneous conclusions.”

Hoss gave his older brother an odd sideways glance and then turned to the guests, “Don’t you worry about one thing. It’s a beautiful day, and they’re going to take you up to Fire Lake where the view’s going to steal your breath and break your heart. The dogwood’s are in bloom, and it smells like the softest perfume. I ain’t even going to tell you about the songbirds. That’s something I’m gonna’ let you hear for yourself.”

“You’re not going?” Adam folded his arms.

Hoss looked down. “Yeah…about that. It turns out that old Chubb here has a bad forelock.”

Joe frowned. “No problem. I’ll run get you another mount.”

“That’s no good. I need to rub him down real good. I been put it off too long.” Hoss concentrated on shifting dirt around with his boat.

Adam sighed. Hoss couldn’t play poker without losing his shirt. His tell was the fact that he couldn’t look a single man in the eye when he was lying. He wished it was just he and his brother in the yard. Then he could explain just exactly what everything meant, but this was not the current situation.

Hoss smiled at them all. “Go on now. Have a good day. I’ll see you back here come suppertime. Off with you now.” He made sweeping motions with his hands, and then he took Chubb’s reins and led him off without a backward glance.

*****

Ben found him in the stable, rubbing down Chubby vigorously. He cleared his throat and his son looked up. “I’m surprised to see you still here. I can’t really imagine you giving up a chance to go on a picnic.”

Hoss grunted. “Just put it off too long. Chubb here deserves some good attention.”

“I couldn’t help but overhear Joe’s outburst. What did she say?”

“Oh, I couldn’t really make it out, I guess. Just a slip really.”

“From what Joe said, it sounded like she again underestimated you.”

Hoss chuckled. “Well, if I had nickel for every time someone did that, I sure wouldn’t need to do any work at all around here. I could be sitting at the Bucket of Blood right now buying rounds for the boys.”

Ben smiled, but refused to be distracted by his son’s forced cheer. “It must get tiring sometimes.”

Hoss stopped rubbing the horse’s leg. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Pa.”

“When you were a boy, you once told me that it sometimes felt like you were a bear cub that could talk and eat with a fork. That’s what it felt like, the way people were always staring at you and wondering.”

Hoss scratched at his neck. “That was a long time ago, Pa.”

“I’m sorry if you still have those moments.”

“They don’t bother me none.”

“Hoss…sometimes it’s a gift to be a surprise to people. It ends up teaching them not to make assumptions.”

Hoss guffawed. “Trust me, Pa, when I tell you that if it’s a gift, then you can take it back.”

Ben smiled. “Point well taken, son.”

Hoss began rubbing Chubby’s leg again. For a moment, no one spoke, and Ben was wondering if he should just leave it at that. He shifted, but Hoss put out a hand and stopped him. “I ain’t ever been much to brag about, Pa. Off this ranch, I’m not much good for anything. I figure a guy like me can’t get much luckier than to end up in a family with fellers like you and my brothers.”

Ben frowned deeply. “Hoss, don’t talk like that! It’s not true!”

“When Adam went off to college, I was heartbroken. You remember. I wrote him most every day. You wouldn’t let me send more than one a week so I would have to sort through them and give you the best one.”

“Yes Son, I remember.”

“My brother went off to school, and when he got homesick, he talked with his friends about the Ponderosa, about you and Joe…but he didn’t talk about me.”

“Hoss, we don’t know what happened there. We don’t know what he was thinking.”

“Aw Pa, I don’t know. I guess I can’t help but feel funny about it.”

“But it’s no good. Can’t you see that? You are…who you are, and we accept that. In fact, we’re grateful for that. No one is ashamed of you. You bring as much to this family as any of us. It’s different than what Adam brings or Joseph, but it’s just as valuable.”

Hoss screwed up his face. “I’m acting like a schoolboy.”

“Hoss, people like the Rhineholts or the Houghtons, for that matter, base their entire existence on the idea that they are superior. They see their purpose in life as the arbitrators of what is right and proper. Without this, they would be nothing. Our purpose, for instance, is to…run the Ponderosa. We’re building a legacy for generations to come. That’s what’s important to us.”

“I didn’t think of it that way.”

“Your brother’s not ashamed of you.”

Hoss nodded and slowly stood. “Chubb’s going to need a little exercise for that leg. I remember Dodd saying that there are strays missing from the herd over in the West pasture. Thought I might head over there and see what I can find.”

Ben frowned. “Go join your brothers.”

“Naw, I need a little break from the upper class.”

“I don’t know about you going over to the West pasture. Dodd counted at least 50 head missing this morning. I got a feeling about it.”

Hoss nodded. “Rustlers?”

“I don’t want you going up there alone.”

“Aw, Pa, I ain’t going to do nothing up there, but look around. Maybe I can find some tracks, get a sense as to whether or not we got something to worry about.”

“I don’t want you going after nobody.”

“Nope. Just going to look around.”

*****

Beatrice curled up against the tree, careful to adjust her numerous bustles. She smiled softly at her husband, “Please Stanford, finish the poem. Tennyson writes so beautifully.”

He picked up the book again. Sophia lay on her side on the quilt, and tried to control drooping eyelids. Joe sat across from her with that slightly constipated look he wore when he was doing something he distinctly did not enjoy. Adam stood against the tree keeping an eye on his bored brother. Stanford took a deep breath and continued with a flourish,

“Where oleanders flush’d the bed
Of silent torrents, gravel-spread;
And, crossing, oft we saw the glisten
Of ice, far up on a mountain head.

We loved that hall, tho’ white and cold,
Those niched shapes of noble mould,
A princely people’s awful princes,
The grave, severe Genovese of old.

At Florence too what golden hours,
In those long galleries, were ours;
What drives about the fresh Cascinè
Or walks in Boboli’s ducal bowers.”

Adam caught Joe’s eye and gestured to him. Eager for a reprieve, Joe scrambled to his feet and followed his brother down to the lake. Adam carefully chose a flat stone, and threw it sideways across the water. It skipped four times before sinking below the surface. Joe chose his own and skipped it five times. Adam grinned and reached for another.

Joe looked at him out of the corner of his eye. “Are we having the “Be Careful with The Girl” talk?”

Adam raised an eyebrow. “I hope you realize that Sophia comes from a different world.”

Joe shrugged. “It ain’t nothing serious. The last couple of days have taught me more about that world than I ever wanted to know. Besides, ain’t nothing wrong with flirting with a pretty girl.”

“That’s all it is?”

Joe chuckled. “When was the last time any of us Cartwright men were in any real danger of getting hitched?”

Adam smiled and gave his next throw some extra curve. Both men counted ten skips before the stone disappeared.

Joe crouched as he scoured the ground for just the right challenge to a ten skip stone. After a few moments, he spoke, “What are you going to do about Hoss?”

Adam looked into the sun and squinted. For a few minutes neither of them said anything. Joe found the stone he was looking for, and got into position for the throw when his older brother spoke, “Hoss can’t be explained to people who don’t know him; he needs to be experienced to be appreciated.”

The stone Joe threw, fell into the water without a single skip. He screwed up his face, “What!?”

Adam sighed and looked out on the lake. “He’s sweet, he’s big; that I can tell people. The minute I start talking about how cowboys who don’t know him want to fight him just ‘cause of how he looks or how he’s always giving his money away to any hard-luck story on the Comstock or how he’s a magnet for every misfit in the Sierras or how he believes in people who don’t believe in themselves, that’s when I know that they’ll think he’s someone he isn’t.”

Joe spit at the water. “You’re afraid people will think you’re related to an idiot.”

“No, I’m not, Joe. You should know that better than anyone else.”

Joe stared at the water for awhile, and then nodded slowly. “Just like what happened at the Houghtons in San Francisco. That old lady saw Hoss in the barn helping the smith, and thought for sure he was one of the hands. I’ll never forget her coming down to the table for dinner and seeing him sitting there with us and half of San Francisco society.”

“Yeah,” Joe started throwing stones without bothering to aim them. “She started yelling at him, and even when Pa tried to explain who he was, she wouldn’t believe he belonged.”

“Hoss wouldn’t talk to anybody for a week, he was so embarrassed.”

Joe gestured behind him. “So why are you friends with people like this?”

“Because they’re good people and they helped me a lot when I was very far away from home. They just have to get used to a different way of seeing the world. Casting them off without seeing them for who they are wouldn’t be any better than what some people do to Hoss.”

“I’m not going to let them treat him low.”

