QiXi: The Seventh Night of the Seventh Moon (freyakendra)

Summary: A Chinese fairy-tale, an all-too-human Hop Sing and a carefree moment of make-believe usher the Cartwrights into a nightmare involving Chinese assassins and a beautiful, young woman two men will do anything to possess.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: MA
Word Count:  29,000


 

Joe’s stomach rumbled. That wasn’t surprising. He hadn’t eaten much at supper; he’d been more tired than hungry then. Now he was more hungry than tired. And the smell of bacon was wafting enticingly up the stairs.

Maybe he ought to beat his family to the breakfast table for a change. And maybe Hop Sing would even reward him with a slice of fresh-out-of-the-oven buttermilk bread before breakfast was actually served.

Growing more anxious by the second, Joe dressed quickly. His mouth watered as he imagined slathering butter over a thick slice of that warm bread. He was still slipping into his shirt when he opened his bedroom door, and didn’t even start with the buttons until he reached the stairs. That’s when a banging noise from the kitchen stopped him short.

If Hop Sing had dropped something, he would be angry; but if he’d banged something on purpose, he was already angry.

Sighing, Joe started moving again. One way or the other, Hop Sing was clearly going to be in a foul mood, but Joe was too hungry to let that realization worry him. Maybe he could still sweet-talk the cook into letting him have a slice of bread.

Giving in to a massive yawn as he took the final step, Joe shuffled sleepily forward until he reached the kitchen doorway. “Hey, Hop—”

The flashing image of a shadow twisted and kicked out at him — the heel of its foot slammed into Joe’s forehead. He flew backwards until the base of his skull collided with the unforgiving, wooden edge of the dining room table.

An instant later, Joe was on the floor, dazed, wondering how he’d gotten there and trying to blink away a spatter of black spots…

…And hearing fragments of a strange conversation. Two people were talking quietly — the shadow that had attacked him and someone else…another shadow, perhaps, somewhere in the kitchen. And their words were strange because…because they were speaking Cantonese.

Joe was about to call out to Hop Sing when a dark-clothed figure grabbed his collar, yanking him upward. Suddenly he found himself looking into the eyes of a Chinese man he’d never seen before. Leaner than Hop Sing, this man wore a long, narrow mustache that somehow added power to the anger in his eyes. Also unlike Hop Sing, Joe could see that this man’s anger was real. Deadly real.

When a fist cocked back to land another blow, Joe managed to squirm away from it. His shirt ripped as the collar remained in the man’s grip. That shouldn’t have slowed Joe down much, but it did. He was weaker than he should be, thanks to the throbbing in his head. He didn’t get far.

For a timeless moment, Joe tried to collect his thoughts and his breath by focusing on the sounds around him — the light tap of a button skittering across the floor; the sizzle of bacon on the stove… Then Joe heard something else. He could swear it was the sound of a sword slipping free of its scabbard.

His heart pumping erratically, Joe was pushing himself back to his feet when a hand clamped down onto his shoulder from behind. Reacting more than thinking, Joe rolled out from under it and scrambled forward on hands and knees. By the time his thoughts caught up with him, he realized he’d trapped himself in the kitchen with the stove at his back and two scowling Chinese men standing over him.

And Hop Sing wasn’t there at all.

“My humble apologies,” the older of the two men said as Joe slowly rose. “Our fight was not with you.”

Joe looked from that man to his attacker. He figured the eldest, the speaker, to be in charge. “Who was it with then?” he asked. “Where’s Hop Sing?”

The man gave his head one quick shake. “You have seen too much already. It is better for you to make your journey free of such knowledge.”

“What journey? Who are you?”

The elder addressing him bowed and backed away, giving room for the younger one…a man wielding a long, curved sword, to step closer. When Joe saw that sword beginning to rise, it was clear what the younger man meant to do with it. Joe had to think fast or he would be dead in a matter of seconds.

Time froze. A pot of fresh coffee was rumbling in a low boil on the stove behind him. Bacon sizzled. And Joe knew of only one thing he could do. He reached backward, jerking away on instinct when his finger touched the handle of the hot cast iron skillet. Then the sword started its downward plunge.

Bracing himself, Joe wrapped his fingers around the blistering handle of the skillet. He couldn’t help but shout out in agony. Dimly wondering if the sizzling sound he heard was still the bacon or his own flesh, he threw the skillet forward, splashing bacon and hot grease into the face of his attacker.

The skillet clattered to the floor. Joe dropped to his knees. And a chaotic kaleidoscope sparkled around him, adding flames to the searing, dizzying fire in his hand. A distant part of him heard another man wailing in agony. There were other shouts then, too, familiar voices that allowed him to believe the worst was passed, even as he knew it wasn’t over at all: his hand was still burning, sizzling like bacon on the stove.

“Joseph!” his pa called to him.

But Joe couldn’t unclamp his teeth enough to respond.

“Joe!” Pa’s hand was on his shoulder. Another was grasping his wrist.

“He’s gone, Pa,” Adam said from the outer doorway. He sounded out of breath. “We’ll need to wait for sunrise. We’ll never find him out there now.”

“This one’s passed out,” Hoss said, kneeling beside the swordsman.

Finally taking a deep breath, Joe was grateful to realize the kaleidoscope was beginning to fade. That’s when he took a good, long look at his attacker. The man’s face was as raw as sizzling bacon. The agony that man would feel when he returned to consciousness made Joe suddenly nauseous.

“What happened, Joe?” Adam asked. “Where’s Hop Sing?”

“I don’t know,” Joe answered, surprised to find his voice low and raspy. “I only saw these two.”

“I’ll get the butter,” Hoss said.

“No,” Pa answered. “It’s too severe for that. Brandy. Get the brandy.”

“Brandy?” Hoss asked.

Yes, Brandy! Joe shouted inside himself. Just a few minutes ago, coffee would have been the thing, but suddenly brandy sounded awfully good.

“We’ll soak a cloth,” Pa answered, “wrap his hand in it. The alcohol should help stave off infec…”

“Butter, Hoss!” Joe shouted for real then. “Get the butter!”

“No!” Pa said. “The butter could make it worse.”

Alcohol will make it worse!”

“I’ll get Doctor Martin,” Adam interjected before the argument could continue. “And Sheriff Coffee.”

“Thank you, Adam,” Pa said, keeping his eyes on Joe’s.

“I suppose I should take this one with me,” Adam added.

“Leave him,” Pa argued. “I don’t want to delay Paul getting out here. From the looks of that man’s burns… Well, Paul would have to treat him first.”

Adam sighed. “I imagine so. That was one helluva weapon, Joe.”

“I didn’t have much choice.” Joe’s gaze wandered to the dropped sword. “He was going to kill me.”

“Why?” Adam asked. “What they were doing here?”

Joe shook his head. “The other one gave me his humble apology.” He took a long breath in through his teeth as the pain in his hand flared again…and then Pa squeezed his shoulder, somehow fueling Joe’s determination to push past it. “He…he said their fight wasn’t with me. But…they were going to kill me, anyway.”

Adam’s brows knitted together. “I think I’ll poke around the Chinese part of town for a while after I send Paul and Roy out here.”

Joe didn’t like the sound of that at all. “No, Adam! They’ll kill you!”

“Why?”

“I don’t know why!” Joe shouted angrily. “But if they were going to kill me here, they’re sure not going to hesitate in their own community!”

“Joe’s right, Adam,” Pa said. “Let Roy handle it. Please. Just…come home as soon as you can.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Adam answered. “Worry about this one’s friend, instead. Something tells me he’s not finished here.”

The swordsman started moaning and Joe couldn’t help but feel a pang of sympathy. “You might want to give him the brandy instead, Pa. But…let him swallow a good dose of it first.”

“My humble apologies,” that first man had said. “Our fight was not with you.”

Then who was it with? Joe found himself wondering. Sure couldn’t be Hop Sing. Could it?

*****

Joe sat beside the bed in the guestroom downstairs, his gaze locked on the man who would have killed him…the man he had blinded in self defense.

“I had no choice,” Joe had told Adam. Even now, he was sure that was true. He’d gone over and over everything that had happened in that kitchen. Whether he’d grabbed the coffee pot or the skillet, one way or another, something like this would have been the result. But sizzling bacon grease was far more damaging than scalding coffee. Joe’s attacker was now permanently disfigured. And disabled — his eyes were burned beyond repair.

“Come on, Joe.” Hoss called Joe’s attention to the open doorway. “You don’t need to be sittin’ in here. Doc said he’d sleep for a long time with what he gave him. Besides, you ought to be in bed yourself. Between those bumps on your head and—“

“I want to know why, Hoss.” Joe fixed his eyes once more on his attacker.

“We all want to know that. But we ain’t gonna know anything until he wakes up or Adam comes home with somethin’…or the sheriff and Pa find that other one.” Sighing heavily, Hoss added, “I’ll sure be glad when the sheriff gets back and can take this fella out of here.”

“What about Hop Sing?”

“When he comes home, maybe he can tell us somethin’, too.”

“If he comes home.”

“Don’t you go sayin’ that, Joe. ‘Course he’s comin’ home.”

“What if they’ve already killed him?”

“Now why would anybody want to kill Hop Sing?”

Joe turned to face his brother again. “You know as well as I do this involves him. It’s why he’s missing.”

Heaving another sigh, Hoss sauntered into the room, digging his hands into his pockets. “Yeah,” he said softly, his eyes moving from the floor to the small window. “I know. But it just don’t make sense. Hop Sing would never cause no trouble.”

“Hop Sing cause plenty trouble now.” The voice reaching them from the outer room had an unfamiliar, quiet tone to it, but there was no mistaking the speaker.

“Hop Sing!” Hoss went to the smaller man in an instant, grabbing him with both hands. Joe was sure his brother was going to pull Hop Sing into a bone crushing bear hug, but instead Hoss held him firmly in place and started looking at him from head to toe. “Where you been? We’ve been worried sick! You okay, Hop Sing? They didn’t hurt you none, did they?”

“Hop Sing not hurt. See doctor on road. Worry about family. Worry Hop Sing cause hurt.”

“No, Hop Sing. You didn’t hurt no one. But where you been?”

“Mistah Cartwright, not hurt? Number one son, not hurt?”

“They’re fine. Pa’s out with Sheriff Coffee tryin’ to find this fella’s partner. And you, too. And Adam he’s…he’s in Virginia City. Thought maybe he could talk to some friends of yours, and…you know, try to see if we could find out what’s goin’ on.”

“No!” Hop Sing hollered. “Mistah Hoss! Little Joe! You go Virginia City! Bring Mistah Adam home!” Through Hoss’ bulk, Joe caught a glimpse of Hop Sing stabbing his finger toward the front door.

“Why, Hop Sing?” Hoss asked. “What’s wrong?”

“You go! Bring Mistah Adam home!”

“I was right, wasn’t I?” Joe rose, cradling his burned hand in his other arm to keep it elevated and prevent it from throbbing too severely. “They’re not going to like Adam asking questions, are they?”

Pushing past Hoss, Hop Sing finally got a good look at Joe. His eyes narrowed at the bruise on Joe’s forehead, then went wide as they landed on Joe’s bandaged hand. “What happen, Little Joe?”

“He surprised ‘em,” Hoss answered before Joe got the chance. “This fella and that other one. They were gonna kill him, Hop Sing.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Joe said quickly. “Just help us understand what’s going on.”

“Hop Sing fault.” When he looked from Joe to Hoss, there was an uncharacteristic sadness in his eyes that bothered Joe maybe even more than his own burned hand. “Hop Sing explain,” the cook said softly before taking a deep breath and pulling his back up straight. “After Mistah Hoss go Virginia City. Bring Mistah Adam home.”

Joe was glad to see Hop Sing starting to act like himself again, although he knew his relief would be short-lived. They still had a big problem on their hands, and somehow Hop Sing was right in the middle of it.

“I can’t do that, Hop Sing,” Hoss answered. “Those men like to have killed Little Joe. What if that other one comes back? What if he brings more men?”

Hop Sing nodded thoughtfully, making it clear a second attack was a very real possibility. “Hop Sing cannot go. Little Joe hurt. Mistah Hoss must go. Bring Mistah Adam home.”

“Go on, Hoss,” Joe said then, anxiety flaring up the acid in his still empty stomach. “I can take care of things here for a while.”

Hoss looked at him like he was crazy. “How are you gonna take care of things when you can’t fight or shoot?”

“I can still shoot right-handed. Maybe not as fast, but I ca—”

“Hop Sing look after Little Joe,” Hop Sing broke in, stubborn and insistent as ever. “Little Joe look after Hop Sing. Now Mistah Hoss go. Bring back Mistah Adam!”

Hoss held his ground for a moment longer. “Dadburnit, Hop Sing! I wanna know what sort of mess you got into!”

“Later Hop Sing explain! Now go!”

Hoss sighed and then shot Joe a quick, defeated smile. “Well…maybe you can get Hop Sing to fry up some more of that bacon.”

Joe tried to smile back, but his brother’s attempt at humor actually made him feel more on edge. “Just get out of here, will you?”

Hoss nodded, the smile gone. “This one wakes up, you be sure an’ give him more of that sleepin’ medicine, you hear?”

“No,” Joe countered.

Hoss pulled his brows down. “Joseph….”

Now it was Joe’s turn to hold his ground. “If he wakes up, he’s going to tell me why he came here.”

“He tried to kill you, Joe! I ain’t gonna let him try again!”

“He’s blind! And if he wakes up, think of the pain he’ll be in. He’s not going to be in any shape to—”

“Hop Sing tie man to bed.”

Both Joe and Hoss looked at the cook, Joe with confusion, and Hoss with concern.

“Then Mistah Hoss know Little Joe safe.”

Hoss chewed on the inside of his lip, his gaze going from Hop Sing to Little Joe. “I still don’t like it.”

“Neither do I,” Joe admitted. “But I’ll like things a lot more after I know Adam’s not facing more men like this on his own in Virginia City.”

“Yeah. I reckon I will, too.”

Before Joe followed his brother out of the room, he looked to the man in the bed. The face beneath all those bandages would carry hideous scars through the rest of his life. Maybe, for that reason alone, losing his sight wasn’t such a bad thing. But…with all that damage and all that pain, why would Hop Sing think he needed to be tied to the bed? Shuddering as the throbbing in his hand flared again, Joe turned away.

It never occurred to him that Doc Martin’s quiet, unmoving patient might already be awake.

*****

Watching Hoss ride away, Joe wished he could join his brother. He was worried about Adam. He was also angry — as much about Hop Sing’s silence as he was about having come so close to death at the hands of a Chinese swordsman — first thing in the morning, when he hadn’t even been fully awake. Oh, and burning his hand to a crisp in the process.

Frustrated, Joe kicked at a stone as he turned. He knew he must look like a sulking child, but who was there to notice besides a blind intruder and Hop Sing? Joe could never hide anything from Hop Sing anyway. As to the intruder, well, Joe figured he’d better head to the barn and fetch that rope Hop Sing wanted, even if it didn’t make sense. Joe still couldn’t believe they were going to tie down a man who was blind and in agony.

Okay, Hop Sing was going to tie him down. Joe wasn’t going to be doing much with that hand of his for a while. Doggone that Hop Sing! Joe had spent half the morning worrying about him; and now that he was back, Hop Sing wasn’t even going to explain where he’d gone — or why.

Inside the barn, Cochise gave a welcoming snort and bobbed his head up and down as Joe approached his stall.

“Sorry, Cooch,” Joe said, rubbing the horse’s neck. “I can’t go riding just now. But how ‘bout I let you out into the pasture for a while. Would you like that?”

Another bob actually made Joe grin. It didn’t last. Barely a minute later, as Joe was reaching for the horse’s bridle, Cochise bobbed his head one time too many, nudging Joe’s bad hand. The pain was intense and immediate.

“Dammit!” Joe swore, stumbling backward until he could lean against the back of the stall. “Son of a—” His right hand wrapped tightly — and uselessly — around his left wrist, he sucked air in through his teeth.

Cochise snorted again and nudged Joe’s chest impatiently.

“Not now, Cooch,” Joe grunted.

“Why Little Joe no come with rope?”

Startled by Hop Sing’s unexpected appearance, Joe tensed, clamping his jaw shut to avoid another angry outburst.

“Little Joe hurt again?” the cook said, concern in his voice.

Joe only shook his head.

“Hop Sing fault.”

“Why, Hop Sing?” Joe found himself asking for about the hundredth time. He was panting and probably sounded like a whining child — the same child who’d kicked the stone earlier. “Why were they here? Where did you go?”

The instant he asked the question, Joe realized what was bothering him most of all. Where did you go?He felt as though Hop Sing had abandoned him somehow, leaving him alone in the kitchen to face an intruder with the meanest looking sword he’d ever seen. Then Joe was mad at himself. He knew Hop Sing would never have left unless he’d had a good reason. And if Hop Sing hadn’t disappeared, he could be dead now. Those men could very well have killed him.

“I’m sorry, Hop Sing.” Joe sighed. “Whatever’s going on, I know you’ll—”

“Hop Sing protect someone.”

Encouraged to hear this new bit of information, Joe dared to press for more. “Who?”

“Hop Sing tell once. When brothers home.”

A lot could happen between now and then, Joe thought. But he swallowed the words and took a calming breath“Where is this someone now?”

Hop Sing shook his head. “Hiding.” That was all he was going to say.

“You should have told us. You should have asked for our help. We trust you. You know that, don’t you? We would have helped.”

“Hop Sing must also protect family. Better for family to not know.”

Joe’s anger started welling up again. “This isn’t better, Hop Sing! If we had known, we could have planned things out. Adam wouldn’t have stayed in Virginia City. You and I wouldn’t be alone here, now.”

“Yes.” Hop Sing nodded sadly. “Hop Sing make mistake. Think only to be thorn. Not think of garden.”

“What?”

“A thorn defends the rose, harming only those who would steal the blossom. But Hop Sing bring harm to family, to garden.”

“How many men are after this rose of yours, Hop Sing?”

“Too many, even if just one.” Hop Sing’s eyes showed Joe something new then, something Joe had never seen in them before: Fear. “Hop Sing take Cochise outside for Little Joe,” he said suddenly, as though they’d been speaking of nothing more important than the chores of the day. “Little Joe take rope inside.”

Joe didn’t bother arguing. He knew there would be no point. He left Hop Sing to tend to Cochise, grabbed a coil of rope and started back toward the house. But before he stepped onto the front porch, he gave a long look up the road as though he could still see Hoss riding away. “Hurry home, would you’?” he said softly to no one at all.

