Bloodlines (Kathleen)

Summary:  Paris McKenna, an old friend of the Cartwright family, suddenly falls ill on her way to San Francisco and a new job. She reluctantly accepts Ben’s invitation to rest and regain her strength at the Ponderosa. However, she also carries the burden of a devastating secret that could rip the close-knit Cartwright Family to shreds.

“Bloodlines” is the first story in a series. Fair warning: this story includes the addition of a non-cannon character.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA (Adult situations)
Word Count:  46,400


“Careful, Ma’am, watch your step.”

“Thank you, Mister Dawson,” Paris McKenna said politely. Though the Irish lilt in her voice had diminished considerably after more than thirty years of living in the United States, a trace yet lingered. She accepted the stage coach driver’s proffered hand, and stepped gingerly from the stage coach to the dusty street. She, then, turned, her eyes easily meeting his, without having to tilt her head upward. “How long will we be in Virginia City?”

“The coach leaves at half past three, Ma’am,” Mister Dawson replied.

Paris wore a modest dark blue traveling suit with matching gloves and a plain white linen blouse. Her outfit had been long out of style when she purchased it second hand from a thrift store in Chicago ten years ago. Even so, the garments were well made and sturdy, proof borne out by a decade of nearly continuous wear. Her hair, dark brown laced liberally with strands of silver gray, was pulled severely back away from her face in a simple chignon. The lipstick and rouge, both sparingly applied, accentuated, rather than hid her lined, care worn face. Her eyes, the color of a clear summer sky at its zenith, were the only striking features in an otherwise commonplace appearance.

She glanced at the elegant gold watch pendant, the only ornamentation amid her severe attire. It was given to her, more years ago now than she cared to admit, by a man she once loved more than life itself. Though they had parted company long ago, the watch had become and would always remain a cherished keepsake. The time was a few minutes before noon. “One more question, Mister Dawson,” she ventured quietly, almost apologetically. “I-If I may?”

“Yes, Ma’am?”

“It’s been . . . well, let’s just say it’s been a fair number of years since I last . . . uh, VISITED . . . Virginia City. Can you tell me where I can go to eat lunch and maybe rest awhile before the stage leaves?”

“Yes, Ma’am, the International Hotel has a decent enough restaurant,” he replied, eying her with an apprehensive frown. “I’d be more than happy to escort you there, if you wish.”

“I appreciate your kind offer, but I can manage,” Paris said in a gentle, yet firm tone. “If you would be so kind as to direct me?”

“Yes, Ma’am. Just cross the street here and walk on down to the corner.”

“Thank you, Mister Dawson,” she said quickly, with a smile that never quite reached her eyes.

“You’re welcome, Ma’am,” Dawson replied, tipping his hat.

“Virginia City . . . ” Paris mused silently, as she made her way across the road. “Sixteen, almost seventeen years now since I last . . . ”

Memories of the past, of another life, began to rise, unwanted and uninvited, to the forefront of her thoughts. Two horses stood at the edge of a vast lake, surrounded on all sides by tall ponderosa pine. Their riders, a beautiful twenty year old, with a long thick mane of dark brown curls and sparkling sky blue eyes, and a handsome man old enough to have been her father, stood side by side at the edge of the water. Her quick, easy laughter, prompting a tender, indulgent smile; the quick, feathery seemingly accidental touch of a hand; a tender glance, followed by a warm embrace . . . .

With those memories rose all of the feelings, just as vibrant, warm, and intense as they had been then. Paris had unwittingly opened a Pandora’s box. She desperately tried to squelch the images and feelings of the past, but found doing so akin to trying to put water back after a dam has burst.

A sudden collision with what felt for all the world like a brick wall, finally brought her reverie to a screeching halt. Paris stumbled backwards a few steps and would have fallen had it not been for the steadying influence of a pair of massive hands and strong arms.

“Ma’am, are you alright?”

Paris cautiously opened her eyes and found herself staring into the beefy face of a large, muscular man, wearing a white ten-gallon hat. An anxious frown knotted his brow.

“Ma’am . . . ?”

“I-I’m fine,” Paris gasped. She shook her head, took a deep breath, and glanced up. “Please excuse me, it’s my fault, just silly bit of wool gathering . . . . ” As she glanced up, her words of apology suddenly died in her throat.

“M-Miss Paris?!” The concern for her well being on his face gave way to astonishment. “Miss Paris, is that really you?”

“Yes, uh . . . Eric?” Paris murmured in dismay.

“Yes, Ma’am,” astonishment, in turn, gave way to a smile of pure delight. “Well, I’ll be danged! When did you return to Virginia City?”

“I-I haven’t actually,” Paris replied. “I’m just passing through on my way to San Francisco.”

Delight faded into mild disappointment. “I sure hope you can get out to the Ponderosa while you’re here,” Hoss Cartwright said. “I know Pa and Joe would love to see you again.”

A cold, heavy lump began to coalesce in the pit of her stomach. His Pa was the very last person in the world she wanted to see. “Oh, Eric, I-I wish I could,” Paris stammered, lying through her teeth. “But, that won’t be possible. The stage leaves at half past three. I’ll only be here long enough for the driver to change horses, and p-pick up the mail. ”

“Well, maybe you can come out another time, when you can stay longer,” Hoss said affably. “Have you had lunch yet?”

“No,” Paris said quietly. “I was just going down to the International Hotel. The driver said they have a good enough restaurant.”

“That they do,” Hoss agreed. “But, not as good as Hop Sing.”

“I don’t think ANYBODY’s as good as Hop Sing,” Paris admitted. “Eric,” she had always called him by his first name, “why don’t you join me? That way . . . well, the two of US can have a brief visit before I leave.” As she uttered the words of invitation, she had the momentary, disorienting feeling of standing outside her body watching it move and talk like a marionette in the hands of a skilled puppeteer. How could own her voice and lips betray her so cruelly?

“Thank you, Ma’am, I will,” Hoss accepted the invitation eagerly. He gently took her arm and unobtrusively steered her across the street. Silence, a thoroughly unsettling one on her part, descended upon them.

*****

Ben Cartwright stepped out of the bank and found his youngest son, Joseph, and daughter, Stacy, waiting with the buckboard, its back loaded with enough dry goods to last out the next month.

“Ready to go when you are, Pa,” Joe declared with a grin.

“I’ll be ready as soon as we collect Hoss,” Ben said, glancing around. His middle son was no where in sight. “Do either of you happen to know where he is?”

“I saw him crossing the street, down there by the stage coach,” Stacy replied pointing. “He was with some lady.”

“Oh yeah?” Joe queried with a devilish gleam in his eyes. “A lady, eh? Anyone WE know, Stace?”

Stacy shook her head. “I think she’s a stranger in town,” she said. “I’m pretty sure I saw her get off the stage. She and Hoss were headed in the direction of the hotel.”

“When was this?” Ben asked.

“Just a few minutes ago,” Stacy replied.

“You want me to go get him, Pa?” Joe offered with a sly grin.

“No, I’LL go,” Ben decided, leveling a warning glare in the general direction of his youngest son. “You and Stacy wait here.”

*****

“So. How have you been, Eric . . . . ” Paris asked, after she and Hoss had been seated and placed their order, “since we . . . last saw each other?” The last four words tumbled out in an disconcerted rush.

“I’ve been fine, Miss Paris,” Hoss replied. His initial delight at running into an old friend literally, had slowly given way to uneasy concern. He had seen more meat on the corpse of a wild animal that had lain for weeks in the desert than his companion had on her bones. Her pale skin, thinned to an alarming translucence, the dark circles under her eyes, the halting step all belonged on a person at least twice her age. Had it not been for the watch pendant she wore around her neck, Hoss doubted he would have recognized her. How had the beautiful, warm, vivacious, loving, and passionate Paris McKenna he remembered turned into the old, sad, careworn, and distant woman seated across the table from him?

“How about Becky Sue?”

Hoss grinned in spite of himself. “Miss Paris, I can’t believe you actually remembered Becky Sue and me after all these years,” he chuckled. “She’s been married Ian McFarley for going on eleven years now.”

“Oh, Eric!” she cried in utter dismay. “I’m so sorry things didn’t work out between you.”

“Nothing to be sorry about, Miss Paris,” Hoss said quietly. “Becky Sue and me realized a long time ago we was better off as . . . well, as just good friends, if you get my meaning.”

“I do,” Paris replied. “How about the rest of the family? How have they been?”

“Adam’s living in Sacramento now,” Hoss replied, as a waiter set a cup of coffee before Hoss, and a cup of hot tea before Paris.

“Pursuing that career as an architect?” Paris queried, as she reached for the dainty porcelain creamer at the center of the table.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Hoss replied. “He’s with a real prestigious firm there, and, from what he says in his letters there’s plenty of work to do.”

“Grand! That’s grand,” Paris replied, unconsciously lapsing into her old ways of speaking. “Whatever happed to that woman he was so find of? The widow with a daughter?”

“She fell in love someone else, and ended up following HIM to San Francisco,” Hoss said. “Adam fell in love with someone else, too . . . and married her! A real fine gal he met out in Sacramento. I only met her once . . . when Pa, Joe, and me went to Sacramento for their wedding, but I really liked her.”

“Any children?”

“Yes, Ma’am, two fine, strapping, energetic young’uns, or so Adam says in his letters,” Hoss replied. “The boy was named Adam Benjamin, for his pa and grandpa. The girl was named for Dolores Elizabeth for both her grandmas.”

“That’s lovely,” Paris said with all sincerity, as she raised the creamer to pour a bit of its contents into her tea. Suddenly, her hand trembled. The creamer slipped from her fingers and crashed onto the table, drenching her dark blue suit with cream.

Hoss immediately grabbed his napkin and began to mop up the table, while Paris sat there, stunned. The waiter discreetly returned to the table with a pitcher of water and a handful of cloth napkins.

“Ma’am?” the waiter gently placed his hand on her shoulder.

Paris started violently, nearly hitting her head against the pitcher of water in his hand.

Hoss took the napkins from the waiter and quietly asked him to leave the pitcher of water. The waiter nodded and complied, then quickly withdrew.

“Miss Paris . . . . ?” Hoss frowned. Though she had her head bowed, he could plainly see that she was crying. “Miss Paris, are you alright?”

Paris swallowed, and sheepishly reached for one of the napkins in his hand. “I’m fine, Eric, really,” she said, forcing a smile. She wiped away the last of her tears, then started to work on her skirt. “I-I’m just tired, that’s all. It’s been a very long, arduous journey.”

“Are you sure that’s all it is?” Hoss queried doubtfully.

“Yes, I’m sure,” she said wearily.

*****

Ben Cartwright stepped quietly into the International Hotel restaurant and approached Gretchen Braun, the restaurant manager and an old friend. She was a buxom woman, about the same age as Ben. She wore a print dress, of blue flowers and ribbons on top of a field of white, and a fresh, clean white apron. Her salt and pepper hair was worn in a French twist. Since the death of her husband six years ago, she had run the restaurant with an iron hand, transforming it from a greasy spoon to the fine dining enjoyed by resident and visitor alike. “Gretchen?”

“Ben Cartwright, long time no see!” Gretchen Braun exclaimed in surprised delight. The soft accent of her native Bavaria had remained as it had been from the time she and her husband arrived on American shores four plus decades ago. “Would you like a table?”

“Not today, Gretchen,” Ben declined. “I’m looking for Hoss.”

“He came in a little while ago with a woman,” Gretchen replied. “They’re right over there, next to the window.”

Ben spotted them immediately. He studied the woman for a moment, frowning. Something about her struck a distressingly familiar chord within. “Gretchen . . . . ”

“What is it, Ben?”

“Do you know who that woman is?” he asked.

Gretchen shook her head and shrugged. “ ‘fraid not, Ben.”

He thanked Gretchen, and made his way across the room to the table occupied by his middle son, Hoss, and his companion. “Hoss, I . . . . ” Paris glanced up sharply at the sound of his voice. Their eyes met. Ben’s voice trailed away to stunned silence.

“Pa, you r-remember . . . Miss Paris . . . don’t you?” Hoss awkwardly tried to break the silence.

“Y-yes, yes, of course . . . . ” Ben stammered.

Paris rose none too steadily to her feet. “Eric, I think I’d better take a rain check on that lunch,” she murmured. “I-I just remembered some things I need to buy before the stage leaves.” She turned and favored Ben with a wan, embarrassed smile. “It . . . it was good seeing you, too, Ben . . . i-if only for a few minutes.”

“Sorry you hafta rush off, Miss Paris. Maybe next time . . . . ”

“Y-yes, Eric . . . m-maybe next time.” Paris turned, fully intending to walk out of the restaurant and find a notions shop to hide in until the stage left. As she turned, a wave of dizziness hit. She reached out an arm to steady herself.

Hoss gently stepped over and took her arm. “Miss Paris, are you sure you’re alright? Maybe you’d better sit down, and . . . . ”

Her eyes rolled up under her eyelids. With a soft moan, she collapsed and fell against Hoss in a dead faint.

“Hoss, take her up to room number 208.” Gretchen Braun was right there at his elbow. “The door’s unlocked. Ben, I’ve already sent Luis to fetch the doctor.”

“Thank you, Gretchen,” Ben said gratefully. “Hoss, you take Miss Paris and go on up. I’ll be back after I let Joe and Stacy know . . . . ”

“Let Joe and Stacy know . . . what?” It was Joe.

Ben turned and found himself staring into the anxious eyes of his two younger children.

“Pa, I know you asked us to wait . . . . ” Joe began. His eyes moved from Ben’s face to the limp form in Hoss’ arms. “Hoss, who— ”

“Miss Paris, Joe,” Hoss said.

Joe’s eyes went round with astonishment.

“Pa, who’s Miss Paris?” Stacy queried sotto voice, her sky blue eyes riveted to Paris’ face. For some inexplicable reason, she felt afraid.

“Miss Paris is an old friend of the family,” Ben said gently, hoping to quell the sudden anxiety he sensed in his daughter. “It seems she was passing through on the stage and suddenly took ill.”

“Anything we can do?” Joe queried.

“No,” Ben shook his head. “Mrs. Braun’s already sent for the doctor. Why don’t you and Stacy go on home and unload the supplies, then come back for Hoss and me?”

Joe nodded ascent. “Come on, Stace . . . . ”

No reply. Her eyes remained glued to Paris McKenna’s flaccid face.

“Stace . . . . ?” Joe took her by the shoulder and shook her gently.

Stacy started, and turned towards Joe.

“Come on, Stacy, let’s go.”

*****

Stacy Cartwright rode in the buckboard beside her brother in utter silence, her thoughts riveted to the face of Miss Paris. She had never so much as laid eyes the woman before this afternoon; never even heard of her. That last, in itself was odd, given that she was supposed to be an old friend of the family. But, there was something beyond all that. Something very compelling that had begun to stir up odd, unsettling feelings. Her trepidation deepened.

“Stacy LOUISE . . . . ”

The sound of the hated middle name stirred her abruptly from her troubled reverie. “Joseph Francis Cartwright, you know I hate it when you call me that!” she rounded on him furiously.

“What’s wrong with Louise? I kind of like it!” Joe teased. “In fact, I like it so much, I’m gonna start calling you LOO-WEESE instead of Stacy.”

Stacy stuck her tongue out at him, then lapsed into stony silence, her eyes fixed on the road ahead.

“S-sorry, Stace,” he apologized contritely, taken aback by her angry silent response. “I’ve been trying for the last half mile to get through to you, but you’ve been stuck somewhere on cloud nine. It was the only way I could think of to break through.”

“Oh,” she murmured contritely.

“You OK?” Joe queried, a worried frown knotting his brow. “You’ve been awfully quiet . . . . ”

“Joe, who’s this Miss Paris?” Stacy blurted out the question. “Besides being an old friend of the family?”

“Pa met her family many years ago out at Fort Charlotte.”

“F-Fort Charlotte?!” Stacy’s sense of foreboding deepened.

“Yeah! For a time, back when I was a kid myself, they were buying Ponderosa horses on a pretty regular basis,” Joe remembered, oblivious to his sister’s growing discomfiture. “Miss Paris’ pa, Captain Gerald McKenna, was the man in charge of the horses.

“When Captain McKenna retired his commission, the family decided to move to Chicago. Miss Paris and her sister ended up stopping over at the Ponderosa on their way out. Her sister had SUPPOSEDLY taken ill, and needed to rest.”

“Supposedly?”

Joe nodded. “Looking back, Miss Paris’ sister . . . . ” He frowned. “What was her name? Oh yeah, I remember now. It was Matilda!”

Stacy made a face. “Yuck! THAT’S even worse than Louise.”

Joe smiled, relieved to see Stacy behaving more in character. “As I recall, Matilda . . . . Mattie, as she preferred to be called . . . . didn’t look very sick to me. If she was, she sure made a rapid recovery.”

“You mean . . . Mattie McKenna FAKED being sick?” Stacy was intrigued, despite her uneasiness.

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

“I’ll get to why . . . . IF you’ll stop interrupting me with questions every two seconds.”

Stacy responded by sticking out her tongue.

Joe returned the gesture. “Why should be obvious, Little Sister! The reason Mattie McKenna suddenly took ‘ill’ was, so she and Miss Paris could visit.”

“Why?”

“There was a special someone out there she wanted to see.”

“Miss Mattie?”

“No! Miss Paris.”

“Who did Miss Paris want to see?”

“Now just hold your horses, Miss Stacy LOO-WEESE! I’ll get to THAT in my own good time.”

“OK, LITTLE Joe! I’ll TRY to be patient!”

“What you’ll TRY, Little Sister, is the patience of a saint,” Joe retorted good naturedly. “Now where was I?”

“Miss Paris and her sister, Mattie, stopped off at the Ponderosa because Mattie was, umm SUPPOSEDLY ill.”

“Mattie ended up staying two weeks,” Joe resumed the tale. “Miss Paris stayed longer. In fact, SHE never even made it to Chicago.”

“Really? What happened?”

“Pa and Adam took them to the stage depot in Virginia City. Adam said later that Miss Paris insisted they go on about their business, that she and Mattie would be alright. So, they did. Miss Paris saw to it that her sister got on the stage, before returning to the Ponderosa, that very night. Pa, Hoss, and Adam . . . . ” Joe laughed with genuine mirth, remembering the comical astonished looks on their faces. “Oh, Stacy, it was priceless! I wish you could’ve seen it.”

“Me, too,” she said, grinning in spite of the anxiety she felt within. His infectious laughter had always had that effect on her since she had met and joined the Cartwright Family almost five years ago.

“As for me, I was delighted,” Joe continued, relieved to see the smile on Stacy’s face. “I was absolutely besotted with her.”

“What?!” Stacy queried, surprised. “You?”

“Why do I have the distinct feeling I’ve just been insulted?” Joe demanded with mock severity.

“I didn’t mean to insult you,” Stacy protested. “It’s just that I see you as more the romantic, debonair type who chases after the YOUNG ladies. I just can’t picture you falling for an older woman.”

“Miss Paris is not that much older than I am,” Joe said. “Eight or nine years, ten maybe at the outside.”

“Ten years?! That’s almost like robbing the grave!” Stacy exclaimed.

“It won’t seem so when you get older, Kid.”

“I thought she was closer to Pa’s age, actually . . . . ” Stacy said slowly.

*****

“That shocked me, too, Stace,” Joe said thoughtfully. “If Hoss hadn’t said who she was . . . well, I’d have never recognized her in a million years.”

“Why did she come back to the Ponderosa . . . after putting her sister on the stage for Chicago?” Stacy asked.

“She was a lady in love.”

“Not with you.”

“Now I KNOW I’ve been insulted,” Joe said, smiling at the memory, “but you’re right. Though the lady was very kind to a young kid who had fallen head over heels in love for the first time in his life, she didn’t return my feelings.”

“Did she fall in love with Hoss?” Stacy asked, remembering the gentle concern he had shown the woman at the hotel restaurant.

“Nope,” Joe shook his head. “And not Adam, either. The lady only had eyes for Pa.”

Stacy turned and glanced at him sharply. Somehow that nugget of information significantly increased her uneasiness.

“Hey, it wasn’t as bad as all that,” Joe said, unable to quite fathom the stricken look on her face. “Pa loved her, too. So much, in fact, I thought sure they were going to get married.”

“R-Really?”

“Really!”

“What happened? Why didn’t they?”

Joe shrugged. “I don’t know. She just, all of a sudden, up and left without even saying good-bye. We woke up one morning and she was gone.”

“Why?” Stacy pressed. “Did she and Pa have a fight or something?”

“I don’t know what happened between them,” Joe said somberly. “Pa never said. All I DO know is that her leaving like she did hurt Pa pretty badly. It took him a long time to get over her.” He fell silent for a moment. “Stacy . . . . ”

“You don’t have to worry, Joe,” Stacy said. “I won’t ask Pa any questions about Miss Paris.”

“Promise?”

A stinging, angry retort sprang to mind, but the earnest look on his face stopped her from uttering it. “I promise,” she said in a voice barely audible.

*****

“Pa, she’s coming around no.”

“Paris?”

Paris McKenna sighed contentedly. She was twenty years old again, visiting the Cartwright Family on the Ponderosa. All of the intervening years had ceased to be, like a bad dream in the face of morning sunshine. Her sister, Mattie, had gone on to Chicago. Adam, Hoss, and Joe were out on the range rounding up some of the stray cattle that had become separated when the rest of the herd was moved to summer pasture two weeks before. She was alone in the house, at long last, with the man she loved.

“Paris.”

The happy memory abruptly vanished, and the ensuing years now yawned between her and Ben Cartwright like an abyss, far too wide and deep to ever be crossed. Her eyelids flickered and opened, with resigned reluctance, and she found herself gazing up into the anxious faces of Ben and Eric Cartwright. “W-what happened?” Paris groaned softly.

“You and Hoss were about to have lunch when you passed out,” Ben said quietly.

“Yes, I was waiting for . . . . ” Suddenly, her eyes went round with horror. “Oh my goodness!” Paris exclaimed. “What time is it?” She abruptly sat up, and immediately set the room spinning before her eyes. With a soft, agonized moan, she collapsed back against the pillows.

“Let that be a lesson to you,” Ben chided her sternly. “When you DO get up, you’ll do it slow and easy, unless you want to risk the possibility of fainting again.” He paused, to allow her a moment to absorb his words. “As for the stage it left an hour and a half ago.”

“Oh no!” she moaned.

“Now, don’t you worry none, Miss Paris,” Hoss said. “I went down and got your luggage off. It’s downstairs in the hotel lobby.”

“Th-thank you, Eric,” she said in a small, barely audible voice. “When does the next stage leave?”

“There’s one leaving tomorrow morning, but you’re NOT going to be on it,” Ben said firmly.

“Ben, I HAVE to get to San Francisco, ” she said, “as soon as possible. I have a job waiting, and I’m already two days behind because of some unforeseen delays on the stage line.”

“Paris, you’re not fit to travel, let alone work,” Ben argued. “The doctor said . . . . ”

“Doctor!” Paris exclaimed weakly. “Oh, Ben, surely you didn’t call a doctor?!”

“Mrs. Braun, did,” Ben said. “But, if she hadn’t, I most certainly would have.”

“Why? I told you I’m just worn out from the trip,” Paris wailed. “That’s all!”

“No, that’s NOT all,” Ben argued. “The doctor said at the very least, you’re suffering from exhaustion and not eating properly. You need a long rest, and good food.”

“I’ll have plenty of time to eat and rest when I reach San Francisco.”

“You’re going to have plenty of time to eat and rest NOW,” Ben countered sternly. “You’re coming with us to the Ponderosa.”

Paris’ heart sank. “Oh no, Ben, no! I can’t!”

“Why not?”

“Well, it would be too much trouble,” Paris stammered. “I c-can’t put you and your boys out like that.”

“It wouldn’t be any trouble at all,” Ben argued. “We have plenty of room, more now that Adam’s living in Sacramento.”

“It would be charity, Ben,” she said adamantly. “I won’t take charity! Never! Never again!”

“You and that . . . that . . . damnable pride of yours!” Ben swore, his exasperation getting the better of him.

Paris recoiled as if he had struck her.

“Sorry,” Ben apologized contritely. He took a deep breath and continued in a more kindly tone, “Paris, I’m not offering charity. I’m extending an invitation to an old . . . and very dear friend.”

“Alright, Ben,” Paris acquiesced, her voice cracking on his name. His words had almost thrown open that Pandora’s Box once again. She sternly reminded herself that the time she and Ben Cartwright had together was long past and gone. To try and recapture it now would be monstrously unfair. He had obviously gotten over her and gone on with his life. She felt a measure of relief in that. Maybe, as the years passed, he had even found it within him to forgive her for her abrupt departure in the dead of night. She, however, would never forgive herself.

Paris silently and firmly resolved that she would to go to the Ponderosa, rest and eat, get back her strength. She would then go on to San Francisco and out of the lives of the Cartwright Family with all haste and speed.

“Pa, Joe and Stacy are back,” Hoss said, from his place at the window, the relief evident in his voice.

Ben glanced up at his second son sharply. He had entirely forgotten that Hoss was still in the room. “Why don’t you see Miss Paris downstairs, and get her settled in the buckboard with her things,” he said, feeling oddly embarrassed. “I’m going to go settle up with Mrs. Braun and the doctor.”

“Ben, I have some money,” Paris said, as Hoss gently helped her to sit up. “You’ll find it in my handbag. It w-won’t be . . . enough . . . . ” She had almost let slip that the little bit of money she had in her handbag was all she had in the world. “I can send more when I get to San Francisco.”

“Don’t worry about the money right now, Paris,” Ben said. “I have more than enough.”

“I meant what I said about taking charity, Ben,” Paris said, her anger rising. The only thing she had left these days was her pride, damnable though it maybe. She was determined to hold on to it at all costs. “I’ve ALWAYS paid my way,” she continued. “ALWAYS! I don’t aim to stop now.”

“Alright, Paris, I’ll consider it a loan,” Ben said wearily.

*****

Paris McKenna lay wide awake in the dark guestroom, listening to the grandfather’s clock downstairs strike three a.m. Outside, the moon had risen and set hours ago. A thick blanket of clouds rolled in, obscuring the light from the myriad of stars spread across the backdrop of indigo-black sky. There was a brief flash of light, followed a moment later by a distant rumble of thunder. Nearly every joint in her body ached; a sure sign of coming rain.

Paris gingerly rolled over on her side, and closed her eyes with an exasperated sigh. The stage coach journey, coupled with her chance meetings with Eric, then Ben, followed by the trip from Virginia City to the Ponderosa, had all taken far greater toll on her dwindling energy and stamina than she cared to admit. She had almost passed out again when they walked through the door of the Cartwrights’ home. Only through a supreme effort of will did she manage to walk to the settee. Now, she found herself lying in a comfortable bed, a far cry from the hard cots and pallets she had grown accustomed to over the course of the last sixteen years. By all rights she should be sawing wood, as her father, may God rest his soul, used to say, despite her joint pains.

Her first evening at the Ponderosa had passed by in a hazy blur, for which she was heartily thankful. She vaguely remembered Hop Sing at her elbow, trying to coerce her to eat. Eric kept up a lively, albeit nervous, stream of chatter about the weather, Adam and his family in Sacramento, and the local gossip. Apart from catching a few names she recognized, Paris remembered nothing of what he had said. Joe, on the other hand, was gracious enough, but seemed distant and remote, answering in monosyllables only when addressed. Ben added a word or two once in a while to Eric’s monolog, and occasionally tried to draw his daughter, Stacy into the conversation to no avail. The absolute worst were the strained silences, during the inevitable conversational lulls.