Adam grinned. “Yeah, I think they know that now.”

“Well, you gotta’ make Hoss understand too. He’s got that look in his eye like he had when Mrs. Houghton yelled at him.”

Adam nodded. “Yeah, I know.”

“Joseph! Adam! Where have you both gone?” The brothers gave each other long-suffering looks before returning to their guests.

*****

Hoss pulled up to the top of the bluff. The sky was blue and the clouds were soft and white. There was a brisk wind running, and Hoss had to pull the brim of his tall hat further down on his head. He hadn’t need hours to find traces of visitors in the pasture. The fence was cut, and it was clear that cattle were driven through. Whoever was rustling wasn’t planning to do more than grab what they could and move on. There were no attempts to hide their tracks. Hoss shook his head. They were either very desperate or they just didn’t care. The tracks in the soil were thick and Hoss trotted down after them.

The surprise came within the first mile. He could hear the cattle baying before he could see them. He stopped short and headed for cover, but it was too late. Shots began singing past him. Hoss lowered his head and dug his heels into Chubby. He’d almost made it to the bluff again when he felt the bullet burn through his arm. Then he didn’t have the reins anymore. All the air left him as he slammed into the ground.

*****

Ben Cartwright barely spoke two words during supper. He kept looking darkly at Hoss’ empty seat. Stanford was holding forth on the beauty they had encountered on their ride, talking as if his entire audience were new to the region. Adam listened patiently, keeping one eye on his pa and the waves of anxiety radiating off him. Joe kept up his flirtation of the lovely Sophia, but he also stayed alert to his father’s mood. Beatrice was watching them all carefully. Finally, she could stand it no longer, “You’re worried about Hoss. It’s unusual for him to be this late?”

Ben looked at her sternly but softened his expression. “He’s not late often.”

“Where’d he go, Pa?”

“The West Pasture.”

Joe frowned. “That’s not far. What’s the problem?”

Ben sighed. “I’m worried about rustlers. There were cattle missing in that pasture. I didn’t want Hoss to go up there alone.”

Joe slammed his fork down. “And we’re just now hearing about this.”

“How many cattle are missing?” Adam asked.

“Fifty head.”

“Why’d you let him go up there?” Joe was already pushing his chair from the table.

“Calm down, Joe. He’s only a few hours late.” Adam said, as he followed his brother’s example and got to his feet.

“Sit down, both of you!”

Beatrice looked down at her plate, her hands folded politely in her lap. “I’m sure he can take care of himself. You’ve spent the last two days convincing us of that very thing.”

Adam looked at her sharply. “I think that’s about enough, Beatrice.”

She stared back at him evenly, unwilling to back down. Before anything more could develop, the front door opened. Tensions as they were, Joe grabbed at his side, but his holster was on the sideboard by the door. Hoss came through the door, looking disheveled. Ben let out a deep sigh and squeezed his eyes shut for a moment.

Hoss was strangely pale, and it was immediately apparent that his arm was wounded. He dropped into one of the chairs around the fire. Joe was there immediately standing over him. “What happened to you?”

“Nothing, little brother.” Hoss looked distinctively uncomfortable.

“You took a bullet,” Ben was surveying his arm.

“You were right, Pa. We got bandits on the ranch.”

“You took a bullet,” Ben repeated loudly.

“Pa, it just grazed me.”

“I told you not to get in the middle of anything.”

“I didn’t, Pa.”

Ben couldn’t be calmed. “I trusted you not to do anything idiotic, and here you are with a bullet in your arm.”

“There ain’t no bullet! It was just a graze.”

Ben grunted and looked away.

There was a bloody handkerchief around his arm, and Adam picked at it gingerly. “Tell us what happened.”

Hoss became aware of the guests around him as well. Sophia looked really distressed, but it was Beatrice looking at him with a concerned look that upset him the most. “Listen folks, I’m just fine.”

Adam looked at Stanford, who didn’t immediately register the issue. So Adam turned to the women, “Ladies, perhaps it’s best you give us a little room right now.”

Beatrice pursed her lips, and for a moment it looked as if she was going to protest, but she merely took Sophia by the arm, saying, “Come along, Sophia, the men need time to talk.” Sophia followed her reluctantly.

Hoss waited until they were on the stairs. “It wasn’t nothing. I went up to the West Pasture, and sure enough, they cut the fence. Didn’t try to hide a dadburned thing. All I did was follow the tracks a bit, and them fellers didn’t even try to hide. They weren’t but a mile into the brush. Then I heard the cattle, and I knew I was too close, so I turned and ran. They hit me at the bluff, but I was able to get up, and get back on old Chubb.” He shook his head. “They’re bold fellers.”

“How many were there?”

Hoss shook his head. “I don’t have one dadblanged idea.”

Ben started pacing. “I can’t believe I let you go out there alone. I knew something was wrong.”

Hoss frowned. “Pa, you need to get hold of yourself. I’m just fine.”

He threw his arms up. “You’re not fine! Let’s be clear about that. You were only a few inches away from being killed!”

He looked at Sanford and something in the big man snapped as he turned to his father. “Are you going to call me an idiot again?”

Ben wrinkled his brow, and Adam drew in breath sharply. Hoss got to his feet. “I got to go see to Chubby.”

Ben started to follow him, but Adam touched his arm. “Let me go talk to him.”

Ben pushed past him. “That arm needs tending.”

Adam gave up and the two of them followed Hoss out to the barn. Hoss looked up as they entered. “Please, I’m really fine.”

“Hoss, I…” Adam licked his lips. This was not one of his many talents. Talking about emotions was not something he did easily.

“Son, we need to take a look at that arm.”

“It’s all right. Sorry I bristled like I did,” Hoss mumbled, patting his pony down.

Ben cleared his throat. “I’m sorry I reacted so strongly. I never meant to call you an idiot. I just meant to say that I wanted you to be more careful.”

“It’s alright, Pa.” Hoss said. “We’re going to need to go after those fellers in the morning. They’re a mean crew. I got a feeling on this.”

Ben nodded. “I’ll get water and bandages. You get on up to the house so I can fix you up right.”

“Be there in a minute, Pa.”

Adam shifted a bit. “Hoss, we should talk, you and I. I think…“

Hoss put up a hand. “That’s okay, Adam. Don’t strain yourself.”

“Come on, Hoss!”

“Maybe later, Adam. I got a date with bandage.”

Hoss strode out of the barn, and Adam kicked the dirt at his feet.

*****

Hoss was in a mood. It didn’t happen very often, but with a man as expressive as he was, you could almost see the storm clouds floating above his head. He was driving the Rhineholts back to Virginia City. Rustlers were a bad business, and when they became a threat to the ranch, everything else stopped. Pa, Joe, and Adam left early that morning with ten hands to hunt them down. Nothing Hoss said made a difference. Pa was clear. His job for today was going to be to pack up the Rhineholts, take them to Virginia City, and install them in a hotel for the next couple of days until the crisis had passed. It was a job he was doing stoically, showing none of the friendly charm that so defined his character. The Rhineholts, for their part, were subdued, treating him with exaggerated graciousness. None of them noticed the beauty of another clear day in the Sierras.

*****

It galled Ben how bold these rustlers were. Tracks were etched in the sand with no attempt made to sweep them away. It was tempting to just come at them straight on, but Ben knew that bold didn’t always mean dumb. He split his men into two groups, Adam taking five men and heading off to the north. Ben kept Joe with him. He always tried to do that; his youngest son was apt to rush a situation without a lot of forethought. He was amazing really, fearless and agile in action; his skills at riding and shooting even overshadowed his eldest brother. But Joe didn’t recognize his vulnerabilities, and for this reason, Ben did his best to watch over the boy.

Ben smelled his cattle before he saw them. The wind was blowing at them, and he motioned for his men to veer off to a grove for more coverage. Joe was flushed and Ben had to steer Buck toward Cochise to get Joe to head for cover.

Adam’s men were out of sight, and Ben had to trust that his eldest would wait for him to make the first move. However, all of these were predicated on the rustlers acting in expected ways. Reality often crashed into the best laid plans, and today happened to be a pure example of this.

One of the rustlers had spotted them, and went riding by at full speed, calling out warning to the men beyond the bluff. Joe got off a few shots before Ben could wave him off. He spurred Buck on, and they thundered after the rustler. Ben pulled the men to a stop at the mouth of the canyon. No matter what happened, he wasn’t going to drive his men into a canyon blind.