*****

Adam walked out of the Chinese laundry, leaving Hop Sing’s cousin number thirty-two or whatever it was to his secrets. Sang-Woo was hiding something — that was clear. Hop Sing’s cousins and friends had never been so tight-lipped before. They generally trusted the Cartwrights.

Apparently that trust had limits, and those limits had finally been reached.

Heaving a frustrated sigh, Adam looked up and down the dusty street. No one would meet his eyes, let alone greet him. By now, they all knew why he was there. He’d played all his cards. There was nothing left to do but go home. With any luck, maybe Hop Sing would be back and ready to explain everything — although that thought had barely hit him when he chuckled softly to himself, knowing very well that kind of luck was not likely to come his way.

Having left Sport a few blocks back, Adam turned to start walking in that direction.

He only made it as far as the alley.

*****

Hoss was relieved to spot Adam so quickly. He reined in alongside Adam’s horse and caught a glimpse of his older brother almost immediately. Adam was coming out of a shop a few blocks away. Relieved, Hoss turned his attention to tying his own horse’s reins to the hitching post. He gave Adam’s horse a gentle pat before starting along the sidewalk toward his brother. Trouble was, by then Adam was gone. Confused, Hoss hurried his pace and started looking into every shop window he passed. Adam wasn’t in any of them.

At the alley just before the shop where Adam had been, Hoss smelled something funny, something like strong medicine. That’s what drew his attention to the alley itself. And that’s where he saw tracks in the dirt that made his confusion turn abruptly to fear. It sure looked like two men had been dragging something — or someone — to the far end of the alley.

“Dadburnit, Adam. Why couldn’t you just come home like Pa said?”

*****

The blinded swordsman hadn’t moved. Clearly, he was sound asleep. So why was Joe so nervous about walking back into that guestroom? Maybe it was because he was alone again, just like he’d been that morning. You’re not a child! he scolded himself in his thoughts. Besides, he knew where Hop Sing was this time, even if a quick glance toward the window couldn’t prove it. Joe couldn’t see the barn or the pasture from that angle.

To calm himself, Joe hefted his gun in his right hand — or rather, his wrong hand — testing its weight and grip. It felt odd, uncomfortable. But at least he was armed now. His holster wouldn’t have been of any use, so Joe had left it on the credenza. Now he wasn’t sure what to do with the gun. He tried stuffing it into his belt, but finally settled for placing it on top of the dresser near the door — well away from the man in the bed and still within easy grabbing distance.

Chuckling softly, sardonically, at his ridiculous fear of his injured and drugged attacker, Joe shook his head and then slipped the coil of rope off of his left shoulder, careful once more to avoid touching it against his hand. He chuckled again at Hop Sing’s crazy notion about tying up a man who clearly couldn’t do them any more harm, and set the rope over the arm of the chair beside the bed, where it would have to wait for Hop Sing to do what he would.

But a soft noise from the kitchen quickly erased Joe’s anxious smile. Could Hop Sing have gone around to the back door so quickly? The question had barely formed in Joe’s thoughts when a different sort of noise stole his complete attention. A quiet whisper called from the bed beside him.

Joe looked down. The man was as still and silent as before. But Joe had heard him whisper, hadn’t he? He watched for a moment longer and saw…nothing.

“You’re hearin’ things,” he told himself. Frustrated again, Joe sighed and gave another glance out the window, relieved this time to see Hop Sing coming toward the front door.

“Hel….” the man in the bed rasped.

Joe stopped breathing. He watched the bandage moving as the man worked his jaw up and down, trying to say something more. Yes. He was awake. He was finally, definitely awake.

Steeling himself, Joe decided he didn’t care what the man wanted. He needed his own answers. “Who are you?” he demanded. “Why did you come here?”

“See…please.” The man raised a hand, as though reaching for his bandages.

Suddenly sympathetic, Joe pressed the man’s arm back down, keeping his own bandaged hand close to his chest. “You shouldn’t try to—”

The swordsman moved so fast Joe barely knew what hit him. It was as though Doc Martin’s patient had become someone else, a strong man in good health. He grabbed hold of Joe’s left arm, pulling it toward him, and then took Joe’s bandaged hand in both of his, squeezing and twisting the raw flesh beneath.

“You will pay for this,” the man said in a harsh, breathy voice.

Pure instinct pushed Joe’s response. First, he uselessly clawed at the man’s fierce grip, and then he threw himself bodily into a defensive attack. Using his head as a battering ram, Joe dove into the man’s raw face.

A muffled howl erupted from beneath the bandages as the hands around his own lost their grip.

Joe could almost have believed the sound had come from his own throat. He rolled to the edge of the bed, and then slowly, unsteadily got to his feet. Stumbling to the chair, he collapsed into it. He sensed rather than saw the rope fall to the floor. It reminded him of the gun.

Fighting the agony of the fire in his hand, Joe forced himself to rise again. He glanced quickly at the man in the bed to see him fighting his own round of agony. Fists tightened around bed sheets as the man squirmed and moaned beneath. Joe felt no sympathy now. Instead, he hardened his jaw and started toward the dresser…toward the gun he’d left on top.

He only took one step before his eyes found Hop Sing’s. The cook was standing in the open doorway, looking solemnly at Little Joe. A dark-clothed Chinese stranger was close behind him, holding the finely honed edge of a steel dagger to Hop Sing’s throat. And that new intruder was not alone.

*****

Hoss followed the tracks in the alley to a small side road. There he found more tracks, indicating more men had gotten involved. Those heel-marked lines disappeared then, too. He reckoned that meant the men had started carrying Adam rather than dragging him.

He finally caught sight of his brother at a small livery. Adam had been tossed across a packhorse’s back like a sack of grain. Hoss watched through cracks in the wooden walls while Adam was tied down and covered with burlap.

Dadburnit, Hoss said in the silence of his own mind. There were six men in that livery and only one of him. How was he supposed to get Adam away from ‘em? Glancing around, he knew he wouldn’t find any help where he was. And he didn’t dare walk away until he knew right where Adam would be when he got back. Besides, who would he get to help, anyway? He couldn’t trust any of Hop Sing’s cousins just then, not after seeing this happen to Adam right next to that one cousin’s laundry shop. And the sheriff was out with Pa already, looking for that man who’d attacked Little Joe.

Dadburnit, Hoss thought again, swallowing his indecision.

A few moments later, when he saw four men ride out of that livery with Adam in tow, Hoss knew there was only one thing he could do. He hightailed it back to Chubb and Sport, and then rode out after them.

*****

When Adam came to full awareness, he was lying on his side on sandy ground. He couldn’t see anything through the sack they’d put over his head. He couldn’t move much, either. His hands were tied behind him. His ankles were secured, too.

In the hours — or minutes? — .before he’d been thrown to this spot, he’d had a vague sense of riding…or at least of being on top of a horse. Belly down. Each jolting footfall had pushed the air from his lungs and made it that much harder to recover from the chloroform or whatever it was they’d used to incapacitate him.

“Your name is Adam Cartwright,” someone said from above him. “Is it not?” The voice was deep and lightly accented. He was Chinese, certainly, but he spoke clearly. Cleanly.

“Who are you?” Adam countered, his own voice sounding pathetically weak. A kick to his already sore ribs turned him to his back and rendered him breathless once more. His arms twisted painfully in the process. The tightness of the sack where it was gathered beneath his jaw chafed at his neck.

“You answer! You do not ask! Now answer this. Is your name Adam Cartwright?”

Adam found himself nodding long before he could speak. Then all he could offer was a breathy, “Yes.”

“Know this, Adam Cartwright, you have been spared because of that name. Because there are those who feel a sense of honor to that name. You should know also that I am not among them. Had the choice been mine, you would be dead already.”

“Who….” Adam was still trying to catch his breath. “Whose choice is it?” Another kick caused Adam to cry out, pulling his knees protectively inward.

“You answer!” his tormentor shouted. “You do…not…ask!” The man spoke for a moment to his companions in Chinese. Their smaller echoes in reply told Adam he was in a cave. Or perhaps a mine shaft. “You are here because you have already asked too much, meddling in affairs that are of no concern to you.”

“My family was threatened,” Adam shot back breathlessly. “That makes it my concern!” He wasn’t surprised to receive another kick. This time he’d braced himself for it, but that didn’t stop him from coughing painfully afterwards.

“As I have already informed you, your family is of no matter to me. As I have also said, you have been spared because of your name. But the same cannot be said of your brother.”

“What?” The word barely escaped Adam’s lips. The cloth at his throat seemed to draw tighter, choking him. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t….

“Your current blindness also spares you. Your brother has no such…protection.”

“No!” Adam cried out, horrified to realize they were planning to kill Joe only because he saw his attackers. “He’s hardly more than a boy! He—”

“A boy?” The man laughed. “Perhaps I know less of your language than I had believed. Well, that boy of yours has followed us all the way from Virginia City. Fortunately, he is as big as a bear. He will make an easy target. We need not waste time waiting for him to move closer.”

“Hoss?” Adam whispered, no less horrified than before.

“Now we leave you. You will remain here until—”

“Don’t you dare hurt my brother!” Adam shouted…or tried to, anyway. His voice was rough, his throat dry. “He won’t care who you are! He’s only trying to protect me!”

“You will remain here,” the man repeated, ignoring Adam’s plea, “until it is over. If we succeed….”

“Don’t hurt him!” Adam cut in.

“…Someone will be informed of your location. If we do not….”

“Please!” Adam found himself begging. “Leave my brother be!”

“…Then no one will come and you will die here.”

The crunch of footsteps told Adam the man was walking away. “No!” Adam shouted once more. “Hoss,” he whispered sadly a moment later, this time to no one but himself. Except…he wasn’t alone, was he? There was someone near him…someone…behind him…and…moving closer. He could sense it more than hear it. “Hello?” he called out quietly.

“Shhh,” the other whispered back. That person stepped beside him and knelt low, “You safe here,” Adam’s new companion whispered directly in his ear. “It will end tonight. On Ponderosa.”

“What will end?” Adam dared to whisper back.

The first man shouted in Chinese from somewhere in the distance.

“You safe here,” the whisper was repeated before the speaker gave a submissive-sounding shout in reply. And then Adam knew — with absolute certainty — he was left alone.

“Why?” he shouted desperately.

His only answer came from hollow echoes…and the sudden, bone jarring crack of a rifle.

“Oh, God! Hoss!”

*****

For a long while, Ben was torn between looking for Joe’s missing attacker and finding Hop Sing. What if Hop Sing was hurt and needed help? On the other hand, what if Joe’s attacker returned to the ranch with more men? That was Sheriff Coffee’s biggest concern, and he had convinced Ben from the start that if they didn’t find and eliminate the threat the intruders posed, Ben could have more than just his cook — and friend — to worry about.

But whoever they were looking for, they weren’t finding much to go on. And as anxious as Ben was to get his hands on the man who had turned a quiet morning into a hellish awakening, he was equally anxious to return home. Each hour that kept him away made his worries grow. Something was very wrong, and he wasn’t going to resolve it by chasing shadows.

Almost as soon as that thought had occurred to him, he noticed the shadow of something slipping through the trees at the edge of his vision. He pulled on his reins, and then, his hand hovering above his gun, he stared through the thick branches, trying to get a better look.

Roy was quick to notice his friend’s guarded posture. He dismounted and approached that copse of trees from the side. “All right, you!” he called out, his gun raised and ready. “Come on out of there and keep your hands where I can see ‘em!”

Ben slowly withdrew his own gun from the holster. He pulled back the hammer as the shadow began to move.

“Come on, now!” Roy prodded. ‘You ain’t foolin’ no one hidin’ in there!”

Ben rested his finger lightly against the trigger, his heart pounding hard — anxious — against his breast, his mouth going dry with anticipation. Vengeance, he told himself, is mine, sayeth the Lord. But that shadow out there had done God-knew-what to Hop Sing, and had planned to murder Little Joe in Ben’s own kitchen.

“Come on out, now,” Roy said, “slow and steady.”

The shadow slipped away, moving slowly toward Roy. Ben’s finger danced above the trigger.

“What in tarnation?” Roy’s quiet question came as a surprise, drawing Ben’s attention from the shadow for an instant. And then that very shadow began to emerge from the trees, approaching Roy. As it did so, Ben watched it shift from a shadow into a young, petite and frightened Chinese woman.

*****

The intruder who’d run off earlier had returned with four others, all of whom looked about as ready to bloody up those blades of theirs as the one who’d been prepared to kill Joe that morning. As hard as it’d been against two, Joe knew he didn’t have much hope against five. And with one of them ready to cut into Hop Sing’s neck, Joe figured he’d better do what they wanted for now.

He showed his surrender by relaxing his shoulders and giving a single, quick nod to encourage the one threatening Hop Sing to lower his dagger. And then Joe allowed himself to be herded back into the kitchen right alongside Hop Sing.

The intruders made quick use of the rope Joe had obligingly brought in from the barn, starting out by tying Hop Sing to a chair. While Joe stood, watching, figuring he would be next, his eyes darted around like a cornered rabbit in search of a path to escape. But even if he’d found one, could he leave Hop Sing alone like that?

It didn’t matter. He never had to make that choice. No path presented itself. Once Hop Sing was good and secure, Joe was dragged right up in front of that chair until he could look straight down at his cook…his friend. Hop Sing looked straight up at him, too. Joe saw a whole different kind of fear in Hop Sing’s eyes then, but he didn’t get a chance to wonder about it. His hands were pulled roughly behind him and secured together with more of that danged rope, the motion of it all making his burned hand throb so badly he barely kept his feet. He could almost believe they’d still make him stand like that, even if they had to prop him up themselves. And then he discovered why.

Joe was just starting to think past the pain when the man behind him grabbed his hair, yanked his head back and laid the finely honed edge of a dagger against his neck — a whole lot closer than they’d done with Hop Sing.

Keenly aware of the sting of the blade on his taut skin, Joe fought the urge to swallow while a gruff voice beside him said something in Cantonese, something that sounded like a command. If Joe could concentrate he might be able to recognize some of what was being said in the heated conversation that followed. After all, Hop Sing had taught him a lot of Chinese words over the years. But Joe couldn’t think beyond that blade’s sharp edge and the tiny, warm trickle that had begun to slide along his neck.

Afraid to breathe, Joe fought to limit himself to short, quick gasps. Just enough, he told himself, even when he knew it wasn’t. Then an instinctive swallow nudged the blade deeper. And Joe’s thoughts grew dark. He was going to die there, wasn’t he?

He conjured images of his pa and brothers, and the…mess…that would greet them when they returned. And all because…why? Because Joe had decided to get up early for a change? It was almost laughable. But Joe could hardly laugh with a blade digging into his throat.

Then he realized it didn’t seem to be digging deeper. Did that mean he still had a chance?

He realized also that Hop Sing was yelling. The cook was hollering as Joe had never heard him holler before. This was nothing like one of his common tirades about food growing cold or being left uneaten. No. This was a different Hop Sing. Not just a frustrated or even an angry Hop Sing, but an enraged one. He sounded like the maddest kind of mad there could be. Joe was impressed by the venom the cook put into his words. But then those words were cut short with a hard slap.

And Joe was thrown to the floor. He lay where he landed, panting and lightheaded enough to wonder whether the blade had cut too deep after all.

*****

Adam had to work fast. He had to. If Hoss was still alive — please, God! Let him still be alive! –he might not be for long. Adam had to get to him. But first, he had to get free. And his Chinese abductors had done everything they could to prevent that from happening. The knots in the rope binding his hands were far too secure; they weren’t going to loosen up, no matter how much he twisted his wrists. He needed something sharp. A rock, maybe. Or, if this was a mine, perhaps a ragged timber or a nail.

But without being able to see, Adam had little likelihood of finding either. He couldn’t even tell what direction he would have to move to reach the nearest wall. He knew only that if he moved in the direction from which the leader of that group had shouted earlier, he would find an opening. He would make it outside. With any luck, he might even find something sharp along the way. Or, once he reached the entrance, the afternoon sun might be strong enough for him to see through some of the fibers in the cloth sack covering his eyes.

Hoss might still be alive. Adam might find something sharp. And the sun might be bright enough for him to see something.

At least making it outside would increase his odds of getting to Hoss — and then to Joe and Pa –before it was too late for any of them.

Gritting his teeth, Adam shimmied his way forward, pulling with his heels, pushing with his hands and dragging his butt across the ground until he was sure he was going to wear the seat of his trousers down to nothing.

He never did find anything sharp, but he was eventually rewarded by seeing a speck of light. He was also starting to feel the heat of the sun. Yes. He was almost there, almost—

The sound of horses stopped him. He held his breath, listening for voices, something to indicate who was out there.

“Now we leave you,” his abductor had said. They wouldn’t have posted a guard, would they?

“If we succeed, someone will be informed of your location….” No. they hadn’t been planning to post a guard. They’d intended to leave him there.

So…who was outside now?

His heart pounding hard and heavy, Adam decided to find out. “Hello!” he shouted. Then, clearing his throat to gain more volume, he tried again. “Hello!” It wasn’t loud enough. His throat was just too dry. And that blasted sack kept muffling what little sound he did manage to make.

“Adam!”

Shock stole Adam’s thoughts. It couldn’t be. Could it? “Hoss?” he called back.

A few minutes passed with no reply. He began to wonder if his mind had been playing tricks on him. Had it just been wishful thinking? “Hoss!” he shouted again, as loud as he could.

There was a rustling sound nearby, and then, “Dadburnit, Adam! They sure had you hid good! I don’t know if I…. Adam? You okay?” A hand grasped his shoulder.

Adam sensed his brother kneeling down to him, and then felt the sack moving as Hoss began to untie it. “They shot you, Hoss,” he answered, shakily. “Not me.”

“No one shot me,” Hoss said. “They tried, but I saw it comin’. Thought I did, anyways. The sun reflected off of somethin’ up here. I thought it might be a rifle, so I dove for the ground. Just in time, too.”

The sack was pulled away. Adam blinked against the sudden light and took a long, welcome breath of fresh air.

“I’m just glad no one went down there,” Hoss added as he started fumbling with the knots around Adam’s wrists, “to make sure I was hit.”

Adam watched his brother. “I’m just glad you weren’t hit. When I heard that shot, I thought….” He swallowed dry air.

“Yeah, well, I don’t like the things I thought when I saw you thrown over top of a supply horse. Maybe we’d both better just stop thinkin’ the worst for now.”

“Maybe we should,” Adam admitted, grinning slightly. “But, Hoss, they’re on their way to the Ponderosa.”