The faces of Eric, Joe, and Ben slowly faded into the face the youngest member of the Cartwright family, Stacy. Apart from acknowledging their introduction, the girl never said another word the entire evening. There was something strange and compelling about her. Paris felt drawn to her, yet terrified of her at the same time. Maybe it was Stacy’s eyes, the same sky blue color as her own. Or maybe it was the fact that Stacy now was around the same age poor Rose Miranda would have been, had she lived. Stacy’s face, framed by a thick halo of dark, wavy hair and those big blue eyes, faded into the face of Rose Miranda, as an infant; a pudgy face, with red cheeks, and enormous blue eyes, framed by a wispy halo of dark brown hair.

Suddenly, the lid of the Pandora’s Box within violently flew open. All the memories and feelings washed over her like a raging flash flood. Helpless against the onslaught, Paris turned and buried her face into the softness of the down pillow beneath her head and sobbed herself into a deep, exhausted sleep.

*****

Stacy woke with a jolt, heart pounding and forehead glistening with cold sweat. Her palms were clammy, and her breath came in short, ragged gasps. Sleep had been fitful, interrupted by the continuous replay of a dream filled with strange, shadowy people in a place she couldn’t remember, yet seemed horribly familiar. A glance at the clock on her dresser told her the time was a few minutes past five.

Stacy climbed out of bed, intending to dress and go for a ride before breakfast. A good, brisk ride in the bracing early morning air always worked at clearing out troublesome cobwebs from her head. She turned toward the window, and with dismay, saw that the pouring rain outside had just squelched her plans. She grabbed her robe and slipped it on as she crossed the room from bed to door. A good book from the library downstairs would help pass the time until breakfast. She noiselessly stepped from her bedroom to the hall and paused, allowing her eyes a moment to adjust to the diminished light. She, then, made her way silently towards the stairs, so as not to wake up anyone else.

When Stacy reached the second landing half way down the stairs, she noted with a start that her father was already up, and dressed. He sat on the sofa downstairs, staring morosely at the massive grey stone fireplace, that dominated the living room. A book lay open on the coffee table before him along side a glass, half full of whiskey. “Pa?!”

Ben Cartwright glanced up as Stacy continued down the stairs. “You’re up early,” he said, favoring her with a tired smile.

“Couldn’t get back to sleep,” she replied.

“From the look of you, I’d say you didn’t get any sleep at all,” Ben said, noting her still wet brow with concern. He motioned for her to come and sit down beside him on the sofa. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m not sick, if that’s what you’re asking,” Stacy said, as she sat down.

Ben blotted the sweat from her forehead with a handkerchief and touched it with the back of his hand. He was somewhat relieved to find her forehead cool as a cucumber.

“I said I wasn’t sick,” Stacy said irritably.

“Well, SOMETHING kept you awake most of the night,” Ben said quietly, “and you’re not usually as quiet as you were last night, unless you ARE sick.” He paused. “You want to talk about it?”

“Pa, how is it you always seem to know . . . . ?”

“Experience that comes from raising three sons and a daughter,” Ben replied.

Stacy forced herself to take a few deep, even breaths. “You remember that awful dream I kept having when I first came to the Ponderosa?”

“I remember,” Ben said sympathetically.

“It’s back,” she said, her voice breaking, “all night long! But, it’s changed.”

Ben wordlessly slipped a reassuring arm around her shoulders.

“The dream started out the same way,” Stacy continued. “First, I see the people, but not their faces. I feel like I should know them, but I can’t remember. I don’t want to, either. I just want to get away from them. Then, suddenly, I’m some WHERE, I’ve never been before, yet I know the place. I know where the roads lead, what lies over the hill, what’s around the next bend. That’s scary enough right there!” She shuddered.

“Yes,” Ben agreed. “Déja vu can be very disconcerting, to say the least.”

“Déja . . . what?”

“Déja vu,” Ben repeated the word. “What you went through in those dreams, being in a place you’ve never been . . . but knowing it, is called déja vu.”

“Has it ever happened to you?” she asked.

“A couple of times, in dreams,” Ben replied.

That disclosure made Stacy feel a little better. “In MY dream, I’m running for my life, but I don’t know who or what I’m running from,” she continued.

“How has the dream changed?” Ben asked.

“When I lived with the Paiutes, Silver Moon taught me to call on her namesake, the moon,” Stacy explained. “The moon would leave the sky and land on the road in front of me. I’d climb inside, and the moon would rise, taking me away from whoever was chasing me.” She lapsed into a long silence.

Ben waited patiently for her to continue.

“Pa, last night, the moon didn’t come,” she said at length, her voice breaking. “I called and called, just like Silver Moon taught me . . . but it didn’t come!” With that, she buried her face against Ben’s shoulder and allowed the tears to come.

Ben held her, his own heart aching along with her. He wanted so much to take away the fear, the pain, and the grief that always came with the dream, but knew full well he could not.

At length, Stacy’s tears subsided. “Pa?”

“Yes?”

“It’s been so long, I thought the dream had stopped,” she said in a melancholy tone. “Why has it come back?”

“I don’t know,” Ben said quietly, “but, I think I know why the moon didn’t come this time.”

“Why, Pa?” she asked, wiping her eyes with the sleeve of her robe.

Ben handed her a handkerchief. “I think the moon didn’t come this time because the moon is Silver Moon. The moon can’t help you anymore because Silver Moon is no longer here to help you.”

Stacy was clearly frightened by that prospect. “What can I do?”

*****

“Sooner or later you’re going to have to stop running and face whoever is chasing you,” Ben said quietly. “I think you know that, deep down.”

“Pa, what if I can’t?”

“You can and you will,” Ben said. “It’ll take a lot of courage, but I know you have more than enough to see you through.”

“If I’m so courageous, why do I feel like such a ‘fraidy cat?” Stacy asked dejectedly.

“Courage has nothing to do with not being afraid,” Ben said. “Courage is facing up to something when you ARE afraid.”

“Like . . . facing up to whatever’s chasing me in the dreams?”

Ben nodded. “Miss Paris frightens you the same way the dream frightens you, doesn’t she.” It was a statement of fact, not a question.

For an uncertain moment, Stacy thought she was going to faint. “H-how did you know?”

“You’ve been edgy ever since you saw her at the restaurant in Virginia City yesterday,” Ben gently answered her question.

“I don’t know why, Pa,” Stacy said, feeling an almost giddy, guilty sense of relief that he knew. “I’ve never seen Miss Paris before in my life, until yesterday in Virginia City, but I can’t shake this feeling that somehow . . . somewhere I KNOW her.”

“Maybe Miss Paris reminds you of someone you know.”

Stacy mulled that over for a long moment, then shook her head. “I can’t think of anybody.”

“It’ll probably come to you later, when you’re not thinking so hard about it,” Ben said.

Stacy nodded, then turned impulsively and gave him a hug. “Thanks, Pa.”

Ben smiled. “For what?”

“For hearing me out,” she said earnestly, “for NOT telling me I’m being silly, and for not treating me like some kind of cry baby.”

“You’re not being silly, and you’re definitely not a cry baby,” Ben hastened to reassure her, “and anytime you want me to hear you out, I’m here.” He paused briefly, then added, “I’ll tell you something else. Seeing Miss Paris McKenna yesterday’s had me pretty spooked, too.”

“Is that why YOU’RE up so early?”

“Yes, that’s why I’m up so early,” Ben replied. “You’re very perceptive yourself, Young La–, er Young WOMAN.”

“Silver Moon once told me that comes from living with family,” Stacy said. “I wish there was some way you could meet her.”

“I do, too,” Ben said sincerely. “She sounds like a very wise woman.”

“Pa, Miss Paris is sick, isn’t she.” It was a statement of fact, not a question.

“Well, she’s not sick, exactly,” Ben explained. “The doctor said she’s suffering from exhaustion. She’ll be fine after she’s had plenty of rest and plenty to eat.”

Stacy shook her head. “Something’s eating her, from the inside,” she said. “I’ve seen it once before.”

“Oh?”

“My grandfather, Chief Soaring Eagle,” Stacy said sadly. “It was when the army had us surrounded, and we knew there was no way out.”

Most of the time, Stacy, by all appearances was a typical teenaged girl, who loved horses, delighted in teasing her older brothers, and needed occasional motivation to apply herself to her school work. She had yet to discover the merits of teenaged boys, something for which Ben was thankful, even though he knew that would change more than likely in the very near future. Then, there were the times like now, when the teenaged girl disappeared into an incredibly wise woman, more ancient than the mountains surrounding the Ponderosa. Ben knew that if he lived to be a hundred, this daughter of his would never cease to amaze him.

“Pa? I think I hear Hop Sing in the kitchen,” Stacy said, teenaged girl once again. “Maybe, for a change, you and I can get into the kitchen first and get our share of the bacon before Hoss and Joe wake up.”

“Then, you’d better shake a leg, Miss Stacy LOO-WEESE!” Joe called out from the landing at the top of the stairs. “I’m hungrier than a bear that just woke up after a long winter’s night.”

“So am I, LITTLE Joe, so am I!” Stacy retorted, as she leapt to her feet. “Last one to the kitchen forfeits HIS bacon to the first.”

“LITTLE Joe?! Hey! Where do YOU get off calling me Little Joe, LITTLE Sister?! I have a good mind turn you over my knee, and— ”

“You have to catch me first,” Stacy taunted. “Excuse me, Pa.” With the grace and powerful strength of a prowling cougar, she sprang from between the sofa and coffee table, and sprinted toward the kitchen as fast as she could.

“Hey! Come back here!” Joe yelled, giving chase.

“I won!” Stacy crowed triumphantly from the kitchen door. “Your bacon is mine.”

“It is not! You cheated!”

“Did not!”

“Did so!”

“Grandpa!”

“Kid!”

Chuckling and shaking his head, Ben followed at a more leisurely pace. A glance out the window told him that the rain had stopped and the clouds were beginning to break up. Soon, the winds would come and scatter the clouds, the way the gray light of this still overcast morning had, for the time being at least, driven out the dark dreams and the unsettling emotions that seemed to have accompanied Miss Paris’ unexpected arrival. Out in the kitchen he heard the teasing banter between Stacy and Joe, followed by a peal of the latter’s infectious laughter mixed with what had to be some rather colorful Chinese from Hop Sing.

“Hey, Pa,” it was Hoss. “Shouldn’t you tell those two hooligans to keep it quiet? Their shenanigans are sure to wake Miss Paris up.”

Ben shook his head. “After the way Joe and Stacy behaved last night, I’m relieved and thankful to see them back to normal.”

“Out! Out of my kitchen!” Hop Sing yelled, shifting from fluent Chinese to halting English. “Out! Chop! Chop!”

“On second thought,” Ben said quickening his pace, “I don’t like the sound of that ‘chop chop.’ Stacy . . . Joseph . . . ”

*****

Paris opened her eyes and yawned. She turned toward the window and saw that the rain had stopped. The sky and few remaining wisps of cloud were drenched in pink-gold light. Though the pain in her joints had lessened, the muscles in her back and shoulders ached miserably. Her eyes burned, and her entire face felt swollen and tender. She slowly, gingerly eased herself from a prone to a sitting position. Though the move left her feeling horribly lightheaded, the room stayed firmly anchored on its foundations. She decided to rest a moment, before getting out of bed and finding her way to the basin on its stand across the room.

The sound of someone knocking on the door to her room startled her. “Who . . . who is it?” she gasped, shocked at how hoarse her voice sounded in her own ears.

“It’s Ben, Paris. May I come in.”

“Y-yes . . . . ”

Ben entered the room, carrying a tray. On it was a steaming bowl of Hop Sing’s chicken soup, given the delicious, heady aroma. Beside the bowl was a small plate with two biscuits and a slab of butter, and a mug of steaming hot coffee. “I’m sorry, Paris,” he said quietly, shocked by her gaunt, haggard appearance. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“You didn’t, Ben,” Paris said in a low, barely audible voice. “I’d just woken up a few minutes before you knocked on the door.”

“I thought I’d bring you a little something to eat.”

“Tell me something, Ben. Has it become a custom out here to have chicken soup for breakfast?”

Ben felt a tiny prickle of relief at hearing something of the old Paris McKenna banter. “No,” he shook his head and set the tray down on her lap, “but we occasionally have it for dinner or supper.”

“Goodness! It’s dinnertime already?” she gasped.

“Past dinner going on supper time, actually,” Ben said quietly. “Hop Sing wanted to wake you for breakfast, but I figured you needed the sleep more.”

“SUPPERtime?!” Paris echoed incredulously. “Do you mean to tell me I’ve slept the entire day away?”

Ben nodded.

Paris scooped up a generous spoonful of broth, vegetables, and chicken, blew on it, then gingerly sipped from the spoon. “Hop Sing hasn’t lost his touch,” she murmured.

“Mind if I sit with you awhile?” Ben asked.

“N-not at all,” she lied.

Ben took the nearest chair and pulled it up beside the bed. “Did you sleep alright?”

“I couldn’t get to sleep right away,” Paris confessed sheepishly, “you know . . . the usual aches and pain when the rains come.”

Ben frowned. “Aren’t you a little young for that?” he asked.

Paris placed the spoon on the tray and reached for one of the two buttermilk biscuits sitting on a small plate behind the soup bowl. “Not when you haven’t the good sense to get the mumps while still in childhood,” she sighed. “I caught them two years ago from my employers’ children. My joints have been achy ever since.”

“Insomnia must be contagious,” Ben said. “Stacy and I didn’t sleep well either.”

“Oh, Ben, please tell me about Stacy,” Paris said, hoping against hope to steer the conversation well away from herself. The youngest member of the Cartwright Family appeared to be a safe enough topic.

“We . . . Hoss, Joe, and I . . . met Stacy at Fort Charlotte,” Ben began.

“Fort Charlotte?!” Paris glanced up at him sharply. “Really?”

Ben nodded. “She was eleven, going on twelve at the time. Up until about a month before the boys and I had arrived, she had been living with a tribe of Paiutes since the age of six.”

“You mean to say that poor child was actually r-raised by savages?!” Paris gasped, horrified. “Oh, Ben, how awful!”

Ben smiled and shook his head. “Not to hear HER tell about it,” he said. “I think I was just as horrified as you were when I found out she had spent almost half of her life, up until that time, living with the Paiutes.” He lapsed into a moment of thoughtful silence. “But, she told me that from the first, she was loved and accepted, not only by the family who raised her, but the entire tribe as well. Stacy’s a remarkable young woman, Paris, thanks in no small part to the Paiutes she lived with those six years.”

Paris shuddered again. The thought of a tribe of savages accepting a strange white child, let alone actually loving her, was unfathomable. By contrast, she, who had spent all of her growing up years among her own kin, had no memory of ever having been loved as a child. She was an inconvenience, to be seen as little as possible and never heard in her early years. As she grew older, her parents looked upon her as a servant to help with the cooking, cleaning, and caring for her younger brother and sisters. The last two years she lived with her family, she had become pariah, thanks to her intractable stubborn pride. Though she had paid, and would continue to pay, a steep price for that for the rest of her life, it was poor Rose Miranda who ended up suffering the consequences.

“Paris?” Ben queried, noting the quivering bottom lip and unusually bright eyes. “Are you alright?”

“I’m f-fine, Ben,” she replied in as steady voice as she could muster.

“You always were a very poor liar, Paris,” Ben chided her gently.

A single, unwanted tear slipped over her eyelid and ran down her cheek. It was disconcerting sixteen years ago his way of reading her like a book. Now, it seemed even more so. “You w-were telling me about STACY,” she said pointedly, her voice breaking.

“Yes. So I was,” Ben immediately backed off. “Stacy was adopted by the tribal chief’s only daughter, Silver Moon, and her husband, Jon Running Deer. They taught her to hunt, fish, and track with the best of them. And, much to MY amazement, they taught her how to tell direction by reading the stars.” He paused briefly, then continued. “They also passed on to her a love and reverence for the land that surpasses anything I’ve ever seen in white people, at any rate.”

“She can’t possibly love the Ponderosa more than you do, Ben,” Paris said in a calmer, more steady voice.

“I wonder, sometimes,” Ben said thoughtfully. “I love the Ponderosa, the way a man loves a woman. But, Stacy loves the Ponderosa the way some people love God.”

Paris’ own father would have heartily condemned that perspective as blasphemous. She found her self in complete agreement, and hated herself for it.

“The first time I saw Stacy was with the horses at the fort,” Ben continued.

Paris remembered with a pang that the first time she had ever laid eyes on Ben Cartwright was among the horses.

“The boys and I were delivering half a dozen horses that the army had purchased,” Ben continued. “We, the fort commander and a couple of other men, Hoss, Joe, myself, and, of course, Stacy were at the grazing pasture when some idiot fired his rifle and spooked the horses within the enclosure into a stampede.”

Paris gasped, her eyes round with horror.

“One of the men got the gate open,” Ben continued, “and the horses ran out.”

Paris closed her eyes. “I’ll bet you were a long time rounding them up later,” she said.

“No, we weren’t,” Ben said. “Stacy asked me if she could borrow Big Buck. Almost without thinking, I told her to go ahead.” He paused. “I watched, heart in mouth, as she rode after the leader, drew Big Buck along side him, and slid onto his back just as easily as . . . as I can walk from one place to another. She very quickly managed to rein in the leader, riding bare back no less. The other horses fell in line.” He shook his head, awe struck even after the passage of almost five years. Paris heard the pride in his voice loud and clear. “That child single handedly averted what could have been a major catastrophe.”

“Oh, Ben, she could have just as easily been killed,” Paris whispered.

“Believe me, Paris, it took everything inside me to stand there and watch,” Ben said soberly. “If she hadn’t borrowed Big Buck that day, I know I would have gone after her in a heartbeat.” He took a deep breath to steady himself, mildly surprised to find himself reliving the same heart-stopping qualms in the retelling five years later. “In the days that followed, it became very clear to me, and Hoss, that Stacy had a magic way with the horses, even then.”

“Magic?” Paris echoed, looking incredulous.

“Stacy loves them,” Ben said slowly, “and out of that love, she trusts them. The horses learn to love and trust her in return. Hoss is the same way. I swear, Paris, Stacy and Hoss can actually talk to horses, and they, the horses that is, listen.”

“Ben, you can’t mean that.”

“I can and I do,” Ben said with a touch of awe. “It’s the dam . . . uh, DARN-dest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s not something I can explain adequately, Paris. It’s something you have to see for yourself. Maybe when you’re feeling better . . . . ”

“Stacy sounds like she’s quite like a remarkable young lady,” Paris said quickly.

“She is, but for heaven’s sake, don’t CALL her a young lady, at least not to her face,” Ben grinned, yet took care to lower his voice. “She’ll tar and feather you first, ask questions later.”

“Sounds like she has a bit of a temper, too,” Paris said, as she finished her biscuit.

“You have no room to talk about someone else having a bit of a temper, Paris McKenna,” Ben teased.

“You know the old adage . . . it takes one to know one,” she said with a touch of regret. “What happened to Silver Moon and Jon Running Deer?”

“Silver Moon was rounded up along with the rest of her tribe and escorted to a reservation,” Ben said quietly. “Jon Running Deer died not long after he and Silver Moon adopted Stacy. When the rest of the tribe was rounded up and taken to a reservation, Stacy was taken from Silver Moon, and brought to Fort Charlotte.”

“What about Stacy’s family? Her REAL family, I mean?”

Ben wanted to tell Paris that, since they had done the lion’s share of raising Stacy, he considered Silver Moon and Jon Running Deer as much, if not more, her real family than the unknown parents who had given her life. Paris’ enormous blue eyes, round as saucers, stared at him with a frightening intensity, causing the words to die in his throat. He took a deep breath, then continued. “All Stacy had of her life before the Piautes were vague memories and a gold heart shaped locket engraved with her name. The men at the fort couldn’t find anyone. When the boys and I arrived, they were getting ready to pack her off to an orphanage.”

Paris heard the outrage in his voice loud and clear. “Ben, Fort Charlotte IS an army outpost,” she reminded him. “As such, it would hardly have been the appropriate place for a young girl.”

“I know,” Ben was forced to concede the point, “but, the thought of taking that child away from loving parents, even if they WERE Pauite, and sending her to an orphanage . . . . ” He shook his head. “I found the idea galling to say the very least!”

“You STILL do,” Paris observed quietly, “not that I can blame you.”

“You’re right,” Ben agreed. “Hoss was as outraged as I was, and Joe was furious. So, we invited her to come live here with us at the Ponderosa, over and above the protests of the matron who had come from the orphanage.”

“Why did she protest?” Paris asked.

“She was convinced ours wasn’t the proper kind of home with just a father and two brothers,” Ben replied with a scowl. “The fort commander agreed with her, until Hoss and Joe changed his mind.”

“How did they manage that?”

“To tell you the honest-to-goodness truth, Paris, to this day, I’m afraid to ask,” Ben said chuckling. “A year later, I adopted her legally.” As he lapsed into thoughtful silence, a far-away gaze misted over his dark brown eyes. “You know how much I love my sons, Paris,” he said at length.

She nodded. “You love Adam, Eric, and Joe more than just about anything, including the Ponderosa.”

“Even so, over the years, I regretted not ever having had a daughter,” Ben continued. “I think I knew deep down that Stacy was the daughter I’d always wanted, but never had, from the first moment I laid eyes on her. I don’t see how any father can possibly love a daughter any more than I love Stacy.”

Paris suddenly burst into tears. “Ben, . . . I c-can’t eat anymore,” she sobbed pushing the tray back towards him.

The suddenness and intensity of her grief disturbed and frightened him. “Paris, what’s wrong?” he prodded gingerly.

“Nothing’s wrong, B-Ben, n-nothing,” she stammered.

“That’s an outright lie, and you know it,” Ben chided her gently. “We’ve always been able to talk to each other about what’s bothering us. Please, talk to me now, Paris. Maybe I can help.”

“Ben, please! Just leave me alone!” she wailed, on the edge of hysteria. “Please!”

“Alright,” Ben said curtly. Her outburst left him feeling helpless, and utterly shaken to the very core of his being. He took the food tray and rose stiffly. “If you need anything let me know.”

Downstairs in the kitchen, Hop Sing shook his head morosely over the almost untouched food on the tray. “Miss Paris not eat chicken soup, Mister Cartwright,” he chastised Ben severely. “How she ever get strong again, if she not eat?”

Ben shrugged.

“Want to know what Hop Sing think?” Hop Sing queried. “Hop Sing think Miss Paris SICK, not tired. SICK! Very, very sick.”

“You’re the second person who’s said that today,” Ben said wearily.

“Miss Paris have sick heart, Mister Cartwright,” Hop Sing continued, shaking his head.

“Are you trying to tell me she has a heart condition?” Ben asked.

Hop Sing shook his head vigorously. “You speak of BODY heart,” he explained. “Hop Sing speak of SOUL heart. Miss Paris SOUL heart sick. Soul heart sick worse than body heart sick, Mister Cartwright! Much worse!”

*****

The next morning dawned clear and sunny, with a bare hint of autumn chill in the air. Over head the sky was a bright azure blue, with nary a cloud to mar its pristine appearance. Ben leaned up against the fence surrounding the field where the horses were trained, watching Hoss and Stacy putting one of the palomino fillies through her paces. Hoss gave the orders, Stacy and filly flawlessly executed them as one.

“Love, Pa, then trust,” Hoss had recently tried to explain his and Stacy’s way with the horses. “Ain’t nothing magical about it.”

“Wrong, Hoss,” Ben mused silently with a reflective smile. “Love and trust are the most magical things there are in this world.”

“Love and trust . . .” Ben’s thoughts slowly drifted to Paris McKenna. He had stopped to look in on her before making his way to the corral. The visit was strained, and mercifully brief. She adamantly insisted that she had slept very well last night, and felt much better this morning. He couldn’t help but notice that she seemed inordinately relieved when he told her he would be with Hoss and Stacy at the horse corral most of the day. In all honesty, he felt the same profound relief himself.

“Well, Pa?”

The sound of Hoss’ voice drew him away from his troubled musings about Paris.

“What do you think?”

“I think you and Stacy are enough to make me believe in miracles,” Ben said, managing a smile. “Six weeks ago, that filly was the most unruly of the lot. To be frank, I had my doubts as to whether she would ever let the two of you get within ten feet of her, let alone get her into bridle and saddle.”

“I don’t know about miracles, Pa,” Hoss said, grinning. “But, I do know that Stacy and I make a great team when it comes to training horses.”

“How long before she’s ready to turn over to Mister Hansen?” Ben asked. “You know he’s got his eye on her as a birthday present for his younger daughter.”

“Another couple of weeks of some good solid work should do it,” Hoss replied. “You should know, Pa, that Stacy thinks our little filly out there might be a better gift for Mister Hansen’s older daughter, Grace. Though she’s really turned into a fine riding horse, she still has a lot of energy. That calls for a firm hand.”

“ . . . and Grace IS the more accomplished rider,” Ben agreed. “What’s your opinion, Hoss?”

“I agree with Stacy one hundred percent.”

“I’ll pass your advice on to Mister Hansen,” Ben promised.

Stacy, meanwhile, circled the corral once again, waving at her father and brother in passing.

“Hey, Stacy,” Hoss turned and called to her across the corral. “You can start cooling her down now.”

Stacy gave an acknowledging wave. Before she could stop and dismount, the horse stumbled. Stacy’s quick action prevented the horse from taking a bad, perhaps even fatal, collapse. Unfortunately, the cinch snapped, sending Stacy tumbling off the horse backwards. She landed on the soft, muddy ground with a dull thud.

Ben and Hoss raced across the corral.

“Stacy?” Ben knelt down beside her, while Hoss picked up the saddle.

“I-I’m OK, Pa,” she said, her voice shaking. “I think.”

“Can you stand?”

“I think so . . . . ”

Stacy took Ben’s hand and managed to rise, albeit unsteadily, to her feet. She gingerly took a few steps. Though her right ankle throbbed unmercifully with each step, she was reasonably sure no bones were broken. “I can walk, Pa,” she said in as steady a voice as she could muster. “I just don’t understand how that saddle came loose like it did.”

“I can,” Hoss said grimly, his brow knotted in an angry frown. “Just take a gander at this!” Cradling the saddle under one arm, he held up the straps with the other. The buckle remained closed. One of the straps however had come apart. “This wasn’t an accident, either,” he added. “This strap was cut.”

“Cut?!” Stacy echoed incredulously.

“Hoss, are you sure?”

“I’m sure, Pa,” Hoss said holding the strap up for closer inspection. “See? The break line is too straight, too even. Whoever did this cut the strap almost all the way through from the side facing the horse. He counted on Stacy riding to work the cut all the way through.”

“Me?” Stacy queried. “What makes you think he was after me?”

“Because you always use this saddle whenever you work with the horses here,” Hoss said.

The fear that always came with the dreams suddenly rose with ferocious intensity, threatening to inundate her. Yet, even as she labored not to give in to an almost overwhelming desire to bolt, Stacy became aware of anger rising within her, too.

“Stacy, we’d better get you back to the house,” she could hear her father’s words well enough, but he sounded as if he were many miles distant. “I can have one of the men hitch up the buckboard . . . . ”

“I can ride,” her voice sounded wooden even to her own ears. Then, as she began to embrace and draw needed strength from her anger, she turned toward Ben, her eyes blazing with fury. “So help me, Pa, if I ever find out who cut that strap, I’m gonna beat the living hell out of him!”