Once again, the rustlers didn’t act as expected. Just as Ben got his men behind rocks, shots fired out, and then came the sound of horses running. Riders burst out of the canyon before Ben and his men could take up positions. Instantly, everyone was shooting. Somewhere in the mix, Adam and his men were there. It was too wild, too uncontrolled, the dust was everywhere, and Ben stopped shooting, unsure of who was aiming at whom at this point.

Horses pounded past. He saw Joe run for his mount, but then Adam was there, holding firmly onto Cochise’s reins. Ben started shouting for his men to stand down; he could no longer allow an attack when he was so unclear about the situation. Breathing hard, he willed himself to hold until the dust settled.

It seemed a lifetime until the scene was clear before him. Three bodies were spread across the rocks. His eyes searched for his sons before all else, and relief flooded his gut when he saw both of them standing. He took a deep breath and called for all the men to gather. A head count told him that two of the bodies were his own men, and he felt anger swell up in his chest. Men had come onto his ranch, taken his cattle, and then cut down his men. There would be no peace for him until these men were in jail awaiting trial.

He knew Joe would advocate for following them, but Ben wasn’t ready for that. He had close to 100 head of cattle in a canyon, three dead men to take to town, a report to file with Roy, and two families to inform. There would be time enough to track them; they clearly had had no time to break camp, and no doubt were running blind. A well-stocked posse would be more than a match for a group of panicked rustlers.

*****

Hoss was ready to throw his hat into a gulch, swear to the high heavens, and then walk away from the whole mess. A rancher couldn’t afford many days of rest if he wanted to stay afloat, and the three days the Cartwright boys spent with the folks from Boston had already taken a toll. That old wagon wheel Hoss had been meaning to get to pick this morning to split when they were still miles away from Virginia City. So now Hoss was standing over the offending wheel trying to figure out a way to rig it for the last five miles. The Rhineholts had disembarked and were standing in an awkward group watching him on the dirt road. Truly, nature took on a whole new meaning when the beautiful Sierras were nothing more than a dusty road, an empty horizon, and no food or water in sight and these city folks suddenly looked like they wanted nothing to do with it. Hoss stifled an urge to ask Beatrice if she was getting dust on those nice yellow skirts of hers.

It was Stanford who first noticed the dust cloud coming their way. He pointed it out and Hoss sat back on his haunches, pulled his hat back, and squinted into the sun. He stood slowly when he realized that their speed was not that of normal travelers. These boys were running. Hoss took hold of Stanford’s arm, and urged him to take the ladies into the brush. Then he reached for his gun and pointed. A gesture should slow even the most desperate of men, but these fellers were writing a whole new book on the subject. They didn’t slow as they bore down on him, and he had no idea as to the level of threat. At the last minute, he took a dive into the ditch as they thundered past. Hoss had let go of his gun and was feeling for it in the grass. The thundering of hooves had stopped but not the way it does when sounds drift out of range. It was clear to him that they’d stopped. Frustrated, he abandoned his search for the gun and scrambled to his feet with some vague notion of hiding the females in an old creek bed he knew of, but it was too late. Men were already running up to the Rhineholts with guns, and before he could do anything, a deep sharp pain erupted in the back of his skull and he slumped to the ground.

*****

Joe tipped his hat back when he saw his brother and signaled Cosmos for another beer. Cosmos pushed it down the long bar, and Adam grabbed it deftly. “Where’s Pa?”

Joe sighed. “He’s talking to Dodd’s widow. Taft didn’t have family. He put $5,000 in a trust account for Dodd, and he’s sending money to Taft’s mother in St. Louis. I just got back from Roy’s office. He’s going to have a posse ready in the hour.”

“I just went to the hotel to see if the Rhineholts settled in, but they aren’t there.”

Joe made a face. “Where’d Hoss put ‘em?”

“I don’t think they ever got to Virginia City.”

“I don’t get it.”

“A couple of days ago, Hoss said that the wagon wheel was cracked. Do you remember if he had that fixed?”

Joe grinned. “Bet he didn’t.”

Adam took a long drink. Then he put the beer down and said, “Do you suppose Hoss is sitting at the side of the road right now in the hot sun, trying to figure out how to put that wheel back together with Beatrice standing over him asking if they will be in town in time for tea?”

Joe snorted. “Do you suppose?”

“Think we oughta’ go backtrack and find out what happened?”

“Roy will be waiting on us.”

Adam sighed. “Joe, an hour to Roy Coffee is like 2 ½ hours to the rest of the world. Believe me, we’ll be back in time.”

Adam took one long swig, and then slapped his brother on the back as he walked out the door. Joe grinned and trotted after him.

*****

Stanford stared into the afternoon sun. The men told him to walk this road for five miles, and it felt like he’d walked twice that distance, but all he saw in front of him was more dirt road and brush. He’d been walking since the sun was high in the sky, and now it was starting to drop. He couldn’t quite tell if he’d been walking for 2 or 3 hours. Visions of what he’d left behind pounded his head harder than any midday sun could, but he couldn’t afford to do anything but keep moving.

Sophia had been so afraid she couldn’t talk. Beatrice had pulled her behind her skirts, and, in that moment, Stanford remembered that even though his wife had a sharp tongue, she had always been a brave creature. He’d prayed that the big man would rise up and destroy these bandits, but Hoss merely lie limp on the side of the road. He was so still that they’d worried he was dead, but one of the men put a hand on his mouth and said he could feel breath. They talked about leaving him, but, in the end, decided that a Cartwright, no matter how hefty, was worth the trouble. Still it took them almost half an hour and all three men to swing him up over a horse’s back and then secure him in place.

The men opened trunks and stamped through belongings, picking up things shiny, but leaving more valuable possessions like rare books and maps. A couple of them began making pointed comments about the females, and Stanford tensed, knowing his entire honor rested on his ability to keep his wife and sister safe. In the end, they decided on a ransom demand. Stanford wanted to convince them to leave Sophia behind instead of him. She could walk toward Virginia City, and hopefully a wagon would find her before too long, but they weren’t interested in taking the risk of leaving a woman alone on the road, expecting that she would get where she needed to be. The vote landed on Stanford and he protested, but a fist to his temple and a punch to his gut relayed the message that no one much cared about what he thought about the situation.

In Boston, he was a man of standing. He could get a good table in any restaurant, and he was secretary in the most prestigious men’s club in the city. His wisdom brought many people to him; issues of land title and zoning were his specialty. When the family had a crisis, Stanford was always at the forefront, directing damage control and keeping the family safe. But now he was in the west, and nothing he was had any meaning. He was nothing but a dandy who couldn’t even find his way into town, let alone protect his wife and sister.

A cloud formed far up the road. Stanford thought about jumping into the ditch and hiding until he knew if it was safe, but his body wouldn’t cooperate. He was just stopped walking and stood there waiting for whatever would come next.

*****

Hands on his hips, Ben Cartwright glared at his two sons. Then he grunted and walked away. Stanford Rhineholt was slumped in a chair in front of Roy Coffee’s desk. He’d gone through his story and was now nursing the coffee Joe brought him. Roy was outside putting the posse on hold. A ransom situation called for a great deal more tact than just chasing through the hills after murderers and bandits.

Ben was in a bad mood before his sons dragged a bedraggled Stanford back to town. Now his bad mood was aggravated with fear for his son and anger that they’d essentially driven the bandits straight at his son and the Rhineholts. Adam knew his father’s moods, and knew it was best to stay back, and let Ben find himself again. His brother, Joe, was very much like his father, and so he did what he could to keep an eye on him as well.

Stanford looked up at Adam. “I need to get to the bank. I need funds wired. How much money do you think the bank here can handle?”

Ben turned around. “Money’s not a problem. We’re in this together.”

Stanford looked down at his feet. “I don’t know what I’ll do if anything happens…”

“Hey!” Joe stepped forward and put a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry, Hoss is there. He’ll take care of them.”

Stanford shook his head. “Hoss wasn’t even conscious. How can he protect them? He’s just a big, dumb overgrown boy.”

Adam clapped a hand down on Joe’s shoulder, and pulled him back. He could feel the anger radiating off the boy. Joe swallowed his words and looked away.

“Stanford, I’m not going to argue with you.” Adam chose his words carefully. “Hoss isn’t…intelligent in a way you would understand, but my brother has a…wisdom about things. He has an understanding of human nature; he sees things in others that the rest of us don’t. I trust him, and I believe that if anyone can protect those two women, it’s Hoss.”