“Then I reckon we’d better get back there. You gonna be okay to ride?”

“Get these ropes off of me and I’ll run back if I have to.”

“Ain’t no need of that.” Hoss tapped Adam’s leg. “You just wait here a minute. I’m gonna need my knife for these ropes.”

As Adam watched Hoss walk away, he tried to force himself to stop thinkin’ the worst. But whatever was going to end on the Ponderosa tonight had already come close to claiming both of his brothers. Not thinkin’ the worst was going to be a pretty tall order.

*****

The young woman glanced nervously between Ben and Roy.

“We’re not going to hurt you, Miss…?” Ben dismounted slowly, noting that her eyes followed his every move. She did not respond to his prompt for her name. “I’m Ben Cartwright,” he added after looking quickly at Roy. “This is my land you’re on. Can you tell me how you got here? And who else is with you?”

Her eyes widened. “Honorable Mistah Ben Cartwright?”

“Yes,” Ben answered, increasingly curious. “That’s right. And—”

“Yap Tsing tell Zhinu,” she said, bowing low, “Mistah Ben Cartwright wise and honorable man.”

“Yap Tsing?” Ben asked, puzzled. “Do you mean Hop Sing? Do you know him?”

She rose slowly, keeping her eyes downcast. Then, sheepishly glancing up at him before lowering her gaze again, she nodded. “Hop Sing tell Zhinu where to hide. But Zhinu not obey. Worry for Hop Sing.”

Ben moved closer. “Zhinu? Is that your name?”

She nodded, glanced upward, and then slowly, her shoulders dropping in acquiescence, shook her head. “Zhinu is name Hop Sing give.”

“He gave you a name?” Ben asked before realizing these questions could wait for another time, a time when he knew his home and his family — including Hop Sing — were safe.

When she nodded again, saying nothing, Roy was clearly as surprised as Ben. “What’s wrong with your own name?” he asked quickly, sounding disturbingly — understandably –suspicious.

“Zhinu selfish,” the woman explained. “Dishonor honorable father. Accept Hop Sing promise to give her new life in America.”

“His promise?”

The look she gave Ben seemed to plead for him to understand…as though she expected him to understand. “As Lin-Wei is Zhinu, Hop Sing is Niulang.”

“So Lin-Wei is your real name?” Roy pressed.

But Ben was growing impatient. “Do you know where Hop Sing is now?”

She looked at him, this time holding his gaze, no longer kowtowing. Then she nodded. “Hop Sing make Zhinu safe, then return home. To Ponderosa house.”

“Good,” he said to Roy. “He’ll be with the boys, then. What about the men he was protecting you from,” he added, turning back to Lin-Wei. “Do you know where they are?”

She nodded again. “At Ponderosa house.”

Ben’s relief died in an instant. “Do you know who they are?” he asked next, the words nearly sticking in his throat.

Another nod sent Lin-Wei’s gaze to the ground again. “The man who leads them is Dong Zhuo-Cheng. Honorable father bound Lin-Wei to him.”

“Bound you? You mean this…this Dong Cheng…expects to marry you, but you don’t want to marry him. Is that it?”

She nodded.

“And now he expects to take you by force.”

She answered with another nod.

“And kill whoever gets in his way.”

“Now why would he go to so much trouble,” Roy said then, “if it’s clear you don’t even want to marry him?”

“Hop Sing tell Lin-Wei — Zhinu —Chinese woman more valuable than gold to Chinese men in America. Too many men, not enough women. Without Chinese woman, there can be no sons. Dong Zhuo-Cheng is powerful man. Must have sons to keep power.”

“Well,” Ben said gruffly, turning to Roy, “I don’t share his concerns about power, but I do care about sons. My sons! And if he harms them, Roy, I promise you I’ll—”

But Roy was still focusing on the woman. “How many men does he have with him?”

“Dong Zhuo-Cheng left San Francisco with six armed men.”

“Good. And there’s one less now,” Ben said absently. “Thanks to Little Joe.”

“There is another,” the woman quickly corrected him.

“So he has seven men?”

She shook her head. “When Hop Sing came to Zhinu this morning, he warned of another man in Virginia City who wants power like Dong Zhuo-Cheng. Hop Sing cousin warned Hop Sing, and Hop Sing warned Zhinu. There was no time to warn Honorable Ben Cartwright. Or his sons.”

“Just who was it that attacked my son this morning?” His patience worn down to nothing, Ben’s voice rose with every word.

“Hop Sing cousin say two men for Dong Zhuo-Cheng meet in secret with Quan Feng in Virginia City. Maybe these men work now for Quan Feng.”

“Wonderful!” Ben shouted angrily. “Now we have spies and traitors to worry about, too?” Huffing in frustration, he turned to the sheriff. “Roy, we’re going to need as many men as we can round up. Most of the hands are down in the south pasture now. I’ll head over there. Do you think you…”

“I’ll pull a posse together,” Roy finished for him.

Ben narrowed his eyes, believing his old friend was far too calm.

“Miss,” Roy added, gently taking hold of Lin-Wei’s arm, “you’d better come with me.”

“No!” she shouted, pulling away. “They will kill you when they see Lin-Wei!”

“Don’t you worry about me, none. I’ve been wearin’ this badge a good long time.”

“And they will kill Hop Sing when they do not see Lin-Wei.”

Ben noticed suddenly there were tears in her eyes. “You don’t have to worry about Hop Sing, either,” he assured her, forcing himself to be as calm as Roy. “We’ll see to it he’s alright.”

“But…but Hop Sing is Niulang.” Her tears were falling freely now.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“Zhinu belongs with Niulang.”

“Belongs?” Ben mouthed the word as he considered its meaning. And then it hit him. Hard. “Are you saying that…”

“Lin-Wei does not want Dong Zhuo-Cheng of San Francisco or Quan Feng of Virginia City. Zhinu wantsNiulang…of Ponderosa.”

“You…you want to marry Hop Sing?”

Roy whistled, shaking his head. “Well, if that don’t beat all. If there was ever gonna be a gunfight on the Ponderosa over a woman, I would of figured it’d be on account of Little Joe. I sure never would of guessed it’d be Hop Sing’s doin’.”

“No! Not Hop Sing fault! Lin-Wei fault! Lin-Wei followed Hop Sing to Ponderosa. Hop Sing was kind to Lin-Wei in San Francisco as Dong Zhuo-Cheng was not. When Hop Sing left, Lin-Wei followed. Do not blame Hop Sing.”

Ben looked from the woman to Roy and then back again, sighing heavily. “We’ll get this all figured out later,” he said, taking off his hat and rubbing a hand through his hair. “First, we have to get all of these…these…courtiers off the Ponderosa! Lin-Wei, please, go with the sheriff. He will find a safe place for you.”

“No. Lin-Wei stay here. Lin-Wei safe here.”

Frustrated, Ben closed his eyes for a moment. “Alright,” he gave in to avoid any further delay. “There’s a small line shack right up—”

“Lin-Wei know of it,” she interrupted, nodding enthusiastically to where he was pointing. “Hop Sing take Lin-Wei there. Say Lin-Wei safe there for now.”

“Yes,” Ben answered with considerably less enthusiasm. “For now, you will be safe there.” But he wasn’t so sure about Hop Sing when things got back to normal again. Ben was going to have to have a long talk with that cook of his, the kind of talk he never would have thought to need. And apparently he was going to have to ask a lot more questions the next time Hop Sing decided he must go to San Francisco to care for a sick cousin.

*****

“Lin-Wei…make Hop Sing think of Little Joe.” The words were spoken softly and woven with familiar comfort. They gave Joe the strength to blink his eyes open. But Joe’s head was dropped to his chest. Instead of seeing Hop Sing, he found himself looking at his own left hand.

Strange. It didn’t really hurt anymore, even though the bandage was gone and it sure looked a mess. They’d tied Joe’s hand to the arm of his pa’s dining room chair…palm down…wrapping rope around it in loops from his fingertips to his wrist…slowly…tightening each loop enough to break bones.

He knew something broke. Maybe it was him that broke.

At first he’d clamped his jaw shut almost as tight as them ropes. But after a while he just couldn’t hold in the screams anymore. He’d stopped thinking then. Stopped fighting, too. He’d just screamed until his throat felt as raw as that palm of his, splayed out as it was against the arm of the chair.

And he still didn’t really know why. Not exactly. They’d kept talking in Chinese and Joe just didn’t have the gumption to pay enough attention to understand any of it. He only knew Hop Sing’s shouts had grown louder with each pull of that rope on Joe’s hand.

And while Hop Sing’s shouts had grown louder, Joe’s struggles had grown weaker.

“Little Joe?”

At the sound of his name, Joe raised his head to look at Hop Sing. They were positioned facing one another. Joe never had any doubt as to the reason. They wanted information from Hop Sing and they were using Joe to encourage him to talk.

I told you before,” Joe had said to Hop Sing after he’d come to realize the cut at his throat wasn’t deep enough to kill him, “you should have trusted us. Now I’m telling you I trust you. If it’s important to you to keep your secret, then it’s important to me, too.”

Joe’s words had led one of the men to grab what remained of his collar and haul him upright enough to punch him squarely in the jaw.

“Don’t tell them anything, Hop Sing!” he’d shouted once he’d caught his breath again. That, too, had earned him a punch. And then a few more. He wasn’t really sure how many times they’d hit him. All he knew was eventually they’d dragged Pa’s chair into the kitchen. And then…the rope.

The pain at one point had been enough to make him want Hop Sing to give up his secret. Now, though…it just didn’t seem to matter anymore. Not to Joe anyway. And looking into Hop Sing’s sad eyes made Joe hope he hadn’t said anything out loud. He didn’t want to be the one causing that hurt by maybe telling Hop Sing to say something he shouldn’t.

“How Hop Sing protect Little Joe and Lin-Wei?”

Joe was confused. Who was Lin-Wei? And then he remembered.

*****

“QiXi.” The word…or words Hop Sing had said were unfamiliar.

“Chee shee?” Joe knew he’d made a poor attempt to repeat the sounds he’d heard. Even then, his tongue had felt as thick as his thoughts.

But Hop Sing had cocked his head and given a hesitant nod. “A story,” he’d added then, “for young girls.”

“I don’t…understand.” And Joe hadn’t. Why would Hop Sing want to talk about a girls’ story? They’d been tied up and left to the mercy of merciless countrymen of Hop Sing’s. But there’d been a girl at the heart of everything. Hadn’t there?

“Chan Lin-Wei,” Hop Sing had gone on. “When Hop Sing see Lin-Wei in San Francisco, she so…beautiful….” His gaze going distant, Hop Sing had shaken his head slightly. “Like from heavens.” He’d returned his attention to Joe, showing a small, sad smile. “Like Zhinu, daughter from heavens, in story of QiXi…the story of Niulang and Zhinu.”

“I don’t remember.” Long ago, when Joe had been a young boy still missing his mother, Hop Sing had tried to comfort him by telling stories from his own boyhood. But this…this story of chee shee was different, somehow.

“Hop Sing never tell Little Joe of QiXi.”

“Why not?”

“QiXi is story for young girls…and old fools. Not young boys.”

“But…it matters to you.”

“It is filled with foolishment. Like Hop Sing.”

“Tell me,” Joe had urged.

Hop Sing had looked into Joe’s eyes and nodded. “Niulang in the story is like…Little Joe. He was a cowboy. Headstrong. Quick to love. He find Zhinu in river, bathing with her sisters. Zhinu’s beauty took his thoughts, like Lin-Wei took Hop Sing’s. She make him think of nothing else. Then he make her to fall in love with him.”

“You made Lin-Wei fall in love with you?”

Hop Sing’s eyes had gone sadder. “In San Francisco, Hop Sing’s thoughts scatter, like Niulang. Like Little Joe.” He’d tried to smile, but it didn’t last. “I become like foolish school boy. I tell Lin-Wei I was cowboy, not cook.”

Joe had grinned. “You might as well be a cowboy, Hop Sing. You’ve been on enough cattle drives.”

“No. Little Joe, cowboy. Hop Sing…cook. But in San Francisco, Hop Sing pretend. Also pretend Lin-Wei could be his Zhinu. She look like daughter of the heavens.” Each word had made Hop Sing appear angrier, his sadness shifting back to the rage Joe had seen earlier. “Hop Sing foolishment become Lin-Wei foolishment. She follow. Come here, to Ponderosa. Like Zhinu, think to run from home. Think to marry this unworthy one. In story of QiXi, the mother of Zhinu call her back to heavens. On Ponderosa, Dong Zhuo-Cheng call her back to San Francisco. To marry. She not want to marry Dong Zhuo-Cheng. She beg Hop Sing to help.”

*****

“Little Joe?”

Joe opened his eyes again. When had he closed them? Hop Sing was looking more worried than sad now. “Are they back?” Joe asked, his words oddly slurred.

Hop Sing shook his head. “They take blind man out to yard.”

“Why?”

“To exe…exe-cute for….” Hop Sing looked puzzled, as though he was trying to find a word. Then he added, “Benedict Arnold.”

“Traitor?” Joe asked.

Hop Sing nodded.

“How is he a traitor? I don’t…I don’t understand.” It was all too complex. Joe couldn’t make sense of any of it. Hop Sing was in love with an angel from the heavens. Or she was in love with him. But…. “Hop Sing? Are you…. Do you love Lin-Wei?”

Hop Sing’s brows rose up high. Then he nodded, just once, a quick bob of his head up and down. “Hop Sing love Lin-Wei, but Lin-Wei in love with Hop Sing.”

“You mean…you’re not in love with her?”

He shrugged.

“You don’t know?”

Hop Sing nodded. “In San Francisco, Hop Sing in love with…story. On Ponderosa, Hop Sing is cook, not cowboy. I cause Lin-Wei to come here. I must protect her. Same as protect Little Joe. But how can protect both?”

“You can’t protect me.”

“But must.”

“They’re going to kill me, Hop Sing.” It was strange to say it out loud. But it was true, wasn’t it? “Maybe…you, too. There’s nothing either of us can do about it.” Joe was almost disappointed when Hop Sing didn’t argue.

“Lin-Wei like Little Joe,” Hop Sing said instead. “She head…strong. No listen. No think. But heart is…full. Like…Little Joe. And Little Joe…to Hop Sing…is like son.”

“A son?” Joe said in a whisper, smiling at Hop Sing’s admission. “I guess you…you’ve always been sort of…like a…a mother to me.” And suddenly Joe found himself grinning.

Hop Sing’s expression shifted from heartbroken to angry. He even shot off a few colorful Chinese phrases in complaint. But he kept his tone low. And he ended the tirade quickly, grinning back at Little Joe before shifting back into that heartbroken look again.

Joe felt a tear spill down his cheek and he closed his eyes to hold others at bay. But…what Hop Sing had said made him start to think…. “Hop Sing?” he asked softly, opening his eyes again. “Lin-Wei. You keep…saying she’s…like me. So maybe…maybe she’s not the angel. Or…you’re not the cowboy.”

Hop Sing looked puzzled.

“That story you told me….The one she made you think of…about an angel and a cowboy….”

“Zhinu and Niulang,” Hop Sing offered.

“You shouldn’t have…told her she was…like…that angel.”

Hop Sing nodded sadly. “Then Lin-Wei maybe not run away. Not…follow Hop Sing.”

“No. That’s not what I mean.”

Hop Sing looked more confused than before.

“What I mean is…you said I was like a son.”

Hop Sing nodded.

“Then maybe…Lin-Wei is like a daughter.”

Hop Sing closed his eyes. And nodded slowly. And…he didn’t look at all surprised.

*****

It was late afternoon and their horses were well lathered by the time Hoss held out his hand in warning and pulled back on his reins.

“What is it?” Adam asked, stopping beside him.

Hoss kept his eyes outward, looking for something. “I don’t rightly know,” he answered softly. “Just…a feelin’.”

“A feeling?”

Hoss’ eyes scrunched up and he shook his head. “I don’t like it, Adam. We’d best go slow from here. Keep our eyes open.”

Adam only nodded as he urged his horse gently forward. His own gaze was already sweeping the familiar landscape. The house was less than an hour’s ride, even at their new pace, and he knew the men who’d taken him would already be there.

“It will end tonight. On Ponderosa.”

As the whispered warning repeated itself in his thoughts, Adam felt the sting of anxiety settle deep into his chest. Riding hard had kept it chasing him, never quite taking hold, as he’d concentrated on filling his lungs past the incessant ache in his bruised ribs. But now, moving so slowly, a deep sense of foreboding made his lungs even more desperate for air. His right hand began to move toward the holster at his hip…only to be reminded of his missing gun.

Dammit! He clamped his jaw in frustration as his fingers curled into a tight fist.

Yes, they’d taken his gun. But not his rifle. They’d never reached his horse, and the rifle had remained there untouched, sheathed and ready. For that, at least, he could be thankful.

“Adam?” Hoss’ urgent whisper drew his attention to the trees ahead, left of the trail.

Adam reached for the rifle, slipping it free of its scabbard without moving his eyes from where Hoss had directed him. Hoss, too, was arming himself, taking his pistol from his own holster. Adam heard the familiar click of the hammer. And then…a shadow slipped onto the trail ahead of them, slowly taking the shape of a small, slender Chinese woman.

“You seein’ what I’m seein’?” Hoss asked.

Adam nudged his horse forward, his gaze moving from the woman just enough to scan the surrounding cover. “The bigger question is who else is out there?”

There was no answer, but he sensed Hoss following behind him.

“You are of the Ponderosa?” the woman asked when Adam drew close enough.

He dismounted warily, keeping himself alert to whatever surprise awaited. “Who are you?” he asked straight out, ignoring her question.

“One who would warn you.”

Adam tensed, expecting an attack. He looked to the trees surrounding him. “Are you such cowards,” he called out, “that you send a woman to face us?”

“They cannot hear,” she responded instead. “And they not send Zhinu.” She pulled her shoulders back in a defiant stance. “They come for Lin-Wei. They threaten Ponderosa.”

“Who are you?” Adam repeated, giving her his full attention…relying on Hoss to warn him at the first sign that someone else might be approaching.

“I am Chan Lin-Wei. And I am Zhinu. And I worry for Hop Sing and the one he calls Little Joe.”

Adam felt that sting of anxiety sharpen and dig itself straight into his spine. “Why?”

“They are prisoners of Dong Zhuo-Cheng.”

“Who?” Hoss asked.

But she kept her eyes on Adam. “Dong Zhuo-Cheng has taken Ponderosa house. Quan Feng now lays siege to Ponderosa house. Mistah Ben Cartwright gathers men from south pasture. Sheriff gathers posse from Virginia City. Soon there will be war at Ponderosa house.”