*****

Later that afternoon, Stacy stood unmoving before the fast closed door to the guest room, trying to get hold of the troubling feelings stirring inside. The anger and resulting bravado she felt earlier in the corral had abated, leaving the fear generated not only by the dreams, but by Miss Paris herself. She briefly contemplated an immediate, if slow due to her aching ankle, retreat to the safety of her own room down the hall.

“No, Stacy Louise . . . ” she grimaced, “ . . . Cartwright, you can’t keep putting it off,” she told herself firmly. “You know what Pa says about fear . . . you’ve got to look it straight in the face.” Miss Paris seemed a logical place to start. Drawing herself up to full height, she raised her hand and knocked on the door.

“Come on in,” she was greatly relieved to hear Hoss’ voice.

Stacy opened the door and found Miss Paris lying on the bed, propped up by a mound of pillows, looking even more weary than she had two days before, when she first came. Hoss occupied a chair next to the bed.

“Come on in, Stacy,” Hoss invited with a grin. “None the worse for wear, I see.”

Paris’ heart lurched, upon seeing the girl enter the room with a pronounced limp. “Oh Dear!” she gasped. “Are you alright?”

“Just a slight mishap, Miss Paris,” Stacy said, determined to make light of the entire incident. “The only thing badly hurt was my dignity.”

“Sit down here,” Hoss said, rising. “I’ll get that other chair over there.” He inclined his head toward an easy chair on the other side of the bed, occupied by Paris. “We were just talking about you.”

“Oh? Is that why my ears were burning?” Stacy asked, as she gingerly settled herself in the chair vacated by Hoss.

“Miss Paris, this is Stacy,” Hoss said. “I know you two met when Miss Paris first arrived . . . . ”

“I was pretty far gone my first night here, I’m afraid,” Paris greeted her pleasantly, with a wan, tired smile. “How do you do, Stacy? Hoss and I were just talking about horses.”

“Do you ride?” Stacy asked.

“Not anymore,” Paris said wistfully. “But I did ride quite a bit when I was your age.”

“As I recall you were real fine horsewoman, that summer you were here,” Hoss said. “Maybe when you’re a bit stronger . . . . ”

Paris shook her head. “It’s been too long, Eric,” she said.

“Back when you did ride, did you have a horse of your own?” Stacy asked.

“No,” Paris shook her head. “My father was in the Army then, stationed at Fort Charlotte.”

“Joe told me your pa was in charge of the horses there,” Stacy said, trying her best to ignore her growing apprehension.

“Our family lived in the town, just outside the fort,” Paris said. “There was no place for me to keep a horse of my own, however I did have my pick of the cavalry horses.”

“Isn’t that something,” Stacy murmured. The room suddenly turned hot and stifling. Out of the corners of her eyes, she could almost believe she actually saw the walls moving in closer, trying to box her in. “I . . . met Pa, Hoss, and Joe at Fort Charlotte.”

“So I’ve been told,” Paris said.

Hoss studied his sister with an anxious frown. “I was telling Miss Paris about that filly Mister Hansen bought,” he prompted.

“She’s a good riding horse, with a lot of energy,” Stacy said, slowly warming to a favorite topic in spite of her escalating trepidation. “I’m almost tempted to keep her myself.”

“I think Mister Hansen would have a little something to say about that,” Hoss pointed out.

“So would Blaze Face,” Stacy added.

“Blaze Face?!” Paris exclaimed, her eyes round with shock.

“M-my horse, Ma’am,” Stacy said, taken aback by Paris’ reaction.

“Isn’t that extraordinary,” Paris murmured. “My favorite horse when we were at Fort Charlotte . . . w-was named . . . Blaze Face.”

That fact only served to increase Stacy’s anxiety. “Miss Paris . . . . ” she was afraid to ask, but knew she must. “Were you and your family at Fort Charlotte . . . while I was there?”

Paris shook her head. “My father retired from the Army . . . . ” she fell silent to do a bit of mental figuring, “ . . . that would have been a year or two, maybe, before you were born. My family . . . my parents and two sisters, that is, went to Chicago for awhile, right after we left Fort Charlotte. I . . . heard later that they eventually returned to the town near Fort Charlotte, and bought some farm land nearby. My parents and sisters did, anyway.”

“You didn’t go with your family?” Stacy asked.

“No,” Paris shook her head. “I was of age when we left Fort Charlotte, and chomping at the bit to be on my own. I came here, stayed for a time and left. But, I never went back home again. I DID visit them briefly, about fifteen years ago. After that, I never saw them again.”

“Why not?” Stacy asked.

“Now, Stacy, I’m not sure that’s any of— ”

“No, Eric, it’s alright,” Paris intervened. “My family and I never got along all that well, even at the best of times. My first, last and only visit lasted three days because of a royal row between my father and me. The next morning I was asked . . . told actually . . . to leave.” She felt a sharp pang of envy, remembering the love Ben Cartwright had expressed the night before for his daughter, Stacy. “They died six years later, when their house caught fire one night and burned to the ground. No one made it out. No one! I figured . . . HOPED actually . . . they all d-died in their sleep.” Especially poor Rose Miranda.

“I’m sorry, Miss Paris,” Stacy said quietly, on impulse she leaned over and covered one of Paris’ hands with her own.

Paris nodded mutely, genuinely touched by the gesture.

“I’d forgotten you also have a brother,” Hoss said, intending to steer the course of conversation away from the tragic deaths of Miss Paris’ parents and sisters. “You ever hear from him?”

“The less I hear either from or about him, the better I like it,” Paris said adamantly.

The three fell into a discomfiting silence, broken, after what seemed an eternity by a knock at the door. Before anyone could reply, the door opened and Ben Cartwright entered. “Supper is ready,” he said. “Hoss . . . Stacy, you go on ahead.” He turned to Paris. “Hop Sing is preparing a tray— ”

“Ben,” Paris said slowly, “if it’s alright with you, I’d like to come down to the table tonight.”

“You sure you’re up to it?” Ben asked doubtfully.

“I’m sure.”

“Well, seeing as how Hop Sing expects us to come get it while it’s hot, I hope you’ll pardon me for taking the necessary steps to move us along,” Ben said. He impulsively scooped Paris’ recumbent form off the bed and into his arms to the delighted amazement of his son and daughter. “Hoss, would you mind getting the door?”

*****

“Pa? What are you doing up?”

Ben started out of a light doze and glanced up sharply, just as the grandfather clock struck the quarter hour past midnight. His youngest son, Joe, stepped through the open front door into the living room. Candy, one of the ranch hands and close family friend followed behind.

“It’s been a long time since I came home in the wee hours of the morning and found you waiting up,” Joe said with a grin, as he removed his jacket.

“The last time was the night before your twenty-first birthday,” Ben said, stifling a yawn. “I was having trouble getting to sleep tonight, so I decided to come down and read for a little while.”

“One of the men told us about Stacy,” Joe said, turning serious. “She alright?”

“Other than a badly sprained ankle, and a few bruises, she’ll be fine,” Ben replied.

“Any idea who did it?” Joe asked.

“None,” Ben shook his head. “Hoss questioned everyone who was in the corral today. No one seemed to know anything about it.”

“Mister Cartwright, is it possible that whoever cut that strap did it as some kind of practical joke?” Candy asked.

“That practical joke could have very easily killed her,” Ben said coldly. “I, for one, don’t find that the least bit funny.”

“Agreed,” Joe said grimly. “And if I ever find out who the joker is, I’m going to cheerfully wring his neck.”

“Not if Stacy gets to him first,” Ben said soberly, remembering her sudden fury as they left the corral earlier. “All I can say is God help him if she does.”

“You’ve got that right, Pa,,” Joe said gravely. “That kid can be a real spitfire when she’s of a mind to be.”

“Mister Cartwright,” Candy said slowly, “in light of Stacy’s saddle, there’s something I’d better tell you.”

“What is it, Candy?” Ben asked.

“While I was in town yesterday picking up the mail, I found out someone had been through a couple of days before asking questions about your family in general, Stacy in particular,” Candy reported.

Ben found Candy’s news deeply unsettling. “Any idea who was asking questions?”

“A couple of people seemed to think he came from big city east of here, Chicago or St. Louis, maybe,” Candy replied. “No one could give me a name.”

“ . . . and you say this man was asking questions about Stacy in particular?” Ben queried.

Candy nodded.

What possible interest could a stranger, from so far away, have in a young girl, supposedly orphaned with no family? Ben resolved to ride into Virginia City first thing in the morning and start making some inquiries of his own.

*****

“Good morning, Ben,” Gretchen Braun greeted him warmly, as he stepped into the restaurant. “Can I get you anything?”

“I could use a cup of coffee,” Ben replied, managing a weary smile, “and some information.”

“Coming right up,” Gretchen said, motioning to one of the waiters. She asked him for two cups of coffee and told him to serve them in the dining room. The young man nodded, and moved off. “This way, Ben,” she said gesturing toward the dining room. “What kind of information are you after?”

“Last night, Candy told me that someone was asking questions about my family a couple of days ago,” Ben said as he and Gretchen seated themselves at a table near the door. “We think the man may be from Chicago, or perhaps St. Louis. That’s all we know.”

“Well, a man from Chicago DID check into the hotel three days ago,” Gretchen said slowly. “In fact, if memory serves, he arrived the same day your friend did, probably on the same stage.”

That piece of information was very disturbing. He made a mental note to question Paris about fellow passengers at the earliest opportunity. “Is the man from Chicago still here?” Ben asked.

“No, he checked out early yesterday morning,” Gretchen replied.

“Are you sure?” Ben pressed.

“I’m sure, Ben.”

“Can you tell me what he looked like?”

The waiter discreetly arrived, and served the coffee.

“Thank you,” Gretchen said quietly.

The waiter inclined his head, then quietly withdrew.

“He’s about the same height and build as your son, Joe,” she began. “He’s got dark, almost coal black hair. He’s ex-career military, I can tell by that ramrod straight way he had of carrying himself. He always dressed well enough, a suit and tie, white shirt, clothes clean and pressed, but not what I’d call fashionable.”

“Ex-military, eh? How old would you say he was?”

Gretchen shrugged. “I can’t begin to tell you, except to say that he wasn’t a young man.”

“Do you remember his name?”

“I’ll get the registry,” Gretchen said rising. She returned a few moments later.

“Thank you, Gretchen,” Ben said gratefully. “I really appreciate this.”

“Not at all, Ben,” Gretchen said, as she opened the heavy book. “Now let me see . . . . . yes! The registry for three days ago.” She glanced over the list of names. “I think this is it, Ben.” He rose, coffee mug in hand, and walked behind her. “Zachary Hilliard.”

“Zachary Hilliard,” Ben repeated the name, committing it to memory, “and you say he checked out early yesterday morning?”

“That’s right, Ben.”

“Did he say where he was headed?”

“Not in my hearing,” Gretchen shook her head. “You might check with the desk clerk, however.”

Ben finished the remainder of his coffee in a single gulp. “Thank you, Gretchen, you’ve been a great help.”

“Sure, Ben, any time.”

Ben insisted on paying for both cups of coffee, despite Gretchen’s insistence they were on the house, and left a generous tip for the waiter. On his way out of the hotel, he stopped by the front desk. “Good morning, Mister Thatcher,” Ben greeted the short, wiry man standing behind the counter, impeccably attired in a black suit. “I’m returning your registry.”

“Thank you, Mister Cartwright,” Mister Thatcher said primly. “Just set it right there on the counter, please.”

Ben obliged him. “A quick question, if I may?” he queried.

“Certainly, Mister Cartwright.”

“A man named Zachary Hilliard checked out yesterday morning, early,” Ben said. “Did he happen to mention where he might be headed?”

“He said something about having some business in Reno,” Mister Thatcher replied, “then asked for directions to the livery stable.”

“Thank you, much obliged.”

“You’re quite welcome, Mister Cartwright.”

*****

While Ben Cartwright made his inquiries in Virginia City, the subject of his investigation had just finished a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, fried potatoes, toast, and coffee at Eleanor Gerard’s boarding house in Reno.

“More coffee, Mister Hilliard?” Eleanor Gerard asked. She was a plump, motherly woman, aged in her early to mid-forties. The chestnut brown curls, framing her face, accentuated its roundness. She wore a light green house dress, that brought out the green highlights in her hazel eyes.

Zachary Hilliard smiled back, and shook his head. “No thank you, Mrs. Gerard,” he declined smoothly. “I’m stuffed. I keep eating like this, I’ll have to go on a diet.”

“Nonsense!” Mrs. Gerard scolded in a good natured tone. “If anything, you’re too thin for a man of your height.”

He deftly removed the pocket watch from his vest pocket and snapped up the cover. “I must be off, Mrs. Gerard,” Zachary said, rising. He closed the cover over his watch and slipped it back into his pocket. “Can you direct me to the Comstock Hotel? I’m supposed to meet a business associate of mine there at ten.”

Mrs. Gerard happily provided the directions.

Zachary thanked her politely, then set off. Mrs. Gerard’s directions proved clear and easy to follow. After locating the Comstock Hotel, he entered and walked over to the front desk.

“Good morning, Sir,” the clerk greeted him politely. “How may I help you?”

“I’m supposed to meet one of your guests,” Zachary replied.

“Your name, Sir?”

“Hilliard,” he replied. “Mister Zachary Hilliard.”

“Ah, yes,” the desk clerk said. “He asked me to send you up to his room. You will find him in number 212.”

Zachary thanked the desk clerk and went up the stairs. He found room number 212 at the far end of the hall. Pulling himself up to full height, he knocked on the closed door.

“Who is it?” a masculine voice inquired curtly from within.

“Lieutenant Hilliard, Sir, reporting as ordered.”

“Come in, Lieutenant.”

Zachary entered and saluted.

John McKenna crisply returned the salute. He was a tall man, standing well over six feet. His regal posture accentuated his height, gifting him with an authoritative, intimidating presence despite his thin, wiry build. He wore a black three piece suit, and tie, with a starched white cotton shirt. He had a full head of dark brown, wavy hair and mustache, both neatly trimmed, and piercing sky blue eyes. “At ease, Lieutenant,” he said as he stiffly made his way to the nearest chair, with the aid of a solid wood mahogany cane. “Report.”

“I have confirmation that the girl you seek does in fact live with Mister Benjamin Cartwright and his sons, on their ranch, the Ponderosa,” Zachary said in crisp, measured tones. “She has been with the Cartwrights for the past four and one half years. THREE and a half years ago, almost to the day, Mister Cartwright legally adopted her.”

“An ironic happenstance if ever there was one,” John remarked acerbically. “You are certain about this, Lieutenant?”

“Yes, Sir, absolutely certain.”

John McKenna took a moment to digest the information. “I don’t suppose you’ve had the opportunity to . . . ?”

“I had the opportunity, and failed, Sir,” Zachary said, accurately anticipating the question. “For that, I take full responsibility and submit myself for disciplinary action.”

“To be perfectly honest, I’m glad your first attempt failed,” John said slowly. “No disciplinary action will be taken, Lieutenant. There’s going to be a change of plans. I’m going to kill two birds with one stone.”

“Sir, there’s something else you should know,” Zachary said. “The Cartwrights have an unexpected house guest. She and I arrived in Virginia City on the same stage, though at the time I didn’t recognize her. She has changed much, and not for the better.”

“Who is this unexpected guest?” John was clearly intrigued.

“According to the good people of Virginia City, her name is Paris McKenna,” Zachary replied. “Your sister, Captain.”

“Really!” A malevolent smile slowly spread across John’s face. “Did SHE recognize YOU?”

“I am reasonably sure she did not, Captain.”

“How fortuitous! Not only do I have the bastard pup and her debauched sire in hand, I have that bitch whore of a sister as well. Lieutenant, are the men in place?”

“Yes, Sir, awaiting your orders.”

“Excellent! My plan for killing TWO birds with one stone can and will just as easily net three,” John said slowly. “Lieutenant, these are your new orders . . . . ”

*****

“I think you’ll find this will far more practical for riding, Stacy,” Paris explained as she deftly wove Stacy’s long hair into a single thick French braid. “You can ride with the wind in your hair without the bothersome tangles.”

Paris sat on the edge of the sofa, clad in a plain white night gown and a pale blue dressing gown. The latter was worn, but still in one piece. Stacy, fully dressed except for footwear, sat on the coffee table, directly in front of Paris. Her right leg stretched across the table, with her injured ankle resting comfortably on a cushion.

“Did you braid your hair, too, when you went out riding?” Stacy asked.

“As a matter of fact, yes,” Paris replied as she wove the last plait and attached the fastener. “You’re getting the benefit of my experience.”

“Looks very nice on Miss Stacy,” Hop Sing declared.

“Thank you, Hop Sing,” Stacy said.

“But, Miss Stacy get foot off coffee table before Papa come home,” Hop Sing warned ominously.

“I’m moving right now,” Stacy said rising. She slipped between Paris and the coffee table, wincing whenever she had to put full weight on her sprained ankle, and sat down. The grandfather clock in the living room struck the half hour.

“Better get back to kitchen,” Hop Sing said. “Soon Mister Cartwright, Mister Hoss and Little Joe come home hungry.”

“They won’t be the only ones, Hop Sing,” Paris said. “I’m pretty hungry right now myself.”

Hop Sing turned and flashed Paris a broad grin. “That good to hear!” he declared. “Very good to hear! Miss Paris needs to eat.” With that, he turned and retreated toward the kitchen.

As she watched Hop Sing amble toward the kitchen, Paris suddenly realized that she felt better. Her appetite had picked up, much to Hop Sing’s delight. Last night, at supper, she even had seconds. Though she still felt weak and tired easily, her dizzy spells had all but stopped.

Paris spent a delightful morning with Stacy. An unexpected surprise, given how disgruntled the girl was when it became clear her sprained ankle had rendered the prospect of working with the horses a moot point. Paris smiled, remembering the disagreement between Stacy and Ben on that very subject, at the breakfast table earlier . . . .

“Pa, I can’t,” she wailed passionately, after Ben decreed that she take the day off and rest her injured ankle.

“Why not?” Ben asked reasonably.

“Mister Hansen’s horse,” Stacy said immediately. “You know what Hoss said about her needing a couple more weeks of good solid work.”

“No, she doesn’t, Stacy,” Hoss said. “Remember? Last night, Pa told us Mister Hansen decided to take your advise and give her to Grace. We could turn that little filly over to him today, if he’s of a mind.”

Stacy glared at Hoss, then turned her attention back to Ben. “Pa, I feel fine,” she insisted. “Honest! My ankle doesn’t hurt a bit.”

“Is that why you’re limping worse today than you did when you initially fell?” Ben asked in a wry tone.

“But . . . . ”

“No, buts!” Ben said. “Hoss can handle the horses today. You are going to stay here and keep off your feet.”

“Pa?”

“What?”

“I’m not a circus performer, you know.”

Ben was completely taken aback by that remark. “Stacy, what has THAT got to do with . . . . ?!”

“Everything! A circus performer might ride standing up, but I always SIT in the saddle,” Stacy explained. “I’d be off my feet the whole time I’m riding.”

Paris tried so hard not to laugh. Her success in that endeavor was, at best, questionable.

“No,” Ben said firmly, casting a dark glare at Paris. “That’s final.”

Paris and Stacy spent most of their time together talking about horses, a passion both held in common. As the morning passed, Stacy found herself warming toward Miss Paris. Most of her trepidations had abated, leaving her feeling a little silly about having felt them in the first place. She could not, however, shake the feelings of déja vu.

“Miss Paris?”

Stacy’s voice gently roused her from her reverie. “Yes, Stacy?”

“Are you Irish?”

“As a matter of fact, yes, I am,” Paris replied with a smile. “Born in County Donegal to a poor tenant farmer and his wife. How did you guess?”

“I can hear a little of it in your voice sometimes,” Stacy said. “It sounds almost musical.”

Paris laughed with genuine mirth for the first time in many years. “You’re the first person I’ve ever heard call it musical,” she said warmly. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you have more than enough Irish blarney about yourself.”

Stacy responded with a puzzled frown. “What’s blarney?” she asked.

“It’s a magical way of words,” Paris explained. “My father once told me a man, or woman for that matter, well versed in the art of blarney can tell another to go to hell in such a way as to make that other actually look forward to the trip.”

Stacy laughed out loud, and Paris, much to her own delight, found herself laughing, too.

“Paris isn’t an Irish name, though, is it?” Stacy ventured as the laughter died away.

“My father, when he was a young man, had grand dreams of wealth and travel,” Paris said with a dreamy smile. “One place he wanted to visit was Paris, France, also known as the city of lights. My mother told me he chose the name Paris as a magic omen to insure he’d one day visit there.”

“Did he?”

Paris sadly shook her head. “Too many hardships,” she said. “Ireland was hit by famine when I was a young child, four or maybe five years old.”

“Is that when you came to this country?” Stacy asked.

Paris nodded. “Though my maternal grandmother’s family had left Ireland right after my mother married m’ father,” she added.

“They didn’t bring your mother and father with them?”

Paris shook her head. “Being a protestant, well-to-do family, they were opposed to my mother’s marriage to a dirt poor tenant farmer from a large Catholic family,” she said somberly. “They disowned her.”

Stacy, try as she might, simply could not fathom such a thing. “Just like that?” she queried.

“Just like that,” Paris responded.

“What about your father’s family?” Stacy asked. “Did they come here, too?”

“No,” Paris replied. “My father’s family held an American wake for m’ Ma’am, Da, my brother, John, and me.”

“An American wake? What’s that?”

“A funeral.”

“What?!” Stacy cried, her eyes round with shocked horror.

“For many families, it was like having a loved one die,” Paris explained. “The distance and the time it takes to travel are great, not to mention the cost. The journey itself was also dangerous. Many didn’t survive it. People knew when a loved one left Ireland, chances were good they’d never see or hear from that person again.”

“I can’t imagine it,” Stacy murmured. “Even if I ended up half way across the world, I’d still find a way to keep in contact with my pa and brothers.”

“Your pa and brothers can read,” Paris said quietly. “Most of the folks left behind in Ireland can’t. Unable to read themselves, or find someone to read to them, their letters pile up. Their children here, of course, get no reply from home. A lot of ‘em figured the folks back home were dead, and stopped writing.

“I was too young to remember much,” Paris continued in a more thoughtful tone of voice, “ but I do remember people dying all around us and the length of days aboard ship crowded with people, many of THEM sick and dying. I don’t remember how long the trip took across the ocean, I only know it seemed to go on forever.

“When we reached America, there were more hardships. My father couldn’t find steady work. My mother told me years later, when I myself was near grown, that just about everywhere Da went to look for work, there were signs in t’ windows saying, ‘No Irish need apply here.’ Da ended up joining the army. He made a fine career of it, but over the years, all the lovely grand dreams died one by one.”

“When people, men or women, loose their dreams, they loose pieces of themselves,” Stacy said quietly. “They die inside when they stop dreaming altogether. That’s worse than the body dying.” She looked up, her eyes meeting those of the older woman. “I’m sorry, Miss Paris,” she said. “For your pa . . . and for you.”

Paris began to understand why Ben never ceased to marvel at this fey child, so young and at the same time so ancient. “When Da retired his army commission, w-we could have well have afforded to visit Paris, and in grand style, too,” she said, her voice trembling. “But, by then, he and Mam no longer wanted to go.”

“I’m sorry, Miss Paris,” Stacy said, her own eyes bright with unshed tears. “It seems that somehow, I’m always saying something to make you sad.”

“This is a happy kind of sad, Stacy,” Paris said slowly. “I had long ago forgotten that my father was a dreamer, and why he gave me my name. You helped me remember, and for that I’m grateful, more than you can possibly realize.” Paris impulsively reached over and gave the girl a reassuring hug.

At five minutes before noon, Ben arrived home. Worry creased his brow and deepened the lines in his face. He quietly closed the door and divested himself of his gun belt and holster.

“Pa?” Stacy studied him with a puzzled frown. “Is something wrong?”

“No,” Ben lied, drawing a sharp glance from his daughter. “Stacy, do you feel up to taking my horse into the barn?”

“Sure,” Stacy replied.

“Candy’s there,” Ben continued. “Ask him to unsaddle Big Buck and give him a rub down.”

“OK, Pa.”

“Ben, I hope you realize Stacy saw right through you,” Paris said, after Stacy had gone outside, and closed the front door behind her.

“I’ll talk with her later,” Ben said quietly. “First, I need to ask you a few questions, if I may?”

“Alright,” Paris said warily.

“I understand there was another passenger on the stage with you, when you arrived in Virginia City a couple of days ago,” Ben said.

“So?”

“What can you tell me about him?”

“Not much,” Paris replied, looking at him askance. “I remember him telling the driver, when we stopped in Carson City, that he was from . . . . Chicago, I think it was. Apart from that . . . ” she shrugged.

“Didn’t you talk to him at all?” Ben asked.

“He and I said hello when I came on board,” Paris said. “After that, we didn’t talk at all, which to be perfectly honest, was just fine with me.” She fell silent for a moment. “Ben, what’s going on?”

“I found out last night that passenger has been asking people in Virginia City questions about my family, especially Stacy,” Ben replied.

“Stacy?!” Paris echoed incredulously. “That makes no sense whatsoever, unless . . . Ben, could he be a blood relative?”

Ben frowned. “If he is, he certainly took long enough to crawl out from behind the woodwork,” he said.

“Surely he can’t challenge the adoption at this late date,” Paris protested.

Ben shook his head. “I checked with my lawyer while I was in town. He said if a blood relative did challenge the adoption, the choice would more than likely be Stacy’s, given her age now and the length of time that’s passed.”

“There’s no doubt in my mind she’d choose to stay here,” Paris said quietly, with conviction. “Do you know what my fellow passenger’s name is?”

“Zachary Hilliard.”

Paris gasped, as the blood drained from her face.

“You do know him.”

“I know that name,” Paris said slowly. “The Zachary Hilliard I know went to West Point with my brother. John was a year ahead, but he and Zachary became close friends. He served under my brother during the war. I met him once, before the war.” She glanced up at Ben, meeting his eyes. “Ben, if the man on the stage with me was that Zachary Hilliard, he’s changed a great deal. I’d have never recognized him in a million years.”

“Paris, do you know where is your brother living now?”

“No,” Paris said not bothering to mask her rising irritation. “I haven’t the slightest idea where he is now and, frankly, I don’t much care.” She lapsed into a cold, stony silence.

“I’m sorry I upset you, Paris,” Ben said quietly.

“It’s not you, Ben,” Paris said. “The mere thought of my brother is enough to get my Irish up.” She sighed and shook her head. “As you know, I’ve never been able to get along with anyone in my family,” she said ruefully. “My father and I . . . ” she shrugged, “I suppose that was inevitable. He thought he had every right to run my life for me. I disagreed.” She lapsed into a long, uneasy silence.

Ben waited patiently for her to continue.

“Looking back, I can excuse a lot of things he said and did because he was my father. Fathers behave that way, especially towards their daughters. It’s the nature of the beast.”

“Not necessarily,” Ben said quietly.

“You’re the rare exception, Ben Cartwright,” Paris said softly, then sighed. “As for my brother,” she continued with a dark scowl, “who happens to be a year YOUNGER than I am, he decided he was entitled to the same privilege. The last time I saw him . . . it was about a year after the rest of our family had died . . . John and I had a royal row to end all rows. He hit me, Ben. He actually hit me . . . repeatedly.” She shook her head, as shocked and astonished now as she had been then. “John would have killed me, I’m sure of it! Thank God his holster and gun were within my reach. I drew on him and told him he was dead if he didn’t back off.”