Taking Adam’s cue, Joe chose his words carefully. “Hoss has a lot of courage. Being smart ain’t worth half what that is in a situation like this. I guarantee it.”

Ben wheeled around. “None of that matters. We have two days, and $100,000 to put together. We’re going to do everything they say.”

“We can’t just sit here. Adam and I should be scouting. We could find them before the money drop,” declared Joe.

“No!” Ben glared at him. “We do everything they say.”

“But we can’t trust them.”

“Now you listen good, all of you! We are not taking a chance with their lives.”

Adam jumped in before Joe could respond. “Pa’s right. We can’t rush into anything. We need to take some time and think it through. Besides, we don’t even know where the money is going to be dropped, right?”

Stanford nodded. “He said that a message would come to us by tomorrow night.”

Ben nodded. “We don’t do anything until then.”

Logically, it held water, but even Adam tensed at the notion that they would sit around while Hoss, Sophia, and Beatrice were at the mercy of proven killers.

*****

The pain in Hoss’ head throbbed constantly. It reverberated through the rest of his body, leaving him nauseous and sensitive to any movement. He was handcuffed to a root at the base of an old oak; Beatrice and Sophia were curled up beside him. Their captors sat at a fire ten feet away. There were only three of them, but they were ugly and mean. They sat around the fire, drinking whiskey, and telling jokes about killing men. Every once in a while, they said something about how they’d been thirsting for women, and one of ‘em would look longingly over at Beatrice and Sophia, but the boss wasn’t so all fired up about damaging the goods so early in the game. Hoss was grateful for that. He needed more time to clear his head of the pain and the fuzzy thinking that resulted.

Miss Sophia, being young and all, was suffering the most. She couldn’t swallow the little sobs of fear that continued erupting. To her credit, she did the best she could to muffle them, and, to Hoss, she ended up sounding everything like a mess of hungry kittens. Ms. Beatrice was something of a surprise because she stayed dry-eyed, and was surprisingly patient with her sister-in-law. She’d given Hoss the best picture of their situation as she could recall, but even controlled, he could sense the fear in her voice.

She leaned over, her voice shaking slightly. “I’m telling you, Hoss. They let me go down for water by myself. I saw the horses, and they aren’t but tied with a simple knot. I think if we could get to those horses…“

“Shhh, Ms. Beatrice, it ain’t no good. I’d have to stay and create a distraction, and while I’m happy to do that, it’s pitch night out right now, and I don’t have one goldanged idea where they brought us, me being out for most of the ride and such. I can’t send you ladies off in any direction ‘til I can orient myself. I need the light of day.”

She was silent for a moment and then leaned into his ear, “I just don’t want anything…to happen. I’m…strong, but Sophia is a child. If we could just get her out of here. She’s not built for…”

Hoss grunted. “Now don’t go thinking those thoughts. We got no room for thoughts we can’t do nothing about. We need to keep focused on what we can do. Put away thoughts about running at night. You don’t know the land. You’ll end up at the bottom of a bluff, sure as shooting.”

The cool mountain blew through Beatrice and she wrapped her arms around herself tightly. “You don’t suppose they’ll give us a blanket?”

He snorted. “I reckon they didn’t bring extras, and I don’t think it’s wise to get their attention right now. There’s an old mountain trick I know. I want you to lean back against me and pull Sophia into yourself and we’ll share body heat.”

She looked at him, eyes wide.

His blue eyes twinkled, “I swear, Ms. Beatrice, you got no call to make me laugh right now. My head’s pounding as it is. Now put those eyes back in your head. It’s the only way you’re going to get any sleep. My brothers and I have had to do it more than once on a cold mountain night, but it ain’t no skin off my nose if you’re too high and mighty for it, because I ain’t going to be the one suffering all night.”

She swallowed hard. “I’m sorry, Hoss. I…you’re right. I have been foolish. My name, my place in society — none of it has any meaning out here, yet I continue to act like a fussy old society matron.”

“Don’t worry yourself, Ms. Beatrice. Now just scoot over and pull Miss Sophia with you….That’s it. Now, if Miss Sophia gets cold in the night, you two ladies can switch places…I’m going to wrap my arm right here, but don’t worry, that’s just for body warmth. This ain’t going to be no picnic, ladies. I got a snore that makes a grizzly bear sound like a songbird, but I guarantee that this old body of mine carries enough heat to keep us all cozy.”

*****

It’d taken some doing, but Adam finally got Stanford up to a hotel room for the night. The poor man was so distressed, so out of his element, that he hardly knew what to feel. Adam returned to Roy’s office where his brother had commandeered a cell, and was resting fitfully on a cot while his pa sat next to Roy’s desk, downing yet another cup of Roy’s sludgy coffee. Roy once told him that since his last name was Coffee, he felt a special responsibility to make a good pot. Adam responded by telling him his coffee could strip paint. After that, Roy no longer allowed Adam near his coffee. His Pa, on the other hand, drank it dark and hard like there was no tomorrow. He figured Pa would be nursing a coffee head-ache in short time, but he had no desire to try and fuss that cup away from the man. Hoss might look like a “peeled grizzly bear”, but his pa could be as mean as one when he was mad enough. Adam was going to make sure any battle he engaged in with his father would be worth the Cartwright temper.

He sat down next to his father and Ben grunted in his direction. Adam put no energy into an interpretation; he figured his pa would let him know when he had something to say.

Roy leaned across his desk. “I don’t think this sitting around business is doing us any good.”

Ben furrowed his dark brows at his friend, but Adam jumped in before he could respond. “Roy’s right, but we have to be careful. What if we sent out a few men? Tell them to stick to the road. Keep an eye out. They don’t engage in anything. Just be spotters. Rustlers can’t think we can completely control the roadways.”

“It’s too risky,” Ben hissed.

“Not if Joe and I do it. Look, Pa. we’ll change clothes, horses. We’ll stay to the road. We see anything fishy, we come back to town and talk to you.”

“Your brother won’t follow a plan like that.”

A groggy voice issued from the doorway. Joe leaned up against the door, hair tousled, blurry-eyed. “I will, Pa. I promise. I know things got to be handled careful in a situation like this, and I’ll stick with Adam.”

“Then I’m going too,” Ben declared.

Adam shook his head. “A man wouldn’t recognize Joe or I if we changed clothes and horses ‘til he got within ten yards of us. You are a different story.”

Roy nodded. “Boy’s right, Ben. You’re too well known, too distinct-like. You’d stick out like a sore thumb.”

Ben clouded over for a moment then turned to his sons, wagging a finger in their faces. “You see anything, you turn around and come back to town. You understand?!”

Joe nodded and Adam got to his feet, signaling for this brother to follow. “Come on, Joe. We gotta’ buy clothes off a couple of wranglers. New store-bought clothes isn’t going to do it. Then you’re going to pick out a couple of nice horses for us to borrow.”

The idea of walking around in stranger’s clothes and horses left Joe less than enthused, but he did nothing but frown before heading off after his brother.

*****

Hoss was grateful for the warm morning sun. The night had been too cold for all of them. He’d provided enough warmth for the womenfolk, but his back was exposed to the wind, and his sleep was fitful, if at all. Beatrice and Sophia had been ordered off to prepare breakfast and haul water. It gave Hoss time to take stock of the situation. His head still pounded, and he figured that Doc Martin would probably be talking concussion if he was with them right now. Still it didn’t matter none. He was going to have to make due with his condition such as it was.

He’d gotten a bit of a look at the country when one of the men uncuffed him so he could take care of his morning business. It was a grove in a canyon, and while he had no idea which one, there was something about the landscape that made him think about the land at the north tip of the Ponderosa. He figured if he could get the females on horses, he’d tell ‘em to head due East until they hit a road, and then follow the road south. They’d most likely find Virginia City within 3-4 hours.

Beatrice informed him that the horses were still tied loose down on the creekbed. His plan was to wait until the men were eating, and then send the ladies down to the creek. He’d distract them with some issue, and by the time they figured out what was going on, the womenfolk would be half a mile ahead. It wasn’t a great lead, but it gave them a fighting chance to get to the road and maybe run into someone who could help. He knew this plan didn’t bode well for him, but he held onto the notion that they weren’t yet ready to kill the cash cow.

Beatrice put burned biscuits and bland beans before the men before gathering up Sophia and heading back to Hoss. For a few minutes, the complaints and insults about the food kept the men from eating, and Hoss worried they were going to drag Beatrice back over there to start over, but finally they dug in, figuring rightly that food was food.