Her words alone unbalanced Adam. Her posture further honed the raw edges of worry. She spoke directly, showing none of the subservience Adam had grown to expect from other Chinese people he had met. So Adam said nothing. Not yet. Instead, he listened closely, waiting for her to finish…and trying to weigh her allegiances.

“Now Zhinu warns you, because Zhinu does not want harm to come to Hop Sing, Little Joe or any other Hop Sing family.”

After she had been silent for some moments — her eyes locked on Adam’s the entire time — he said, simply, “Why?”

“Because Hop Sing family is Zhinu family.”

Adam resisted the urge to turn a puzzled gaze to Hoss. “Why the war?” he asked, keeping his tone cold and stern.

He saw her composure begin to slip. Her gaze darted away before meeting his again. This time, she looked nervous or uncertain. “Because Zhinu…Lin-Wei…dared,” she said, her voice beginning to quiver, “to choose Hop Sing.” She lowered her eyes as Adam had expected of her earlier…almost seeming to become a different person. “And Hop Sing dared to protect Zhinu.”

And, for reasons he couldn’t quite understand, Adam dared to believe her.

“Let’s go,” he said to Hoss, turning away from her to climb back into the saddle.

“Take me with you!” the woman called after him.

“You’re better off here.” He lightly kicked his horse’s flanks to get moving again.

“I can help you!” she shouted. “Tell you what they say!”

Adam stopped and looked toward Hoss.

“If you go, I will follow!”

“You know, Adam….” Hoss took his hat off to scratch his head. “I reckon she might at that.”

“It’s a bad idea. A very bad idea.” But Adam was already turning around.

*****

Hoss and Adam arrived to find a standoff taking place right in their own front yard. Five Chinese men were clustered near the house, with two standing guard and two others holding between them the man Joe had wounded with bacon grease. The fifth man was parading back and forth in front of the wounded man and shouting to make sure he was heard by a second group of six men, standing closer to the barn.

“He say the ancestors favor him,” Zhinu translated, keeping her voice hushed. “His history is long and…and full with power. His sons will be great and wise men. He also say Quan Feng is cowherd…or cow…boy? He has no value. His sons will have no value.”

Cowboys and their sons have no value? Adam was glad his father had yet to arrive. He was having a hard enough time holding his own tongue. But Pa? Those men had taken over his house and were holding both Joe and Hop Sing prisoner. No, Adam was sure Pa wouldn’t have been able to stay silent. And silence was what they needed at that moment. So far, all those Chinese men still thought they were alone.

“The men who took you,” Hoss whispered, “I reckon they’re back there, spaced out along the tree line. Too late to tell now, but I’m sure I saw the sun hitting metal afore it got so low. We should figure on them havin’ rifles.”

Adam looked over to where his brother was pointing. “We also should figure both sides have more men around back.”

“Quan Feng say his men are in greater numbers than Dong Zhuo-Cheng,” the woman offered. “They wait. All around us, they wait. Quan Feng has power here. Dong Zhuo-Cheng power only strong across the sea.”

“Hey, Adam?” Hoss broke in. “You reckon he’s got more men with him like the one who told you you’d be safe back in that cave?”

Adam shook his head, keeping his eyes on the scene in front of them as the two sides shouted what he could only presume were insults at one another. “There’s no way to know.”

“Think about it for a bit.” Hoss’ words sounded ironic; Adam had done nothing more useful than thinking since he’d first heard the ruckus in the kitchen that morning. “Hop Sing’s cousins and friends, all them folks over there in Virginia City, they’ve always been good to us. You reckon maybe this Quan Feng fella’ has them all scared? That maybe they’re only helpin’ him because they cain’t fight him?”

“Could be,” Adam agreed.

“Then maybe all them men out there ain’t actually gonna want to fight us.”

“They tried to kill you, Hoss.”

“Was only one shot, Adam. Only one man took that shot.”

“If Hop Sing family with Quan Feng now,” the woman said in a soft but urgent whisper, “they will have more fear of ancestors than of Quan Feng.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Hoss asked.

“They will not help Quan Feng bring harm to Hop Sing or to Hop Sing Ponderosa family.”

“What about the one that helped kidnap Adam?”

“Perhaps help only to keep Adam safe. Perhaps also help to keep Hoss safe.”

“Could be why that shot missed you,” Adam realized. He watched hope soften the fear in his brother’s eyes.

“Then maybe things ain’t as bad as we been thinkin’ all this time?”

Adam was about to suggest that Hoss might be right when the woman — Zhinu — gasped sharply and buried her face in her hands.

“Good Lord,” Hoss said just as Adam turned his own attention to the front yard.

The injured man had fallen on his own sword.

“Why would he….?” Hoss didn’t bother finishing.

“He…betray…Dong Zhuo-Cheng,” Zhinu said, her voice quivering. “Only way to…restore honor. To…save self from becoming…hungry ghost.”

“Hungry ghost?” Hoss asked. “Ghosts don’t eat. Do they?”

“Hungry ghost have no happiness. No rest. Make bad things happen.”

“Well, someone’s ghost must already be mighty hungry with all the bad things that’ve been happenin’ around here today.”

But Adam was far more concerned about men than ghosts, especially when he heard a familiar voice shouting from inside the house: Hop Sing. For the first time since Adam had met the man years earlier, Hop Sing was not raising his voice to complain. No. It sounded more like he was desperate…maybe even as though he was begging for mercy.

Then Adam noticed two of Dong Zhou-Cheng’s men were now missing. “We’ve got to get inside,” he said, feeling a sudden desperation of his own. “Hoss, check the back. I’m going to try that window of Joe’s.”

“Joe’s bedroom’s no good, Adam. They’ll spot you in a—”

“Not his bedroom. The window he used to sneak out of when—”

“Horses,” Hoss said suddenly.

Seeing his brother go still, Adam stopped breathing and strained to listen to what Hoss had already heard. A moment later, Adam heard them, too. Yes. Horses. A lot of horses. It sounded like an army was coming down the road and heading straight for them. An army…or the combined forces of Roy’s posse and Pa’s ranch hands.

Surely reacting to the impending arrival of an enemy Zhou-Cheng and his men knew they couldn’t fight, the men in the yard started shouting louder than before…and so did Hop Sing inside the house. And then came a nerve shattering, ragged cry that Adam knew could be none other than Little Joe.

Adam stood before he even realized what he was doing.

*****

Joe tensed when two of the men returned.

Hop Sing had told him enough about what was being said in that hollering match outside to let him know there was a fight brewing. It had given him hope that maybe he and Hop Sing would be forgotten. He’d even renewed his struggle to free his right hand. But he was making more progress chipping away at his fingernails than loosening the rope.

And then those two men had come back. Joe hadn’t even noticed their arrival until they were already there — when one of them grabbed at the rope locking his left hand to the arm rest. He went rigid in an instant, sucking in his breath and inwardly cursing himself for being taken off guard. Were they going to tighten the ropes again? Maybe they’d make them even tighter than before. Maybe they were aiming to make it tight enough to tear Joe’s hand right off.

Please, God! he prayed silently. No more. Please! His head swam in fear of the pain to come. His stomach roiled.

But then…the rope was tossed to the floor.

For a brief moment, Joe started to believe God had heard him. They weren’t going to hurt him anymore. Maybe…maybe they were letting him go. Maybe they—

The pain returned a hundredfold as feeling was restored, blood rushing back into his fingers with all the force of a raging river. Joe’s hand throbbed so fiercely he half expected it to burst wide open from the pressure.

Pain was everything. There was no room in his thoughts for anything else — not even for prayer. When he was yanked to his feet, his head swam through that same river of blood. He was dimly aware that the horrific wailing sound he heard had been pulled from his own throat. Then his hands were forced behind his back and once again secured with rope.

By the time the final knot was tied, he fell into a welcome blackness, where there was no pain at all.

*****

Ben Cartwright had no intentions of approaching his home like some docile mouse hiding in the shadows. This was his home, and if any of his sons were being held prisoner in that home he’d be damned if he’d—

All cohesive thought left him when he saw Little Joe being dragged through the front door. Yes. Dragged. He wasn’t moving at all on his own, not that Ben could see. He was unconscious or…. No. Ben would waste no effort thinking such things.

“What is this?” he shouted in a voice he’d rarely used but that had once proved strong enough to silence an entire lumber camp. “What have you done to my son?”

He stayed astride his horse as he drew between the two small groups of combatants in his front yard. Trusting in his own men and those who’d come with the sheriff to stay wary of the rest of the intruders, Ben focused all of his attention on one particular man, one who held himself like a leader…the monster who must be responsible for Little Joe’s current state.

“Mister Ben Cartwright?” the monster asked.

“Yes,” he hissed back. “And who are you to take over my home and harm my son?” He fought the desire to go to that very son. He could not turn away. Not yet.

The monster bowed. “Dong Zhuo-Cheng stands before the honorable Mister Ben Cartwright to express regret that the harm to his son could not be avoided.”

“Of course it could have been avoided! You have no right to be here! None at all!”

“Indeed, Dong Zhuo-Cheng have every right to reclaim property stolen by a man in the employ of Mister Ben Cartwright.”

“Property?” Ben repeated. “Property?” he said again, louder than before. “If you mean that young woman who is scared half to death of you, how dare you call her ‘property’? And Hop Sing did not stealher! She ran from you!”

“Pa?” Joe called softly beside him.

Relieved to know his son was still alive, Ben found his strength renewed. He stood firm, watching the monster’s eyes as they grew narrow and cold.

“You know where this woman hides?” Dong Zhuo-Cheng asked.

“What I know…,” Ben slowly dismounted to be closer to Little Joe — and to be close enough to strangle the monster should the need…or the opportunity — arise, “is that I am very likely to kill you if you and your men do not remove yourselves from this property at once.”

“I think not.”

“What?” Ben shouted.

“These men will leave when the property of Dong Zhuo-Cheng is returned.”

Dong Zhuo-Cheng,” Ben spat, “has no right to any property here!”

“Dong Zhuo-Cheng has possession of the house of Mister Ben Cartwright. And the son of Mister Ben Cartwright. And if Mister Ben Cartwright desires for that son to survive into tomorrow, then Dong Zhuo-Cheng will have his own property returned.” Abruptly turning his attention, he barked orders in Chinese.

A soft cry from Little Joe swiveled Ben around. When he finally got a good look at his youngest son, Ben’s knees almost gave out on him. Catching a glimpse of Adam and Hoss, he gained strength from finding them suddenly beside him. But he spared no direct attention for either of them. He could not look away from Little Joe.

“My God,” Adam cried out softly, uttering words Ben found lodged in his own throat.

Joe’s face was battered, his shirt torn and bloodied, and his neck…. There was a red line at his throat, a cut, perhaps hours old but bleeding afresh. Ben also noticed the two men to either side of Joe had shifted focus. Now only one man held Little Joe upright. The other had his sword drawn and was holding its tip under Joe’s chin, poised and ready to drive it up into Joe’s skull.

“Now bring Chan Lin-Wei,” the monster said, “or watch this young man die.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

There was a small movement in Ben’s peripheral vision, a nod from the monster to his men. And then the man with the sword eased the point upward, drawing blood. Joe dropped his head further back and gasped for breath.

“Stop this at once!” Ben hollered.

“Look Mister,” Hoss said, one hand taking hold of Ben’s right shoulder. “We got a lot more men than you. Any one of your men hurts my brother any more’n you already have, ain’t a one of you walkin’ out of here alive. I can promise you that.”

“Perhaps you may kill Dong Zhuo-Cheng. But your brother will already be dead. Do you prefer Dong Zhuo-Cheng’s death over your brother’s life?”

“Let…him…go,” Ben insisted.

“Bring Chan Lin-Wei.”

“Alright.” Adam’s voice and the simple word he spoke drew all eyes toward him. “We’ll bring her to you. But first you release Little Joe and let my father look after him. Then you, Chan Lin-Wei and I will talk in the house, in private.”

“No!” A new voice interrupted. Another Chinese man was walking toward them. “Quan Feng also comes to claim Chan Lin-Wei! Any discussion will include Quan Feng.”

Adam’s jaw went taut. “Fine. The four of us then. No more. And no weapons.” He stared at the sword in Quan Feng’s hand until the man tossed it aside. “And you,” he said then, turning to Dong Zhuo-Cheng.

The monster growled but acquiesced, giving his sword to his nearest man. “And the woman?” he asked.

“My brother, Hoss, will bring her.”

“You said no more men!”

“He will bring her and then he will leave.” Adam met Hoss’ gaze, nodded and waited for a responding nod before giving his attention back to Dong Zhuo-Cheng. “Now release my brother.”

Ben held his breath while the monster glared long and hard at Adam. “In the house,” Dong Zhuo-Cheng said finally. “One man will bring him. The other will stay here. When…Hoss…brings Chan Lin-Wei, this young man will be released.”

“Alright,” Adam said tightly.

After another long glare, the monster nodded, the sword was pulled away…and Ben closed his eyes for a brief…desperate…silent prayer.

*****

Hoss had to swallow back the impulse to pound those two Chinese yahoos for what they’d done to Little Joe. Maybe it was only one of ‘em that done it; but Hoss was pretty sure the other would have, too, if he’d gotten there first. It didn’t matter though, because Hoss couldn’t do anything to either of them. Not yet. He’d already made a quiet promise to Adam about bringing that little gal up to the house so they could all talk about what was going on.

So they could take care of Little Joe.

Hoss saw Adam sweep his hand toward the front door like he was inviting guests into the house. It made Hoss sick to his stomach.

But that Dong fella’ wasn’t ready to accept the invitation. “Not until the woman is brought forward.”

And Hoss wasn’t gonna wait for Adam to answer. “Send your men back. Both of you. Send ‘em clear up to the trees so I know she’s safe. Then I’ll bring her.”

“You question the honor of Dong Zhuo-Cheng?”

“You bet I got questions. I got a whole lot of ‘em. But for right now I just want to make sure no one does anything to hurt that gal.”

“You will bring her, now!”

Dong’s shout caused Hoss to ball his hands up into fists. Before he could say or do anything more, a woman’s voice called out toward them from the front door.

“Chan Lin-Wei already here!”

That she was. And so was Hop Sing. Hop Sing was walking out in front of Lin-Wei, like he was trying to protect her. But Hop Sing’s eyes kept straying toward Little Joe. And Hoss saw a whole lot of doubt in those eyes.

But Joe…. Joe looked at the two of ‘em there, and then he took a deep breath that puffed out his chest enough that Hoss could see it. And when he let that air out again, Hoss could swear he saw Joe give Hop Sing a small nod, like…like he was sayin’ everything was finally gonna be okay.

Hoss wanted to believe Joe more than Hop Sing. But Joe was still in the hands of one of that Dong fella’s men. And Hoss couldn’t know everything was gonna be okay until he could get his own hands on that little brother of his.

“Now let my son go!” Pa said before Hoss could even open his mouth.

Hoss pulled his attention from Joe to glare at the man holding him. He kept glaring until the man drew his lip up into a snarl and threw Joe toward Pa like he weren’t nothing more than a bale of hay. And then Hoss held his breath until Pa caught Joe like he was the most important thing in the world. And the look in Pa’s eyes…well, that look got Hoss to finally start believing maybe everything was gonna be okay after all.

Swallowing his stomach back down again, Hoss said softly, “Let’s get him inside.”

Pa nodded, but Joe tensed up. “The rope,” Joe said in a quiet, ragged kind of voice. “Get it off. Please…get it off.”

“Of course, son. We’ll take care of that inside.” Pa’s eyes like to have fire in them when he looked out at all them Chinese men.

Hoss started to thread his hand through the crook of Joe’s right arm to get a firm grip on his brother.

“No!” Joe cried out. He was panting then, his chest heaving like he’d run halfway from Virginia City. “My hand! Please, Pa! My…my hand!”

And finally Hoss looked at Joe’s back, where his hands had been tied together. And he saw the mess those men had made of Joe’s left hand.

And if Pa hadn’t needed Hoss to help get them ropes off of his brother and then to get Joe safe inside…well, Hoss felt pretty sure Sheriff Coffee would have to lock him up to keep him from killing every one of that Dong fella’s men.

*****

“Men were busy talking,” Lin-Wei explained as Adam grabbed hold of her arm and pulled her back inside. “Lin-Wei go in other door, by kitchen. Find Hop Sing tied to chair!” She glared at Dong Zhuo-Cheng, and Adam was glad to be standing between them — although he wasn’t sure who needed the protection more. The edge in that woman’s eyes looked sharp enough to skin a cat. “And Hop Sing tell Lin-Wei what Dong Zhuo-Cheng do to Little Joe.” Her gaze moved to Hoss and Pa, who were bringing Joe toward the stairs.

“No!” Dong Zhuo-Cheng’s shout stopped them. “There!” He pointed to the downstairs guest room.

While Hop Sing argued in Chinese, Adam settled Lin-Wei into the red chair facing the staircase and then held himself there, wanting to join Hoss and Pa but refusing to leave the woman — and Hop Sing — alone.

“Hop Sing say bed need changing,” she translated for Adam. “Sheets dirty from other man. But Dong Zhuo-Cheng demand to keep watch over Little Joe and Mistah Ben Cartwright.”

And then, for the first time in Adam’s memory, Hop Sing went silent rather than scurrying away spouting complaints against which no one could argue. He looked to Adam with fear and uncertainty in his eyes. “Go ahead,” Adam told him softly. “Get the bed ready, and then come back. Pa and Hoss can take it from there, and I won’t let—”

“No!” Dong Zhuo-Cheng shouted again. “Hop Sing not party to discussion. Dong Zhuo-Cheng agree only three men, one woman. No more! And only father with son. No Hoss!”

“Hop Sing speak for Lin-Wei!” the woman shouted back. “Or Lin-Wei not speak at all!”

“This woman has no voice!” Dong Zhuo-Cheng said to Adam. “This woman belongs to Dong Zhuo-Cheng!”

“No!” shouted the other Chinese man, who’d held quiet until that moment. “Quan Feng claims the woman!”

And suddenly Adam could hold back no longer. “Enough!” he yelled as loudly as he could, ignoring the spasms erupting from his bruised ribs. “I brought you in here to talk! Not to shout demands! Now this is my house, and that is my brother who looks half dead because of what you have done to him. And myfamily — including Hop Sing! — is going to see to it that he’s taken care of! Then and only then will we begin this discussion; and this discussion will include Hop Sing!”