“Did he?” Ben asked.

“After I put a bullet in his leg to prove I meant business,” Paris said grimly. “I left town as soon as I could after that. I didn’t even bother to stay long enough to find out whether he lived or died.” She paused. “I’ve not seen or heard from him since.”

Ben shook his head. “My first and only meeting with John was brief,” he said incredulously. “Somehow, he didn’t impress me as the sort of man capable of that kind of violence.”

“That was many years ago,” Paris said. “Back then, he fancied himself as a reckless, devil-may-care rogue. Everyone knew he was all bluster and bravado, but harmless. The war changed all that. He came back a very, very angry young man. That devil-may-care attitude was gone, as if it had never been. In its place was a sullen, brooding intensity that frightened me.” She shuddered. “Ben?”

“Yes?”

“Is John involved in whatever it is that’s going on?”

Ben shook his head. “If this Zachary Hilliard DOES turn out to be the man who served with John, it’s more than likely one of those odd coincidences that happens sometimes,” he said. “You’ll just have to forgive a concerned father for grasping at straws.”

“Consider it done, Ben.”

They lapsed into a companionable silence. Ben placed his arm up on top of the sofa, behind her. Almost without realizing, Paris found herself leaning against him, resting her head on his shoulder.

“You know . . . ” Paris said softly, “when it comes to being stubborn, Stacy reminds me a lot of myself when I was . . . much younger.”

“Yes, I’ve noticed the similarities,” Ben commented wryly, “which reminds me . . . the next time Stacy and I have a disagreement at the table, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t laugh.”

“I’m sorry, Ben, I tried,” Paris said smiling. “I really did! But that remark about SITTING in the saddle . . . I just couldn’t help it.”

“The worst part is, I almost laughed out loud myself,” Ben said returning her smile.

“I’m glad she has you for a father,” Paris said quietly. “You’re able to be firm when you need to be, without interfering one bit with her stubborn, independent spirit. It’s part of her charm, y’ know.”

“I remember it being part of the charm of another young woman, not much older than Stacy is now,” Ben said meaningfully.

Paris began to remember all over again why she had fallen so passionately in love with the man sitting close beside her all those years ago. “You know, my father felt it was his duty to beat it out of me, my brother, and my sisters,” for the first time in her life she could say it as simply a statement of fact, without rancor or bitterness.

“I don’t believe in breaking a child’s spirit like that, be that child a son or daughter,” Ben said adamantly.

“I feel no remorse about my father . . . or John,” Paris said. “Some happen stances are inevitable. I DO feel badly about the way I left things with my mother and sisters the last time I saw them. By the time I got around to thinking I should write my mother and try to put things right with her, Mattie, and Elsie . . . I found out they had been dead for nearly a year.” Her voice broke on the last word.

“I like to think of Heaven as a place where people can look back on their own lives, and the lives of those around them,” Ben said quietly. “When they do, they can see and understand a lot more about other people, their circumstances, and even themselves. I believe that your mother, Mattie, and Elsie know and understand you and the life all of you shared far better than even you can right now. From that understanding, they’ve forgiven you long ago for everything you’ve ever done, or not done.” He paused to allow her time to absorb the import of his words. “It’s time you forgave yourself.”

Tears glistened in her eyes and flowed freely down her cheeks. “I wish I could, Ben,” she said. “I really do!” The hopeless despair in her voice troubled him deeply. “But, sometimes a person does something for which there can be no forgiveness . . . ever!”

*****

Somewhere in the dark, she heard a cacophony of voices. Two men, their voices steadily rising with anger, argued. She was too far away to hear their words, but the bitter animosity came through loud and clear. She also heard the hushed drone of women’s voices in the dark, somewhere close by, striking a troubled discord against the men. No words, only voices. As the men’s voices rose in volume and rancor, the women’s gradually died away to a frightening silence. Sounds followed, of flesh striking flesh, a distant scream, followed by footsteps and the roar of a mighty, evil wind.

Stacy.

She started violently, nearly falling off the bale of hay on which she sat. Opening her eyes, she found herself staring up into Candy’s troubled face.

“You alright, Kid?” he queried anxiously, noting that her complexion was a few shades paler than her robust normal.

“Y-yeah . . . I think.”

“That must have been some dream.”

“Yeah . . . ”

“You sure you’re alright, Stacy?”

“Yeah, I’m OK,” Stacy replied. “It was one of those dreams that seem so real while it’s happening, it’s a shock to wake up. In fact, I don’t even remember dozing off.”

“I know what you mean,” Candy said, returning his attention to Big Buck. “I’ve had a few like that myself.”

“Can I help you give him a rub down?” Stacy asked.

“Thanks, but I can manage,” Candy replied affably. “Besides, there’d be hell to pay if I encouraged you to be up and around on your injured ankle any more than absolutely necessary.”

“From Pa?”

Candy grinned. “From YOU, if you end up having to take a whole month away from the horses because you ended up suffering a relapse.”

“True,” Stacy admitted. “Candy, can I ask you a question?”

“Sure.”

“What’s going on?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean what’s going on?” Stacy repeated the question. “Pa came back from town a little while ago, looking like the whole world just caved in on him. I asked if anything was wrong. He told me there wasn’t, and in the same breath asked me to bring Big Buck to you, so he can talk to Miss Paris alone.” She paused. “Does this have anything to do with the cut strap on my saddle?”

Her discernment took Candy completely by surprise. “I think maybe you’d better ask your father about that,” he ventured hesitantly.

“Ask me what?”

Stacy and Candy glanced up at the door. Ben Cartwright stood framed in the open doorway.

“Pa, what’s going on around here?” Stacy wasted no time beating around the bush.

“I’ll answer your question in just a moment,” Ben promised, then turned his attention to Candy. “I’d like you and Joe to run an errand for me in Reno,” he said. “Joe’s got the horses saddled and ready. He’ll explain on the way.”

Candy nodded, and left.

“Pa?”

Ben sat down on the hay bale beside Stacy, and took a deep breath. “Candy told me last night that a stranger has been asking people in town about our family, you in particular,” he explained.

“Me?!” she queried, taken aback. “Why would anyone want to know about me?”

“I don’t know, but one way or another I intend to find out,” Ben said.

“Is that why you went into town this morning?”

Ben nodded. “I found out the man’s name is Zachary Hilliard,” he said slowly.

“Never heard of him.”

“You sure?” Ben asked. “He could be family, you know. YOUR family.”

“Pa, let’s get one thing straight,” she said earnestly, her intense blue eyes meeting his dark brown ones. “You, Hoss, Joe, Adam, and Hop Sing are my family. Before you, Silver Moon, and the tribe of her father, Chief Soaring Eagle. No one else!”

“You’re not even curious?” Ben asked.

“No,” Stacy said emphatically. She fell silent for a time, thinking the matter over. “Pa, if this Zachary Hilliard does turn out to be . . . one of the people I was with before Silver Moon, do I have to . . . to go with him?”

“Absolutely not,” Ben hastened to assure her.

Stacy exhaled an audible sigh of relief. “Good! Because I don’t want to!” she stated emphatically. “Pa, I meant what I said about you guys being my family.”

Ben impulsively hugged her.

“You’d better not ever forget it, either,” Stacy said, as she hugged back.

“You’re sure you’ve never heard of anyone by the name of Zachary Hilliard?” Ben asked.

“I’m sure,” Stacy replied. “Is this guy in Reno?”

“As a matter of fact, yes,” Ben replied. “Joe and Candy are on their way there to track him down, and hopefully, find out why he’s asking questions.”

“Pa, he couldn’t have had anything to do with my saddle, could he?” she asked with a dark scowl.

“I don’t know,” Ben said gravely. “The two things could be a coincidence, but then again, we have to consider the possibility they’re not. Until we know something for sure, would you do me a favor?”

“Sure, Pa.”

Ben took a deep breath and steeled himself for an argument. “Until we know for sure, I don’t want you to go out by yourself,” he said. “I’d feel a lot better if one of us, or Candy, were with you.”

Stacy opened her mouth to protest, but the anxious look on his face stopped her cold. “O-OK, Pa,” she acquiesced.

*****

“The kid and her pa just came out of the barn, Sarge. I have a clear shot at her.”

“Put that thing away, Corporal. We have new orders, remember?” the man addressed as ‘Sarge’ rebuked his companion curtly. “The captain wants us to watch the Cartwright Family, especially the kid, and take note of their comings and goings. That is ALL!”

“Then what?”

“When we need to know, we’ll know,” the sergeant said. “Until then, we follow orders.”

The corporal re-holstered his gun reluctantly. “Who changed the orders anyway?” he groused.

“The captain,” the sergeant replied.

“Why?”

“He has his reasons,” the sergeant said. “We’ll know what they are when and IF we need to know.”

The corporal lapsed into a sullen silence.

The sergeant cast a look of disgust at his companion, then returned to his vigil, just in time to see Stacy and Ben enter the house. His thoughts drifted back to the war and the battle at Antietam Creek.

It was during the attack on the bridge that had become known in later years as Burnsides’ Bridge he was severely wounded, and left for dead among the dead. The attack went down in the late afternoon, early evening hours of September 17, 1862. He was among the men ordered to cross and hold that bridge. The bridge was taken, with heavy losses. Five hundred Confederates held out against nine thousand Union soldiers. They pressed forward with their attack, pushing the men under the command of Longstreet back towards the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. They had General Lee and his men boxed in and on the run. Had it not been for the timely arrival of General A. P. Hill and his men from Harper’s Ferry, AND General McClellen’s refusal to send in reinforcements, the Army of Northern Virginia would not have lived to fight another day, let alone the next two years.

The day that might have gone down in the history books as the day the Army of Northern Virginia was crushed and the back of the Confederacy broken, instead became known as the single, bloodiest day of fighting during the course of the American Civil War. All because, for whatever reason, General McClellen refused to send in reinforcements in at least two critical junctures, one of them being the battle at the bridge, where he was wounded and almost certainly would have died along with so many others, had it not been for one John McKenna.

During the night, his commanding officer, then Lieutenant John McKenna, returned for him and carried him back to safety. McKenna was given a field promotion to captain, for that act of foolhardy bravery. Furthermore, McKenna saw to it that he received the medical attention he needed. He, as a small way at least of repaying the debt he owed the captain, had privately vowed his undying loyalty.

The sergeant intended to honor that vow, no matter how distasteful he might find do so personally. The thought of killing a young woman in cold blood . . . a young woman not much more than a child, a little older perhaps than his eldest daughter, Annabelle . . . left a bitter, rancid taste in his mouth. The captain’s obsession with the girl’s demise was very troubling to say the least, but his was not to question. His duty was to obey, and trust that the captain had valid reasons for his actions. While there was no question in his own mind that he would carry out any orders issued him, he still found a measure of guilty relief in the change.

*****

The following morning, at Gerard’s Boarding House in Reno, Joe Cartwright woke to the heady aromas of bacon frying in the skillet and a fresh hot pot of coffee. He sat up and stretched. “Candy, better wake up,” he said. “I think breakfast is almost ready.”

Candy’s reply was a loud snore.

Joe climbed out of bed, seizing one of the down pillows in hand. “Up and at ‘em, Mister Canaday,” he said before smacking his sleeping traveling companion in the chest with his pillow.

“Aww, come on, Joe,” Candy groaned.

“Rise and shine,” Joe countered. “I smell breakfast downstairs. I want to get it while it’s still hot.”

“You’re as bad as Hoss,” Candy groaned, and pointedly rolled over facing the wall.

“I think I’ve just been insulted,” Joe declared with a mock pout.

“I know you have,” Candy said cantankerously. “Wake me in another hour, willya?” With that, he yawned again and fell back to sleep.

“Good morning, Mrs. Gerard,” Joe greeted the owner and manager of Gerard’s Boarding House with a big smile.

“ ‘Morning, Boys,” Mrs. Gerard chirped. “Go on in the dining room, and sit down. Breakfast will be ready in a jiffy.”

“Thank you, Ma’am,” Joe said cheerfully.

Candy yawned, and tried to smile.

“Don’t mind my friend here,” Joe said affably. He placed one arm around Candy’s neck, and patted his cheek as if to revive or sober him up. “He’s no good in the morning, until he gets at least two cups of coffee in him.”

“Go on in and sit down,” Mrs. Gerard cheerfully shooed them out of the kitchen. “I’ll bring your coffee right in.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Joe said. He took Candy by the elbow and ushered him out of the kitchen.

“Sarah!” Mrs. Gerard stepped to the back steps and called for her housekeeper, Sarah Perkins.

“Yes, Ma’am?”

“Please take that pot of coffee . . . ” Mrs. Gerard indicated the pot warming on the stove with a nod of her head, “. . . to the two gents waiting in the dining room. You’ll find the mugs on the table.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Sarah grabbed a pot holder and removed the coffee pot from the stove.

“ ‘Morning, Gentlemen,” Sarah greeted Joe and Candy politely. “Good strong coffee fresh and hot.”

Candy yawned again, as Joe picked up their mugs. He held up Candy’s first to be filled, then his own.

“You’ll find the sugar on the table,” Sarah said, after pouring the coffee. “If you’d like milk, I’ll fetch it from the kitchen.”

“I like mine black,” Candy said.

“Me, too,” Joe agreed.

“So what brings you fellas to Reno?” Sarah asked.

Candy took a big gulp from the mug in hand. “We heard that a buddy of ours was passing through,” he said.

“Oh yeah? What’s his name?”

“You probably never heard of him,” Candy shook his head. “He’s from Chicago.”

“Mister Hilliard?” Sarah queried.

“Yeah, that’s him!” Joe said. “He still around?

Sarah shook her head. “He left town yesterday afternoon,” she replied. “On a horse from the Livery Stable. You guys army buddies of his?”

“You might say that,” Candy said evasively.

“Mrs. Gerard said he met with a business associate of his down at the Comstock Hotel yesterday morning,” Sarah said.

“Did he say where he was headed?” Joe asked.

Sarah shook her head. “Gee, that’s a shame, you guys missing him so close,” she said. “I’ll ask Mrs. Gerard. Maybe he told her where he was headed.”

“Thank you,” Candy said. “We’d appreciate that.”

Sarah turned heel and left the dining room.

“I don’t believe this, Candy,” Joe groaned sotto voce. “We actually missed that guy by a few hours.”

“All is not yet lost,” Candy said taking care to keep his voice low. “We may still catch up to him, if he happened to tell Mrs. Gerard where he was headed.”

Mrs. Gerard herself entered the dining room a few moments later, carrying a bowl of fluffy scrambled eggs and a plate of bacon. “Help yourself, Gents,” she said, placing the food on the table. “Sarah’ll be right in with fried potatoes and biscuits.” She paused. “I understand the two of you are army buddies of Mister Hilliard’s.”

“Yeah,” Candy answered smoothly, with an affable grin. “We heard he was in town on business, so we thought we’d stop in and say hello.”

“I’m afraid you boys missed him,” Mrs. Gerard said sympathetically.

“He didn’t happen to mention where he might be headed, did he?” Candy asked.

“Sorry, Boys,” Mrs. Gerard shook her head.

“Oh, well, it was a spur of the moment kind of thing,” Candy shrugged, while Joe sat next to him seething with angry frustration. “Maybe next time.”

“You boys eat up now,” Mrs. Gerard admonished them.

“I could just scream,” Joe muttered through clenched teeth, after Sarah had left the promised fried potatoes and biscuits.

“Don’t scream, eat!” Candy said in a low voice. “After breakfast, we’ll mosey on down to the Comstock Hotel and ask around. At the very least, we should turn up the name of the business associate he came to meet.”

After breakfast, Joe and Candy settled their account at Gerard’s Boarding House, and packed their horses. They planned to stop by the Comstock Hotel on their way back to Virginia City and the Ponderosa. For his part, Joe had settled into an all-encompassing despondency, unable to shake the feeling this trip to Reno would ultimately prove an exercise in futility.

They reached the Comstock Hotel a within a few minutes.

“Joe, are you alright?” Candy asked, as they tethered their mounts to the hitching post on the street outside the hotel entrance.

“Let’s just say I’m not feeling as optimistic as you are,” Joe replied.

“Would you rather wait here?” Candy offered. “I can go in alone . . . . ”

Joe considered Candy’s suggestion for a moment, then shook his head. “No, I’ll come with you,” he decided. “The way I’m feeling now, I think I’d go crazy having nothing to do but wait.”

“For what it’s worth, if I were in your shoes and she was MY sister, I’d be worried sick, too.”

“Thanks,” Joe managed a wan smile. “Let’s go see what we can find out.”

*****

“ . . . Candy and I stopped at the Comstock Hotel, on our way out of town,” Joe recounted in a melancholy tone for his father many hours later. “The hotel clerk told us Zachary Hilliard met with a guy by the name of John Smith.”

“Common name,” Ben remarked morosely. “TOO common a name.”

Joe sighed. “John Smith checked out of the hotel yesterday afternoon, shortly after his meeting with Zachary Hilliard ended. Both of them left town yesterday afternoon. John Smith supposedly left on the stage, as for Zachary Hilliard . . . . ” He shrugged.

“Did you check with the stage lines?” Ben asked.

Joe nodded glumly. “Candy and I went over those passenger lists three times, Pa. There was no John Smith, Zachary Hilliard, OR John McKenna, for that matter, listed.”

An uneasy silence settled over Ben and his youngest son.

“Pa, what do we do now?” Joe asked at length.

“The Livery Stable!” At hopeful ray of light dawned on Ben’s troubled mind.

“What?”

“Mister Thatcher at the hotel said Zachary Hilliard asked for directions to the Livery Stable!” Ben said. “He must’ve rented a horse or a rig to take him to Reno.”

“That’s right!” Joe agreed. “I’ll ride in to Virginia City first thing in the morning.”

“I reported the incident concerning Stacy’s saddle to Roy yesterday, while I was in Virginia City asking questions,” Ben said. “You might check with him also to see if he’s learned anything.”

“I will,” Joe promised.

“In the meantime, we keep alert,” Ben said grimly.

“What about Stacy?” Joe asked.

“She promised me she wouldn’t to go off on her own until further notice,” Ben said. “No arguments.”

“No arguments?!” Joe looked over at his father in utter astonishment. “What did you do? Slip chloroform into her milk before making her promise?”

“I WAS ready for an argument,” Ben said, “but she promised without one word of protest. I can only assume she understands the seriousness of the situation.”

“She might now,” Joe said soberly, “but knowing my sister as I do, it won’t be long before she’s chomping at the bit. I hope we find out what this Zachary Hilliard character is up to before then.”

“So do I,” Ben said gravely. “So do I!”

*****

The woman was tall and slender, clad in darkness, her face veiled with thick impenetrable shadow. She looked away, terrified by the thought of seeing the woman’s face, or worst of all, her eyes. The woman called to her. She heard the urgency and fear in the woman’s voice. For the first time, she realized that the woman called her by another name. Though the name was not her name, or a name known to her, it’s sound, the flow of consonants and vowels into their own unique patterns of syllables, terrified her.

Stacy woke up suddenly, the remnants of a scream dying in her throat before it could issue forth. She pulled her quilt up around her, shivering violently. She closed her eyes, and tried to focus on her breathing. In, out, deep, even breaths. Even with her eyelids squeezed shut, she felt the walls of the room closing in on her.

Stacy opened her eyes, and glanced at the clock. The time was a few minutes before seven, plenty of time, she realized to get in a short ride on Blaze Face before breakfast. She threw aside the covers with a strength born of desperate need to escape the claustrophobic confines of her bedroom and the house. She quickly dressed and made her way downstairs.

“Good morning,” Ben, still dressed in pajamas and robe greeted her from the desk in the area set aside as his study. “Where are you off to in such a hurry?”

He had spent the better part of the last hour and a half reading over a proposed contract with a lumber company desiring to fell trees on one of the northwestern sections of the vast Ponderosa. The tedious process of deciphering the all too precise wording of the document and his growing concern about Stacy’s safety left him feeling mentally drained and on edge physically. He placed the papers on the desk in front of him and massaged his temples against the beginnings of a rip roaring headache.

Startled by her father’s voice and presence combined with the fear and claustrophobia left in the wake of her dream, Stacy nearly jumped right out of her skin.

Ben rose, an anxious frown knotting his brow. “Stacy, are you alright?”

Stacy swallowed, and took a deep, ragged breath. “I will be Pa,” she replied, her voice shaking. “I need to get out in the open for a little while. There’s enough time for Blaze Face and me to take a short ride before breakfast— ”

“Stacy, you promised me you wouldn’t go off on your own until we could resolve this matter concerning Zachary Hilliard,” Ben said. “Remember?”

In her fright and panic, she had completely forgotten. “Pa, can you come with me?”

“I’m not even dressed,” Ben pointed out the obvious in a reasonable tone of voice.

“Please? It wouldn’t take you long to— ”

“Even if I went up now, by the time I finished getting washed and dressed, it would be almost time for breakfast,” Ben protested. “Tell you what! AFTER breakfast, we can saddle up, and— ”

“Pa, I can’t wait that long!” Stacy wailed. “If I stay in this house another minute I . . . I swear . . . I’m gonna run mad!”

“Stacy— ”

“What?” she rounded on him furiously.

“I think you’d better go up to your room and stay there until you calm down,” Ben said firmly.

“Pa— ”

“Now.”

Stacy exhaled an audible sigh of anger and frustration, before turning heel and fleeing to the upper environs of the house. Her loud angry footfalls echoed through the house culminating with the slamming shut of her bedroom door.

Ben picked up the document again, and began to read. Within less than five minutes, he threw it back down on the desk again in angry frustration after having read the same sentence over again three times. “Might as well get dressed,” he sighed, rising.

“Good morning, Ben,” Paris greeted him in the hallway, an hour later, after he had dressed and shaved.

“Good morning, Paris.” He was pleased to see that not only was she up and about, but for the first time since her arrival she had gotten dressed. Her clothing bagged loosely on her thin, emaciated frame, but Hop Sing’s cooking should solve that problem in short order. “You’re looking very well today. How are you feeling?”

“You lie through your teeth, Ben Cartwright,” Paris returned playfully. “I don’t look well by any means, however, I AM feeling much better.” She fell silent for a moment. “Ben, I’m so glad you insisted on my coming to the Ponderosa.”

“My pleasure,” Ben said sincerely. Their passage to the stairs took them to the door to Stacy’s room. “Paris, can you make it downstairs on your own?”

“Yes, I can,” she replied.

“I’ll see you at breakfast,” he said. “There’s somebody I have to talk to.”

“Sure, Ben,” Paris said, remembering the footsteps earlier that sounded for all the world like a cattle stampede and the slamming door. “See you downstairs.”

Ben turned his attention to the fast closed door. He took a deep breath, and knocked. “Stacy, it’s Pa.”

“Come on in,” a small voice invited from within.

“So far so good,” he mused, not without some trepidation. He opened the door and walked in. Stacy stood before the window with her back to the door, head bowed and arms folded across her chest. Ben crossed the room and stood next to her. “I’m sorry I took your head off earlier,” he said quietly, placing his arm around her shoulders. “Reading legal documents always leaves me a feeling little irritable. I had no right to take it out on you.”

“I’m sorry, too, Pa,” Stacy said, her voice unsteady.

Ben saw a single stray tear slip over her eyelid and flow down her cheek. “If you’d like, the offer is still open to go for a ride after breakfast,” he said, handing her a handkerchief.

“Thanks, Pa,” Stacy said, accepting the proffered handkerchief and olive branch. “I’d like that very much.”

“It’s settled,” Ben said. “Breakfast should be ready in a few minutes.”

“I’ll be right down,” she said.

“I’ll see you in a few minutes, then,” he said, then left her alone, satisfied that all was right between them, at least for the time being. “It’s hardly been two days, and she’s already chomping at the bit,” Ben mused in uneasy silence. “I sure hope Joe finds out something this morning . . . . ”

*****

Father and daughter stood side by side, holding the reins of their horses atop a rocky promontory overlooking a panoramic vista of lake, field, and the pine trees for which Ben Cartwright had named their home. Overhead, the sky was clear, and in the distance they could see the mountains. Adam Cartwright had named this place Ponderosa Plunge the first time Ben brought him here, more years ago now than he cared to contemplate. From that time on, this spot had become Adam’s special place, as it had been his and Marie’s before. Now, Ponderosa Plunge had become one of several favorite places for his daughter.

“Well, Stacy? Is this enough open space for you?” Ben asked, gesturing to the view below them.

“Yes hardly seems adequate,” Stacy replied. “ ‘O God, how excellent is Your Name in all the Earth . . . when I consider Your Heavens, the work of Your Fingers, the Moon and Stars which You have ordained, what is man . . . or woman . . . that You are mindful of them, or their sons and daughters that You visit them?’ ”

“Taken from Psalm Eight,” Ben said, pleasantly surprised. Though he and Stacy occasionally sat down with the enormous ancient family Bible that had been handed down for many generations on his mother’s side of the family, he had no idea that she had done any reading on her own. “With Earth, My Mother; Sky, My Father; Moon and Sun, My Grandmother and My Grandfather; with My Aunts and Uncles, the Winds, the Rains, the Snows, the Storms; with My Sisters and Brothers, ALL that lives, breathes, and has being upon Earth, Our Mother and under Sky, Our Father; with My Ancestors and My Descendants, the Stars, I am one. O Great Spirit, You who create and give birth to all that is, help me to remember that I am but a single strand of the Great Web of Life.”

“Pa, that’s beautiful!” Stacy exclaimed with delight. “Paiute?”

Ben nodded. “Chief Red Hawk, an old friend, taught me that prayer many years ago,” he said. “Interesting how the psalm and prayer inspire awe in the beauty of nature and put us humans in our place at the same time.”

Both lapsed into companionable silence as they stood contemplating a breathtaking vista they would over the course of their lifetimes always return to again and again.

“Pa?”

“Yes, Stacy?”

“I hope and pray we humans don’t ever forget our place,” Stacy said soberly.

“Me, too,” Ben agreed. He turned and studied her for a moment. “Is everything . . . alright?” he ventured hesitantly.

“It is now, Pa,” Stacy replied.

For a quick, fleeting moment, Ben sensed that she held back on him. His mind replayed their initial argument earlier. He realized for the first time that something had to have upset her, more than likely another dream. In the next instant, he realized with a pang of regret that he had never even asked.

“Really, Pa, I’m OK now,” she said again, looking over at him quizzically. “Sometimes when I feel like things are closing in on me, I just need to get outside in the open, you know . . . to put things in perspective.”

“Yes, I know,” Ben agreed, astonished at how she could sometimes read him so easily. He accepted her explanation at face value, realizing that he needed to allow her time and space to work things through on her own.

By unspoken agreement, they turned and began to walk away from the edge, leading their horses. “Can we stop by the corral?” Stacy asked. “I’d love to see that new golden stallion that just came in off the range.”

“How’s the ankle?” Ben asked, as he prepared to climb onto Big Buck’s back.

“Fine,” Stacy said quickly.

“Let me see you walk a few steps,” he said.

Stacy shrugged and complied. “See, Pa? All better!”

“MUCH better, perhaps . . . . ALL better, I don’t think so,” Ben observed wryly.

Stacy’s face fell.

“But, I think you’re doing well enough to begin working out with that stallion,” Ben continued. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “You can start as soon as we reach the corral, if Hoss has no objections.”

“Thanks, Pa,” Stacy said, as she climbed up onto the back of her own mount. “Let’s go.”