Beatrice looked at him with worried eyes. She’d been hesitant about leaving him, but they both knew there was no way to get all of them down to the creek at the same time. Hoss nodded at her, saying “Go on,” softly. She nodded in response and took Sophia by the hand. The two of them slipped into the brush and down to the lake. The men were fussing over the bad coffee Beatrice made, and Hoss gave them a couple of minutes before he started his hollering. When he figured they’d safely gotten on the horses, he started bellowing, “Snake! Snake!” He pulled at his cuff hard as if trying to evade a serpent. “Get out of the way, Ladies!” he yelled. He carried on for a full minute before they came trotting over, guns drawn.

Hoss pointed at a bush. “Rattler’s in there, ready to strike. I sent the womenfolk down to the creek out of harm’s way.”

“What do you want us to do about it?” One of the men said shakily. Snakes were nasty business out in the West, especially rattlers.

“If you plan to keep me alive long enough for my Pa to get ransom together, I suggest you shoot that critter or move me away from it.” Hoss continued to pull on the cuff holding him to the root, hoping that the look of panic he was wearing was fooling his captors.

The men shifted nervously. One of them shot a few rounds into the bush, a little too close to Hoss. Hoss bristled, “Now you’re just making it mad. Ain’t none of you got any sense?”

“Rusty, you uncuff him and find another tree to stick him to.” Rusty approached with caution, his gun cocked at the bush. It took him near five minutes to get Hoss undone and to his feet. Hoss was pleased at the length of the distraction until he noticed one of the other men was missing. The next moment, he heard a shout, and the man came running back up. “He’s fakin’ us. Two ponies are gone with the womenfolk.”

The lead bandit glared at Hoss for a long moment before ordering Rusty to cuff him back to the tree. Rusty wasn’t gentle, and he followed it with a few kicks to Hoss’ gut and a pistol but against his jaw. Hoss struggled for consciousness, but the abuse was too much, and he sunk into darkness.

*****

The sun was high in the sky when he woke again. Rusty was the only bandit in camp, and he figured the other two were out hunting the women. Fear flooded his gut, and he hoped that his plan had been the right thing. The thought of men roughing up women out in the brush sickened him, and he knew that, given a chance, he’d kill any one of them that participated in something like that. His face was swollen, and his belly ached from the beating he took. It was good that mean ol’ Rusty wasn’t offering him any food ‘cause he couldn’t keep anything down, let alone open his jaw wide enough to take it in. This was the beginning of a weight loss plan, whether he wanted it to be or not.

It was another couple of hours with the Rusty before he heard horses again. He closed his eyes, praying that they would come back into camp without the women. The first one came into camp alone, but the second had a woman riding in the saddle with him. Beatrice looked worn. Her blonde hair had loosened and hung down her back and her skirts were a dingy brown. Hoss tensed when he saw a distinct red mark high on her cheek. The man pushed her off the horse and she slid to the ground. After a moment, she picked up her skirts and ran over to Hoss, curling up next to him and hiding her face in his chest. He drew her in protectively and glared at the man who followed her. “You’re as low as a scorpion crushed under my boot.”

He sneered. “I didn’t touch her. Wasn’t no time for that.”

Hoss narrowed his blue eyes at him. “You stay away from this woman. You hear me?!”

“Listen, Chubby, you ain’t running things around here.”

“Just be clear. I ain’t going to let you hurt her.”

The man threw back his head and laughed. “You got no idea. She was riding along fine with that other one. We almost had ‘em both. Then she veered off and gave us quite a chase. We were able to catch her just fine, but that other little filly got away. She’s a crafty thing; no doubt about it.” He shook his head and walked away.

Hoss held onto her quietly until her sobs subsided. Then he patted her shoulder gently. “There, there now, Ms. Beatrice. You did a very brave thing helping Miss Sophia like you did.”

Finally, her sobs graduated to mere hiccups, and she looked up at him. “They hurt you pretty bad, didn’t they?”

“Aw, it ain’t nothing,” Hoss was acutely aware that he sounded like he had a mouthful of marbles, what with all the swelling on his face. “Don’t think a thing of it. My brothers used to do more damage than this to me.”

“I was so afraid. I didn’t know what they were going to do to me.”

“It’s okay, Ms. Beatrice. I won’t let ‘em touch you. My pa and brothers got a plan, and they won’t let us down. I promise you that. Now you just close your eyes and get a little sleep. I reckon neither of us got much sleep last night. It’s a nice warm afternoon. A little rest’ll do you a world of good. You’ll see.”

She nodded and settled her head back onto his chest. Hoss was a simple, easygoing man, but he was also a formal man. He had little experience with this much proximity to a woman and it was transforming for him. He couldn’t seem to remember why he’d ever had any unpleasant feelings about Beatrice at all. He knew she was a married woman, and he wasn’t about to entertain any of those thoughts, but he felt sure he was willing to die rather than let one of those devils put a hand on her.

*****

Joe pulled up reins on the dark Morgan he was riding. The horse was essentially too big for him and not well trained. He’d been wrestling with the big mare all afternoon, and he was ready for a break. Adam was on a beautiful gray Arabian, and he didn’t seem to be having any trouble at all. This was good because Adam’s particular cross to bear was a pair of old Indian leggings he bought off of old Hank Perdue. He hadn’t been able to take a full breath since he’d buttoned ‘em. Bigger problem was the itching. He was beginning to suspect the pants were flea-ridden. He was dying to get back to town so he could take them off, get a bath at Miss Sally’s boarding house, get his clothes back from Hank, and then burn the leggings. He’d buy Hank a whole new set of clothes.

It had been a bust mostly. They’d been riding road since dawn, and hadn’t seen a dang thing. The only saving grace was that it was a sight more productive than sitting in Roy’s office all day, watching their father overdose on bad coffee.

They were getting ready to turn back to Virginia City when Joe spotted the horse. Even from a distance, they could tell that the horse was laboring and the rider was laying low on the saddle. Joe started off toward the horse before Adam could slow him. It didn’t take long before they both could tell the rider was a woman. Joe got to Sophia first, and pulled her off the horse before she fell to the ground.

*****

Hoss wondered if it was possible to hurt in more places in his body than was already going on. What muscles and bones hadn’t been punched or hit were stiff from being cuffed to a tree for two days. If he got out of this, he was going to have Hop Sing draw him a hot bath, and he was going to sit in it for a whole day. He’d pay one of the hands to bring him more hot water every hour ‘cause he wasn’t going to move a little finger all day long.

Beatrice stirred next to him, and he hoped she’d stay sleeping. There was no point in her being awake until this thing resolved itself. There was no scheming left to do. It was a waiting game at this point, nothing more. He wasn’t sure he could even run right now if the opportunity presented itself. Unfortunately, Ms. Beatrice was not feeling sleepy any longer. She sat up, pushing her thick golden hair out of her face. “What time is it? Is it close? Are they coming?”

“It ain’t even dusk yet. We still have hours yet. You just relax. Go back to sleep.”

“I can’t.” She glanced over at the men talking furtively in their camp.

“Don’t worry about them. Frankly, I think they’re scared of us.”

She smiled at him. “Thanks Hoss. You’ve been really good to me.”

“We didn’t start out like that, did we?”

She blushed. “It was all my fault. I was so tight, unsure of being out here. I guess I needed something to focus on, something that would make me feel on top again, and there you were. You were so different than anyone I’ve ever known. I needed to feel strong… I’m sorry.”

“Don’t even think about it. It didn’t bother me a bit.”

“That’s not true, Hoss. I hurt you. I know that.”

Hoss sighed. “I think the truth is that I was disappointed in Adam more than anyone else.”

Things fell silent while Beatrice looked out on across the creek. Then she turned to him, her brow wrinkled. “You’re mad because he didn’t talk about you in Boston?” He didn’t make a move, but she guessed the truth of it. “You don’t understand why he did it?”

He looked down. “I can’t help thinking he was…ashamed of me or something.”

“He wasn’t ashamed. I know exactly why he didn’t talk about you, Hoss. He couldn’t trust people like us with you. He wasn’t hiding you; he was protecting you.”

“That don’t make no sense.”

She grabbed his arm, and despite the fact, they’d been in physical contact for most of the last 24 hours, it felt electric to him and he startled, but she ignored him and continued, “Hoss, listen to me. A man like you is special. You’re unique. There aren’t other men like you. He couldn’t trust that we’d understand that about you. I don’t think he could handle people thinking about you in ways that were wrong.”