“You dishonor Dong Zhuo-Cheng! This discussion finished!”

When Adam saw the man he held responsible for everything — for Lin-Wei’s pursuit of Hop Sing…for Hop Sing fleeing the kitchen while bacon still sizzled on the stove…for Joe…. When Adam saw that man start to move toward the door, he grabbed Dong Zhuo-Cheng’s arm in an iron grip. “If you leave here, you had better keep going all the way back to San Francisco,” he hissed in a quiet, dark voice. “Because if you continue this bid for war, I assure you, you will not survive it. Either the sheriff and his men will kill you, or Hoss and I will do it ourselves. And we will do it exactly as you meant to kill Little Joe.” His tone was cold enough to cause him to shake deep inside, especially since he knew he wasn’t bluffing. The idea of legal justice suddenly seemed like a thing as foreign as the man looking back at him with flat, slanted eyes that showed even more of an edge than Lin-Wei’s had moments before — an icy edge, devoid of compassion.

At that moment, Adam found himself praying Dong Zhuo-Cheng would walk right out that door and into a barrage of gunfire…or run back to San Francisco with his tail between his legs.

Unfortunately, Dong Zhuo-Cheng was too arrogant and too cowardly to damage his ego — or his honor — by choosing either path. Instead, he squinted in disapproval, huffed his displeasure and took a seat in the high-backed chair facing Lin-Wei.

A moment later, Adam took a deep breath and turned toward the settee to find himself facing Quan Feng’s sickening grin. Adam pointed an accusatory finger toward the man’s chest. “Don’t for a minute think everything I just said doesn’t apply to you, too!”

When the grin vanished and the man’s eyes went as icy as Zhuo-Cheng’s, Adam took in a calming breath and invited Lin-Wei to rise.

“We will be back,” he said to the two angry men, ignoring any previous promises, no matter how much he might be offending anyone’s honor, “after my brother is settled.” Then he led Lin-Wei toward the guestroom where his family had already gathered. “With any luck, they’ll kill each other by then,” he said quietly, certain that only Lin-Wei could hear him.

*****

Joe sat in the chair beside the bed with his eyes closed, trying to chase away the pain. He couldn’t really remember them removing his shirt, but he was glad they did. He didn’t want to have so much as the cuff brush up against his hand. He felt cooler without the shirt besides. Not cool, but cooler. The day had gotten so hot he could hardly think straight. Or maybe he’d just had one too many punches and kicks to the head. At least he was thinking clearly enough to figure he was probably hotter than everyone else. Kind of hard not to work up a small fever after….

No. Don’t think about all that. His family was with him now. They were right there in the room, all of them, talking in low voices. Joe listened to those voices, taking comfort in the sound. Just the voices, not the words. He didn’t much care about the words. Actually, he didn’t much like the words. It was hard enough to try to slip away from the pain for a little while…to try to imagine the whole day had been nothing more than an all-too-real nightmare. Giving too much attention to Pa and his brothers figuring what to do…well, it just made Joe’s head swim and his hand feel like it was about to burst apart — or as though it already had. So he just listened to the voices and tried to imagine they were talking about moving cattle instead.

Beyond the voices of his family, Hop Sing and the girl, Lin-Wei, were having a conversation of their own. They were chatting away quietly in Chinese as they worked together putting fresh sheets on the bed. There was a smoothness in the way they talked. And in the way they worked. As though…well, as though they belonged together.

Joe started wondering again about his talk with Hop Sing and….

Damn. Why did he let himself think about that? About being in that chair and….

His hand was on fire again…like it was still trapped under all that crushing rope. He cringed and then bit down on his lip, fighting to hold in the groan that threatened to escape. It would only interrupt his family’s discussion. He didn’t need them worrying over him. He needed for them to figure out a way to get their house back. Maybe Adam had finally gotten them into the house, but they still had to get rid of all those Chinese men. They also had to figure out what they could do to help Lin-Wei.

Joe opened his eyes and looked at the woman working on the other side of the bed. She sure was pretty. And young. She couldn’t be much older than Joe was himself. That was too young for Hop Sing, wasn’t it? Did Hop Sing love her like a daughter, or—

She looked at him. But only for an instant. Too quickly, she looked down again, like she didn’t want him looking at her, or…or like she was ashamed.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Joe said, finding his throat dry and his voice, weak.

Hop Sing turned, giving Joe a small smile and nod.

“It wasn’t your fault either, Hop Sing.”

“No one is blaming anyone, son,” Pa’s voice broke in.

They were, Pa. Hop Sing was blamin’ himself…and Lin-Wei was blamin’ herself, and….” And Joe suddenly realized he’d been listening to them without meaning to, picking up just enough of their Chinese words to know what they’d been talking about. “I’m sorry, Hop Sing. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop. I guess I…I didn’t even realize I was.”

“Them two are gettin’ restless out there, Adam,” Hoss said from the open doorway, where he was keeping an eye on the men who’d each laid a claim to Lin-Wei.

“Let them,” Adam answered. “There’s not much they can do from in here. We finally have the advantage.”

“How do you figure that, with all them men outside?”

Adam looked to the yard through the window, and then swiveled back wearing a half grin. “That’s just it. They’re outside, and we’re not.”

Joe saw something odd behind that grin, like maybe a twinge of pain. Then he noticed Adam seemed to be favoring his left side. “What happened to you, Adam?”

“Nothing.” Adam pulled his back up straight. “I’m fine.” But the strain that move put on his face made it clear he wasn’t.

“Adam?” This time it was Pa who asked.

“I’m just a little stiff.” Adam cast another quick glance toward Hoss. “I’m perfectly capable of pulling my weight.”

“Joe didn’t ask what you’re capable of.” Pa gave him one of those long glares that say a whole lot without saying anything at all.

“He got took, Pa,” Hoss answered, drawing a frustrated look from Adam. “When he was in town askin’ all them questions, a group of ‘em took him. Made him ride belly down all the way up to Bowman’s Peak. Seemed to me they might’ve roughed him up some, too.”

Hop Sing said something soft in Cantonese, and then asked Adam, “Why take Mistah Adam? What number one son do?” He looked worried.

“I didn’t do anything. I just asked a few too many questions, I suppose. I didn’t even get any answers. Seemed like everyone was hiding something.”

“They put a sack over Adam’s head, too,” Hoss added, “so he couldn’t see who done it. And then they took a shot at me ‘cause I did see ‘em.”

“You have seen too much already,” one of Joe’s attackers had said that morning.

“That’s why they wanted to kill me,” Joe said absently. “Because I saw their faces.”

“Hop Sing?” Pa asked. “There has to be something more going on here, something other than two men fighting over a woman. Do you know why these men feel the need to keep their identities secret?”

Hop Sing slowly shook his head, his gaze focused inward.

Joe saw Lin-Wei look to the ground. Her hands were clasped in front of her, knuckles tight with worry. “Yap Tsing,” she said softly, her voice barely more than a whisper. She met Hop Sing’s gaze, glanced briefly toward Joe, and then spoke in quiet tones…in words only Hop Sing could understand, Chinese words Joe had never been taught. There was something formal in her tone, something deeply serious, and deeply troubling.

Joe found himself tensing. The whole room felt heavy around him.

“Lin-Wei?” Pa asked after a moment.

She held her eyes to Hop Sing’s a while longer. “Father of Lin-Wei,” she said finally, “have many enemies. Dong Zhuo-Cheng is enemy for many years. By marriage of Lin-Wei and Dong Zhuo-Cheng, father have one less enemy. But make other enemies more angry. These enemies use Quan Feng of Virginia City, make him to believe himself strong. It is a false belief. Quan Feng does not see.”

“Use him?” Adam asked. “For what?”

“He who take Lin-Wei from Dong Zhuo-Cheng will dishonor Lin-Wei father and Dong Zhuo-Cheng. Will take power from both.”

“These enemies,” Adam asked, “they’re not going to allow Quan Feng to keep that power, are they?”

“Quan Feng only take power. Others will gain power.”

“Exactly what sort of power are we talking about?” Adam asked.

She looked at Adam before answering. “Father of Lin-Wei,” she said then, “is leader. Of…of triad.”

Adam let out a low, breathy whistle.

“Adam?” Hoss asked. “You know what she’s talkin’ about?”

Adam kept his eye on Lin-Wei. “Sounds like Lin-Wei’s father is like a warlord. He probably has some pretty tight controls over the Chinese population in San Francisco. Or a part of it, anyway. Those men Joe ran into this morning…. They were either hired assassins intent on killing Hop Sing to eliminate a known threat to her father’s arrangement; or….” Adam started to take a deep breath but cringed about halfway through, like his ribs didn’t want to oblige him. “Or,” he repeated a moment later, “they could have been planning to take Lin-Wei to Quan Feng.”

“A war between Chinese triads,” Pa grumbled softly in frustration, “right here on the Ponderosa.”

Hop Sing sighed. “Hop Sing fault. Foolishment. Tell children’s story to beautiful woman. Make believe simple cook win love of princess. Think only happy ending. Never think…never think bring harm to family.”

“Lin-Wei fault,” the woman countered. “Yap Tsing make Lin-Wei feel like princess in stories. When Yap Tsing say farewell, Lin-Wei follow, believing happy ending possible in new land. Lin-Wei brought war to Ponderosa. Not Yap Tsing.”

“The way I see it,” Hoss said then, “it don’t much matter who brought it. All that matters is it’s here. So what are we gonna do to end it?”

“We can’t end the war.” Adam turned to look out the window again. “We’re just a small part of it. But maybe…maybe we can move the battle.”

“How do we do that?”

“Roy might just be doing it for us,” Adam answered, focusing on the yard outside.

Curious, Joe started to rise so he could see whatever it was that had drawn Adam’s attention. But as soon as he changed the position of his hand the pain came back so strong he couldn’t even think about keeping quiet, not with his head spinning and his hand exploding. It was as though there wasn’t anything else in his life except the dizzying pain and….

…A hand on his shoulder…another on his brow…his knee….

And then a spoon at his lips…a bitter taste on his tongue. Somewhere deep inside him he knew that bitter taste was meant to chase the pain away, so he gulped it down…and found himself wishing he could find the voice to ask for more.

*****

Joe’s cry preceded an eruption of angry shouts in the other room, like a clarion signaling the end of the temporary truce Adam’s efforts had won them.

“They argue for Lin-Wei,” Hop Sing translated. “No more waste time.”

Adam tensed, hearing the voices draw closer. Dong Zhuo-Cheng and Quan Feng were approaching the guestroom. He couldn’t let them reach it. He refused to place Joe at further risk — or Lin-Wei at any risk at all.

Fortunately, Hoss must have been thinking the same thing. He was through the door before Adam had even taken a step forward.

And then a single step was all Adam could take.

A sudden barrage of gunfire outside held him back. “Dammit!” How could everything change so quickly? Seconds earlier, he had begun to believe Roy Coffee was getting through to the Chinese men who’d followed Quan Feng from Virginia City. Adam had watched Quan’s men emerging hesitantly from the trees. Many had even mounted up, seeming ready to ride out. Why were they shooting now?

The window beside Adam shattered. He twisted away and dropped to the ground, the pull on his ribs nearly causing him to cry out as Joe had a moment before, although he managed to limit himself to a low grunt. One arm went up on instinct to protect his face from the spray of glass that shot toward him like a hundred stinging needles and a dozen jagged blades. Stray shards still managed to slash at his eyebrow…his cheek…his chin. But none cut as deeply as Lin-Wei’s brief, shrill scream. Adam didn’t know if terror or pain had drawn that cry from her.

“Hop Sing!” Pa shouted. “Get down!”

Crouching against the wall and fighting to catch his breath, Adam tried to blink his eyes open, surprised to discover he’d closed them. But a sharp sting at the corner of his left eye forced him to hold it shut awhile longer, until he was able to gingerly pry a tiny, bloody sliver from under the tender skin. A sliver of glass, so close to his eye…. Adam tossed it to the floor and forced himself not to think about how easily he could have been blinded.

“Hop Sing!” Pa hollered out once more.

Hop Sing scuttled across Adam’s line of sight. A bullet thwacked into the wall where he’d been an instant before he disappeared through the door.

And then…there was a brief reprieve…a period of silence that started to draw Adam back to his feet, and to turn Pa from his place hovering over Little Joe, shielding him from the onslaught. In that instant, Adam met his father’s eyes. The fear he saw within them was both rare and unsettling. But it was nothing to the horror that nearly stopped his own heart when the next shot rang out.

Much louder than all the others, that final shot had come from inside the house…from the great room just beyond the guestroom door….

Where first Hoss and then Hop Sing had gone.

And neither of them had been carrying a gun.

*****

Almost as soon as the first shot had been fired outside, the argument inside turned physical. Hoss slowed his approach, no longer feeling a sense of urgency. In fact, he was sort of glad to see those two men fighting.

Leaving them to it, he eyed the rack of rifles beside the fireplace and started edging his way in that direction until a flash of metal stole his attention. Looking closer, he saw a gun in that Quan fella’s hand.

Dadburnit!

Hoss didn’t bother wondering where that gun had come from. All that mattered was things suddenly got real urgent again. He hurried his pace. One of the men grunted just as Hoss reached the rack. Something had happened, but he wasn’t sure what. All he could tell was that both of them Chinese men stood oddly still for a couple of seconds, holding onto each other like they hadn’t been fighting at all.

But they had been. And something had just turned that fight somehow. Something bad.

Hoss’ stomach started churning up acid as he grabbed hold of the closest rifle. He kept watching those men, and was fumbling blindly with a box of bullets to get that rifle loaded when he saw that San Francisco fella’, Mister Dong, get real stiff, his back muscles bunching up like he was working hard at something. Then there was another grunt and the other fella, Mister Quan, went limp. He dropped out of Mister Dong’s hands and fell to the floor, showing Hoss there was a knife in his stomach, buried clear to the hilt. The gun he’d smuggled in clattered down after him to land at Mister Dong’s feet. Hoss had to imagine it was fully loaded.

Things moved slow then. Slow and fast, all at the same time. Slow enough that Hoss could see it all unfolding, but too fast for him to do what he needed.

Mister Dong turned toward Hoss with killing in his eyes just as Hop Sing came running out of the guestroom. Dong’s attention shifted to Hop Sing. And Hoss’ heart jumped up into his throat.

Then he dropped a bullet. He could hear it rolling across the floorboards, and he could swear he heard the sound of his own heartbeat, too. But there wasn’t any other sound, nothing at all, while he tried to get his fat fingers to latch onto another bullet.

And Dong knew it. He knew Hoss was having trouble. He also knew Hop Sing weren’t nothing to worry about, but Hoss was. So Mister Dong reached for the gun at his feet and drew it up to aim it toward Hoss.

The bullet rolled further away. Hoss’ heart thumped harder against his chest. And then there was another sound…the click of the hammer on the gun in Dong’s hand.

Hoss finally got his rifle loaded. But it was already too late.

Dong’s explosive shot hit Hoss’ ears just as Hop Sing hit his shoulder, barreling into him so hard Hoss got knocked clean off his feet. But Hoss didn’t feel anything else. He didn’t feel the bullet hitting him. He didn’t feel fire or pain or anything at all…nothing…except the weight of Hop Sing.

And then he realized why.

Hop Sing had taken the bullet instead. Blood was already spreading across the cloth on his back.

Numb, Hoss pushed Hop Sing gently aside and grabbed for his dropped rifle. He wasn’t angry…or worried…or much of anything else just then. Somewhere inside, he knew all that would come later. But right at that moment, there was only one thing on Hoss’ mind. He aimed that rifle dead center on Dong’s chest, cocked the hammer and pulled the trigger. Hoss moved fast enough to keep Dong from firing again, yet so slowly he couldn’t imagine why he hadn’t been shot, too, just like Hop Sing.

Like Hop Sing….

“Hoss,” someone shouted from far away.

There was a hand on his arm. Shaking him. Insistent.

“Hoss!” Adam called out in a distant echo.

Then, “Adam?” Pa said. “Is he….”

Pa’s voice got time moving again. Sound, too. It all came back in a rush.

Shaking his head, Hoss saw Adam kneeling down beside him, and he knew it should be him kneeling down beside Adam instead. Adam wasn’t moving too good, and there was blood on his face, streaming from a mess of cuts. The left sleeve of his shirt was bloody, too. “Adam? What happened to you?”

“It’s you I’m worried about!” Adam sounded frantic. “Where are you hit?”

Hoss shook his head again. “I ain’t. Hop Sing, he….” His gaze moved to their long-time cook — and friend — lying so still beside him. “He saved my life, Adam.”

“You sure you’re all right?” Adam asked.

“I’m fine.” And he was, Hoss realized then. He was fine enough to stop wasting time. “I gotta get Doc Martin out here.” He jumped to his feet, leaving Adam to tend to Hop Sing, and hurried toward the front door.

“Hoss!” Pa stopped him, grabbing his arm just as he reached for the handle. “Don’t be a fool! They could kill you the minute they see you standing in that doorway!”

“They ain’t shootin’ no more, Pa,” Hoss reasoned.

“Yes, but—”

“And they’re dead. Both of ‘em. There ain’t no one left those men out there got to fight for.”

“What about vengeance?” Pa said in as stern a voice as ever. “We’ve all seen enough killing in our lives to know what men blind with vengeance can do!”

“But it’s over, Pa. They’re both dead. And Hop Sing…and Joe…even Adam, they need Doc Martin. I can’t…I can’t let Hop Sing die ‘cause I was too slow…’cause I was. Pa, Hop Sing can’t die!”

Pa’s hand clutched his shoulder. “He won’t, Hoss. We’ll take good care of him. And we will get Paul out here. Quickly. But not until the situation outside is settled and I can be sure no one else is going to get hurt.”

Hoss looked into his pa’s eyes and found…relief. Pa wasn’t hurt. He was as strong as ever. And wise as ever. And if Pa said Hop Sing wasn’t gonna die, then Hoss could almost believe it was true. Almost. “He saved my life, Pa.”

“Then let’s save his.” Pa squeezed his shoulder once more before pulling away. “Help Adam. See what you can do to stop the bleeding. I’ll see if I can get Roy’s attention without making myself a target.”

And suddenly Hoss realized he wasn’t just angry or worried. He was afraid. As much as those thick fingers of his had fumbled with a rifle, what sort of harm could he do with that bullet wound in Hop Sing?