*****

Alexander Deveraux, drifter, gambler, the proverbial jack-of-all-trades, master of none, stepped through the swinging doors of the Bucket of Blood Saloon in Virginia City. He was a short, portly man, with a full head of black hair slicked back with an overabundance of hair cream. His round, flabby face and eyelids almost overwhelmed his black, piercing eyes, lending him a look of stupidity.

Not so long ago, he was an enlisted man in the U.S. Army, rank of corporal. A veteran of what had come to be known in many circles as the War Between the States, he, along with many other men, had fought to achieve the late Mister Lincoln’s ideal of keeping them all together as one nation under God, indivisible. He had served under Captain John McKenna for the duration of the war. Though he disagreed with the captain’s notions of chivalry and honor, he had come to respect and admire the man for his ability, bravery, leadership, and tactical prowess.

Alexander, Alex to his closest friends, paused just inside the door to allow his eyes a moment to adjust to the dimness inside. He glanced at the tables lined up against the back wall, his beady, pig-like eyes darting from one face to the next. He found the object of his search seated alone at the table in the corner furthest from the bar, half hidden in deep shadow. He discreetly made his way through the sparsely populated saloon toward his quarry. Once there, he pulled himself to rigid attention, though he did not salute.

“Lieutenant Hilliard,” he said, taking care to keep his voice low. “Corporal Deveraux reporting as ordered.”

The grizzled, gray haired man, dressed in a pair of ragged flannel slacks, and a white linen shirt now yellowed in the front due to age and countless exposures to the sun, glance up sharply. “My name is Bill Taylor,” he said in clipped tones, while leveling a deadly withering glare at the man standing before him. “Remember?”

“Yes, Sir,” Alex managed politely. Inside, he bristled against the reprimand.

“At ease, Corporal, sit down,” Zachary Hilliard said in clipped, yet measured tones. His eyes darted furtive over the room and handful of patrons. “Report.”

“Most of the time the kid sticks to a consistent pattern,” Deveraux reported. “She leaves the house with her brother the lummox. They head down to the horse corral, work with their stock, return to the house for dinner, go back to the corral, or take care of other chores . . . . ”

“What other chores?” Zachary asked.

“Hunh?”

“I asked you what other chores, Corporal,” Zachary said.

“I don’t know . . . they gotta muck out the stalls in the barn once in a while,” Alex stammered, “and whatever other chores go with running a ranch.”

“Corporal, when you come again three days hence, I expect a FULL and COMPLETE report,” Zachary said through clenched teeth. “I want to know what the Cartwrights, especially the kid, do and WHEN they do it. When they leave the Ponderosa I want to know WHERE they go, WHEN they go, and WHY they go. Is that clear, Corporal?”

“Clear as glass, Mister Taylor,” Alex replied with thinly veiled contempt. “Only one big problem.”

“What is that?” Zachary demanded in a cold tone.

“If you’d let me finish without asking questions about petty details, I wouldda told you the kid never goes out alone,” Alex said in a tone he might have reserved for the purpose of making explanation to an exceptionally stupid child. “Her pa or one of her brothers is ALWAYS with her.”

“Corporal, when you speak to me, you will use a tone of appropriate respect,” Zachary upbraided the man seated at the table beside him. “You may consider yourself on report.”

Alex blanched.

“As for one of the others always accompanying the girl, I strongly suspect we have the botched incident with the saddle strap to thank for that,” Zachary said curtly. “I trust you have left no loose ends?”

“I— ”

“Corporal, before this day is out you WILL see to it that all loose ends concerning the saddle are dealt with,” Zachary said through clenched teeth, “and, if I were you, I’d pray very hard that no irreparable harm has come of your ineptitude.”

“Y-yes, Sir.”

“Dismissed.”

Zachary Hilliard waited until Alexander Deveraux left the Bucket of Blood Saloon. A few moments later, he rose stiffly, and limped toward the door. It took every ounce of will he possessed not to grimace at the dilapidated, even filthy conditions of this establishment.

As he stepped out onto the street, he collided with a young man, with brown wavy hair wearing an olive green jacket.

“Sorry, Sir,” Joe Cartwright apologized at once. “My fault, I wasn’t exactly paying attention to where I was going.”

“It’s OK, Son,” Zachary mumbled, doing a good, believable old man’s voice.

“Can I buy you a beer?” Joe offered. “To kinda make amends?”

“No thank you,” he declined. “We have a couple of beers, you and me are gonna end up tripping over each other,” Zachary said.

“Point taken, Old Timer,” Joe agreed with a grin. “See you ‘round.”

Zachary sat down on a nearby bench watching Joe Cartwright’s retreating form. A tall young man in passing, glanced down at Zachary making brief eye contact. Zachary nodded, the movement of his head almost imperceptible. The tall young man nodded in return, keeping his own head movements to bare minimum, and continued in the same direction as Joe Cartwright had gone without breaking stride. Zachary leaned against the wall at his back, satisfied.

Joe Cartwright, meanwhile, reached the livery stable in short order. “ ‘Morning, Tony,” he greeted the young man tending the horses in the stable.

“ ‘Mornin’, Joe,” Tony, a tall, gangly young man two years older than his sister, greeted him with a smile. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m looking for a man by the name of Zachary Hilliard,” Joe replied. “Fella from Chicago.”

“He leased a horse about a week ago,” Tony replied. “Said he wanted to do some camping and hunting.”

“When’s he supposed to return the horse?”

“It was returned day before yesterday, Joe,” Tony replied, “by one of the guys at the livery in Reno. Seems Mister Hilliard got called away on some kinda emergency.”

“The man from Reno . . . his name wasn’t John Smith by any chance . . . was it?” Joe asked.

“No,” Tony shook his head. “The guy said his name Bill Taylor.”

Joe wanted to scream. It took every ounce of will he possessed to maintain his outward facade of calm. “Thanks, Tony,” he said in a wooden monotone. “If you happen to hear anything from or about Zachary Hilliard, would you let me or my pa know?”

“I sure will, Joe,” Tony promised. “Anything else I can do for you?”

Joe shook his head. “Not today, Tony, thanks.” He turned and started down the street toward the sheriff’s office, hoping against hope that Roy Coffee had some news.

*****

“Pot of tea . . . and cookies fresh, hot out of oven,” Hop Sing announced. “Put meat on Miss Paris’ bones.”

“Thank you, Hop Sing,” Paris said with a smile.

Hop Sing set the tray on the coffee table before them. “Eat, Miss Paris, eat while still hot,” he exhorted her in parting.

Paris took a cookie from the plate in the middle of the tray, while Ben poured each of them a cup of tea. “Earl Gray,” Ben said handing her a cup and saucer.

Paris smiled. “Hop Sing remembered,” she marveled, “I can’t believe it, after all these years.” She sipped some of the tea and sampled the cookie in her hand. “Wonderful cookies! You’d better grab your share quick, Ben. I just might devour the entire plateful otherwise.”

Ben laughed. “You would make Hop Sing the happiest man on Earth if you did.”

“Anything to make Hop Sing happy,” she said picking up a second cookie.

Ben and Paris had passed a lovely morning together, after his return from the ride earlier with his daughter. Stacy had elected to remain at the corral with Hoss, Candy, and a couple of the other hands, working with the new stallion. Joe had gone into town to run a few errands, and Hop Sing was busy in the kitchen. As she nibbled on a third cookie, memories of another time, long ago, she and Ben Cartwright found themselves alone in this house together rose, unbidden. She could feel the sudden rush of blood to her cheeks.

“A penny for your thoughts, Paris,” Ben said quietly.

“Why do I have the distinct feeling you already know what my thoughts are without my having to tell you?” she retorted with a smile.

“Probably because I’m remembering that other time, too.”

She immediately averted her eyes to her lap. “Oh, Ben, we shouldn’t.”

“Is that what you want?”

Paris exhaled a loud sigh of exasperation, then turned and boldly met his dark eyes with her intense blue ones. “You know damned well that ISN’T what I want, Ben Cartwright. I’m trying to be sensible, that’s all.”

“I’m not so sure I want to be sensible, Paris,” he said gently, with all sincerity.

“If we had the common sense God gave a horse’s arse, we WOULD be sensible,” she said, then sighed. “Oh, Ben, it’s been so long . . . too much time has passed, too much has happened to the both of us. I, for one, can never again be the wide eyed innocent I was then.”

“I don’t expect you to be,” Ben said. “I . . . suspect you’ve traveled a good deal, met a lot of people, been involved in different lines of work. Although I’ve remained here on the Ponderosa, I’ve seen my eldest leave to make his own place in the world. He’s since married a lovely woman, and they’ve had a couple of kids of their own.

“I find myself traveling to Sacramento more often and staying longer. I’ve adopted a daughter, seen her, Hoss, and Joseph through a lot of ups and downs, learned a lot of hard lessons myself in the process. Neither of us are the same people we were sixteen years ago, Paris.”

Paris nodded.

“Tell you what,” Ben said, slipping his arm around her shoulders. “How about we take things slowly? Just let unfold whatever is going to unfold at its own pace and time. Would you be willing to do that?”

“Yes, Ben.”

The front door opened. Joe Cartwright entered, removed hat, jacket, and gun belt, and placed them on their respective hooks near the front door. Ben glanced up at his youngest son, noting the whipped puppy dog expression on his face, the stooped shoulders, and slow step. “Excuse me, Paris.”

“Certainly.” On impulse, she gave his hand a gentle, affectionate squeeze.

Ben smiled at her, then rose. “Joseph?”

Joe looked up at him expectantly.

“Am I safe in assuming the news isn’t good?” he asked.

Joe dolefully shook his head. “It’s worse than that,” he said tersely. “The news is non-existent. Roy had no information, the livery stable proved another dead end in our search for Zachary Hilliard.” He exhaled a short, audible sigh of pure frustration. “Pa, where do we go from here?”

“I don’t know, Joe, I just don’t know,” Ben sighed, recalling the early morning altercation with Stacy.

“Ben, on the off chance the Zachary Hilliard you’re looking for IS the same man who served with my brother, you might have someone send a wire to his mother,” Paris suggested. “Her name is Henrietta Hilliard, and last I heard, she was living in Chicago. She may be able to tell us where he is and what he’s up to.”

“Thank you, Paris,” Ben said gratefully. “I’ll see to it first thing in the morning.”

“Pa, Sheriff Coffee did send a wire to the Chicago Police Department, making inquiries about Zachary Hilliard,” Joe said. “He expects to hear back in the next couple of days.”

Those were very thin, very flimsy straws, at best. Even so, Ben Cartwright grasped and held on with all his might. “I hope your sister’s patience can hold out that long,” he said somberly.

*****

Early the following morning, Stacy woke to the pink-orange glow of sunrise shining through her window. She noiselessly climbed out of bed and hurriedly threw on the clothing she had worn the previous day. She stealthily made her way down the stairs to the front door, and stepped outside. Late yesterday afternoon, she and Hoss had moved the stallion, to the pasture area outside the barn to keep company with the horses normally stabled in the barn. Stacy, having established the most tenuous of bonds by late the previous afternoon, had named him Sun Dancer for his golden coat and high spirits.

She paused at the front door, just long enough to grab her jacket and hat before stepping out of the house. The air this morning was delightfully cool, almost chilly. Stacy shivered delightfully within her jacket as she traversed the yard toward the barn. Blaze Face nickered a soft greeting as she stepped inside the barn and closed the door.

“ ‘Morning, Blaze Face,” Stacy quietly greeted him in return. She gently, lovingly stroked his muzzle. “Sorry we haven’t been going out as often as we’re used to,” she apologized. “I don’t much like it either, but I promised Pa.” She wrapped her arms loosely around his neck and buried her face against his soft fur for a moment, before digging out a handful of the pellets from the supply she maintained in her bottom right pocket. Stacy rubbed his neck as he ate. “I’ll see you later, Blaze Face,” she said.

Stacy quietly let herself out of the barn and walked over the pasture to see Sun Dancer. The stallion, upon catching sight of her tentatively approached, stopping in the middle of the enclosure. Stacy nickered softly, and turned her back. She heard Sun Dancer nicker in return. He ventured closer, his steps halting and uncertain. At length, he reached the fence and gently nuzzled Stacy’s hair and neck. She carefully reached into her pocket and slowly, very slowly drew out a handful of the same pellets she had given Blaze Face. Sun Dancer cautiously sniffed then ate greedily. “You’re a sweet boy, Sun Dancer,” Stacy said, taking great care to keep her voice low and steady. “Yes, you are!”

The sound of the front door opening, then closing startled Sun Dancer, and sent him scurrying to the other side of the enclosed pasture. Stacy looked up and saw her brother, Hoss, still clad in nightshirt and robe, crossing the yard with a grim determined look on his face. She instinctively braced herself.

“There you are,” Hoss greeted her tersely. “Little Sister, to say you’re in a world of trouble right now is putting it mildly.”

“What did I do?” Stacy asked looking at him askance.

“All I know is, when Pa went upstairs to wake you for breakfast, and found your bed empty and you not in the house . . . . ” The roll of Hoss’ eyes told Stacy all she needed to know. “Better come on in and get this over with!”

“Hoss . . .” Stacy had to run to keep up with him, as he made his way back to the house, “ . . . for cryin’ out loud! I was just in the barn, then by the pasture . . . . ”

“Don’t tell me, tell Pa,” Hoss said.

Stacy scowled. “I will,” she said through clenched teeth.

“There you are, Kid,” Joe greeted her as she stepped through the door. “You’re in deep cattle crud now.”

“Get stuffed, Grandpa,” Stacy snapped, her anger rising.

Joe opened his mouth to utter the retort that sprang to the tip of his tongue. Hoss placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder and shook his head.

“I think it might be a real good idea for us to go on out to the barn right about now,” Hoss said sotto voce, as Stacy walked resolutely toward their father, standing behind his desk.

“What?” Joe protested. “Are you crazy, Big Brother? We’re not even dressed.”

“Would you rather stay in the house?”

Joe stole a furtive glance at the wrathful scowl on their father’s face and their sister’s stiffly erect posture. “I think it might be a good idea for us to . . . go out to the barn,” he agreed.

“ . . . and just where have you been, Young Woman?” Ben demanded.

“Out in the barn and out by the corral,” Stacy replied.

“You promised me you wouldn’t go out on your own until we got this matter of Zachary Hilliard resolved,” Ben hastened to remind her.

“For heaven’s sake, Pa, I was just out in the barn and by the pasture right in front of the house,” Stacy argued.

“You think nothing can happen to you there?” Ben rounded on her furiously.

“Pa, I was right in front of the house!” Stacy protested. “Right in full view of the windows!”

“I’m beginning to think you don’t understand the seriousness of this situation,” Ben said in clipped angry tones.

“Oh, yes, I do,” Stacy countered, her rising fury pushing her to the edge of tears. “I’m under house arrest for something that . . . that son-of-a-bitch Zachary Hilliard did, and it’s not fair!”

Ben’s scowl deepened. “Stacy Cartwright, your choice of words leaves a whole lot to be desired,” he reprimanded her sharply.

“I don’t care, Pa,” Stacy obstinately stood her ground. “He IS a son-of-a-bitch, and it’s still not fair!” With that, she abruptly turned heel and fled upstairs.

“Damn!” Ben swore vehemently, giving vent to his own anger and frustration.

Breakfast was a strained affair, with Stacy Cartwright being most conspicuous by her absence. Ben sat in his place at the head of the table, scowling down at a virtually untouched plate. While Hoss and Paris ate with relish, Joe spent most of his time pushing around the food on his plate, congealing everything into a large, unappetizing lump.

“I have a good mind to make her stay in her room the rest of the day,” Ben angrily broke the uncomfortable silence that had settled over the breakfast table.

“Pa, you can’t do that,” Hoss protested, drawing a sharp glance from his father. “Stacy and I started working with Sun Dancer yesterday. We gotta on keep working with him, until we earn his trust. I can’t do that by myself.”

Ben let out a curt, frustrated sigh.

“Pa, it seems to me Stacy’s being punished enough by the restrictions you’ve had to place on her,” Hoss pointed out in a quiet, yet firm tone.

“Are you telling me that I’m being unreasonable?” Ben demanded in an ice cold tone that made his youngest son flinch.

“I’m not saying that at all,” Hoss countered, maintaining a firm even tone. “I know you had to restrict her for her own protection. Deep down, Stacy knows it, too.” He paused. “That don’t make it any easier to live with, Pa.”

Ben sighed again, and shook his head. “I know that, Son,” he said, his anger dissipating. “Hopefully in the next two or three days, we’ll get replies from the Police Department in Chicago and from Zachary Hilliard’s mother with some answers.”

“I sure hope so, Pa,” Hoss said with all sincerity. “I sure hope so!”

*****

Hoss wisely waited until Ben had left for Virginia City to send that wire to Mrs. Henrietta Hilliard in Chicago, before going upstairs to fetch Stacy from her room. Initially, the girl was uncharacteristically quiet and subdued. Hoss could tell by her red cheeks and swollen eyelids that she had been crying. He decided, again wisely, that the less said about that now, the better.

Hoss and Stacy spent the better part of the next two hours with the wild stallion working to strengthen the tenuous bonds established the previous day. Sun Dancer began to approach them when they stood at the fence with their backs to him, with more confidence.

“I’m going to try going into the enclosure now,” Stacy said quietly, “to see if he’ll come to me when I run away from him.”

“You be careful now,” Hoss warned. “He’s still very much a wild one.”

Stacy bristled, but nodded. She slowly climbed up and over the fence and dropped down lightly on the other side. Sun Dancer approached cautiously, keeping a respectful distance. Stacy called his name, nickered, then began to run across the yard away from the stallion. Sun Dancer watched her for a moment, then ran after her. He approached, then turned before coming within ten feet of her, always maintaining a respectful distance. Stacy repeated the exercise with Sun Dancer several more times. Although he eagerly chased after her, he continued to keep his distance.

“We need to wind things up, Stacy,” Hoss said. “It’ll be dinner time soon. We gotta let the horses out of the barn and clean their stalls before we eat.”

Stacy nodded. She sprinted over toward the fence and climbed back over. She and Hoss once again leaned up against the fence. This time, Hoss called the stallion’s name and nickered. Sun Dancer’s ears perked up with interest. He circled the pasture, then ran immediately over to the place occupied by Stacy and Hoss, affectionately nuzzling both, before lowering his face towards the pocket holding the feed.

“He’s a smart one,” Hoss declared with a grin, as Stacy offered him a handful of pellets. “If we don’t look out, he’s gonna be the one trainin’ us.”

*****

Ben, meanwhile, made his way home on Big Buck, with a heavy heart. He received a response to the telegram wired to Henrietta Hilliard, from a niece stating that her aunt had died three years ago and she had no idea as to the whereabouts of her cousin, Zachary. Roy’s response to the wire sent to the Chicago Police Department turned out to be another dead end. Zachary Hilliard had no criminal record. No one had seen him, no one knew where he was headed next. By all appearances the man had disappeared off the face of the Earth as completely as if he had never been.

For one brief, almost reckless moment, Ben allowed himself to consider the possibility that Zachary Hilliard had found whatever answers he sought, and had simply moved on. He hoped this to be the case with every fiber of his being, for the sake of the free and independent spirit he knew and loved as his daughter, Stacy. Despite his own hopes and desires, every instinct he possessed warned him loud and clear that Zachary Hilliard was somewhere close by, just out of sight.

His peripheral vision caught sight of a dark silhouette circling overhead. Ben roused himself from his troubled musings and glanced up. It was a vulture, a carrion bird. Another dark silhouette joined the first, followed by another and yet another. Ben brought Big Buck to a complete stop. Remaining in the saddle he paused to study the birds overhead. They seemed to be circling over the area up over the next rise. He urged Big Buck to a gallop and rode on in the general direction of the birds.

In the field beyond the rise, lying in the tall grass, just off the road, was the body of a man, lying face down. Ben quickly dismounted to investigate. The man was dead, and had been for awhile. He had been shot once in the back, and again in the head. Ben leaned closer for a look at the man’s face, profiled against the patches of grass and soil. He was astonished to discover that the dead man was Eddie Jones, a drifter he had hired a couple of months ago.

“Mister Cartwright?” It was Candy, riding from the opposite direction. He glanced down at the still, unmoving form lying sprawled in the tall grass. “Who?”

“Eddie Jones,” Ben said, glancing up. “Shot once in the back, and once in the back of the head.”

Candy dismounted. “Sounds to me like someone wanted to make absolute certain he was dead,” he observed.

“We can safely rule out robbery as a motivating factor,” Ben said grimly, as he looked through the dead man’s billfold. “I’ll bet he’s got more ‘n a hundred dollars left in here.”

“A weeks pay he won from me and a couple of the other guys in a poker game night before last,” Candy said.

“I guess I can rule you out as a usual suspect,” Ben remarked with a grim smile. “If you or one of the other players had killed him the money would be missing.”

“Thank you for that back handed vote of confidence, Mister Cartwright,” Candy retorted with a sardonic grin.

“I think you’d better go on into town and fetch Sheriff Coffee,” Ben said grimly. “I’ll wait here.”

“I’d be very careful if I were you, Mister Cartwright,” Candy said soberly. “Whoever killed Eddie might be waiting around.”

“Believe me, I intend to do just that,” Ben said grimly.

*****

Several hours later, Ben was back in Virginia City, in the sheriff’s office to collect the few personal effects belonging to Eddie Jones. He had already made arrangements with the undertaker to prepare the body for burial, as soon as Doctor Martin completed his own examinations.

“I’ll be out later this afternoon to speak with your men, if that’s alright, Ben,” Roy Coffee said.

“Fine with me, Roy,” Ben agreed. “The sooner we can resolve this . . . . ” His thoughts focused briefly on the argument he and Stacy had early this morning. How many more acrimonious mornings lay ahead of them before everything was resolved? Ben wasn’t sure he really wanted to know.

“I found something very interesting, while looking through his personal effects,” Roy continued.

“Oh?” Ben queried, forcing his attention to matters directly at hand.

“For openers, it seems his name’s not Eddie Jones,” Roy said. “According to some letters I found in the dead man’s possession, his real name’s George Edwards.” He paused, allowing Ben to absorb this unsettling revelation. “Now we come to the REAL interesting part. There’s a couple o’ letters, one from a man calling himself Sergeant Collier, and the other from that fella you were asking questions about several days ago.”

“Zachary Hilliard?!”

Roy nodded.

“I knew it!” Ben said grimly. “That man is around here somewhere . . . lying low, waiting.”

“Ben, if that were the case, and I was this Zachary Hilliard fella? I wouldn’t have left those letters on the body for someone to find,” Roy pointed out.

“I agree Roy, that Zachary Hilliard didn’t have a direct hand in killing Eddie . . . I mean George Edwards,” Ben said slowly. “Someone smart enough to cover his tracks like this Hilliard has up until now is certainly smart enough to have removed incriminating letters from the dead man’s body.” He fell silent for a moment. “No Zachary Hilliard didn’t kill this man himself, but you mark my words, Roy, this Hilliard character knows about this murder, and is very likely in cahoots with the man who killed Eddie.”

*****

“Hey! Is dinner ready yet? I’m about ready to keel over from starvation!” Joe called out to his brother and sister, who stood flanking the outside pump, washing up.

Hoss and Stacy glanced up as Joe and Cochise rounded the corner of the barn and entered the front yard. Candy followed on Thor.

“Hop Sing says another half hour,” Hoss replied, grinning. “That’s just enough time for the pair of you to see to your horses and wash up.”

“You guys didn’t happen to run into Pa along the road . . . . did you?” Stacy asked, her voice edged with a small measure of trepidation.

“As a matter of fact, I did,” Candy replied. He told them about how he and Ben had stumbled across Eddie Jones’ body. “Mister Cartwright went on back into town with Sheriff Coffee.”

Hoss slowly exhaled the breath he had been holding, grateful for what he saw as a stay of execution. Though Stacy had worked off an most of the nervous energy, generated by the angry set to between herself and her father earlier, the source of her growing frustration and irritability, the severe curtailing of her freedom, remained firmly in place. He hoped that the extra time might give Pa a chance to cool off, too, so that the entire family might be able to sit down enjoy supper together.

*****

“What is your full name, Stacy?” Paris asked, as she sliced, with relish, into the large, tender slab of roast beef dominating the better portion of her plate.

Stacy grimaced. “Do I HAVE to tell you?”

Paris couldn’t help but smile at the farcical look of disgust on the girl’s face. “No, you don’t have to tell me,” she said. “That bad, eh?”

“Yes.”

“Well, if STACY doesn’t tell you, Miss Paris, I sure will,” Joe threatened with a devilish grin.

“You do, and you’ll get a face full of mashed potatoes,” Stacy vowed, as she scooped up a generous portion with her spoon.

“ . . . . and you’ll get a face full of peas, comin’ right back at YOU!”

“Dadburn it, is that how the pair of you’s been taught to act when we have company?” Hoss growled, glaring at Joe first, then Stacy.

“HE started it!”

“ME?!”

“Yes, YOU!”

“Back up a minute, Little Sister! As I recall, YOU were the one who threatened to hurl that spoonful of mashed potatoes in my face FIRST.”

“I don’t care which one of you started it, if ya don’t knock it off, I’m gonna finish it,” Hoss said, “in the horse trough out front.”

“Yes, PA!” Joe and Stacy chorused in unison, their eyes dancing with mischief.

Through out the exchange between Stacy and Joe, Paris laughed uproariously. “Please, Eric . . . . ” she said, as her mirth began to fade, “please, don’t hold them back on MY account.”

“I ain’t holding them back on YOUR account, Miss Paris,” Hoss said grimly. “I’m holding them back, because Hop Sing vowed he was gonna quit right on the spot if he had to clean up after one more food fight between the two babies of the family.”

“We certainly can’t have THAT,” Paris agreed.

Stacy sighed. “I guess I may as well tell you what my whole name is,” she reluctantly surrendered to the inevitable. “It’s Stacy Louise.”

“I prefer to pronounce it Stacy LOO— ” Joe began.

The blood drained right out of Paris’ face taking with it what little color she had so recently regained. She stared over at Stacy through eyes round with shocked horror.

“M-Miss Paris?!” Joe stammered, half afraid the woman was going to faint right there on the spot.

“I-I’ll be alright in a moment,” Paris said, her head reeling. She squeezed her eyes shut and forced herself to take deep, even breaths.

“I-I hope it wasn’t something I said,” Stacy murmured contritely, her face a twin mask to the horrified look on Paris’ face.

“Stacy . . . . m-my mother’s name was also . . . . Stacy . . . . L-Louise,” Paris said, her voice trembling.

Stacy suddenly felt light headed.

“Hey, Stace, you alright?” Joe queried anxiously, noting the sudden lack of robust color in her face and cheeks.

“Yes . . . . NO!” She shook her head. “I don’t know.”

Hoss slid his untouched glass of water over in front of his young sister. “Take a swallow of that, Little Sister,” he ordered in a gentle, yet firm tone.

Stacy picked up the glass in both hands and raised the glass to her lips.

“Take it easy,” Hoss murmured quietly. “Don’t gulp. Just take small sips.”

Stacy took one more sip from the glass, then turned to face Paris. “When I . . . when I reached the tribe of Chief Soaring Eagle?” she began haltingly. “I had one thing from my life before. A small heart shaped locket on a gold chain. It was made for a-a child. My name . . . Stacy Louise was etched on the front.”

Paris remembered seeing a similar locket tucked away in back of a simple rough hewn wood jewelry box, that held her mother’s meager possessions. They were treasured keepsakes of her own life before her marriage to Gerald McKenna and subsequent rejection, total and complete, on the part of her family. None of the pieces had any monetary value. Their worth derived from the past memories each piece invoked. Among the treasures was a heart shaped locket, with Stacy Louise, her mother’s name, engraved.