“I don’t know what to think about that.”

She looked down. “They don’t protect you because you’re weak. They protect you because you’re that special. It hurts them when people are unfair to you. I could feel it. Every time I said something, they all tensed. It hurts them like it hurts you.”

“I never thought of it like that.”

“You should know that there’s no part of me that’s any better than you. I know that now. I’m sorry I tried to make you think that.”

There was really nothing they didn’t share right now so he reached over and patted her cheek. “We’re friends now, Beatrice. That’s all that matters.”

She put her small, pale hand over his. “I’m lucky for that.”

*****

Joe handed Sophia down to Stanford, and he took the weakened girl into his arms and then ran across the street to Doc Martin’s. Joe slid down off the horse, glad to return his mount to its owner. Pa was standing there, his eyes blazing. “What does she know?”

“Not much.” Joe looked at Adam. “She’s exhausted and she can’t remember anything about where she ran from. The best we can tell is that they’re holed up in a canyon. She said she never rode toward the sun.”

Adam nodded. “I think they’re somewhere near the northern part of our land. She remembers a creek, trees, and hills.”

Ben sighed loudly. “That doesn’t give us much. There must be at least 9-10 different streams running through the north end of the Ponderosa. She say anything else?”

“She says that Hoss is doing alright. Apparently, Beatrice ran with her. Sophia says she went off in another direction when they got close. She never found her again.”

“You think she got caught?”

Adam didn’t look at his father. “I think so. They couldn’t outrun them for long. I think Beatrice probably distracted them so Sophia could get away.”

Roy walked up to them. “Are we ready for the drop?”

Ben nodded. “I have all the money here. Just waiting to find out where we’re supposed to be.”

“I got that taken care of. A cowboy wandered in. Someone stopped him on the road and paid him twenty dollars to give you a message.” Roy handed a piece of paper to Ben. Adam groaned slightly, and Joe couldn’t help noticing that he couldn’t seem to stand still.

Ben opened the note, “It says that I should drop the money at the big rock in Devil’s Canyon at midnight. It says that I should come alone and then leave. Then it says that they’ll be released on the road to Virginia City by dawn.”

“It’s kinda’ risky asking you to do this alone and such.” Roy squinted at him as the sun set behind him.

Ben shrugged. “We do what they ask and we pray.”

Roy shook his head. “I don’t much cotton to you going out alone.”

“We’ll be there.” Joe said.

“No, you won’t. I know what I’m doing. Just leave me to it.”

Adam swallowed hard. “How much time before you ride off?”

Ben squinted at the sun. “I’ll leave in about an hour.”

“Okay…aw, I need a few minutes to get out of these clothes. I’ll be right back.” Without waiting for a response, Adam turned and trotted down the street.

Ben furrowed his brow and Joe chuckled. “Sorry Pa. I think Adam found that Hank’s pants were alive, if you catch my meaning.”

Ben rolled his eyes, and Roy winced. “And he stayed in them all day.”

Joe nodded. “All day long, and he didn’t say a thing. Only a few things in this world that will make my brother squirm. I felt bad for him too, but he wasn’t about to head back.”

“Leaves me with a whole new respect for that boy,” Roy said, shaking his head.

*****

The noise issuing up from Hoss’ gut was embarrassing. Beatrice’s eyes widened. Red-faced, Hoss said, “Ain’t nothing but a hunger pang. Don’t pay no attention.”

“I could ask if they could give us some food.”

“No,” He shook his head sternly at her. “Just leave them be. I wouldn’t eat their food anyway.”

“You sure?”

He nodded. “My stomach ain’t ready, no matter what it says.”

“It’ll be soon now. Right?”

He patted her arm. “In a few hours, this’ll be nothing but a memory.”

“I’m sorry, Hoss, for how I treated you.”

“Don’t mention it again.”

“I can’t help but think…“

He put a hand up. “Believe me, Beatrice, I’ve been treated worse.”

“It’s not possible.”

Hoss blew out a rush of air. “I imagine it might pass the time a bit if I told you a story.”

She pushed her hair behind her ear and waited.

“Some time ago, my Pa, brothers, and I went to San Francisco for a lumber deal. It was big money and Pa wanted us all there to celebrate with him. We stayed with a family called the Houghtons — very important family.”

She nodded. “I’m aware of them.”

“I wasn’t used to fancy people like that. I hung out in the stables. The blacksmith was a nice feller but he was kinda’ young. So I figured I’d show him a few tricks. While I was doing that, the lady of the house and her mother came in. I didn’t think anything of it. Later at dinner, the mother recognized me and somehow thought I was some hired hand sneaking to eat with the rich folks. Can’t blame her really. Ain’t nothing about me that says that I’d belong around folks like that. I guess it would have been bad enough if it was just Pa and my brothers, but there were other folks there too. She called me out in front of all of them. Pa stood up, tried to explain things, but she couldn’t believe that I was a Cartwright. She pointed at Adam and Joe, and said there was no way I came from the same blood as they did.”

Beatrice gasped.

Hoss looked away. It didn’t occur to him that this would still rankle like it did. He could feel her eyes on him, and he knew from his little time with her that she would push until she heard everything. “Not much else to say. I got out there, and my family followed. Pa broke off the deal and we left San Francisco. I felt bad, I guess. I didn’t want Pa to lose a big deal like that just ‘cause I didn’t measure up. It was real hard for me. I didn’t know how to talk about it.”

She nodded. “We’re going to San Francisco next. Undoubtedly, we’ll be socializing with the Houghtons. I won’t forget what they did to you.”

He stiffened. “Don’t do a darned thing, Beatrice. It doesn’t do anything for me to hurt others.”

“They should know. They should learn as I did.”

He screwed up his face. “I don’t figure they got nearly the smarts that you do. I say we leave them be. Sometimes it’s just best to move on.”

She looked him straight in the face. “Maybe you think I’m acting this way because I’m scared. Maybe you think I’ll change back if we ever make it out of here. I’m not going to do that to you, Hoss. I promise.”

He smiled at her. “I believe you, Beatrice. Now you rest easy. It’s just a few more hours.”

*****

Beatrice had fallen asleep again when the bandits started to argue. Hoss strained to catch their conversation. The boss was at odds with his underlings. They had two very different ideas about how this was going to end. Hoss knew that their future was not assured from the tenor of the talk. It felt like the boss was starting to lose control of his men. Waiting for his pa and brothers to show up and take care of things wasn’t going to be enough. Hoss reached over to wake Beatrice.

*****

Ben rode into Devil’s Canyon slowly. The moon was full, and there was a surprising amount of light. Ben rode straight to the big rock. It took two saddlebags to carry all the money. Roy had tried to talk him into placing blank paper between the bills, but Ben was willing to risk nothing. It didn’t hurt him to leave the money like so many people assumed. They figured that since he had a lot, he held it tightly. The truth was that Ben never imagined that wealth like this would come his way. He was just in the right place at the right time, and he worked harder than anyone else. Losing it all didn’t scare him. He didn’t need that much, and money or not, he was still going to work as hard as he always did. Hoss or any one of his sons was worth more than every penny he’d ever made and he wouldn’t hesitate to prove it any time he was called upon to do so. No one seemed to understand, no matter how many times he said it aloud, that his sons were his true treasure.

He dropped the bags in the open so no one would have any trouble finding them. Then he hesitated for a moment. There had to be something more he could do to get his son back. Around him, there was quiet save the working sounds of crickets. He let out a deep breath and waited. Nothing happened, and he knew it was time to follow through with the rest of the instructions. He got back on Buck and urged him out of the canyon.

*****

Hoss gripped her harder than he intended. “You need to listen to me, Beatrice. The other men are gone. It’s just Rusty. Now I been working on this here root. When I call him over, I’m going to grab onto him and wrestle him to the ground. That’s your cue. You need to run.”

“We’re supposed to just wait.” She was rattled and tears sprang to her eyes.

“Change of plans. No time for questions. I wrestle with him and you run. Don’t head for open ground. Follow the creek bed. It gives you more places to hide.”

“I don’t want to leave you. We should go together.”

Hoss sighed deeply and couldn’t meet her eyes. “I’ll be right behind you. I’ll catch up to you.”

“Don’t lie.”

“Then don’t argue with me. This is how it going to happen. Neither one of us has a chance unless you do what I tell you.” His tone was new to her and him both.