*****

Ben hoped he’d appeared calmer than he felt. Hoss had already been shaken enough — and understandably so. He didn’t need to see his father reduced to the bundle of nerves Ben had truly become. Yes, Ben Cartwright had become as frightened and skittish as he’d ever felt. The agony in Joe’s cry had nearly torn him apart inside. In the next moments, seeing how the shattered glass had peppered Adam, Ben had felt about ready to crumble.

But they’d needed him.

And when that shot had sounded from the great room, pulling Adam toward it in a frenzied rush and moving Ben to his feet, ready to follow… his gaze had landed on Lin-Wei. And it was clear that she had needed him, too.

Leaving Joe in the chair under the blessedly numbing pull of laudanum, Ben had skirted around the glass-dusted bed to where Lin-Wei crouched behind the nightstand, whimpering and glass-dusted herself. Cuts on her right cheek and arm almost mirrored what Ben had seen on Adam, but the fear and sadness in her eyes had shown Ben the true extent of her pain.

“It’s all right, dear,” he’d said softly, hoping to soothe himself as well as her while gently pulling glass fragments from her hair. “You’re all right, now. There’s no need to worry.” Yes, there is, he knew. But he must hold strong to help give her strength. To give them all strength, his sons, this frightened woman, even Hop Sing. They all needed him…as much as he now found himself needing his old friend, Sheriff Roy Coffee.

Ben took a deep pull of air to try to calm his racing heart, and then crossed to the window behind his desk. What he saw there baffled him. It looked like a large number of those Chinese men were helping Roy, rather than fighting him. In fact, Roy turned his back to them even as Ben watched, and started walking confidently toward the door. Pausing briefly to look down at the bodies of Dong Zhuo-Cheng’s guards just beyond the front porch, Roy shook his head slowly, drew his shoulders back and stepped closer.

“Ben?” Roy called. “How’re things goin’ in there?” He had his hand poised over the gun in his holster.

Glancing over his shoulder to where Hoss and Adam hovered over Hop Sing, Ben gave his own head a slow shake. Another deep breath filled him with enough strength to retrace his steps to the door. After he pulled it open, he stepped hesitantly outside, barely noticing Roy’s obvious relief at seeing him.

“How?” Ben asked a moment later, his gaze sweeping the yard. Roy’s men were gathering weapons, and some of the Chinese were corralling a small group of their kind.

“Darnedest thing,” Roy answered, looking baffled himself. “Turns out half those men are friends or cousins of Hop Sing. They were only pretendin’ to go along with Quan Feng. Turns out he wasn’t near as powerful as he thought he was. How’d it go with them inside?” He nodded toward the house.

It was over, Ben realized. It really was over. He sighed, relishing an instant of relief before true strength took its place. “Roy, we need Paul. Hop Sing—”

“Already sent for him, Ben. Did that soon as I saw them dragging Little Joe out here.”

“Thank heavens.” Ben let relief wash over him once more. “Hop Sing—”

“What about them other two? How come they ain’t come out yet?”

“Who?” Ben asked, confused, his thoughts centered on his family. And Hop Sing. And the girl.

“Who? You know who, Ben! Quan Feng and Dong what’s-his-name.”

“They’re dead,” Ben said bluntly.

“Both of ‘em? How’d that happen?”

“You’ll have to ask Hoss. Listen, Roy, Hop Sing is—”

“I’m sure he’s already takin’ fine care of Joe.” Roy chuckled. “You know I—”

“He’s been shot, Roy!” Ben shouted.

“Little Joe?” Roy’s smile died.

“Hop Sing!”

Concern turned to a look of surprise such as Ben had never seen before on his old friend. “Hop Sing’sbeen shot?” Roy asked.

“You said those men out there are his cousins and friends?” Ben waited for Roy to nod before continuing. “Would you tell them we need help? If any of them know half of what Hop Sing does about the herbs and salves he uses when the boys are hurt…well, Adam and Lin-Wei were both cut up by the glass from that window, and Joe…and now Hop Sing. We need help, Roy. I need help. At least until Paul arrives.”

“Say no more, Ben.” When Roy raised a hand to emphasize his words, Ben realized he’d been babbling like…well, like a child. Like a rattled, frightened, young… “I’m sure you’ll have a house full of help in no time,” Roy added before swiveling around and shouting out for exactly the kind of help Ben had requested.

Within minutes, Roy’s prediction was proved true. Ben had all the help he needed. More than enough to boil water, prepare and administer poultices and bandages, and even to clean up after the destruction the Ponderosa’s intruders had wrought on Ben’s house. But…would it be enough to save Hop Sing? To at least keep him alive until Doctor Paul Martin could step in?

*****

Hop Sing’s cousins and friends were everywhere. They were scurrying back and forth from the kitchen so often Adam was constantly finding himself in the way. Unable to help, thanks to the increasing ache in his ribs, he could do little more than sit and watch. He finally tried to do that very thing in Joe’s room, but it wasn’t long before he ended up getting in the way there, too. A couple of those cousins — or were they friends? — bustled in with soap, water and fresh towels.

“I’ll take care of that,” Adam offered, as eager to tend to his sleeping brother as he was to do something worthwhile. Unfortunately, he was too slow in getting out of the chair; and then he clenched his jaw at the look passing from cousin to cousin, knowing very well what it meant.

“Mistah Adam also need tending,” one of them said. “Please. Rest for now.”

He was one of Hop Sing’s cousins, alright. Maybe he didn’t look quite the same — he was younger, thinner and taller…or at least he held himself taller. Even so, Adam recognized something in his voice. A tonal quality perhaps. Or…

“Rest. Please.” Lightly touching Adam’s arm, the man nodded toward the vacant chair.

But other words, different words, sprouted in Adam’s mind…words he’d heard elsewhere. “You safe here.”

“Please?” the man said again, insistent.

“You?” That one, single word barely escaped Adam’s lips.

The man’s brows knit together. “Hop Jun,” he said a moment later, nodding and touching his breast.

“In the cave. It was you, wasn’t it?”

Hop Jun looked to his companion, but that other man seemed to be paying no attention. Sighing, he finally gave Adam another brief nod. “Hop Jun not want Quan Feng to bring harm to Hop Sing family.” Something in his eyes, a spark of defiance, perhaps, prevented him from fully expressing the expected humility, despite his next statement. “Please forgive this unworthy one for leaving Mistah Adam in that cave. Hop Jun fail to…”

“You saved Hoss’ life. Didn’t you? You made sure that bullet missed him.”

Another glance to his companion preceded another hesitant nod. “I try to send signal…catch reflection of sun with…”

“Thank you.”

His mouth still open on the words Adam had prevented him from voicing, Hop Jun did not glance away. Nor did he nod. Instead, he shook his head. “I should have done more. I send prayer to ancestors, but could not stop bullet from being fired.”

“You warned Hoss. That was enough.”

“I also allow lieutenant of Quan Feng to bring harm to Mistah Adam.”

“You did what you could.”

Yes. This man was defiant, alright. He was still standing tall and he met Adam’s eyes fully, constantly, only breaking the connection long enough to scrutinize the cuts on Adam’s face and arm. “I must return to kitchen…prepare a poultice. Perhaps it benefit more to Mistah Adam and Chan Lin-Wei than to Mistah Little Joe.” He turned briefly to glance at Adam’s brother. “Mistah Little Joe need stronger medicine, more expert care.”

The concern Adam saw in Hop Jun’s eyes a moment later almost seemed to ease his own discomfort. “Looks to me like he’s in fine care, for now. He’ll be alright until Doctor Martin arrives.”

Instead of answering, Hop Jun merely bobbed his head, and then started toward the door.

“Thank you,” Adam added when Hop Jun was beside him.

Hop Jun hesitated long enough to meet Adam’s gaze once more. The fire in his eyes reminded Adam of Little Joe whenever Adam’s young, hotheaded brother was determined to right a wrong.

*****

The night was thick by the time Doctor Martin arrived, and it was near dawn before he sat wearily down with Ben by the fire in the great room. Ben watched his old friend mechanically accept the cup of coffee that was placed in his hands.

“Thank you, Hop Sing.” Paul said the name as mechanically as he’d accepted the cup. And then he started, pulling his brows down in confusion. He roused himself enough to focus on the thin Chinese man in front of him. “I’m sorry. I mean, Hop Jun.”

Hop Sing’s young cousin nodded in understanding, and then bowed respectfully, returning to the kitchen he had taken it upon himself to put back in order.

“How is he?” Ben asked then.

“Alive, thanks to those friends of his. It’s unfortunate Zhing Zhi wasn’t here with the rest of them right at the beginning, but it’s somewhat of a relief to know he’s here now. Between him and that young protégé of his, Hop Sing will get the best of care.”

Ben nodded slowly. “Hop Sing has faith in him. Adam does, too.”

“As do I. Zhi did well tending to both of your boys after that Dawson business last year. That poultice of his did such a remarkable job on Joe’s back I’ve used it myself a time or two since. And….” He paused, his eyes searching Ben’s. “It might just make the difference with Joe’s hand, now.”

“The difference?” Ben asked, unsure what his friend was saying…or not saying.

“I won’t lie to you, Ben. That burn was troublesome when I first saw him this morning, but I had no reason to believe it might not heal properly, given time and proper care.”

Closing his eyes, Ben concentrated on taking a breath. And then another. But his tension wouldn’t be so easily chased away. His own fingers began to dig into the arms of his chair as the image of Joe’s hand and the unnatural bend to the two outermost fingers forced his eyes open again. Exhaling, he tried to shake the image away. “You’re no longer certain,” he stated flatly.

Paul sighed, and then shook his head. “I’m sorry, Ben. I can’t even properly set it until the skin begins to heal. I simply cannot imagine any man willingly doing…well, what they did to that boy of yours.”

“Hop Sing feels responsible.” Ben was suddenly tired. Exhausted. Yet he knew sleep would be impossible. He couldn’t close his eyes. Not without seeing…all of it, all over again.

“I suppose, in a way, he is.” Paul’s words seemed callous and uncharacteristic, but Ben saw only compassion in his old friend’s eyes. “Oh, that’s not to say he did anything wrong, mind you. I’m certainly curious to hear the whole story when he’s able to tell it. Could you imagine a young woman like that falling so head over heels in love with you that she’d chase you all the way from San Francisco?”

When Paul smiled warmly his way, Ben felt his lips quirking upward, ever so slightly. He gave his head a single, quick shake and then rested it against his upraised fist. “I might imagine it happening to Joseph. But I have to admit, with Hop Sing, it is a bit of a surprise.”

“Oh, my.” Paul went suddenly from relaxed to worried.

Ben tensed. “What’s wrong?”

“Joseph,” Paul said, his brows drawing downward again.

Ben watched him, waiting, afraid to breathe.

“We both know he draws trouble like bees to clover,” Paul added then. “Apparently, so does Lin-Wei. If Hop Sing marries her….” He shook his head slowly from side to side, disbelieving. “Either Zhing Zhi or I might just have to take up permanent residence.”

And suddenly, impossibly, Ben found himself chuckling.

*Note: Zhing Zhi is a Chinese physician I introduced in a story called “The Dawson Gang.” His “protégé,” a boy named Chin, was also introduced in that story.

*****

Adam was dozing in Joe’s room when Hoss came in, startling him out of an odd almost dream that left him feeling confined, as though he was still back in the cave.

“Sorry,” Hoss said while Adam straightened in his chair and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “Shouldn’t you be in bed, anyhow? If you can nod off in a chair like that, you can sleep. And you’d be a whole lot more comfortable sleepin’ in bed.”

“Paul said we should keep an eye on Joe.”

“Not every minute. He just wants us to keep checkin’ to make sure that concussion ain’t somethin’ worse. Besides, I heard him tell you to get some sleep, too.”

“I’m fine, Hoss.”

“Sure you are. Maybe I’d believe you if I didn’t know about all them bandages you got on under that robe.”

“The cuts are minor. Superficial.”

“Cracked ribs ain’t.”

“How’s Hop Sing?” Adam’s attempt to shift the conversation was answered with a crumpled brow.

“Doc thinks he’ll be okay,” Hoss said, his words belying the concern evident in his eyes.

“Then what’s wrong?”

Hoss shook his head slowly and scratched his ear. “Adam, I never…I just don’t quite know how to explain it.”

“How to explain what?”

“Hop Sing, he…. Doggone it, Adam! Why’d he have to run out in front of that bullet?”

“To save you from getting shot.”

“Aw, I know that! But…he took that bullet, Adam. He took it, and he knew he was gonna take it.”

“Would you have done the same if you had no other options and that gun had been targeting him? Or Joe? Or me?”

“What kind of fool question is that? You know I would!”

“And if it was Joe or I who had run out in front of that bullet to save you, would you be questioning our motives like you’re questioning Hop Sing’s?”

Hoss’ brow went down even lower as his eyes found Adam’s — although it was clear he was looking inward. “I reckon I….” he started softly, digging his hands deep into his pockets. “I reckon I would, at that.”

“Why?”

“I don’t want to see anything happen to you, ‘specially not on my account.”

“You value our well-being over your own.”

“I reckon I do.”

“Face it, Hoss. You matter to Hop Sing the same as you matter to us. The same way we matter to you. He’d rather see himself get hurt than you, and….” Adam stopped himself, his thoughts and his attention returning to Joe. “And,” he went on, suddenly feeling shaken, “he’d just spent the better part of the day watching those men hurt Little Joe. I imagine he also saw me sprayed with that glass just before he ran out of the guest room.” Adam looked at Hoss again. “I’m sure he thought he had no other choice. He couldn’t bear to see you hurt as well. Maybe even killed.”

“But…. Dadburnit, Adam! He’s Hop Sing! He ain’t….I mean, he…he ain’t….I’ve never even seen him get into a fight. He ain’t the kind of man to throw himself in harm’s way for no good reason.”

“He didn’t do it for no good reason, Hoss. He did it for you. And even a man who’s not used to fightingwill fight to protect the people he loves, don’t you think?”

Hoss sighed, rubbing the back of his head. “You think he loves that Lin-Wei?” he asked a moment later.

Adam found himself smiling sadly, recognizing Hoss’ interest in shifting the conversation much as he had himself moments earlier. “Yes,” he answered, “I think he does. But he would have done what he could to protect her even if he didn’t love her. He is a Cartwright, after all — or as close as he could be to one, anyway. He’s been with us long enough.”

Briefly mirroring Adam’s growing smile, Hoss relaxed the rigid set of his shoulders, and then dragged the desk chair over to sit down beside his older brother at the bedside of his younger one. “She sure got herself into a tight spot, didn’t she?”

“It was her father who got her into that spot.”

“Yeah. And for some reason, she figured Hop Sing could get her out of it.”

“I imagine Hop Sing thought so, too. He would have told us what was going on, otherwise.”

“Sure is somethin’, him keepin’ such a big secret from us. You think he’s got other secrets?”

“I imagine he does.”

“You reckon?”

“I reckon.”

“Well…what are we gonna do about that?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing? But he shouldn’t feel like he has to keep a bunch of secrets from us. We’re his family, ain’t we?”

“Everyone has the right to keep a secret or two, even from his family.”

“Are you sayin’ you have secrets?”

Adam shrugged, one eyebrow quirking upward.

“You do, don’t you?” Looking at Little Joe, Hoss shook his head, clearly puzzled. “I don’t have secrets. I imagine little brother here has a whole lot more than you. But I don’t see the point.”

“You’re an honest and open man, Hoss. A good man.”

“I ain’t no better than you or Joe.”

“And a good brother,” Adam added. “Thank you for coming after me today.”

Hoss crumpled his brows again. “You’d have done the same.”

“That doesn’t mean I can’t thank you.”

“Sure wish we’d have gotten back here sooner, though,” Hoss said, refocusing his attention on Joe.

Adam found himself following suit. The bruises on their young brother’s face were growing darker, more colorful. “It’s ironic,” he said then. “Why did Joe have to pick today of all days to get up early? He’s never up before us.”

“Yesterday, you mean.” Hoss nodded toward the window where an orange glow was starting to stretch across the sky.

Briefly nodding back, Adam returned his attention to Joe. “I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t gotten up before us.”

“I wasn’t even awake ‘til I heard Joe shouting downstairs,” Hoss answered, looking no less puzzled.

“Same here. The work we did yesterday — or rather, the day before yesterday — did us all in, but Joe’s the only one who had the good sense to turn in early. You know, if Joe hadn’t gotten up when he did…if he hadn’t interrupted those men, I imagine they would have started searching the house for either Hop Sing or Lin-Wei.”

“We would of heard ‘em. Don’t you think?”

“I don’t know. As tired as we’d been, maybe not. It’s possible we wouldn’t have known they were here until they were standing right over our beds.”

“And if we would have seen them then….” Hoss’ lip curled upward as though he was growing ill.

“They would have killed any one of us without a second thought as soon as we opened our eyes. You heard what Joe said earlier. They were going to kill him just because he’d seen their faces.”

“Kind of a double miracle then, ain’t it?”

“What’s that?” Adam asked.

“Joe gettin’ up early is one miracle. An’ him savin’ our lives because of it is a whole ‘nuther one.”

“Thingaboutmiracles,” Joe interrupted in a quiet voice, his words slurred together.

“Hey, Joe!” Hoss said, grinning enthusiastically…only to grimace an instant later. “We didn’t mean to wake you, boy.”

“S’okay.” Joe looked from Hoss to Adam. “It was good to hear the two of you talkin’. Made me realize I wasn’t….” He closed his eyes, drawing down his brows just enough to tug at the swelling skin on his forehead. “Made me know it was over.”

Adam figured it was time to shift the conversation yet again, this time for Joe’s sake. “What’s that you were saying about miracles?”

It worked. Joe grinned. “Don’t happen every day. S’don’t expect me to make a habit…of gettin’ up before you.”

It was over, wasn’t it? As Joe’s words began to sink in, Adam’s eyelids started to feel as heavy as his little brother’s. He watched through blinks as Joe slipped back into sleep. And then, after one blink too many, Adam’s own eyes stayed closed. His head bobbed downward.

“Alright, Adam,” Hoss complained, pulling Adam awake again in a flash. “I don’t care what you say. You’re goin’ to your own bed if I have to carry you to it.”

Instead of arguing, Adam accepted his brother’s help as soon as he realized how stiff he’d grown. It was over, just as Joe had said. There were plenty of questions in need of answers, and it was impossible to guess whether another contender for Lin-Wei’s…affections…might pay them a visit. But the house was, at present, capably staffed with plenty of cousins and friends who would clearly do anything to protect Hop Sing — and, right along with him, the family he had joined so many years ago.

Besides, if it was safe enough for Joe to smile, surely it must also be safe enough for Adam to close his eyes for a little while.