“That’s the only reason anyone even knew my name,” Stacy continued. “When Silver Moon found me, I couldn’t remember anything. Who I was, where I’d come from, who my ma and pa were. I was like a slate, with the first five years of my life erased.”

“Stacy, do you still have that locket?”

Stacy nodded. “I keep it in a box up in my room, along with keepsakes of Silver Moon and Chief Soaring Eagle,” she replied. “I don’t like looking in the box very much, though.”

Paris, seeing the girl was on the edge of tears, reached across the table and gave her hand a gentle, affectionate squeeze. “Now I’m the one who’s made YOU sad,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s OK, Miss Paris,” Stacy said in a small, tremulous voice.

*****

Darkness, opaque and impenetrable, surrounded and covered her like a thick black shroud. In the dark, she heard the voices, droning like locusts on a hot summer day. Two men, somewhere in the distance, argued bitterly. No words. Never any words, only voices. The profound depths of anger and bitterness she sensed with terrible crystal clarity frightened her more than anything. She also heard women’s voices in the dark. She could not hear their words, either, only the quick, rapid fire of a morass formed by strings of vowels and consonants. She knew with horrifying certainty that they were as frightened as she was.

Her eyes caught movement in the darkness. A young girl child, with long, mussed hair, crinkled from constant braiding, slipped from the bed and made her way out of the room. The child paused, and turned meeting her eyes with an unflinching gaze. The little girl had the same startling blue eyes she, herself did. The child wanted her to follow. She saw it in her face. But, the prospect of following that little girl was frightening beyond all imagining. The thought of remaining alone in the dark, however, was even more so. She followed the little girl from one dark place through another to a door. The girl had to stand on tip-toes to open the door knob.

She followed the little girl hesitantly into the room. It was occupied by three women. Two of the women were very angry with the child for intruding into their domain. The third woman, a kindly spirit who bore striking resemblance to another she knew, took the child by the hand and led her back to her own room. She spoke to the child in kind, reassuring tones, calling her by that other name.

Footsteps, followed by slamming doors. The three women and the child were forced to leave their places of sleep and refuge, and herded single file down a long hallway. She forced herself to follow. The three women and little girl entered through a portal, beyond which lay a darkness far more terrifying than anything she had ever experienced in her life. She tried to follow, but her feet would not move.

A series of explosions rocked the house, shaking her whole world to bits. Suddenly, the house she was in shifted ninety degrees. She found herself clinging for dear life to the door jamb. In the end, her hands and fingers proved too weak to hold her. She tumbled headlong into the room. There in the flickering illumination of a strange, obscene light, she at long last saw their faces, eyes round with astonishment, mouths twisted, gaping with sheer horror. An old man and woman, the mean, angry younger woman, and the kind woman were all there, dead, their bodies riddled with rifle shot. Though the child was no where to be seen, an evil presence yet remained in the room, threatening to suffocate her.

A woman’s voice urged her to run, calling her by that other name. With heart thudding hard against her throat, she ran to the window, but could not open it. The roaring sound of a mighty, horrible wind rose and grew, blotting out the sound of her screams.

“Stacy?!” Ben anxiously tried to rouse her. “Stacy, wake up, it’s Pa.”

Her eyes suddenly flew open.

The next thing Ben knew, she was in his arms, sobbing. He held her close, letting her cry, murmuring what he hoped were words of reassurance.

“Ben?” It was Paris. “I heard Stacy cry out . . . . ”

“Another nightmare,” Ben said anxiously. “This is the worst yet.”

“Anything I can do?”

Ben shook his head.

Paris entered the room and crossed to the other side of the bed. “I’m here, too, Stacy,” she said softly, as she seated herself on the edge, “if you want me.”

Though Stacy continued to hold on to Ben for dear life, she tentatively reached out and took Miss Paris’ hand. “P-Pa? Miss Paris? Would you please . . . please stay with me for awhile?” she asked, as her storm of grief and fear began to subside.

Ben looked over at Paris. She nodded. “We’re here, Stacy,” he said quietly, “for as long as you want us.”

Stacy rested for a time in her father’s embrace, holding tightly to Miss Paris’ hand, gathering her own strength. It was right, somehow, that Miss Paris be here, too. “I s-saw them, Pa,” she said at length.

“The people?” Ben prompted.

Stacy nodded. “They were the people I lived with before Silver Moon and Jon Running Deer,” she continued. “I know that now.”

“Your family?” Ben prompted.

“WERE my family,” she said emphatically.

“WERE your family is right,” Ben agreed. He looked into her face meeting her eyes, then smiled. “Let’s get one thing straight,” he said gently. “If ANYONE shows up here on the Ponderosa, claiming to be your family and wanting to take you away . . . they’ll have to go through me first.”

“Y-you mean that, Pa?”

“With all my heart,” Ben said sincerely. “And, I imagine they’d have to go through Hoss, Joe, and Hop Sing as well.”

Stacy hugged him fiercely. “Th-thanks, Pa.”

Ben hugged her in return. “Stacy, I want you to remember something,” he said earnestly.

“What’s that, Pa?”

“You, me, Hoss, Joe, Hop Sing, and Adam ARE family,” Ben said. “Nothing can or will ever change that.”

Stacy nodded.

“ . . . . and don’t YOU dare forget it!”

“The people in my dream . . . . ” she began haltingly, taking courage from the promise Ben had just made, “they were my grandmother, grandfather, and two aunts.”

“No mother or father?” Paris asked.

Stacy shook her head.

“What about the people?” Ben prompted.

Stacy’s entire body began to tremble. “They were all dead, Pa,” she said, her voice unsteady. “There was also a child, a young child, five . . . . maybe six years old. I followed her throughout the dream.”

“Was . . . the child in with the dead people?” Paris asked, trying not to think of Rose Miranda.

“No,” Stacy replied. “She went into that room with the others, but I didn’t see her among the dead.” She fell silent for a moment. “There was someone else . . . ” she shuddered, “ . . . in that room. An evil presence! It almost smothered me.”

“That was a very brave thing you did tonight,” Ben said quietly. “This is the first time you’ve ever gotten a look at the people.”

“Brave!?” Stacy echoed incredulously. “Pa, I was scared the whole time. The . . . the only reason I followed the child through the dream was because I was too scared to stay where I was . . . alone in the dark.”

“That makes what you did tonight all the more courageous,” Paris said softly.

“Miss Paris is absolutely right,” Ben agreed. “You made yourself look at those people tonight, and allowed yourself to remember who they were so you could name them.” He fell silent, allowing her to absorb his words. “You told me something about naming things a long time ago. Something Silver Moon taught you.”

Stacy nodded. “She told me that if I could name something, I could take away its power to hurt me,” she said slowly.

“Grandmother, Grandfather, Two Aunts,” Ben repeated their names. “They can’t hurt you, not anymore . . . because YOU’VE taken away their power to hurt you.” He paused. “I want you to remember that.”

“I will,” she promised. “Pa?”

“Yes?”

“I’m sorry,” she said, “about that fight we had this morning.”

“I’m sorry, too,” Ben said, feeling the stinging of tears in his own eyes. With that, peace, fragile and tenuous, was restored for the time being.

Stacy wiped the last of the tears from her eyes and yawned.

“Looks like it’s time for you to go back to sleep,” Ben said gently.

“Pa . . . Miss Paris,” Stacy said as she snuggled under the covers, “I-I feel like such a little kid for asking this . . . . ”

“What is it, Stacy?” Paris prompted gently.

“Can you both stay with me, just a while longer?”

“On one condition,” Ben said. “I want you to close your eyes, and think of counting sheep, or maybe horses.”

“OK, Pa.” Stacy quickly drifted off to an easy, deep slumber in spite of herself.

“Thank you, Paris,” Ben said softly, as they quietly let themselves out of Stacy’s room. “I think you being there meant a lot to Stacy.”

Paris smiled. “You, of course, are her mainstay,” she said, “but, if my being there is in anyway helpful, it’s . . . . ” She sighed and shook her head. “It hardly seems appropriate to say it’s my pleasure.”

Ben smiled back. “I understand,” he said.

“That poor child,” Paris murmured sadly. “What inner demons torment her to inspire such nightmares?”

“They’re memories,” Ben said gravely. “I grow more convinced each time she has one of those nightmares. Something apparently happened to her when she was a young child. The memories were too horrible for the child to bear, so she relegated them as far as she could to the deep recesses of her mind. Over the years, the memories surfaced in the form of a recurring nightmare.

“She must have been having the dream on a regular basis while she lived with the Paiutes because Silver Moon gave her an escape plan,” he continued. “She also had the dream pretty frequently when she first came to live with us here, but over time it faded. We, Stacy and I, thought the dreams were through with her for good, it’s been so long.”

“When did they start up again?”

“The night you arrived,” Ben said thoughtfully, realizing the connection for the first time. “They returned almost with a vengeance.”

She gazed up at him with eyes round as saucers.

“I’m sorry, Paris,” he said quickly, “I didn’t mean to imply that you’re in any way to blame.”

“I probably still served as a catalyst, however,” Paris said ruefully. Seeing the hurt, stricken look on his face, she continued, “No, Ben, please, I don’t mean me personally. Stacy’s old enough now to face what ever it is that happened, and come to terms with it. I served as a catalyst because I was handy, being a stranger and an unexpected guest. But, if I hadn’t been here, something else would have prompted the dreams again.”

“I’ve tried to encourage her to stop running from whatever’s chasing her in those nightmares, and face it,” Ben said somberly, “but, after tonight, I wonder if I did the right thing.”

“You were absolutely right to do that, Ben,” Paris said with quiet conviction. “I worked as a practical nurse for a time, and dealt with a fair number of patients in the same boat as Stacy is right now. I learned very quickly that it’s better all around if the person faces up to whatever happened, sooner as opposed to later.”

“I can see the wisdom of that,” Ben said, “but it’s heart wrenching to watch her go through it, and not really being able to help.”

“You help far more than you can possibly realize by just being there, with an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on,” Paris said with a smile, “and from the things you told her tonight, I’d say you have a lot more wisdom than you give yourself credit for.”

“Thank you, Paris, for the vote of confidence,” he said gratefully. “In the past few days . . . I’ve had some good reasons to doubt.”

They stopped at the open door leading to the guest room. “Ben,” she said earnestly, “about those quarrels between you and Stacy . . . . ”

“Paris, I had no idea . . . . ” he murmured contritely, then shook his head. “How could I have possibly have had no idea? I think everyone within a ten mile radius has a pretty good idea.”

“Ben, will you please shut your mouth and keep it shut until I finish?” Paris said gently.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Ben agreed gazing down at her with a new respect.

“What I wanted to say is I firmly believe that daughter of yours has Irish blood in her from somewhere,” Paris said. “She’s definitely got the Irish temperament.”

“Like someone else I know,” Ben added with a smile.

“Ben . . . . ”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he said quickly. “I’m sorry I interrupted you.”

“You’re right,” Paris admitted, returning his smile. “When it comes to having an Irish temperament, well, let’s just say I’m walking proof of the adage it takes one to know one. You and I have had a couple of rows to end all rows ourselves.”

“Only a couple?” Ben queried with a chuckle, as he unconsciously slipped his arms around her waist.

“Alright, maybe a few more than just a couple,” Paris admitted. She instinctively snuggled closer, resting her head comfortably against his chest.

“Try a whole lot,” Ben countered good naturedly.

Paris’ arms circled Ben’s waist as she raised her head to look him in the eyes. “OK, a whole lot then,” she agreed. “The point I’m trying to make is the rows we had were quick, burned hot, then over just as quick. The difference between us and my family is that you and I never had trouble with the words I’m sorry. You and Stacy don’t seem to have any trouble with those words either.”

“No, we don’t,” Ben agreed. “Between Joseph, his mother Marie, you, and now with Stacy, I’ve learned to make and keep those words those words part of my active vocabulary.”

“Keep those words part of your active vocabulary, and you’ll be alright,” Paris said, resting her head against his chest again. “There is of course something about yourself, Ben Cartwright,” she continued, her Irish brogue growing more pronounced. “I know I could never stay mad at you very long, even the few times I wanted to. I suspect the same could be said of Marie, Joseph, and Stacy.”

Ben gazed down at the fragile woman in his arms lovingly. At length, she raised her head again and looked up. Their eyes met first, followed closely by their lips in the merest caress of a kiss.

“Paris, I— ”

Paris reached up and gently covered her mouth with her finger tips. “Not yet, Ben,” she said softly.

Ben took her slender hand in his large, well muscled one and kissed her palm tenderly. “You sleepy?”

“Not on your life.”

“I’m not either,” Ben said. “Why don’t we go on downstairs? I can fix up a pot of coffee, or tea, if you prefer.”

“ ‘Tis a bold man you are Ben, or a very silly one to risk bringing the wrath of Hop Sing down on our heads for trespassing in his kitchen,” she quipped. “Thanks, but NO thanks. I was going to ask for something stronger, but I think being with you’s intoxicating enough.”

“I was just thinking the same thing about you,” Ben said, gallantly offering her his arm.

Paris slipping her slender arm through his, and allowed him to lead her downstairs to the living room.

*****

Jeff Collier, known simply as Sarge to his friends, waited at the appointed place in the Bucket of Blood Saloon. A full glass of whiskey, untouched, sat on the table before him. Sarge wore a pair of faded, well worn denim jeans, a yellow beige cotton shirt with its long sleeves rolled to three quarter length, and a brown flannel jacket.

“Sergeant Collier?”

The Sarge glanced up sharply. “Bill Taylor,” the elderly drifter stood before him, leaning believably on his cane. He rose to attention, but did not salute. “Reporting as ordered, Mister Taylor,” he said, taking great care to keep his voice low.

“At ease, Mister Collier,” Bill Taylor, alias for Zachary Hilliard, said crisply, “and please sit down.”

Sarge nodded curtly and sat down. Zachary Hilliard followed suit. “I have a full written report here, for you and the captain,” he said, producing a stuffed envelope from the inner pocket of his jacket. “It details the Cartwright Family’s movements over the past three days, including all the why’s and wherefores.”

“Thank you, Sergeant,” Hilliard said crisply. He took the envelope and deftly placed it in the inner pocket of his own jacket.

“Two things, both of which you will see when you read the report in its entirety,” the sergeant continued. “First, the Cartwrights know something is going on. They are very much aware of the danger we pose to Stacy, but nothing else beyond that. As you suspect, it was the botched sabotage on the girl’s saddle that alerted them.”

“The captain will not be pleased,” Zachary said, his eyes round with fear.

“Sir, there are two factors that may actually work in our favor,” the sergeant said, trying to ignore the sudden screaming of his conscience.

“And they are?”

“First, Mister Cartwright’s daughter is the independent sort, who chafes mightily against the restrictions currently placed on her,” the sergeant said. “Family strife may prompt the father to lift them, making it easier for my men and myself to do our jobs when the time comes.”

“Order your sentries to pull back,” Hilliard ordered. “Continue surveillance, but keep your distance. It is not uncommon for the hunted to keep his guard up because he senses the close proximity of the hunter. Should the captain wish to countermand that order, there will be an advertisement in the Territorial Enterprise the day after tomorrow.”

“Yes, Sir,” the sergeant curtly acknowledged the order. “The other major problem concerns staff, specifically Corporal Deveraux.”

“The man in an insolent incompetent,” Zachary muttered through clenched teeth.

“His insubordination increases daily,” the sergeant added. “He stood ready to kill Stacy Cartwright a few nights ago, DESPITE the captain’s change in orders.”

“When I met with him three days ago, I learned that he had left a significant loose end regarding the girl’s saddle,” Zachary said. “I ordered him to take care of it immediately. Has he done so?”

“Yes, he has,” the sergeant said through clenched teeth. “His incompetence in THAT matter however, has created its own set of complications .” He paused. “Mister Cartwright found Eddie Jones’ body yesterday. Unfortunately, at the time of his death Mister Jones was carrying correspondence from you and from me, that Corporal Deveraux failed to remove. It was found on Jones’ person by the sheriff.”

Zachary exhaled a curt sigh of exasperation.

“Permission to deal properly with the problem of Corporal Deveraux, Sir.”

“For the time being permission denied,” Zachary said. “The discovery of Mister Jones’ body has almost certainly raised their guard considerably. A second body will at best jeopardize our present mission. At worst, we could be forced to abort our mission entirely.” He paused. “I will brief the captain regarding the situation, however. If he wishes to countermand my order, I will send word.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Zachary rose stiffly. “I will see you here in three days,” he said. With that he turned, and left the sergeant alone at the table. The sergeant took a ginger sip from the whiskey glass in front of him, grimacing in distaste.

For a brief, fleeting, errant moment, the sergeant entertained the notion of flagrant disobedience to standing orders regarding Corporal Deveraux. The image of John McKenna’s face, as it had been at Antietam Creek, Maryland, the night he came to the rescue, rose to the forefront of his thoughts. Concern for his, the sergeant’s, well being, fear, anger, courage, and a grim determination to see both of them reach safety before the might was out were clearly etched into the face of the man he would come to know over the years as simply captain.

“Rest easy, Sergeant. We’re getting out of here.” He could still hear that voice of calm reassurance mixed with conviction. How could he even think, no matter how briefly, of betraying Captain John McKenna?

Another image of John McKenna, his face of mask of horrified rage executing a private for raping and killing a young woman in Alabama who herself shot and killed a half dozen men in their unit in defense of her home. With each passing day, it grew more and more difficult for him to reconcile this image with the man who obsessively sought the death of a teenaged girl by the name of Stacy Cartwright.

“The captain has his reasons,” the sergeant muttered angrily to himself. He rose, then reached for the glass of whiskey on the table before him. He lifted the glass and its contents to eye level and grimaced, before raising the glass to his lips and swallowing its contents in a single gulp.

*****

“That work out in the corral this morning has given me one powerful appetite,” Hoss said, the following day, eagerly anticipating the noon meal, the largest of the day. “You remember what Hop Sing said he’s fixing for dinner?”

“Pork roast,” Stacy said without enthusiasm.

Hoss looked over at her askance. Hop Sing’s pork roast was a rare treat both of them savored days, sometimes even weeks ahead. “You feeling alright?”

“That’s the third time you’ve asked me that since we left the corral,” Stacy said cantankerously.

Hoss frowned. “Little Sister, when are you going to get it through that hard head of yours that I’m on YOUR side?”

“I’m sorry, Hoss,” she apologized contritely. “It’s just that I . . . I feel like a caged animal, and I hate being mad at Pa all the time because he won’t lift restrictions.”

“He only wants to protect you, you know,” Hoss said quietly.

“I know, that’s why I hate being mad at him,” Stacy said, feeling herself on the edge of tears. “But, at the same time, I feel like I’M being punished for something someone else did.”

“Stacy, I ain’t making any promises, but after you and Miss Paris went to bed last night, Joe and I had a talk with Pa . . . about the restrictions.”

Stacy, her eyes unusually bright, looked over at him hopefully.

Hoss’ thoughts drifted back . . . .

The fragile peace that had come in the wake of apologies given and accepted in the wake of a terrifying nightmare, had begun to fray the following morning. A free-spirited independent young woman, impatiently chafing against restrictions, harsh ones from her point of view, imposed by a father, worried sick were, in and of themselves, potent ingredients for a recipe of tension and strife. All leads to the man who might have, at the very least, shed light on who had tried to harm Stacy and why, had been exhaustively pursued to dead ends. Impatient to see an end to something, with no ending in sight had reduced her to sullen brooding one minute, erupting with hot, passionate fury the next.

Hoss and Joe had decided that something needed to be done, sooner not later. They had approached their father after their sister and houseguest had retired for the evening. Things went from bad to worse in less than five seconds.

“Pa, you can’t keep Stacy caged up forever,” Joe said tersely.

“I don’t intend to keep her caged up forever,” Ben said irascibly. “I just want to make sure that when I do lift restrictions, that she’ll be safe.”

“Pa, it’s almost been nearly THREE WEEKS now since the cut saddle strap,” Joe argued. “Nothing more has happened to Stacy, and no one’s seen or heard a thing from this Zachary Hilliard.”

“Does it occur to you they may be lying low, waiting for us to lower our defenses?” Ben returned without missing a beat.

“No more than it’s occurred to you that maybe YOU’RE being a little paranoid, OBVIOUSLY,” Joe countered.

“Joe . . . . ”

“Don’t Joe me, Hoss!” Joe had turned on him furiously. “I thought WE had agreed to talk to Pa. So far I’M the only one doing the talking!”

“So the two of you agreed that I’m in the wrong,” Ben said, shifting his dark angry glare from Joe to Hoss.

“Pa, please!” Hoss begged. “You’ve got to allow her SOME leeway, even if it’s just going out to the barn and back.”

“You think nothing can happen to Stacy in the barn, or out in the front yard?”

“You could let the poor kid step out on the front porch and take a breath of fresh air once in a while,” Joe said, giving vent to his own steadily escalating fury.

“Pa, I know Stacy’d never take her anger out on the horses, but she sure is taking it out on the rest of us around her. Yesterday, for instance, I just made the suggestion that she sit down and rest a minute . . . she’d been working pretty hard, and I could tell she was tuckered out. She about took my head off.”

“I can certainly have a talk with her about keeping a civil tongue in her head,” Ben said grimly.

“No, Pa, don’t! Please!” Hoss shook his head. “I think you know as well as I do that would do more harm than good.”

“Well, I don’t blame Stacy for being frustrated and angry one bit,” Joe said tersely. “I know I’d feel exactly the same way, if I were in her shoes right now. So would the two of you.”

Ben exhaled a short, curt, very audible sigh of pure exasperation. “It’s not like I WANT to keep her restricted,” he said defensively. “I KNOW it’s tearing her up inside. I can see that as well as you boys can, and to be honest, it breaks my heart to watch her suffer. But, if anything happened to her— ” He abruptly broke off, unable to continue.

“How much longer, Pa?” Joe pressed. “A week? A month maybe? A year? How much longer does that kid have to suffer before you decide it’s safe?”

“Joseph, I don’t know.”

“Pa, Stacy’s well able to take care of herself,” Hoss pointed out. “We’ve all seen to that.”

“So have the Paiutes,” Joe added.

Ben warred vigorously between the desire to free Stacy from the restrictions placed on her and gut instinct screaming for him not to do that. “Alright,” he said wearily, “I’ll THINK about lifting restrictions.”

“Thanks, Pa,” Joe said with heartfelt sincerity.

“I warn you, Joseph, that is not a yes,” Ben said sternly . . . .

“What did Pa say, Hoss?”

“He didn’t out and out say NO this time, like he’s been doing, ” Hoss continued. “He promised Joe and me he’d think about it.” He paused. “But, you gotta remember he didn’t say yes, either.”

Stacy nodded. “Thanks, Hoss.”

“For what?”

“For you and Joe talking to Pa. It’s getting to a point where Pa and I can’t even look at each other without having a big blow up,” Stacy said dismally. “My fault, mostly.”

“Pa can be pretty stubborn, too, when he sets his mind to something,” Hoss said. He looked over and gave her a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry, you and Pa will sort things out. Joe, me, and even Adam have locked horns with Pa over one thing or another because the lot of us can be stubborn as mules. You’re no different. But, in the end we Cartwrights always have and always will settle our differences.”

Before Stacy could respond, a rock, hurled by an unseen assailant flew from the surrounding tall brush and struck Stacy’s horse, Blaze-Face squarely on the right rear flank. The horse reared, screaming in pain. As Stacy grimly worked to bring the horse under control, shots rang out, spooking Hoss’ mount, Chubb, and exacerbating Blaze-Face’s emotional state. One of the bullets struck Hoss, rendering him unconscious and felling him from his horse.

Stacy quickly reined in her horse and dismounted. With heart pounding in her throat, she ran to Hoss’ side and dropped to her knees. “Thank God,” she murmured, as a tidal wave of relief washed over her. He was alive, albeit unconscious. The bullet had merely grazed his left temple, though it continued to bleed profusely.

With the knowledge that Hoss was alive and not seriously hurt came the harsh realization that both of them were in grave danger. Though Ben considered her age, a few months shy of sixteen, too young to carry her own gun, Stacy nonetheless knew how to use one. With the quick fluid movements of a stalking cat, she reached over and deftly removed Hoss’ weapon from it’s holster and shoved it under her jacket.

Six men, led by Sarge Collier, stepped out of the bushes and formed a loose circle around Stacy and the still insensate Hoss. Sarge, clad in a faded plaid flannel shirt, a worn pair of jeans nodded to the short squat man beside him.

“OK, Kid, stand up nice and slow, and move away,” Alex Deveraux ordered.

Though he had not said a word, Stacy accurately picked out Sarge Collier as their leader. Moving with the lightening speed of a striking rattle snake, she pulled Hoss’ weapon out from under her jacket, took aim, and pulled the trigger. The gun discharged, embedding a bullet deep in the Sarge’s right shoulder. The force of the blow sent him reeling backward. He fell, striking his head on a rock.

The remaining men stood unmoving, gazing stupidly at the unconscious Sarge. Seizing advantage of the men’s momentary lapse, Stacy ran with all her might toward Blaze-Face.

“Stop her!” Alex shouted, recovering his senses.

The remaining five men gave chase.

Stacy reached Blaze-Face, and paused just long enough to whisper in his ear. As her mount sped away, Stacy turned again to fire. One quick thinking individual among the men saw Stacy raise Hoss’ gun. He immediately drew his own weapon and fired, nicking the wrist of her gun hand. Hoss’ gun immediately dropped from her hand to the ground.

Alex Deveraux raised his gun and leveled it at Stacy’s head. “Just do as you’re told, Kid, and no one gets hurt,” he said tersely. He turned to the biggest man in the group. “Grab her.”

Stacy immediately lashed out kicking the man taking the frontal approach square in the groin, just below the belt. As he fell to the ground, doubled over with exquisite agony, she turned and fled, with the corporal and four men in hot pursuit. “Hurry, Blaze Face,” she prayed silently, “hurry back to the house and fetch Pa and Joe.” All she had to do now was stall for time until they could arrive.

*****

“Dinner is ready, Mister Cartwright,” Hop Sing announced tersely. “Come eat while it’s hot.”

“Coming, Hop Sing,” Ben said, then paused. “Joe?”

“Yeah, Pa?”

“Where’s Stacy and Hoss?”

Joe suddenly realized that his brother and sister had not yet returned from the corral. “You want me to check the barn, Pa?” he asked.

“Yes, please,” Ben replied, trying to ignore the sudden sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“Ben?”

He started and looked up. Paris stood on the second landing, studying him with an anxious frown.

“What’s wrong?”

“Dinner’s ready, and . . . Stacy and Hoss aren’t here,” Ben said slowly.

Paris slowly made her way down the remaining steps. Ben gallantly extended a hand and helped her down the remaining three steps. “I’m sure they’re on the way,” she tried to reassure him. “Maybe they got so involved with the horses, they lost track of time.”

Ben managed a wan smile. “With Stacy, yes! That’s possible!” he said. “But not Hoss, especially when Hop Sing’s serving up pork roast for dinner.”

Joe returned from the barn. “No sign of ‘em, Pa,” he reported tersely. “You want me to back track to the corral?”

The sound of horse hooves out in front of the house brought all conversation to an abrupt halt. Ben and Joe exchanged worried glances, before bolting for the front door. Ben reached the porch first, with Joe on his heels. Stacy’s horse Blaze Face emerged, alone, from behind the barn, running toward the house.