“Can you break the root?”

He nodded. “I’m almost there. You just be ready. You hear me?”

She nodded reluctantly.

“Good girl. You just follow my lead.”

*****

However possible, Adam always seemed to be wearing clean clothes, and somehow he’d found a new black shirt and jeans that fit perfectly. He wisely chose not to buy back the clothes he gave to Hank. He’d scrubbed himself silly with a special soap that Miss Sally said would attack tiny varmints, and he purely believed it killed them because the smell it gave off was both thick and strident, and he worried it might eventually put him six feet under as well. Joe had wrinkled his nose upon seeing him, and gave him plenty of space when they rode out of town. Adam was beginning to wonder if he had traded bad for worse, but his brother Hoss stayed at the forefront of his mind and he grimly moved forward. He and Joe rode the road their pa left to drop the money. He wouldn’t let them follow him into canyon, but at least they weren’t sitting back in town in Roy’s office waiting for him.

Joe spotted Pa first, but Adam was close enough to keep him on the road. Pa spotted them and rode in their direction. Joe couldn’t restrain himself. “What happened, Pa? Did you see anything?”

He shook his head. “The next step is waiting for them to show up on the road to Virginia City.”

“We better stay out of sight in case we spook them.”

Pa nodded, but his nose wrinkled when Buck wandered too close to Sport. He shook his head at his eldest before the three of them headed for a dense grove.

*****

“Rusty! Come on over a minute. I got a question for you.”

The testy bandit sidled over slowly. “What do you want, Cartwright?”

“You gotta’ tie me somewhere different. It’s too much. I can’t feel my legs.”

Rusty snorted. “That ain’t my concern.”

“Dadburnit! I need you to least take a look, Rusty. I can’t last like this much longer, and I ain’t shutting up ‘til you do.”

“You’re asking for another beating, you know that?”

“That ain’t going to feel any worse than this does.”

Beatrice inched away so that Rusty had access to Hoss’ cuff. He leaned over and before he could get a good look, Hoss had grabbed him and pulled him down. Hoss turned to Beatrice, “Run! Beatrice, run!”

She bit her lip, but didn’t defy him. She scrambled to her feet and took off down to the creek. With a hearty yell, Hoss broke the root holding him, and threw himself on Rusty. Beatrice wanted to stop, but the urgency of Hoss’ previous instructions stayed with her. She kept moving as fast as she could, grabbing bushes in an effort to pull her along.

***********

Beatrice stopped a couple of times and waited. She prayed for the sounds of the big man crashing through the brush. Then she would remember how disappointed he would be if she got captured again, and she would move. The moonlight helped her see, but it didn’t stop her from getting stuck in brambles and low lying branches. The scratches and cuts multiplied, but she kept moving. She had always been strong. In society, it helped her be imperious and haughty, but here it brought out something different. The last couple of days had been the most frightening and challenging of her life, and while she’d never choose to live them over, she found that new parts of her self were being discovered and she couldn’t lose an odd sense of exhilaration that kept creeping forward. She felt alive in a way that she never had in Boston, and she was grateful to the big man who led her there.

She wasn’t sure how long she’d run, but she finally stumbled onto dirt road. She fell onto the gravel and not bothering to dust herself off, sat up and looked around. The night was still quiet and she didn’t see movement in any direction. She thought back to Hoss’ instructions and decided she needed to move north. Before she did, she took a piece of her skirt that had torn, and ripped it off her dress. Then she tied it securely to a clump of grass at the side of the road. Finally, she struggled to her feet, ignoring the sore muscles and stinging cuts, and began walking north. It wasn’t an hour before light peeked out of the eastern horizon. Two days without food and her nagging injuries had worn her down, but she pushed herself to keep moving.

Brush exploded ahead of her suddenly, and a black and white paint pony burst forth. She stood still, too tired to run. She felt herself shaking, and she didn’t stop until she could see Joe Cartwright’s face as he leapt off his horse. She knew it was a lady’s prerogative to collapse about now, but she wasn’t ready to give in. Ben Cartwright and Adam were there, and the most horrendous smell wafted in with them, but she had no time for all that. She grasped Ben’s hands. “Hoss is back there. He was wrestling with one of them, and he told me to run. He didn’t follow. We need to help him. We need to go right now.”

Ben nodded. “Mrs. Rhineholt, do you think you can bring us there?”

“Yes. We go back a bit up this road, and then we follow the creek bed. I put a marker where we need to go inland.”

Joe looked at Adam, and they both looked at the society matron with new eyes. Ben led her to his horse and helped her up before climbing on behind her. The sun was beginning to take shape in the East when they rode off.

*****

Hoss groaned as he opened his eyes to a new dawn. Rusty lay on the ground beside him, but he wasn’t breathing. A sharp pain overwhelmed all of his other aches and he screwed up his face as the events of the last few hours came back to him.

Rusty would have been a cinch for a healthy Hoss, but two days of abuse and no food had taken its toll. He found himself rolling around with the man longer than he intended. All he saw was a piece of steel before Rusty plunged a hunting knife into his side. Injured or not, Hoss wasn’t a man to let a slight like that go unpunished. He had his hand on Rusty’s wrist and twisted. A sickening crunch sounded, and then the knife was his; he plunged it deep in Rusty’s gut. The two men both collapsed on the ground, both too weak to finish the other. Though, as Hoss looked over his opponent several hours later, it appeared that victory was his. Rusty was already cold.

He became aware of sounds, and so he slowly raised his head off the ground. The two remaining bandits were sitting several feet away loudly arguing his fate. Hoss let his head drop again. His strength was all gone, and now he could do nothing but wait for the conclusion. The only glory in this whole mess was that Beatrice had escaped. The fact that he didn’t know how far she’d gotten didn’t stop him from feeling sure of her chances. He was beginning to believe that Beatrice could do just about anything.

*****

The ride back to the camp was surprisingly quick, and Beatrice barely had time to shout it out before they stumbled right on top of it. Ben helped her down, and urged her to hide in the brush. Daylight was pouring through, and Beatrice had about enough of crouching in bushes, but she didn’t question him. She was still standing as they rode off. There was going to be no careful approach; it was clear that the Cartwrights had just about enough of these men. Joe and Adam veered off in different directions, and they bore down on the camp from different angles. She heard shots and shouting, and for a moment, she wondered if she was going to be the only one to walk away from this, but then the shots stopped, and she heard Joe yell, “Hoss!” It was enough for her, and she gathered up her skirts and ran as fast as her rubbery legs could take her into camp. All the bandits were there, two of them still on the ground, and a third holding his arm tightly to his chest. Her eyes searched wildly for Hoss, and she spotted him on the ground, protected by the crouching bodies of his family. Adam looked up past her to the still standing bandit and cocked his gun, “You better sit down ‘cause if you move funny, I’m gonna’ put another bullet in you.” The bandit immediately dropped to the ground.

Beatrice pushed in between the Cartwrights. Hoss looked awful. His face was a puffy kaleidoscope of different colors, and there was an alarming blotch of red on his side that he was unsuccessfully trying to hide with his hand, but in the midst of it, those blue eyes were still twinkling as his tortured face fought for a smile. “Beatrice! I knew you’d come through.”

Ben was kneeling, a hand on his son’s chest. “Now you just quiet down and let me get a look at you.” He ran a hand down his son’s chest eliciting moans and groans from Hoss. Then Ben shook his head. “I don’t even know where to start, Boy. You better have a good story to go along with all that damage.”

Joe grinned and slapped his brother’s shoulder which set off a deep groan from Hoss. “Aw Pa, this old lug’s going to be just fine.”

Ben turned dark eyes on his youngest. “You touch him again like that and I’ll touch you with a strap.”

Adam pulled Joe to his feet. “What do you say you hightail it back to town and get back here with a wagon and Doc Martin?”

Joe knew how to take a hint. He took one last look at Hoss, and then ran for Cochise.

*****

Hoss never got his all-day bath. Doc Martin heard the idea and rolled his eyes. Knife wounds don’t take well to bathwater. Instead, Hoss got Hop Sing feeding him chicken broth, alternating spoonfuls with a sound scolding in Chinese. Hoss didn’t know what he was saying, but he couldn’t quite convince the cook that he hadn’t been responsible for his injuries.

On the second day, Adam showed up and didn’t leave. Hoss was weak enough yet so he slept most of the time, but when whenever he woke, there was Adam’s worried face looking down at him. Finally, he awoke long enough to regard his brother. “The way you’re looking makes me think maybe I only got a couple hours to live or something.”