*****

Joe was hungry. The welcome scent of coffee, bacon and freshly baked bread pulled him out of the depths of sleep…screamed past the pain in his hand…and drilled through a headache he knew must have come from too many hours in bed. He was hungrier than he’d been since…since the last time he’d answered the call of Hop Sing’s fine cooking.

Hop Sing?

Joe’s eyes opened to find his room still dark, the sun not quite having reached the horizon. He could hear Hoss snoring on the other side of his wall and a light clatter of pans from the kitchen downstairs. For an instant, he was confused, wondering if maybe…just maybe it had all been a dream, a crazy, painfully detailed dream. But in the next instant he realized his hand was still weighted down by splints and bandages, and the ebbing fire beneath all of that chased any thoughts of dreams away.

It had been real. And now the sounds and smells around him were making the reality of it come back as it hadn’t for… what? Days? How many? He wasn’t sure how much time he’d lost.

“We’ll need to keep him sedated for a few days, Ben.” He remembered hearing Doc Martin say those words. He also remembered trying to argue, but his tongue had felt thick, and his head, heavy. Whatever drugs the good doctor had been talking about had already been in his system.

“The treatments I need to administer would be excruciating otherwise.”

Yes, Joe remembered those, too — to a degree. The memory was foggy, clouded, as unreal as a dream. But the pain had pushed through the sedation, awakening him enough to know that his hand had been soaking in something that felt like pure fire…hotter than fire, even.

Joe remembered Pa’s hands on his shoulders, squeezing, holding him still — or trying to, anyways. Joe was pretty sure he’d bucked and kicked like an ornery stallion that refused to be saddle broke.

“Paul, please!” Pa’s voice had called out.

“It’s this or infection, Ben. There’s no in between.”

But there’d still been infection, hadn’t there? The word repeated itself in his head, spoken not just by his pa and the doctor, but by his brothers, as well. And…and a woman. Lin-Wei?

“Zhing Zhi say this will help the infection,” she’d said.

And fever…  There’d also been talk of fever. But he was fine now, wasn’t he? Joe felt weak and his memories were muddled, but he thought his head was pretty clear about the here and now. And his hand hurt, but not like before. And more than anything else, he was hungry. Those smells coming up from the kitchen were just too danged good to ignore.

Getting out of bed was tougher than he’d expected, with all that bandaging making his arm about two times bigger and ten times heavier than it should be. Still, he succeeded without too much effort. Then he faced the matter of dressing. Even that he managed with just a small amount of quiet cursing that never disturbed Hoss’ snoring. The last thing he did was slip a shirt on over top of the sling holding his bandaged arm. He buttoned it just enough to keep it closed, too impatient — and hungry — to keep fumbling at those darn button holes with his clumsy, right hand. He made no attempt to tuck the tails in to the waistband of his slacks.

On the stairs, Joe paused to stare at the light spilling out from the kitchen and…remembering. Hop Sing couldn’t be in there. Could he? No. Hop Sing had been shot. He must still be recovering. Joe needed to see him, to talk with him. But Hop Sing couldn’t be the one in that kitchen now. Pa, maybe?

It suddenly occurred to Joe that he had no idea who had been doing all the cooking in recent days. Who had brought those pots of coffee and trays of sandwiches Joe had glimpsed in his splintered memories?

“Thank you, Hop….” Joe could hear his pa saying those words. But…it couldn’t have been Hop Sing. Could it?

Maybe Joe had been wrong. Maybe Hop Sing was fine. All that talk Joe had heard about him getting shot…maybe that had been a dream.

His heart pounding harder than it should, Joe hurried his steps, anxious to see that Hop Sing was fine. But he couldn’t shake an equally strong sense of foreboding. What if Hop Sing wasn’t in there at all? What if….?

No. It couldn’t happen again. And it had happened before — Joe‘s hand offered proof of that. It hadn’t been some crazy, dream-based premonition. It had been real, a kind of bizarre reality that couldn’t possibly repeat itself. Maybe Hop Sing wasn’t in that kitchen. Maybe someone else was in there, cooking up all those tempting smells that were making Joe’s stomach growl and his mouth water. But it sure couldn’t be sword-bearing Chinese men intent on murder.

Joe grinned despite his apprehension as he began to envision those Chinese men donning aprons and taking turns at the stove.

The grin vanished the instant Joe stepped off the staircase. His grip tightened around the newel post. Hunger gave way to nausea as memories flooded back to him, hitting him as effectively as that first man’s high kick all those days before.

“Joe?” Pa’s voice fell across his shoulders like a blanket on a cold night.

Joe’s breathing slowed. His heartbeat grew less frantic.

“It’s good to see you up, son. But I wish you would have waited for me to help you.” Now it was Pa’s hand falling across Joe’s shoulders as he joined Joe at the bottom of the stairs.

“I was hungry,” Joe said, turning to grin up at his father. It seemed childish, but he felt protected with his father’s arm around him. And he did feel hungry again.

And then, as they walked together toward that kitchen light, Joe felt confident that the only thing awaiting them was a good breakfast and a long talk — a chance to fill in the missing pieces from the time Joe had lost to his fevered and drugged sleep. It was all behind him, a strange kind of history that couldn’t possibly repeat itself.

*****

Reaching the kitchen, Joe wasn’t sure what surprised him more: finding Hop Sing there or seeing that he was seated at the table while another Chinese man did all the work.

“Hop Sing!” Pa stiffened and dropped his arm from Joe’s shoulders.

When Hop Sing started to rise, Pa hurried forward. “No, Hop Sing. There’s no need for you to get up. Stay right where you are. But…what are you doing out of bed? You’re not well enough yet to be moving around so much.”

That Hop Sing wasn’t well enough was evident by his silence. Joe was disturbed that he also kept his eyes lowered. “Honorable Mistah Cartwright,” Hop Sing said, bowing as much as the kitchen table in front of him — and his wound — would allow. “Honorable Mistah Little Joe.”

Joe grinned. “What’s with all this honorable nonsense? It’s just us, Hop Sing.”

Hop Sing still wouldn’t look at him. “Hop Sing have much work to do. Must teach Hop Jun to work for Cartwrights. Must take care of Hoss appetite. See Little Joe eat more. Learn favorite dish. Much to teach. Much to learn.”

“Hop Jun’s doing just fine, Hop Sing.” Pa was smiling while he talked, but Joe could tell he was confused. “You don’t need to go through so much trouble. I think we can survive until you’re well enough to return to the kitchen.”

Hop Sing shook his head slowly, his gaze still focused on the tabletop. “Hop Sing not return. Hop Jun take Hop Sing place.”

“What?” His smile gone, Pa almost seemed to stagger into the chair across from Hop Sing. “You’re not serious. Are you?”

Joe had lost count of all the times over the years when Hop Sing had announced he was quitting. But not one of those times had he ever looked so serious, so…earnest about it.

“Hop Sing not worthy to stay on Ponderosa.”

“Not worthy?” Pa argued. “Why that’s ridiculous. What on earth makes you think that?”

“Hop Sing foolishment bring harm to family. Men of Dong Zhuo-Cheng almost kill Little Joe.”

“Well they didn’t,” Joe shot back. “I’m still here, aren’t I?” Disturbed to find himself suddenly shaking, Joe sat down next to his father.

“Good fortune smiles on Little Joe,” Hop Sing said. “Without good fortune… Hop Sing did nothing. Brought harm to Little Joe. And then did nothing to save you.” Hop Sing finally lifted his head to meet Joe’s gaze. There was a pained look in his eyes. “They took knife to Little Joe throat, and still I did nothing.”

“You couldn’t do anything, Hop Sing. You were tied up same as me.”

“But I save Lin-Wei. I save Lin-Wei by bringing harm to you.” His brows pulled down, Hop Sing shook his head slowly. “Little Joe always like son to Hop Sing. Not same as for Mistah Ben Cartwright, but…still close, like son. But Lin-Wei….” He said nothing further, seeming to look deep inside himself for words he couldn’t find…in any language.

“You love her,” Joe said softly. “I know, Hop Sing. I understand. You did what you had to do. You couldn’t tell them where she was.”

“No. Little Joe not understand. Hop Sing…I…love Lin-Wei. Yes. But not as wife. And not as daughter. Have much time to think since…since we last spoke in this kitchen.”

Joe’s eyes strayed to the floor, where he could still imagine seeing drops of blood — of his own blood — though no traces remained. Hop Jun had cleaned…everything, Joe realized as he scanned the room for signs of what had occurred.

“You said maybe I love Lin-Wei like daughter,” Hop Sing went on. “I thought maybe Little Joe right. But….” He shook his head again. “Not the same. It hurt Hop Sing to see Lin-Wei hurt. But…if Little Joe had been killed….”

Joe saw something then he’d never seen before. A tear spilled from the corner of Hop Sing’s eye.

“Hop Sing, too, would die. Here.” Hop Sing touched his hand to his chest. “I love Lin-Wei. Yes. But not like Little Joe, or Mistah Adam or Mistah Hoss. I love Lin-Wei more like…like cousin.” His eyes strayed to Hop Jun, who was trying to appear busy; although Joe was pretty sure he was just moving things from the counter to the stove and back again.

“It doesn’t matter,” Joe argued. “Even if you didn’t like her, it wouldn’t be right to give her up. You know that’s true. You knew it then, too. So did I.”

“Hop Sing fault. All Hop Sing fault. Mistah Adam. Little Joe.”

“No,” Lin-Wei called softly from the doorway. “Lin-Wei fault. Everything is Lin-Wei fault. It is Lin-Wei who is not worthy. It is Lin-Wei who must go.” Her head was bowed, her eyes, downcast. “Forgive this unworthy one for causing so much pain and sorrow. This unworthy one will pack her things. Hop Sing and Cartwright family will be troubled by her no longer.”

When she turned away, Joe noticed Hop Sing trying to rise, although a grunt of pain held him back.

“Lin-Wei?” Pa shot up from his chair. “Wait. Please. I think…perhaps…the two of you need to talk. But I hope you understand….” Pa’s eyes moved from Lin-Wei to Hop Sing. “I hope you both understand that you are both welcome here. You are both wanted here. Neither of you is unworthy, and neither of you is at fault. Joe?” he said then. “Why don’t you and I go sit in the other room and give them some privacy. Hop Jun? Would you bring coffee, please?”

Joe nodded, feeling numb. He felt weaker than before as he pushed himself to his feet and then turned to meet Hop Sing’s sad eyes once again. “You can’t leave, Hop Sing.” His voice was as unsteady as his legs. There was more Joe wanted to say, but he couldn’t seem to speak the words. Instead, he shook his head, tried a quick smile, and then followed his father from the room.

*****

“Do you think she heard him?”

Joe’s question came like a blessing; it pulled Ben from the disturbing images conjured by Hop Sing’s sense of guilt…images of Little Joe, beaten and dazed, his head drawn back and the point of a sword pressed perilously against his throat.

“They took knife to Little Joe throat,” Hop Sing had said.

So they’d done that more than once, and they’d pressed hard enough to leave shallow cuts in Joe’s skin. What else had they done to Ben’s son? What else that neither Joe nor Hop Sing had yet told him…or likely ever would tell him?

“About not loving her like a wife?” Joe once more called Ben to the moment at hand, reminding him that whatever had happened was behind them. “Or even a daughter?”

Ben turned to his son on the settee adjacent to him. Joe looked gaunt and tired, but he was very much alive. “Yes,” Ben answered, exhaling heavily and sinking deeper into his chair. “I’m afraid it’s likely she did hear him.”

“What do you think he’ll do? Do you think he’ll really leave?”

“I think it’s pretty clear he doesn’t want to, but he feels he must.”

“So we need to get him to see that’s not true.”

“I hope we can. It might not be as simple as—”

“Hey, Joe!” Hoss called from the stairs. “Look there, Adam! He’s up before us again.”

Hoss bounded down the stairs with far more energy than Ben and Little Joe could have summoned between the both of them, and Ben couldn’t help but smile at the warm grin on his middle son’s face — or the questioning one on Adam’s, who followed slowly in his brother’s wake.

“Will wonders never cease?” Adam said as he approached.

“Gotta keep you on your toes, older brother,” Joe shot back in a playful exchange, the likes of which Ben had missed since…since that first morning.

“Somethin’ smells mighty good!” Hoss stopped beside the settee. “I’m hungry enough to eat a whole side of that bacon I’m smellin’!”

“Not until I get my share!” Joe argued. “My stomach’s emptier than yours right now!”

“Little brother, your stomach’s downright puny! I got me a whole lot more that needs fillin’! And I’m aimin’ to…”

“Wait, Hoss!” Ben rose, determined to stop Hoss from moving any closer to the kitchen. “Hop Sing and Lin-Wei are in there. We need to give them a few moments to talk.”

“Hop Sing’s up, too?” Hoss said enthusiastically. “Sounds like we’ve got a lot of good reasons to celebrate today!”

But Adam was clearly more interested in the rest of Ben’s message. “Something wrong, Pa?”

“Darn right, something’s wrong!” Joe answered instead. “Hop Sing’s talkin’ about quitting!”

“Aw, shoot, Joe,” Hoss said. “Hop Sing’s always talkin’ about quitting!”

“Not like this,” Joe said.

Ben nodded his agreement. “I’m afraid this time he’s a bit more serious than usual. He seems to….” He paused when Hop Jun stepped in front of him carrying a tray laden with the coffee pot, four cups and a basket of biscuits.

“Hop Jun will bring breakfast in a few moments,” the cook said as he set the tray onto the low table by the fire.

“Is Lin-Wei okay?” Joe’s softly spoken question was clearly well intentioned, but Ben knew it was also unfair.

“Joseph, please,” Ben admonished. “We can’t expect Hop Jun to…”

“Lin-Wei is gone,” Hop Jun interrupted quickly — maybe even — excitedly?

Startled, Ben didn’t wait for Hop Jun to say anything more. “Gone? What do you mean gone?”

Joe jumped to his feet. “You didn’t let her just…”

But Hop Jun held his hands out, as though to hold back all four Cartwrights. “No,” he said. “She is still in kitchen. But Hop Sing has given her new name.”

“Again?” Ben scoffed. Hop Jun might not even have heard him over the simultaneous response from both his oldest and his youngest son.

“Zhinu?” Joe and Adam asked.

Hop Jun nodded. “Hop Zhinu.”

Joe looked aghast. “Y-you mean he’s marrying her?” His voice rose nearly a full octave by the time he’d finished the sentence.

Hop Jun seemed to pale at hearing Joe’s words almost as much as Joe had at hearing his, but only for a moment — just long enough to leave Ben wondering…until Hop Sing’s young cousin told a story that baffled Ben even more. “No,” Hop Jun answered after gathering his own composure. “But he is welcoming her into the Hop family. All the cousins agreed. The Chan family, the family of Lin-Wei, now believe Lin-Wei was killed with Dong Zhuo-Cheng. They believe it was an accident. A big explosion in a mine Dong Zhuo-Cheng intended to purchase.”

“What are you saying?” Now it was Ben’s turn to be aghast.

“News came to Hop Jun last night. Hop family and Virginia City friends…and Sheriff Coffee,” he pointed out, “all decided the story. Sheriff Coffee asked the Territorial Enterprise to print it. Hop Jun will show Mistah Cartwright after breakfast.”

Adam stepped closer. “You’re saying Roy Coffee fabricated a story to cover up what went on out here?”

Hop Jun met Adam’s gaze and nodded. “It was necessary.”

Ben was outraged. “Why in Heaven’s name would he do such a thing? Why, that’s…that’s….” Ben couldn’t even think of a strong enough word. It was criminal, is what it was. Joe and Hop Sing hadn’t gone through all of what they’d gone through only to have the incident ignored or hidden away.

But Hop Jun was oblivious to Ben’s anger or the confused glances passing between Joe and Hoss. “Necessary,” he repeated, his gaze still locked on Adam’s. “It was necessary to protect Lin-Wei.” Hop Jun held himself so sternly, so seriously, Joe was visibly shaken.

Ben watched Joe ease himself back onto the settee.

Clearly, Adam noticed Joe’s reaction, too. Maybe that was why Adam’s next words sounded so guarded. “What do you mean, protect her? If Dong-Zhuo Cheng is dead, who else would she have to worry about?”

The real question, Ben knew, was who else would they all have to worry about?

“Others would come,” Hop Jun answered. “The father of Lin-Wei would offer her to another. Or another like Quan Feng would try to claim her to gain power over Chan Tai Sun.”

“Chan Tai Sun?” Hoss asked

“Father of Lin-Wei.”

“You’re saying it’s not over.” Joe sounded despondent.

“No. Hop Jun say it is over. Dong-Zhuo Cheng, all of his men and his young wife, killed in the explosion. Hop cousin in San Francisco send telegram yesterday. Hop cousin say Chan family and Dong-Zhuo family both in mourning. They believe this story.” Hop Jun looked so certain, perhaps even…proud…of this information.

Adam was no more pleased than Ben. “Wait a minute. Not all those men were killed. What about the ones taken into custody? Surely they won’t corroborate this story.”

Hop Jun gave his head one, quick nod. “This information not for Hop Jun ears. Not for Mistah Adam ears. This information only few may know.”

“What about Roy?” Ben asked. “Sheriff Coffee?”

Hop Jun shook his head. “Sheriff Roy Coffee very wise man. He end Ponderosa battle by giving responsibility to Chinese community. Take no one to Virginia City jail. Leave to Virginia City Chinese elders.”

No, Ben thought. That’s impossible. Roy would never so blatantly turn his back on the law. “Why on earth would he do such a thing?” He asked, disbelievingly.

“Why you not bring out breakfast?” Hop Sing’s reprimand prevented Hop Jun from responding to Ben’s question and pulled all eyes to the kitchen doorway. Hop Sing’s next words were a litany of Chinese such as Ben would never understand — but Hop Jun clearly did. The Cartwright’s temporary cook hurried back to the kitchen under a continuous, verbal barrage.

Ben couldn’t stop himself from smiling, until he realized Hop Sing was leaning heavily on the slight figure of Lin-Wei — too heavily, perhaps.

Hoss must have noticed as well. “Hop Sing!” he exclaimed happily as he rushed forward to relieve the young woman of her burden. “It sure is good to see you up! But you shouldn’t be. Should you? Pa? Ain’t it too soon for Hop Sing to be up like this?”

“Yes, Hoss, it is.” Ben’s stern answer earned him a glare from Hop Sing unlike any he’d seen before and temporarily halted the small man’s tirade.