“Whoa, Boy,” Joe moved past Ben, and approached Blaze Face cautiously. “Whoa, Blaze Face.”

The big gelding slowed to a stop and allowed Joe to approach and take his reins. “Pa, he’s been running hard,” he said grimly. “He’s soaked!”

“Candy!” Ben yelled, running toward the barn at top speed.

“Yes, Mister Cartwright?” Candy answered, stepping out of the barn.

“Is Mark in the barn with you?”

“Yes, Sir,” Candy replied.

“Ask him to unsaddle Blaze Face and give him a good rub down, and get your own horse saddled,” Ben ordered. “Hoss and Stacy are in trouble.”

*****

Though Stacy possessed a great deal of energy and stamina, far more than the average young woman the same age, she felt herself slowing. The man, whom the others addressed as corporal, had slowed to a walk, and the man against whom she had launched her brutal frontal assault followed slowly behind him, still unable to stand erect. The remaining four men, however, relentlessly continued their pursuit. Worse, they were gaining. “Come ON, Pa,” she urged silently, while casting about for a place to hide.

Stacy suddenly, much to her horror, found herself falling. She hit the ground hard enough to knock the wind out of her.

“Come on, we have her now,” one of the men shouted.

Gasping for breath, Stacy seized a handful of dry dusty soil, and rolled from her stomach to her back. She threw the dirt into the eyes of the first man to come within range, and scrambled gracelessly to her feet. Before she could even think of turning and making her escape, one of the men snuck up from behind and seized her right arm in a painful, vice like grip, twisting it painfully behind her back.

“Come on, you got the stuff ready?” the man trying to keep hold of Stacy demanded. “Trying to keep hold of this kid’s like trying to grab a greased pig at a picnic.”

Stacy took a deep ragged breath, and drove the elbow of her free arm, with every ounce of strength she could muster, into the abdomen of the man trying to hold her. His hand and fingers went limp, setting her free. She started to run, as fast as her legs could carry her. One of the younger, more agile of the group brought Stacy down with a flying line back tackle. Even as she struggled to free herself, she had dim awareness of someone slipping a wet handkerchief over her nose and mouth. She felt every muscle in her body, going limp before plunging into a sea of utter blackness.

“Harris, how much of that stuff did you use?” Alex demanded, with a grimace. “I can smell that stuff all the way over here.”

“Hey, the kid’s breathing,” Harris said grimly.

“She’d better be,” Alex growled. “Our orders are to bring her in ALIVE and UNHURT.”

“We did our level best not to hurt her,” Harris said defensively. “She didn’t leave us a whole lot of options.”

“Harris, Smith, finish tying her up, and get her to our horses,” he ordered. “The rest of you come with me. We’ve got to get Sarge and finish off the big lummox.”

“Corporal,” one of the younger men stiffened. “Someone’s coming.”

“Harris, you grab the kid,” Alex ordered, “company retreat.”

“Corporal, what about Sarge?” Harris asked, as he hefted Stacy’s inert form in his arms.

“Sarge’ll have to fend for himself,” Alex said. “If we go back and try to rescue him, we’ll get caught by whoever’s coming. Let’s go.”

*****

They found Chubb first, grazing peacefully as if nothing had happened. Ben found that, coupled with the silence, unnerving. He wordlessly motioned for Candy to tether Hoss’ mount with their own, then drew his own weapon. “Let’s go, Joseph,” he whispered.

Joe, his own gun in hand, nodded grimly and fell in behind his father. They stealthily made their way to a small copse of trees, where by unspoken agreement, they sought cover behind the largest two. They carefully scanned the lay of the land ahead of them.

“Pa, look!” Joe said tersely, pointing.

Ben looked, his eyes following the line formed by Joe’s outstretched arm and pointing finger. It was Hoss, almost a hundred yards from where his mount was found grazing, lying ominously still. “Cover me, Joe,” Ben ordered sotto voce, as he slipped his gun back into its holster.

Joe nodded curtly.

With heart in mouth, Ben ran from cover out into the open toward his second son. He was vastly relieved to find Hoss alive and breathing. A close examination of the head wound revealed that he had been grazed by a bullet. Though it had bled quite profusely earlier, the blood had congealed, and a scab was beginning to form.

“S-Stacy . . . . ?” Hoss began to stir.

“It’s Pa, Son,” Ben said quietly, struggling mightily to keep his voice even.

“Pa?!” Hoss tried to sit up. “Stacy . . . . ”

“Lie still a minute, Hoss,” Ben admonished gently. He, then, motioned for Joe to follow.

“Pa, Stacy . . . . ” Hoss groaned, “is she . . . . ?”

Joe came out from the copse of trees, with Candy loping along at his heels. The two younger men knelt down on either side of Hoss, with Joe taking his place beside Ben.

“How is he?” Joe asked.

“I’m fine, dadburn it!” Hoss said irritably, forcing himself from a prone to a sitting position. The sudden movement set Hoss’ environment swimming sickeningly before his eyes.

“Hoss?!” Ben looked over at his injured son anxiously.

Hoss lay back down on the ground. “Pa, y-you’ve gotta find Stacy,” he groaned.

“Candy and I’ll look around,” Joe said, as he and Candy scrambled to their feet.

Ben knew with terrible certainty that they were not going to find Stacy. He fervently prayed he was wrong. “What happened, Hoss?” he asked in a toneless monotone.

“Stacy and I . . . we were heading back to the house,” Hoss answered haltingly. “I think . . . . some dadburn fool hiding in the bushes threw a rock and hit Blaze Face. Stacy was trying to get him under control, when I heard rifle fire.” He groaned again, squeezing his eyes shut against his spiraling environment. “That’s the last thing I remember. Pa, if Blaze Face threw Stacy somewhere, she could be hurt bad. You gotta find her.”

“I . . . I don’t think Blaze Face threw Stacy, Hoss,” Ben said, his voice shaking. “We found him in front of the house. H-he’d returned alone.”

“Pa,” it was Joe.

Ben looked up and saw him returning with Candy. The latter had the inert form of Sarge Collier slung over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.

Joe knelt down beside Ben, his face pale. In his hands, he clutched Hoss’ gun and Stacy’s hat. “C-Candy and I found these,” he said, his voice shaking, “along with that man.” He inclined his head towards the man still slung over Candy’s shoulder.

Ben took Stacy’s hat. “No sign of your sister?” he asked tonelessly, while unconsciously tracing the hat band with his first finger.

“None,” Joe’s voice broke. “Pa, you were right. About keeping restrictions in place. You were right.”

“ . . . and in the end, it did no good,” Ben said bitterly. He, then turned toward his youngest son. “Joseph, it doesn’t matter who was wrong or right. The only thing that matters now is finding Stacy and bringing her back home, alive, well, and in one piece.” He paused to allow his son to absorb the import of his words. “Now what did you and Candy find?”

“Hoss’ gun,” Joe said grimly. “It’s been fired.”

“I didn’t fire it, Pa,” Hoss groaned.

“Stacy,” Candy said, with a touch of pride. “She was the one who winged this guy.” He patted the Sarge’s right upper thigh.

“Stacy?!” Ben looked from one to the other, askance. “I know she handles a gun well enough . . . . ”

“C-Candy and I’ve been working with her, Pa,” Joe said, sobbing openly. “She’s better than well enough. She’s . . . she’s outright deadly.”

“If Stacy shot him,” Ben said grimly, glaring at the insensate man in Candy’s arms, “he must be one of the people responsible for kidnapping her.”

“I just hope he makes it, Mister Cartwright,” Candy said somberly. “I’ve patched him up as best I can, but he’s still lost a lot of blood. We could loose him.”

“No,” Ben vehemently shook his head. “He’s the only one among us who knows where Stacy is.”

*****

The first thing to intrude upon Stacy’s awareness was pain, worse than anything she had ever felt in her life. It began at the back of her head and circled around to her temples. She tried to roll herself over from her back onto her side, hoping to relieve some of the agony, but found herself unable to move. Frightened and feeling horribly disoriented, she slowly opened her eyes and found herself staring up into the anxious face of a girl near her own age. The girl had blue eyes, like her own, and a long thick mane of dark brown curls.

“Wh-who are y-you?” Stacy murmured, wincing. She struggled to sit up.

The girl placed a restraining hand on Stacy’s shoulder and shook her head. She, then turned to face someone else in the room, who Stacy could not see.

“I’ll go get Mother,” another voice, a girl, much younger, replied. Stacy heard footsteps, followed by the sound of a door opening and closing.

Stacy closed her eyes. She remembered riding back from the corral with Hoss. He was eagerly anticipating the savory taste of Hop Sing’s pot roast. That was her last, fully coherent memory. The rest followed in shards and fragments: gunfire, their horses spooked, Hoss falling from Chubb, his head bleeding profusely, struggling against half a dozen men to free herself . . . .

“Good morning, Stacy,” a new voice, a woman’s greeted her.

Stacy opened her eyes and found the girl she saw first gone. In her place was a woman, aged in her mid-thirties, peering down at her anxiously. Her oval face was framed by a cloud of light brown hair, worn loosely about her shoulders. Her hazel eyes had taken on a dead slate gray color in the morning light shining through the only window in the room. The faded remnants of a bruise circled the bottom of her left eye and partially covered her cheek. Stacy knew immediately from the woman’s red cheeks and swollen eyelids that she had recently been crying. She looked up, meeting the woman’s eyes. The immense sadness she saw there overwhelmed her.

“Stacy, I’m your aunt, Virginia McKenna,” the woman introduced herself in a wooden monotone. She turned and beckoned. Two faces appeared, looking down at Stacy from behind the woman’s shoulders. One of the faces belonged to the girl she saw when she initially regained consciousness. “These are my daughters, your cousins,” the woman continued, “the eldest is Claire, the younger Erin. Claire . . . . d-doesn’t speak.”

“Aunt? Cousins?” Stacy murmured, unable to completely grasp the import of the woman’s words.

“My husband, John McKenna, is your uncle,” Virginia continued, “your mother’s brother.”

“M-my mother?!”

“Your mother,” Virginia said.

“McKenna . . . McKenna . . . . ” Suddenly the light of revelation dawned on her with the brutal intensity of the sun in the desert at high noon. “Oh my God! M-Miss Paris?! Miss Paris is my mother?”

“I’ll thank you not to use the Lord’s Name in vain,” the woman chastised her severely, “but, yes. Paris McKenna is your mother.”

Stacy felt the room closing in on her as it had the day she had decided to face Paris McKenna and the unsettling feelings the woman had initially aroused. Somewhere, deep inside, amid all the turmoil and shock, a saner voice insisted it made sense. The unsettling déja vu, the common interests she and Miss Paris shared, the bond that had grown between them, even the resemblance; it all made sense.

“Aunt Virginia,” Stacy said slowly, “why?”

“Why what?”

“If y-you’re related to me, why have I been kidnapped?” Stacy asked. “Why am I tied up?”

“You haven’t been kidnapped, Child,” Virginia said briskly. “We just had you brought home back to your family, where you belong.”

“No,” Stacy protested. “My home is on the Ponderosa. My pa’s Ben Cartwright . . . Hoss, Joe, and Adam are my brothers.” Suddenly, the memory of Hoss lying on the ground, unconscious and bleeding rose to her waking thoughts. “Hoss! Please, you’ve got to let me go! My brother’s hurt, and I’m the only one who knows were he is!”

“The sooner you put them out of your mind, the better,” Virginia said severely. “The Cartwrights are not your family. Not anymore!”

“Au contraire, Virginia,” a masculine voice spoke. “The Cartwrights ARE Stacy’s family.”

Virginia and the girls turned, their faces almost identical masks of terror. Stacy lifted her head and saw a tall, imposing man standing framed in the open door way, leaning heavily on a solid wood cane. He had the same dark curly hair and blue eyes Miss Paris did.

“Leave the room,” he ordered in clipped angry tones.

Virginia meekly complied, her face to the floor not daring to meet his eyes. She shooed Claire and Erin out ahead of her.

“Virginia.”

Virginia stopped in her tracks and looked up at her husband with a mixture of expectancy and terror.

“Close the door.”

She nodded and complied.

“Good morning, Stacy, or perhaps I should say Rose Miranda.”

“Rose Miranda?!” Stacy looked at him askance.

“That is the name your mother gave you,” John said, as he limped across the room. “Beautiful name. Too beautiful to bestow on a child conceived in carnal lust and born in sin.” He grimaced with disdainful distaste.

Stacy suddenly remembered the other name to people in her dream called her. It was Rose.

“I am your uncle John McKenna,” the man took his place beside the bed on which Stacy lay, bound hand and foot. “This, ” he said acerbically, referring to his stiff right leg, “is a parting gift from my loving sister, your mother.”

Stacy’s feelings of déja vu began to surface with an overwhelming, frightening intensity. She had met this man before. She desperately searched her memory for the how and why, but turned up nothing.

“I’ve been searching for Rose Miranda for the better part of the last ten years,” John continued in a stiff, formal tone. “I did not learn until recently that your name was somehow changed to Stacy Louise.”

“My grandmother’s name,” Stacy said, remembering the heart shaped locket that had been the only possession she had taken from her life before Silver Moon. Everyone had assumed, erroneously it seemed, that the locket and the name engraved on the outside belonged to her.

“Yes,” John’s nose wrinkled with disgust.

“Why have you kidnapped me?” Stacy asked. “Are you holding me for ransom?”

“No, I neither need nor want Ben Cartwright’s money,” John said thinly disguised contempt. “Your father defiled my sister. He seduced her with pretty lies, then raped her. When he discovered she was with child, he sent her back to her parents. He refused to acknowledge you, or have anything to do with either you or your mother.”

“My father?! Who— ?”

“Ben Cartwright of course.”

“No,” Stacy protested angrily. “Pa LOVED Miss Paris.”

“Love,” John snorted derisively. “Love is a pretty faerie tale told to children, believed in by stupid fools. That which people call love is merely our instinct for survival as a species. Nothing more, nothing less. Men and women band together for food, shelter, clothing, and to produce offspring, thus insuring the survival of the human race.”

“That’s not true,” Stacy argued, “and it’s not true what you said about Pa, either. Even if he didn’t love Miss Paris, he’d never treat her like you said, and he’d never abandon any of his children.”

“Then why did you spend your formative years growing up in my parents’ home and not on the Ponderosa?” John argued.

“Because Pa didn’t know Miss Paris was pregnant with me,” Stacy said confidently, her anger rising. “He couldn’t have! If he had, he would have come after both of us. I KNOW he would have.”

“Are you calling me a liar?” John asked menacingly.

“Yes, I am,” Stacy said defiantly.

John McKenna’s stoic mask abruptly vanished, revealing a face twisted with rage. He lashed out, striking Stacy across the face, with the open palm of his hand.

Stacy glared back at him with a raw fury that bordered on hatred. “Maybe Miss Paris and Pa ARE the parents who gave me life. That makes sense,” she said. “But all the other stuff you said is nothing but a pack of . . . of god damned vicious lies!”

John, expecting fear, was momentarily taken aback by her stubborn, furious defiance. Reasserting himself, he lashed out again, striking her several times. “So help me, Girl, as God is my witness, I’m going to beat this evil stubbornness out of you, even if you are my niece.”

“WHY DON’T YOU UNTIE ME AND LET ME SEE HOW BRAVE YOU REALLY ARE, YOU . . . YOU COWARDLY SON-OF-A-BITCH?!” Stacy shouted back.

John rose, trembling with fury, drawing his tall body up to full height. Balling his large muscular hand into a tight fist, he lashed out, striking her again and again, until she collapsed back down on the bed, unconscious.

The instant John McKenna stepped from the room occupied by Stacy into the hallway, his mask of stoic calm quickly and suddenly reasserted itself leaving no trace of the rage that had all but consumed him. He traversed the hall and started slowly down the stairs. His lieutenant, Zachary Hilliard waited for him on the first level, beside the bottom landing.

“Permission to speak freely, Captain?” Zachary said, looking anxious.

“Permission granted, Lieutenant,” John said.

“I understand Sergeant Collier was injured and left for dead in the performance of our mission,” Zachary said. “Request permission to follow up on the sergeant’s status, Sir, and kill him, if he lives.”

“Permission denied, Lieutenant.”

“But, Sir, if he lives, he may reveal our plans, thereby jeopardizing them,” Zachary protested.

“Your concern is duly noted, Lieutenant,” John said. “Please trust that I know Sergeant Collier. He is a good soldier, and will conduct himself as such, if he has in fact been taken captive.”

“Yes, Sir,” Zachary acquiesced with reluctance.

*****

“How is he, Hop Sing?”

“Mister Hoss big fella! Take more than lousy flying bullet keep Mister Hoss down,” Hop Sing replied, while liberally applying a poultice made from medicinal herbs and spices. The mixture was a nauseating shade of brownish green.

“Uuugh! Hop Sing, what is that stuff?” Hoss complained. “It smells worse than a pole cat.”

“Mister Hoss, lie still!” Hop Sing admonished him severely. “Stuff treatment for bullet brand.”

“Does it have to smell so dadburned awful?” Hoss demanded irritably.

“Bad smell good medicine,” Hop Sing replied.

“That concoction of Hop Sing’s must be working,” Ben declared with a weary smile that never quite reached his eyes. “You’re as cantankerous as a mule.”

“Pa— ” Hoss struggled to sit up.

“Mister Hoss, lie still!” Hop Sing put his hands against Hoss’ shoulders and eased him back down on the bed with surprising strength and gentleness.

“Pa, is Stacy— ?”

“She’s been kidnapped,” Ben said, his voice catching. “One of the men responsible is in the guest room. Stacy . . . Stacy shot him.”

Hoss looked up at his father, his eyes round with astonishment.

“Winged him good from the look of things,” Ben said sadly, yet with a touch of parental pride.

“Don’t she beat all,” Hoss murmured respectfully. “Pa, we’re gonna get her back.”

Ben nodded, unable to speak.

“I mean it, Pa. We’re gonna get her back,” Hoss reiterated. “Alive and in one piece.”

Ben nodded again. A long moment of silence passed. “No I told you so?”

A bewildered frown creased Hoss’ brow. “Why should I say that?”

“Stacy was kidnapped anyway . . . in spite of my restrictions,” Ben ruefully pointed out, “and you were the one arguing most passionately for me to lift them.”

“Like you told Joe, the important thing is getting her back here,” Hoss said grimly.

“Pa?” It was Joe. “Miss Paris sent me to fetch you. That guy we just brought back’s beginning to come around.”

“Hoss, you rest and do what Hop Sing says,” Ben said. “I’ll look in on you again later.”

Ben silently followed his youngest son down the hall to the guest room where Sarge Collier lay stretched out on the bed. Paris, her face pale and mouth set in a thin determined line, sat in the wooden chair next to the bed, cleansing the wound.

“How is he, Paris?” Ben asked, taking his place on the other side of the bed. Joe took his place next to his father.

“He’s coming around, like I told Joe,” Paris replied. “Near as I can tell, the bullet passed through his arm pit and out the back.” She looked up, meeting Ben’s eyes. “I’ll clean and bandage the wound as best I can, but he still needs to have a doctor look at him.”

“I asked Candy to bring Doc Martin along with the sheriff,” Ben replied.

Paris nodded.

“H-he’s . . . . he’s gonna k-kill her y’ know.”

Three faces turned in unison, their eyes riveted to Sarge Collier’s face.

“Who’s . . . going to kill whom?” Ben asked, dreading the answer.

“Captain’s . . . gonna kill the g-girl,” Sarge said haltingly.

“Where is she?” Joe demanded, his anger quickly rising.

“Won’t betray my captain.”

A murderous scowl darkened Joe’s features. He dived across the bed, his hands reaching for Sarge’s neck. Ben instinctively reached out and succeeded in getting a firm hold of his jacket collar. Joe struggled mightily to free himself. Gritting his teeth, Ben pulled Joe away from the helpless man lying on the bed.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Ben demanded in the low, soft voice before the storm breaks.

“Pa, you heard him!” Joe turned on his father furiously.

“Joseph, you listen to me and you listen good,” Ben said, his jaw clenched with barely contained rage. “You kill this man, our chances of finding Stacy drop from slim to none. You understand me?”

“Yes,” Joe snapped, then furiously shook himself free of Ben’s grasp.

Ben turned his attention to the man lying on the bed in his guest room. “Where is my daughter?” he demanded.

“I will not betray my captain,” the sergeant stubbornly maintained his ground. “I owe that man a debt of blood and of honor that I can never, not in a million years, ever repay.”

“Even if that so called debt of honor requires you to just lie there while this captain of yours murders a young girl in cold blood?” Joe demanded through clenched teeth, the hot Creole temper he inherited from his mother, steadily rising. “You and your captain have twisted notions of honor, Mister.”

“Spare me your sermons, Boy,” the sergeant spat. “You weren’t in the war. You were here, sheltered on your pa’s ranch. You have no idea what it was like out there. None!”

“Maybe not,” Joe rounded on the man furiously. “But in my book, murdering a young girl in cold blood is an act of the worst kind of cowardice.”

“Joseph, back off,” Ben ordered tersely.

“Pa— ” Joe turned, ready to lash out at Ben.

“Antietam Creek, located just outside a little town called Sharpsburg, up near western Maryland,” Sarge said in a cold, angry tone. “Mister Cartwright,” he pointedly turned his attention to Ben, “do you know anything about the battle at Antietam Creek?”

“Yes,” Ben said grimly. “Hundreds . . . maybe thousands lost their lives there. I’ve heard it said that the battle at Antietam Creek was the bloodiest single day of the entire Civil War.”

“Apt! I know, I was there,” Sarge said bitterly. “I was cut down, and left for dead. I got no idea how long I lay there among the dead and dying . . . watching men die, hearing others cry out for help and not able to do anything . . . . Some of those men were friends. I only remember it seemed a stinkin’ eternity.”

Sergeant Collier’s eyes glazed over, as he sank deeper into his dreadful reverie. “Half the time I was crazy with fear that I’d die out there, so far from my home and my family . . . my body left to rot, or worse, dumped into a mass grave somewhere in that crazy hellish nightmare,” he continued, no longer aware of the others present in the room. “The other half the time, I was afraid I WOULDN’T die, that I’d end up in some pit like Andersonville.

“That night, Captain McKenna risked his life to come out from the shelter of the trenches to grab me. The Rebs were out there, picking off men who ventured out to retrieve the living . . . and the dead. I owe that man my life.”

“Did Captain McKenna ever kill any women and children during the war?” Paris asked.

“Absolutely not,” Sarge said, thoroughly scandalized. “In fact, he always gave strict orders NOT to in any way harm or molest civilians. If the men gave us trouble, we were allowed to defend ourselves, but under NO circumstances were we allowed to harm the women or children.”

“Why?” Paris asked.

“Because the captain is an officer and a gentleman,” Sarge replied. “He conducted himself that way and expected the same of the men serving under him.”

“Why has that code of conduct changed with regard to Mister Cartwright’s daughter?” Paris demanded.

Sarge stared up at Paris, too stunned to reply.

“You’ve certainly made no secret of the fact that my brother intends to kill her,” Paris pressed. “How can he, or you for that matter, possibly justify killing Stacy Cartwright?”

“I . . . I . . . . ” Sarge stammered, trying desperately to grope for an answer. “The captain’s got his reasons,” he said finally. “I don’t know what they are, but he’s got his reasons.”

“Sergeant, do you have any children?” Ben asked. It took every ounce of will he possessed to keep his voice calm.

Sergeant Collier was taken aback. “Y-yes, I do, Mister Cartwright. A son and two daughters.”

“How would you feel if someone kidnapped one of YOUR children just to kill him, or her?”

“I’d hunt the son-of-a-bitch down and kill him,” Sarge said through clenched teeth.

“You love them very much, don’t you?”

“You bet I do,” he replied without hesitation. “They’re even more dear to me since my wife . . . their mother . . . died in a typhoid epidemic during the war.”

“That young woman your captain has kidnapped is MY daughter,” Ben said quietly. “I love her as much as you love your children. As one father to another, please help me find her.”

He turned away, as the soldier within struggled against the father. “M-Mister Cartwright, she’s being held in Virginia City . . . in a tenement house on the street the locals call Blood Alley,” he said in agonized halting tones. “I can’t understand why the captain wants to kill her, she’s his niece for God’s sake!”

“H-his niece?!” Joe stammered, looking over at his father, then Paris through eyes round as saucers.

“His niece,” the sergeant reiterated.

Ben suddenly felt as if he had been dealt a hard blow to his stomach. Every muscle in his legs suddenly turned to water. He grabbed one of the posts at the foot of the bed for support and held on for dear life. “Dear God,” he whispered, as the reasons for Paris McKenna’s abrupt departure almost seventeen years ago suddenly became crystal clear.

“Pa?” Joe queried, as he placed a steadying hand on Ben’s shoulder.

Ben squeezed his eyes shut and forced himself to take deep, even breaths. When, at last, he had steadied himself to at least stand unaided, he turned toward Paris, with a white hot, murderous fury burning in his eyes. “Why, Paris?” he demanded in a tone that sent a chill down Joe’s spine. “Why in God’s Name didn’t you tell me you were going to have a baby . . . OUR baby?”

“You would have felt a sense of obligation and duty toward me if I had,” Paris replied in a dead monotone, her own senses reeling. “I-I loved you too much to burden you.”

“I loved you, Paris,” Ben said. “Yes, I would have married you, but not out of any misguided sense of duty or obligation. I would have married you for one reason only. Because I loved you.”

“I named her Rose Miranda,” Paris murmured.

That revelation cut through Ben’s heart like a dull knife. He turned away, his eyes burning with unshed tears.

“Rose Miranda?” Joe queried, looking over at Paris.

“My mother’s name,” it was Ben who replied. “I once told Paris that if I’d had a daughter, I would have named her Rose Miranda . . . for my mother.”

“I went to my parents,” Paris said aloud, to no one in particular. “They agreed to look after me until the baby was born . . . agreed to raise her . . . give her a home. In return, I had to leave and never come back, never even try to contact her. I agreed, though it broke my heart. I had no other choice.”

“You had a choice,” Ben said coldly. “You could have told ME you were pregnant, and allowed me to do the right thing by you and . . . and by our daughter, Stacy.”

“Ben, I told you— ”

“I know, you didn’t want me to feel obligated,” he said bitterly. “That damned, obstinate stubborn Paris McKenna pride! I only wish you had thought more of our daughter than you did of your pride.”

Joe warred with himself, feeling sorry for Paris on the one hand, and, guilty, seeing the pity he felt for her as an act of disloyalty to his father.

Paris turned away from Ben and Joe, with tears streaming down her face. “All these years, I thought she was dead,” she continued, her voice breaking. “I thought she had died in the same fire that took my parents and my sisters. John told me she had died.”

“H-he must have known all along that she didn’t,” Joe murmured.

“Yes . . . . ” Joe’s words coalesced all the animosity Paris felt toward her brother into a deep seated bitter hatred. “Joe,” her voice cracked like a whip.

The sound of his name rudely jolted him from the swirling maelstrom of emotion that threatened to overwhelm and drown him. Joe looked over at Paris expectantly.

“You remember where the sergeant said Stacy’s being held?”

“Y-yes, Ma’am,” Joe stammered. “A . . . a tenement house . . . on Blood Alley.”

“Wait here for Candy to return with the sheriff,” Paris ordered. “Bring them, and anyone else you can round up, to where your sister’s being held.”

Joe nodded to stunned to reply or argue.

Paris took a deep breath, and swallowed. “Ben.”

Ben looked away, without a reply.