Adam snorted in spite of himself. “There isn’t anything wrong with you. You just need a few days in bed, and you’ll be up stomping around and eating us out of house and home.”

Hoss grinned despite the swelling on his face. “Then what you staring at me for?”

“I never got a chance to talk with you when the Rhineholts were here. They made it sound…well, I want to explain what happened when I was in Boston.”

“Aw, you don’t have to. Beatrice did that already.”

Adam frowned. “How could she possibly…”

“She’s a pretty smart lady.”

Adam looked down at his hands. “You know what the hardest part was?”

Hoss frowned.

“I was pretty homesick, and every once in a while, someone would say something or act in a way that reminded me of Pa. There were even a few times when a child reminded me of Little Joe, but I didn’t find anybody in Boston who reminded me of you. That was hard for me. You’re a one of a kind, Little Brother.”

Hoss grew a blush that somehow showed through his bruises. A thought came to him and he frowned. “Where’s Beatrice…and Sophia and Stanford?”

“They’re recovering in town. I think they’ve had enough of country life. Stanford says they’re scheduled to leave in a few days.”

“Oh, I see. Do you think they’ll stop before they leave?”

There was something in Hoss’ tone that Adam felt in his gut. “I’ll make sure they do.”

Hoss blinked. “Thanks, Brother.”

Adam looked down at his lap and picked up a thick bundle of envelopes. “I got to get back to work. I’m sure Joe’s going to have something quite pointed to say about my absence.” He dropped the envelopes into Hoss’ hands.

“What’s all this?”

Adam couldn’t quite face him. “That’s every letter you ever wrote me when I was in Boston. I never could bring myself to throw them away. These letters were the only thing that reminded me of you. You only get them for the afternoon. Then they’re going back in my trunk. Just so you know.”

Adam slipped out before Hoss could say anything. After the door closed, he picked the top one off the pile and carefully unfolded it. ‘Dear Adam, It’s been 243 days since you left. Susie had two calves, and Pa let me stay up all night when they were born. Little Joe is a scoundrel, and I got to watch him every minute….”

*****

When the Rhineholts came to say good-bye, Hoss insisted on coming downstairs. He held onto his side as he slowly negotiated the stairs. Pa stood at the bottom of the stairs, hands on his hips, glaring at his middle son, but Hoss ignored him, and continued his slow journey. Outside, the carriage pulled up, and somehow Hoss managed to get himself fully seated before Joe escorted them inside. Stanford immediately strode forward and took Hoss’ hand, shaking it vigorously. Hoss set his teeth against the stress this caused in his healing muscles. The women followed, and Sophia looked pretty much as she had before. She was all giggles, and focused all of her attention on Joe. Beatrice looked pale, and there were still traces of the marks fading on her face. She sat quietly on the sofa with her hands in her lap. The first few minutes were something of a speech from Stanford about how brave and incredible the Cartwrights were, especially Hoss. Hoss blushed, unable to respond. He kept trying to catch Beatrice out of the corner of his eye. It was hard to tell how she was doing.

Stanford wrapped with promises to return one day and again partake in the beauty of the Western Sierras. It was exquisitely rendered, but none of the Cartwrights believed he meant it. Just as it looked like Stanford was standing to make their excuses to leave, Beatrice spoke, “Gentlemen, I also want to thank you for a memorable trip. I shall not soon forget the tremendous power of the West.” Stanford smiled and gestured for her to follow, but she stayed seated. “Gentlemen, if I could beg your indulgence, I would like a few minutes to say good-bye to Hoss.”

Ben’s dark brows shot up, and for a moment, it looked as if Stanford was going to protest, but Adam was there taking him by the arm and urged him out to the yard for one last discussion on architecture before they left. Ben got up and nodded at Joe, who steered Sophia out with him. Beatrice waited for the door to close. In her discomfort, she seemed to be endlessly smoothing her skirt.

Hoss broke the silence. “Stanford didn’t look too happy.”

She nodded. “He’s a little tired of hearing about Hoss the hero.”

“That ain’t no good, Beatrice. You can’t do that to him. I was just doing what anyone would’ve in the same situation.”

She put a handkerchief to her nose to stop a sniffle. “He’ll be okay. It’s probably good for both of us to recognize that we can’t take each other for granted. The truth is that I love my husband.”

“I wouldn’t expect anything else.”

“Yeah, but I don’t feel right. I have a strange sadness in me. I don’t want to leave you, and I don’t quite understand it because I truly am a married woman who loves her husband.” The words came tumbling out and for a moment, she reminded him of a very young girl.

He swallowed hard. “I know what you mean. I think we just got to be real good friends out there, and it’s hard to lose a friendship.”

She nodded, looking down at her lap. Her sniffling became more distinct. “I’ll miss you.”

He smiled even though a strange ache in his chest had taken hold. “I’ll miss you too, Beatrice. You’re a remarkable woman.”

“Stanford can’t wait to leave, but part of me wishes I could stay.”

“Well, sounds like you’ll come and visit then. I’ll hold you to that, Beatrice.”

“I won’t forget you.” Her words were mere whispers.

He rubbed at the corners of his eyes. “Go on now. You don’t want to leave them waiting.”

She stood up, and for a moment, he thought she was going to come over and touch him. He felt relief in his gut when she chose instead to walk away. When the door shut quietly, he finally allowed himself to say, “I’m going to miss you too, Beatrice.

*****

A month later, Hoss showed no more signs of the wounds that almost killed him. Twenty lost pounds were being daily addressed at each meal. Joe joked that his appetite seemed to have increased as a result of being stabbed, but Hoss didn’t care about the teasing; as far as he was concerned, it was as good a reason as anything for eating.

Adam came home one day at noon with an odd look on his face. He carried a letter with him, and even though he sat down to eat, it was clear his mind wasn’t on the meal. Ben looked at his eldest still clutching the letter in one hand. “Well, I think you might as well tell us what’s in that letter of yours.”

Adam cleared his throat. “Actually it’s not a letter. It’s an article from the San Francisco Chronicle that was sent to me.”

Joe looked up. “So what’s it about?”

“Well, I don’t think it’s for me actually. I believe it’s for Hoss, but the sender must have thought he wouldn’t share it with the rest of us.”

Hoss frowned. “I don’t know what you’re saying. You’re talking in circles. Read it already.”

“I believe I will. It’s from the society pages. Here I go: The Stanford Rhineholts were in the city for the month of June. It was quite a treat to have such an esteemed family in our midst. On the 25th of June, Mrs. Stanford Rhineholt held a dinner at the Grand Hotel, San Francisco’s finest establishment. The cream of San Francisco society was in attendance including the Astors, the Beachams, and the Houghtons.”

Adam stopped for a moment and looked at Hoss whose face was stricken with horror. Ben pulled at his son, impatient to hear more. Adam picked up the article again.

“Mrs. Stanford Rhineholt was a delightful host, entertaining guests with visions of Boston High Society. After the dinner, Mrs. Stanford Rhineholt gave a talk regarding the recent dramatic events of her and Miss Sophia Rhineholt’s kidnapping. In a story unequaled by any newspaper serial, Mrs. Rhineholt recalled the horrific events. She spoke of the heroism of her husband, Stanford, and introduced guests to the heroism of a Mr. Horse Cartwright.” Adam sighed deeply.

“Mrs. Rhineholt explained that the heroism of Mr. Cartwright showed her that the true character of a man is not in his breeding but in his goodness. She told her guests that they would be proud to know a man of his caliber. At the end of her talk, she received a standing ovation, and although many questioned her conclusions, all praised the passion of her riveting story. Mr., Mrs., and Miss Rhineholt then left our fair city the very next day on the steamship, Glory, bound for Boston by way of Cape Horn. We sincerely hope that the Rhineholts will again grace our presence with their refined manner and entertaining diversions.”

It must have been five minutes before another word was spoken. Ben nodded deeply, and threw his napkin on his plate. As he got up, he looked at his sons. “It always feels good when someone realizes what we already know.” He smiled broadly, a special wink directed at his son, Hoss.

Joe punched Hoss, and then scooted away from the table before he could react. Adam laughed, and got up. “Are you ready to get to work, Hero?”

Hoss snapped out of his reverie with the realization that Adam wasn’t going to let him live that down. He threw his napkin and chased his elder brother out the door.

***The End***

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