And then, in a motion so startling even Ben was left speechless, Hoss lifted Hop Sing into his arms to carry him the distance back to bed. “Doggone it, Hop Sing! You’re even more stubborn and ornery than little brother over there,” Hoss complained over Hop Sing’s own complaints, a cacophony spewed out in a mixture of Chinese and English.

“Mistah Hoss put Hop Sing down!” Hop Sing demanded, beating at Hoss’ arms with loose fists. “Hop Sing have many work to do before leave Ponderosa!”

Hoss was undeterred. “Aw, Hop Sing! You wouldn’t leave your family. Would you’?”

“Hop Sing family Virginia City and San Francisco!”

“No,” Ben said, placing himself in front of Hoss to force Hop Sing to look at him. “Hop Sing’s family is right here. Your home is on the Ponderosa, Hop Sing. With us.”

Hop Sing! Not Cartwright Sing!”

“Why can’t you be both?” Adam asked.

Strangely silent, Hop Sing stared at him.

“Yeah!” Joe said enthusiastically, once again rising to his feet. “Hop Jun said you took Lin-Wei into the Hop family. Seems to me Pa took you into the Cartwright family before I even knew how to spell Cartwright!”

“You sure you can spell it, now?” Adam teased.

“Well, Hop Sing?” Ben asked before Joe could reply. “What do you think? Will you stay with your family, here?”

Trapped, Hop Sing could do nothing to hide his emotions, which Ben was pleased to see shifting from surprised to touched, to…relieved. Finally, Hop Sing nodded briefly before starting another barrage of broken English. “What Mistah Hoss wait for? Hop Sing need go back to bed! Many work to do to get house back in order. Must get well so can work hard. Work, work, work. All time work.”

Halfway up the stairs, his words shifted to Chinese again, and Ben smiled…first at Adam, and then at Little Joe, confident that life on the Ponderosa would soon be back to normal.

When Hop Jun announced that breakfast was being set on the table, Ben turned to respond, and noticed that Lin-Wei — or Hop Zhuni — was still standing near the kitchen doorway. There was something strange in the way her gaze, seeming lost and uncertain, followed after Hop Jun rather than Hop Sing.

“Zhuni?” Ben asked softly. “I hope you’ll be joining us.”

“Sure she will,” Joe answered when she hesitated. “She’s a Hop now, isn’t she?”

Ben looked at him, raising an eyebrow.

Joe shrugged. “She’s practically family!”

*****

Nearly a week passed and still Ben did not feel comfortable in his own home; every day he seemed to come across another of Hop Sing’s dutiful cousins scurrying past. And Ben wasn’t the only one left out of sorts. Hop Sing seemed a shell of his former self, and Lin-Wei — or rather Zhinu — moved through the house like a ghost — not like one of Hop Sing’s “hungry ghosts,” but rather like a lost soul. No matter how much Ben or his sons tried to make her feel at home, it was clear she didn’t feel that way at all. She spent most of her time in the kitchen with Hop Jun and very little tending to Hop Sing. Of course, Hop Sing’s physical well-being was well tended by others. Even so, Ben couldn’t help but wonder if her attentions might help to heal whatever damage had been done to his spirit.

Foolishment, Ben chided himself silently, using Hop Sing’s own unique way of making it clear there was no point to pursuing a particular line of thought. Usually, the word would make Ben chuckle softly to himself. But things were disturbingly far from usual.

Sighing, he tried to return his attention to something far less perplexing — his ledger books for the ranch. But he’d barely lifted his pencil when the sound of riders called him to the window behind his desk. Maybe Roy Coffee was finally paying him a visit. Ben still had a lot of questions about how his old friend had handled things at the conclusion of that odd battle. But, no…. The riders were Chinese, all three of them. Surely they were there to see Hop Sing. And since Hop Sing was resting on the front porch and therefore already available to greet them, Ben decided there was no point to abandoning his ledgers yet again.

“I thought I heard riders,” Adam called from the stairs.

Ben glanced up, grunting in acknowledgement before turning back to his books. “More of Hop Sing’s friends.”

“Maybe we should change the name of the Ponderosa to New Shanghai.”

The quip brought Ben’s attention back to his son and he couldn’t help but match Adam’s grin, if only for a moment. “So it would seem,” he sighed.

“Don’t worry, Pa. Things will be back to normal soon.”

“Yes, I know. At least…I hope so.”

“Is Hop Jun still out with Hoss?” Adam asked, looking toward the kitchen.

“Are you hungry, son?”

“No, just curious. Since he’s been spending all his free time out at the corrals, Hoss was going to ask if he wanted to try riding today.”

“He did, did he? I wonder what Hop Sing would have to say about that.”

Adam’s grin held firm. “Oh, he would probably call it foolishment and try to chase the poor kid back into the kitchen where he belongs.”

“Did I miss it?” Joe said from the top of the stairs.

“Miss what?” Ben asked.

“Hop Jun said he was going to ride Pepper.”

“Pepper?” Ben and Adam replied simultaneously.

“Isn’t Pepper a bit high strung for a novice rider?” Ben asked then.

Adam shook his head, disbelieving. “Hoss knows better than to…”

“A novice?” Joe chuckled as he moved down the stairs, his half-buttoned and untucked shirt fluttering with the breeze he stirred. “Hop Jun’s no novice. He’s been riding since he was a kid in China.”

“And you know this because…?” Adam prompted.

“I asked him. You know, older brother, you can find out a lot about someone if you just ask him a question now and then rather than spending all your time speculating.”

Joe’s grin and Adam’s exasperation brought a sense of peace to Ben that was peculiar in its familiarity. “Well,” Ben said as he stepped toward his youngest son to take care of the buttons Joe had been too impatient to tackle with his clumsy right hand. “What do you say we all go outside and see just how good of a rider Hop Jun happens to be?”

Adam sat on the edge of Ben’s desk and crossed his arms. “Oh, I don’t know, Pa. You think Little Joe’s old enough to be around all those horses out there?”

“Very funny, older brother,” Joe complained. “You try buttoning your shirt left handed for a change.”

“I’m sure I could handle it.”

“Oh, yeah? Are you willing to bet a week’s worth of chores on that?”

Adam raised an eyebrow in consideration. “It’ll be a few weeks yet before you’re up to doing any of my chores.”

“Well,” Joe countered, “with those ribs of yours, it’ll be a few weeks yet before you’re up to doing mine.”

Adam nodded. “Which means Hoss is already doing both, and has something to gain if we add his chores to the pot.”

“Boys,” Ben admonished lightly.

“It’s a deal!” Joe said, thrusting out his right hand to shake on it.

“We’ll need to work out the terms,” Adam added.

“Boys!” Ben said more loudly.

“We wrap up your right hand,” Joe went on, ignoring his father, “same as my left hand’s wrapped up. And you keep it that way the whole time mine is…”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Joseph!” Ben scolded.

“Come on, Pa!” Joe argued. “That’s the only way to prove…”

“There will be nothing to prove,” Ben said, “because I will not have my sons making bets when there are far more important things to do.”

“Like what?” Joe asked. “What can I do with my left hand like this? I can’t even button my own shirt!”

“Why don’t you ask Hop Sing?” Ben decided. “He’s always had ideas to keep you…occupied.”

It was strange to see Joe’s mood change so drastically then. Where he’d been excited first with the idea of Hop Jun riding a high strung horse and then with egging on his older brother, suddenly Joe looked…deflated.

Before Ben could ask what was wrong, the front door came open and Hop Jun stepped inside.

“Honorable Mistah Ben, Mistah Adam, Mistah Little Joe.” He bowed to each in turn. “Wong Lee brings news from San Francisco.”

“What sort of news?” Ben asked.

Hop Jun glanced nervously toward the yard. “Perhaps it is best if you hear for yourself.”

*****

“Rumors have begun to circulate.” The speaker, Wong Lee, was a respected elder amongst Virginia City’s Chinese population. He was not one to worry over mere rumors; yet Ben was sure he saw something akin to worry in the man’s eyes. “There are some who disbelieve the stories of Chan Lin-Wei’s death. This will prompt curiosity…or worse. We must expect men to travel to Virginia City, perhaps even to the Ponderosa.”

“Why the Ponderosa?” Ben shot back. “I thought you and Sheriff Coffee went to great lengths to cover up what happened here!”

Lee dipped his head in acknowledgement. “Sheriff Coffee was a wise man to keep our own warring factions separate from your courts.”

“Why?” Ben asked harshly. “Why was that wise? Justice is…”

“There is no justice,” Lee interrupted, “for Chinese men in white man’s courts. There would be…repercussions. Perhaps even rebellion. As it is, there is no need to involve your soldiers. And Chinese men will not come to the Ponderosa to avenge their clansmen.”

Ben stiffened. “But you still believe they will come.”

Lee dipped his head once more. “They will come. Not because of a battle, but because the relationship between Hop Sing and Chan Lin-Wei is known. This is a truth we could not hide.”

“It could happen again,” Joe said softly, almost too softly to hear.

But Ben was standing too close not to hear the words…or the resignation in his young son’s voice. He wrapped a hand protectively over Joe’s shoulder, and felt his eye twitch at his own sense of unease.

“How do we stop them?” Adam asked before Ben had a chance.

“We spread new rumors,” Lee answered. “We tell of a young woman seen traveling south with her husband. And then we send Hop Zhinu east.”

“Not alone,” Hop Sing said.

Ben looked at him, surprised to find that Hop Sing didn’t even glance at Zhinu, who had come outside to stand beside Hop Jun. Hop Sing was looking only at Wong Lee.

“No,” Lee agreed. “Not alone. It is advised that Hop Zhinu marry. Perhaps to a member of the clan that has already claimed her. If she leaves here with a husband, then anyone who might happen to find her should accept there can be no honor to breaking the bond of marriage by force.”

Hop Sing did look at Zhinu then, and she, him. Ben also noticed that Hop Jun had laid his hand over Zhinu’s shoulder much as Ben had done with Little Joe. As he watched, he saw Zhinu’s hand reach up to touch Hop Jun’s, although her eyes remained locked with Hop Sing’s.

“Is Zhinu ready to marry?” Hop Sing asked quietly.

Her eyes danced away, but quickly returned to Hop Sing’s. She gave a hesitant nod.

“Hop Jun?” Hop Sing said then.

The young man nodded, and then bowed low to his elder, showing more honor, more respect than Ben had ever seen in him before.

Puzzled, Ben glanced at each of his sons. Adam and Hoss seemed taken aback, but not nearly as shocked as Ben was himself. And Joe… Joe smiled — sadly but knowingly. What else had Ben been overlooking in recent days?

*****

Two hours later, Hop Zhinu and Hop Jun left the Ponderosa riding two horses Ben felt obliged to give them in honor of a wedding he would never have imagined possible when he’d woken that morning. Utterly stunned, he watched Hop Jun’s expert handling of a troubling horse Joe had named Pepper as much for its dapple coloring as for its fiery demeanor — and he couldn’t help but wonder how much else he didn’t know about the young man who had so recently taken over Hop Sing’s kitchen.

“Niulang.” Hop Sing’s voice turned Ben’s attention back to where his wise, Chinese cook had been sitting quietly on the porch.

“What’s that, Hop Sing?”

But Joe seemed to understand. “The cowboy from the story,” he said.

Hop Sing nodded, wearing a contemplative smile.

“I’m sorry, Hop Sing,” Joe added.

The cook’s smile faded. “Why sorry?”

“That should have been you.”

“No.” As Hop Sing shook his head slowly, Ben noticed an odd look coming over him — a look of…anger…of mock anger, a look that told Ben things were starting to return to normal. “Why Little Joe no listen!” he admonished. “Hop Sing tell Little Joe many time, QiXi is story for children! Not for cook! Hop Sing have too many work for such foolishment! Lin-Wei too young, head in clouds even more than Little Joe! Hop Sing busy enough with Little Joe! No time for such foolishment!”

Suddenly, Ben found himself chuckling. And he wasn’t alone. Adam and Hoss were chuckling, too. Even Hop Sing was wearing a rare, genuine smile.

“Tell me the truth, Hop Sing,” Adam said then. “How long have you been working on pairing those two up?”

“Hop Sing?” Hoss asked. “He wouldn’t do a thing like that. Would he? Hop Sing? Did you?”

“Enough foolishment for one day.” Hop Sing slowly got to his feet. “Hop Sing need rest. Now all cousins go home, have many work to do.”

“Oh, no you don’t,” Ben said. “You’re not going back to work until Doctor Martin says you’re ready.”

Hop Sing looked at Ben, seeming to have run out of complaints. Then, giving one terse nod, he eased himself slowly toward the house. When he passed Little Joe, he stopped, said something no one else could hear, and then continued on. Joe watched him, keeping his back to his family until Hop Sing disappeared through the door.

“What’d he say?” Adam asked after a while.

Joe turned and looked to each of them in turn, his eyes seeming unwilling to land anywhere for long. Then he took a heavy breath and wrapped his good hand around the back of his neck. “No rose is worth losing the garden.”

“What in tarnation’s that supposed to mean?” Hoss asked.

Joe shrugged, grinned and rolled his eyes as though he was as bewildered as his brother. But Ben could see he wasn’t bewildered at all. And as resigned as Joe had looked earlier, now he just looked…relieved.

 

Epilogue

Rotating his arm to work out the kinks, Joe closed the barn door and started toward his own front door. His hand ached more than his shoulder, but he wasn’t bothered by it. In fact, it felt good to ache like that. He was finally able to put in a full, hard day’s work rather than wasting time sitting around the house or clumsily fending his way through small yet necessary chores. Still, it would also feel good to take a long, hot bath — unless he decided to collapse into bed first.

He was contemplating whether he should abandon the bath idea altogether when he noticed someone standing by the side of the house. “Hop Sing?”

The cook barely glanced at Joe; his full attention was given over to the myriad stars overhead. “It is tonight,” he said — as though Joe should know exactly what he meant.

“What?” Joe followed his gaze.

“QiXi.” Hop Sing nodded. “Seventh night of seventh moon.”

The statement caught Joe’s breath. For weeks now, Hop Sing had been his old self. Things had gotten back to normal. Joe had seen nothing of loss in him, nothing to indicate regret. But…it was there now, wasn’t it? “You miss her.”

Finally, Hop Sing looked at Joe. Then he smiled. “In the story of QiXi, Niulang and Zhinu were forced apart. Those three stars, there.” He pointed to a triangle in the sky. “That one is Zhinu, and there is Niulang. So distant. But on one night, on this night, seventh night of seventh moon, a bridge is made to join them. If you see shooting star, you know they cross that bridge.”

Joe and Hop Sing watched together in silence. When nothing happened, Joe asked about the third star.

“Children,” Hop Sing answered.

“The children of Niulang and Zhinu?”

Hop Sing nodded, still studying the heavens.

“That’s a pretty sad story, Hop Sing. I guess I figured they must have lived happily ever after.” Joe watched the older man for a while longer. “Is that why you let her go? Because you didn’t think the two of you could live happily ever after?”

“No. Hop Sing not think such thing. Hop Sing let his Zhinu go because he know there could be no happily ever after. Hop Sing have old heart, old thoughts. His Zhinu have young heart, young thoughts. Hop Sing would be teacher, not husband. Zhinu would…outgrow him.” He took a long breath and returned his attention to Joe. “Hop Zhinu and Hop Jun will grow together. Have many children. Not be forced apart. Maybe they will know happily ever after.”

“You do miss her.”

“Hop Sing miss the story.” He shook his head. “Not the girl. Lin-Wei brought pain, here.” He touched his chest. “And here.” He moved his hand to Joe’s chest. “And to Little Joe family. Now Little Joe family have chance to know happily ever after.”

“That means you too, Hop Sing.”

Smiling again, Hop Sing nodded. “Little Joe finish with horses?”

Joe giggled at the sudden focus on work. “Yes, Hop Sing. I finished with the horses. What about you? Is supper ready?”

“Little Joe family already eating.”

“I suppose I’d better go in then, before Hoss takes my share.”

“Hop Sing save food for Little Joe.”

“You did?”

“Mistah Adam ask Hop Sing to draw hot bath for Little Joe before supper.”

“He did?” Joe didn’t know whether to be appreciative or angry. But…maybe he’d outgrown the need to prove himself. He couldn’t seem to find enough anger in him.

Could Lin-Wei really outgrow Hop Sing?

“Mistah Adam say Little Joe very sore,” Hop Sing added.

“Huh.” Taken aback, Joe looked toward the house. “Then why’d he tell me to bed down the horses instead of doing it himself?”

“Because Hop Sing ask Mistah Adam to keep Little Joe outside.”

“What?” Joe asked, startled. “Why?”

“QiXi.”

Joe followed Hop Sing’s gaze upward once more. Then he saw a shooting star. “Hey!” he giggled again. “Did you see that, Hop Sing? I guess that means they crossed the bridge, doesn’t it?”

Hop Sing nodded. “Hop Sing story is like stars of QiXi.” Once again, he pointed to each of the three stars. “There is Hop Sing family in China. There is Hop Sing family here. And there…is Cartwright Sing family.”

“Looks like that’s the brightest one, Hop Sing.”

Joe’s observation brought another nod from the older man. “But Hop Sing stars also different from QiXi. For Hop Sing, bridge not come only one time each year. For Hop Sing, bridge always there. Hop Sing…I…did not see bridge until almost too late. Little Joe almost die for my blindness.”

Joe’s grin vanished. “Come on, Hop Sing! How many times do we have to tell you it wasn’t your…”

“Little Joe open my eyes. Little Joe ready to die for my foolishment. Little Joe make bridge…real…for me.”

Unsure what to say, Joe watched Hop Sing watching the stars until he settled for saying, simply, “Good.”

A few silent moments later, Hop Sing turned back to him, scowling. “Why Little Joe waste time outside? Bath water get cold! Hop Sing not make hot again because Little Joe foolishment!” Then he stomped away, bellowing out a string of Chinese complaints all the way to the front door. But when he put his hand on the latch, he went silent again, pausing long enough to give Joe a quick smile and nod before disappearing inside.

“Well, what do you know,” Joe said to himself. He was puzzled, but then again, Hop Sing often left him feeling that way. Truth be told, he was also a bit proud — because without really saying it, somehow Hop Sing’s words caused Joe to believe that maybe Hop Sing was proud of him. And with Joe being analmost son of the man…well…maybe that’s part of the reason he didn’t feel like he had to prove himself to anyone anymore.

Taking another quick look at the stars, Joe saw another streak of light in the sky. “What do you know,” he repeated softly. Then, shaking his head and chuckling, he headed inside.

***The End***

 

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