Paris set her mouth in a thin, determined line and marched with a reckless defiance toward the head of the bed, still occupied by the injured sergeant, so she could look Ben straight in the face. “Ben,” she said his name with a desperate urgency, “I know you must think me the scum of the earth, and God knows, you have every right to. But, you’ve got to put that aside for right now. We have a daughter in mortal danger, who needs our help.”

Her words, sharply and forcefully delivered, drew Ben from his own morass of tangled emotions. “We?” he queried, glaring at her venomously.

“We!” Paris snapped. “I’m going with you.”

Ben opened his mouth to argue, but the fierce, angry determination he saw in her face stopped him cold. He snapped his mouth shut. “I’ll get one of the men to hitch up the buck board,” he said through clenched teeth.

*****

Stacy woke up with an agonized scream.

The memory of that night returned with a terrible crystal clarity. The argument between Uncle John and Grandfather steadily escalated. Though well used to living in a household filled with anger and bitterness, the altercation between the men had grown beyond that to a new and frightening, intensity. Her grandmother and two aunts were frightened, too. She could hear it in their voices coming from the room next to her own.

Finally, unable to bear lying scared and alone in the dark, she had left her bed for the company of the women in the next room. Grandmother and Aunt Elise were angry. She had always felt they hated her, but could never understand why. Aunt Mattie, the only person in this house who was in any way kind to her, gently took her by the hand and led her back to her own room.

The next thing Stacy remembered was being roused from sleep and herded at rifle point down the hall to the front parlor. The man behind the gun was Uncle John, his face twisted into the same horrible mask of rage she had come to know all too well again. He opened fire, shooting first his mother, then his father. Both had died instantly. Next, he turned his rifle on Aunt Elsie, which meant his back was to Aunt Mattie and herself.

Aunt Mattie, seizing hold of the momentary advantage, silently picked her up and within three giant steps reached the window. The sound of rifle fire masked the sound of Aunt Mattie opening the window. With a single, swift movement, Aunt Mattie lifted her through the window and set her on the ground below.

“Run, Rose,” Aunt Mattie ordered. “Run.”

As she stood outside, watching in stunned horror, Uncle John fired again, shooting Aunt Mattie in the back.

“Run, Rose, run.” Aunt Mattie’s words echoing through her brain galvanized her to action. She ran, blinded by sheer terror, until hours later in the full light of day, she blundered into the camp of Chief Soaring Eagle.

A pair of thin arms, encased in flannel gently circled her and held her close. Stacy buried her head on Claire’s shoulder and sobbed. Claire held her distraught cousin, rocking her gently, stroking her long hair tenderly, as a mother comforts a child upon waking from the horror of nightmare.

“C-Claire,” Stacy whispered, when at long last she was able to speak. “Please, you’ve got to let me go.”

Claire sadly shook her head.

“Please?” Stacy begged. “You can come with me back to the Ponderosa. I promise you, my pa will protect us.”

Claire shook her head and gently placed her hand against Stacy’s lips. The movement exposed Claire’s neck and the angry, red, jagged scar there.

“Daddy did that,” it was Erin. “Daddy did that when Claire was little because she was bad. Daddy told her and told her to stop crying, but Claire wouldn’t. Daddy cut her throat to make her stop crying.”

Stacy would never be sure which appalled and horrified her more. The fact of a father inflicting so grievous wound on his elder daughter for so small an offense, or Erin’s deadpan recounting of the incident.

“P-please,” Stacy forced herself to speak, against the tide of overwhelming fear and revulsion. “We can all go t-together. My pa WILL protect us.”

“No!” Erin vehemently shook her head. “I won’t leave Daddy, I won’t.”

“He’s a monster!” Stacy rounded furiously on her younger cousin. “Can’t you understand that? He’s no man, no kind of father, he’s a . . . a goddamed monster.”

“He’s my daddy and I love him,” Erin declared stoutly, her facial features twisting into rage in a manner similar to her father.

“You want him to do to you what he’s done to Claire?” Stacy asked. She had almost added, “ . . . and to your grandparents, and two aunts?”

“He won’t do that to me, because I’m a good girl,” Erin murmured, looking very uncertain.

Claire gently touched Stacy’s cheek, and placed a finger to her lips. She rose, intending to leave the room. When she reached the door, she opened it, and found, much to her shocked surprise, both of her parents waiting.

“Claire, go stand with your sister on the other side of the bed,” John ordered. “I’m going to make an example of your willful young cousin.”

Claire silently, turned heel and did as ordered.

“Stacy, you’ve had a lot of time to think about our conversation earlier this morning,” John said in a frighteningly dead calm voice.

Stacy stared angrily at her knees and said nothing.

John viciously seized her chin in his hand and forcibly turned her head facing him. “You will look at me when I talk to you and speak when I question you,” he said, the calm in his voice at odds with the fury in his eyes and the rigid set of his jaw. “Is that clear?”

Stacy glared back at him, and said nothing.

John angrily removed his hand from Stacy’s chin, and drew himself up to full height. On the other side of the bed, a terrified Erin clung to her sister for dear life. “I am a devout Christian man,” he declared loftily, focusing his attention entirely on his niece, “and have been since my return from the war. I promised God that if I lived, I would wholly devote my life to Him, and live it according to His precepts.”

“What precepts are those?” Stacy asked, disbelieving.

John smacked her across the face with an open palm. “I don’t tolerate such insolence from my own wife and daughters,” he said through clenched teeth. “I certainly won’t stand for it from a niece of such ignoble origins as yourself.”

“If I were free, I’d kill you for the cruel lies you’ve told me about my mother and father,” Stacy declared with all sincerity, giving vent to the hurt and anger his mean comments about her parents aroused within her.

John leaned over, seized her by the lapels of her shirt and pulled her close to his face. His eyes bore into hers with malignant hatred. The raw fury with which she returned his gaze shocked and astonished him. He slammed her hard against the head board and abruptly straightened.

“As I said before, I am a devout Christian man,” John continued stiffly. “Every Sunday, we, as a family, are in church without fail.”

Stacy had never been comfortable with the idea of worshiping God within the man made confines of wood, brick, mortar, and glass. For her, true worship, true communion with the Creator happened in the midst of creation, specifically amid the tall ponderosa pines for which her father named his home. Silver Moon taught her this way, and Pa, bless him, respected her beliefs. Though he never at any time tried to coerce her into attending church services, she of her own choice did so twice yearly, at Christmas and at Easter, as a return show of respect for him and the beliefs he held sacred.

“In church and in reading the Holy Bible, I have learned that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom,” John continued. “I fear God. I fear His wrath. I fear His chastening rod. I fear His judgment to come. I , in turn, have diligently instructed my wife and daughters about the fear of God by example and by reading of God’s Holy Scriptures.”

She and Pa had spent many hours at home reading through The Bible, his sacred book. But, the passages he made a point of sharing with her were about the love of God.

“God chastens those He loves. So, I, too, chasten those I love,” John continued. “My children, both of them, were conceived in fear of God, and born in the hatred of all that is of the sinful flesh.”

Stacy closed her eyes, feeling sick with revulsion for her uncle and pity for her aunt and cousins. “The first passage Pa ever shared with me from his Bible was the story of how God created everything,” she said, forcing herself to speak. “Each time God created, He declared everything He made GOOD. That includes when he created men and women.”

“You DARE presume to instruct me in my own religion?” John demanded, his body trembling to keep back the vast rage threatening to consume him.

“What religion is that?” Stacy demanded furiously. “The Christianity my pa taught me is about LOVE, not fear.”

“How dare you question my Christianity?” John raged, striking out at Stacy with his balled fist.

“I DON’T question your Christianity,” Stacy yelled back at him. “You have no Christianity for me to question.”

John raised his arm, with tightly clenched fist as if about to strike her. He stood, ominously still, wavering, before abruptly turning heel and leaving the room. Erin broke from her sister and ran to her mother, whose face was turned resolutely to the wall. Claire simply left the room with a determined look on her face.

*****

In the relative safety of her bedroom, Claire slowly eased herself down onto the pallet serving as her bed. Cousin Stacy completely and wholly dominated her thoughts. No one had ever stood up to her father the way Stacy did, no one. Not the men who served under him during the war and continued to serve him to this day, not her mother, and certainly not her sister, Erin, or herself. What made Stacy so different, so strong, that she refused to back down no matter how savagely her father beat her?

For a time, Claire considered freeing Stacy, and the two of them fleeing to the Ponderosa for sanctuary. Though the concept of a father who would actually protect was an alien one to Claire, she knew instinctively that Stacy had told the truth when she promised refuge.

The intrusive faces of her mother and sister abruptly displaced Stacy from her thoughts. Her mother’s spirit was shattered, had been since the day she stood by weeping helplessly as her father inflicted the wound that forever robbed her of speech. All her mother could do now in the face of her father’s wrath was turn her face to the wall and weep. Frightened, and wholly beaten into submission, she no longer had the wherewithal to protect her daughters. Claire was the only one able to offer any kind of comfort to Erin, who in her own way grew more and more like their father with each passing day.

Claire shook her head determinedly as she made the choice to remain for the sake of her mother and sister. Yet, she knew she had to find someway to help Stacy, too.

The sound of horses drew Claire from her troubled thoughts. She noiselessly rose from the bed and crossed the room to the only window. Looking down, she saw a woman bearing strong resemblance to her father, and an older man with silver gray hair alight from a buggy tethered across the alley way. They made their way toward the house with grim determination.

Claire suddenly realized the man and woman below were Stacy’s parents. Her face set with calm determination, she left her window and silently ran toward the closed door between her bedroom and the hall. She opened it cautiously, and peered into the dark hallway. The coast was clear in all directions. Breathing a silent sigh of relief, she stepped from the room and made her way down the stairs to the front door.

Claire met Ben and Paris on the front stoop of the house. She placed her finger to her lips, and motioned for them to follow. Ben and Paris exchanged glances. He nodded, knowing instinctively that he could trust the otherworldly being clad in white flannel standing before him.

Claire, moving through the darkness like an ethereal spirit, silently led Ben and Paris up the stairs, and down the hall to the last door on the right. She took hold of the door knob and turned it slowly. She, then, pushed the door ajar, just enough to allow them entry. Ben and Paris silently followed Claire into the room, where Stacy, still bound lay on the bed sleeping fitfully. Claire remained at the door, while Ben and Paris anxiously made their way across the room.

“Oh dear God,” Paris moaned softly, catching sight of Stacy’s bruised and battered face.

“So help me, if I get the chance, I’ll kill him for that,” Ben muttered, seething.

“Not if I get the chance first,” Paris vowed.

Ben carefully sat down on the bed beside his sleeping daughter. “Stacy . . . . ” he whispered, nudging her gently.

Stacy opened her eyes and turned. “Pa . . . Miss Paris?!”

Ben quickly put his finger to his lips, warning her to keep her voice down.

“Pa, I know what the dreams were trying to tell me,” she said, as Ben helped her to sit up.

“Later,” Ben whispered back. He started to untie the ropes binding her wrists, while Paris worked to free her ankles. “We’ve got to get you and us out of here.”

Together, Ben and Paris helped Stacy to her feet. As she rose, Stacy’s eyes fell on Claire still maintaining her vigil at the door. A sudden jolt of realization crashed upon her like a falling brick wall. “Pa, wait,” she whispered frantically. “We have to take Claire with us. If he finds out she led you to me, he’ll kill her.”

“Claire?” Ben looked up, his eyes meeting hers.

Claire looked at him expectantly.

“We can take you with us, if you want to come,” Ben said earnestly. “You’re certainly more than welcome.”

Claire held up her hands and shook her head.

“Claire, you must,” Stacy implored, genuinely fearful for her silent cousin’s well being. “You know what he’ll do to you, if— ”

Claire emphatically shook her head.

“Please!” Stacy begged, on the verge of tears.

“How touching,” a masculine voice said in a tone dripping with acid. “I love family reunions.”

Four heads turned slowly, in unison. John McKenna, clad in silk pajamas and brocade dressing gown stood in the hallway, armed with a rifle aimed squarely at Ben’s head. Zachary Hilliard, dressed in street clothes, stood behind him, also armed. “I simply won’t hear of you leaving so soon. Lieutenant . . . . ”

“Yes, Sir?”

“Fetch the others, we’ll have need of them,” John ordered.

“Yes, Sir.” Zachary slipped past their captives and made his way down the stairs.

“If you would be so kind to step back into my guest room,” he said curtly. “It’s not much, but it’s the best I can provide seeing as how the lot of you dropped in unannounced. If you had only waited a few more days, I would have had a lovely reception for you. A very lovely reception, indeed.” He paused and glared at his daughter, still standing beside the door. “Please, join us, Claire. After I see to our guests, I’m going to make sure you pay dearly for your part in things.”

Paris glared at her brother contemptuously. “John, why?” she demanded. “Give me one good reason why!”

“I can give you TWO good reasons, My Dear Sister,” John replied in a deadly calm voice that made Paris’ hair stand on end. “The first reason is to right a grievous wrong done to you.”

“I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about,” Paris said, looking at him askance.

“Sixteen years ago, Mister Cartwright seduced and raped you, leaving you a defiled harlot,” John said with disdain. “If that wasn’t bad enough, he also left you with child.”

“I don’t know where you come by your information,” Paris said, not bothering to hold back her own loathing and utter contempt, “but to set the record straight, Bother Dear, the entire time I spent on the Ponderosa then AND now, Ben Cartwright has conducted himself like a gentleman. He did NOT seduce or in any way force himself on me sixteen years ago. If anything, I was the one who seduced HIM.”

“You brazen whore, have you no shame?” John snarled. He stared at her as if she were a vile, slimy worm that had just crawled out from under a rock.

“John, that’s enough,” Ben said, his own fury rising. “If you think for one minute I am going to stand by and listen to you say such things about my daughter and her mother— ” He unconsciously moved a step closer to John.

“You stay right where you are, Mister Cartwright,” John said, raising his rifle for emphasis.

“Pa . . . . ” Frightened, Stacy grabbed Ben’s arm to stop him from advancing toward John.

“Captain,” it was Zachary. He had returned and stood just outside the door. “56th Battalion, State of Illinois reporting as ordered.”

“Come in,” John stood aside to allow a armed dozen men, to enter and take up positions around the room. “Mister Cartwright, for the crime you committed against my sister, I sentence fruit of your union to death. If you and my sister would be so kind as to move away from your daughter.”

“John, for God’s sake— ” Paris begged.

“Using the Lord’s Name in vain only adds to your many sins, Paris,” John said. “As for your daughter, she’s not fit to live.”

“You talk so much about how devout you are,” Stacy spat contemptuously, not bothering to hold back the anger and revulsion she felt for John McKenna. “What about God’s commandment not to murder?”

“How dare you judge me for what I had to do in time of war?!” John’s soft, calm voice was frighteningly at odds with his stiff body, now trembling with barely contained rage.

“I’m not talking about the war, you sick, twisted ****!” The word was a Paiute obscenity for a traitor, despised and beneath all contempt. “I’m talking about ten years ago, when you MURDERED your own parents and your sisters, Mattie and Elsie . . . and burned down the house to cover it up.”

“You lying bitch— ”

“I was there, I saw you,” Stacy shouted back at him. “I saw you cut them down in cold blood. You would have killed me, too, if Aunt Mattie hadn’t lifted me out the window and told me to run.”

Paris gasped, as the blood drained from her face. She seized hold of Ben’s arm for support. “Dear God in Heaven,” she murmured, shaking her head.

“Stacy, are you sure?” Ben asked, deftly placing an arm around Paris’ waist.

“That’s what the dreams were trying to tell me, Pa,” Stacy said, glaring at her uncle with murderous fury.

“John, how could you?” Paris moaned, her senses numb with horror.

“They wanted to deprive me of what was rightfully mine,” John said. “Mother’s family all lived in Chicago. They were wealthy, Paris, very, very wealthy.”

“They disowned her, John, years ago, before they even left Ireland, because she married our father,” Paris said.

“All her Chicago relations are dead,” John said. “Mother was the only one left. All their wealth was hers. Everything!” His face twisted with murderous fury. “She SHOULD have left it to me. All of it!”

“Why should she have left it to you?” Ben demanded. “It was hers to do with as SHE wished.”

“Because, I’m the only son,” John said. “As the only son, I would have been head of the family. I would have taken care of them. All of them, including my sister’s daughter.”

“From what I’ve seen of the way you take care of your wife and daughters, no thank you very much,” Stacy blurted out in anger, drawing warning glances from Ben and Paris.

“When Mother drew up her will?” John continued seemingly oblivious to the fact that Stacy had spoken. “She left it all to Mattie, Elsie, and . . . and to her.” He dramatically thrust an accusing finger in Stacy’s direction. “They needed the inheritance to live on, that’s what Mother said. But Mattie and Elsie were women. Rose was a child. As head of the family, I should have been in control of the money. Father should have taken my side, after all the years of promising that I’d be head of the family when he died. But he didn’t. He took Mother’s side.”

“So you killed them to get your hands on your mother’s money,” Ben said, glaring darkly John. “You despicable— ”

“That money is mine by right,” John snarled. “Every last cent! Stacy is now the only obstacle who stands in my way. Doing away with her will at long last give me our Mother’s legacy, and will avenge your honor, Paris,” he grimaced, “such as it is.”

“How can killing Stacy possibly avenge my honor?” Paris demanded.

“I want Mister Cartwright to suffer,” John said through clenched teeth. “I want to inflict pain on him so agonizing . . . so complete, he’ll never recover.” He paused. “Forcing him to stand by and helplessly watch while I kill his daughter and yours will accomplish that end.”

“You sick, twisted bastard!” Paris snarled.

“Wrong, Paris, I’m not the bastard, your daughter is,” John said with a mirthless laugh. “Now for the last time, I’m ordering you and Mister Cartwright to stand away from the girl.”

Ben quickly pushed Stacy behind him, then, by mutual unspoken agreement, closed ranks with Paris. “We’re not budging, John,” Ben said, taking Paris’ hand.

“Lieutenant.”

“Yes, Sir,” Zachary said. “Men, take them.”

Four men holstered their weapons and moved in to seize Paris and Ben. One of the men dragged Paris away, literally kicking and screaming. Ben immediately sent one of the remaining three who converged on him down for the count. One of the remaining two grabbed Ben from behind.

Stacy immediately set upon the man trying to subdue her father, pummeling his back relentlessly with her balled fists. A wild elbow jab found it’s mark in Stacy’s abdomen. The force of the blow knocked the wind out of her, and sent her crashing hard onto the floor. Nauseated, and gasping for breath, Stacy’s arms instinctively wrapped themselves around her abdomen and stomach. The man holding onto Ben tightened his grip, allowing the third man to beat him senseless.

“John?” it was Virginia, out in the hallway. “John, what’s going on?”

“Business, Mrs. McKenna,” Zachary said tersely. “Go on back to bed. Nothing here concerns you.”

“No, wait,” John said. “Virginia, is Erin with you?”

“I’m here, Daddy,” Erin yawned. “The noise woke me up.”

“Stand aside and let them enter, Lieutenant,” John said. “There is a lesson for them to learn here tonight. A bitter, but an immensely valuable one.”

Virginia and Erin were unceremoniously ushered into the room. They took their places next to Claire.

“Erin, come here,” John said quietly, holding out his hand to his younger daughter. Erin, despite her sleepiness, ran eagerly to his side. “What have I always taught you about the wages of sin?”

Virginia watched, heart in mouth, while Erin silently tried to remember the answer.

“Erin . . . . ” John prompted menacingly.

“Death, Daddy,” Erin blurted out the answer. “The wages of sin is death.”

“Good Girl!” John praised her. “You may go back to your mother now.”

Erin walked across the room into the waiting arms of her mother. The stark relief on Virginia’s face was blatantly evident.

“The wages of sin is death,” John said. “Virginia . . . Erin . . . my sister and Mister Cartwright have committed the grievous sin of fornication. The wages of their sin is your niece and cousin, Stacy. Therefore, to atone for the sins of her parents, Stacy must die.” He paused, allowing his wife and younger daughter to absorb his words. “Claire, you may join your cousin.”

“John, what are you saying?” Virginia protested, as Claire obediently walked over and knelt down beside Stacy.

“Claire betrayed us,” John explained in the same condescending manner a parent addresses a dull witted child. “She tried to help Stacy escape her just punishment. That makes Claire guilty of high treason. The penalty for committing high treason is death.”

Terrified, Virginia rushed over and tried to seize his rifle. “No, John,” she sobbed on the edge of hysteria, “I won’t let you do this.”

John pulled the rifle out of her hands with swift, terrifying ease. Seizing Virginia by the lapels of her dressing gown, he pulled her close, then struck her hard with his balled fist. “Get back over there,” he snarled, hurling her across the room.

Virginia turned her face to the wall and began to sob. Erin wrapped her arms around her mother’s legs, trying desperately to offer and find some measure of comfort.

John turned back towards the helpless, still prostrate Stacy and slowly raised his rifle.

With a superhuman strength she never even dreamed she possessed, Paris broke free from the man who had been holding her. She rushed headlong toward her daughter, before anyone could even think of stopping her. John fired. The bullet meant for Stacy found its mark deep in Paris’ chest. With a sickening gurgle, she collapsed.

Stacy, ignoring her own pain and queasiness, half ran and half crawled toward Paris, the mother who nurtured her for nine months in the womb and gave her birth, and knelt down. Ben’s own sensibilities rudely returned at the sound of John McKenna’s rifle firing. He vigorously renewed his struggles against the men, trying desperately to hold him back.

“Stacy . . . . ” Paris whispered.

“Don’t try to talk, Miss Paris . . . Mother,” Stacy said with tears streaming down her face. “We’ll get you to a doctor, and— ”

“No, . . . b-beyond doctor’s help,” Paris struggled to speak. “Stacy . . . Rose Miranda, . . . remember . . . you c-came into this world . . . because your f-father and I . . . we loved each other. Please remember . . . . ”

“I will, Mother, I promise,” Stacy said sobbing openly. “And, Mother? I love you.”

Paris smiled, then closed her eyes.

Ben, after a ferocious struggle, managed to break free of the men holding him. Three quick strides brought him across the room to Stacy’s side. “Stacy?”

“She’s . . . she’s dead, Pa,” Stacy sobbed. Ben knelt down beside his daughter and put his arms around her. Stacy immediately sensed the presence of a barrier between them.

“Prepare to join her!” John’s voice suddenly brought Ben and Stacy back to the frightening reality of their situation. He raised his rifle.

Suddenly, the door to the room burst open with enough force to send it flying off its hinges.

“OK, Everybody, drop your weapons,” it was Joe Cartwright. He stepped into the room, rifle ready. Candy and Sheriff Coffee followed, with Hoss, head bandaged, bringing up the rear.

“Do as he says,” Roy Coffee ordered the assembly tersely. “We have more men in the hall and outside surrounding the building.”

Zachary Hilliard and the other men immediately threw down their weapons and raised their hands in surrender.

“No,” John McKenna protested with a strangled cry. “Not ‘til I have my revenge.” With his gun still aimed at Stacy’s head, he started to pull the trigger.

Reacting purely on instinct, Sheriff Coffee quickly raised his own rifle, took dead aim at John McKenna’s head, and fired. John collapsed to the floor without a word or sound, like a marionette whose strings had been cut. Across the room, Virginia screamed and ran to her husband’s side. The sheer force of her movement ripped her free from Erin’s desperate embrace, and sent the child tumbling to the floor in an ungainly heap. Virginia collapsed onto her dead husband, her body wracking with sobs. Claire immediately left Stacy and Ben, to go to Erin.

While Sheriff Coffee and his men rounded up their prisoners and confiscated weapons, Joe and Hoss made their way across the room to their father and sister.

“Hoss? Thank goodness, you’re alright,” Stacy sobbed, feeling a great measure of relief.

“A little the worse for wear, but I’ll definitely live,” Hoss said, as he gently helped her to her feet. “Come on, let’s get you out of here.” He placed an arm around her shoulders and gently led her out of the room.

“Pa?” Joe looked down at his father anxiously.

“You came in the nick of time, Joseph,” Ben said wearily.

“I came as soon as I could,” Joe said, as he helped his father to stand. His eyes fell on Paris McKenna’s body.

“Dead,” Ben said, his voice breaking. “She sacrificed herself to save Stacy. I’d like to have her buried on the Ponderosa . . . where your mother is buried . . . . ”

“Sure, Pa,” Joe agreed immediately. “I’ll tell Sheriff Coffee.”

As his youngest son moved off to find the sheriff, Ben turned his attention to Claire McKenna. She sat on the bed cradling her sister in her arms. “Claire?”

She looked up at him expectantly, with tears streaming down her own cheeks.

“Please tell your mother that you’re all welcome to come back with us to the Ponderosa,” he offered, “and stay as long as you wish.”

Claire managed a small grateful smile and nodded her thanks.

*****

Ben Cartwright sat in the easy chair in the living room, his eyes fixed on the massive stone fireplace before him, barely aware of the flurry of activity going on around him. Hop Sing was upstairs, helping Claire McKenna settle her mother and sister in bed for the night. His sons were busy fetching the last of the McKennas’ luggage from the wagon.

“Pa,” it was Hoss. “Joe and I just took up the last of their things.” He sighed, and sank wearily onto the settee. “Not that THEY had much,” he added with a scowl. “Most of what’s in all them trunks and bags are HIS things.”

“That Claire has her hands full,” Ben shook his head with an astonished admiration for the curious and silent young woman. He fell silent for a moment. “Hoss?”

“Yeah, Pa?”

“Where’s Stacy?” Ben asked, glancing around.

“I reckon she’s where she usually goes after dark when she needs to be by herself,” Hoss said quietly.

“I guess I should go fetch her,” Ben murmured reluctantly, wondering at the same time how he could possibly face her after tonight’s staggering revelations.

Hoss mistook his father’s hesitation for fatigue. “Why don’t you go on up to bed, Pa?” he suggested. “I’ll go fetch her.”

“Thank you, Hoss,” Ben said, vastly relieved. He rose. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Good night, Pa.”

*****

Hoss quietly slipped out of the house, and crossed the yard to the barn. Inside, the barn, he found Stacy standing beside the stall occupied by her horse, Blaze Face. “Past your bed time, Little Sister,” he said in a quiet, gentle tone.

“I-I’m not sleepy, Big Brother,” Stacy said in a small, very sad voice.

“No, with everything that’s happened, I reckon you’re not,” Hoss said, taking a seat on a nearby bale of hay. “There’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you, but I just ain’t had the chance until now . . . ”

“What’s that, Hoss?”

“I think the four of us . . . you, me, Joe, and Pa . . . knew we belonged together from the first time we met each other at Fort Charlotte,” Hoss began. “You coming home with us clinched things. You were . . . and ARE . . . my sister in all the ways that count.” He paused. “But, I’m really happy . . . and proud to know that you’re also my sister by blood.”

“Th-thanks, Hoss, I . . . . ” Stacy wanted to tell Hoss that she felt the same way. Her words were drowned in a torrent of weeping.

Hoss rose, walked over to the stall, and put his arms around her. Blaze Face nickered softly and nuzzled the top of her head. “That’s right, Little Sister, you just let it all out,” Hoss said, feeling the sting of tears in his own eyes. “Blaze Face and I are right here.”

*****

The funeral for John McKenna took place grave site in the small cemetery located a few miles outside of Virginia city. Reverend Daniel Hildebrandt, minister of the church in Virginia City, presided. There was no eulogy given, or hymns sung. It was brief, and sparsely attended by his widow, two daughters, and the Cartwrights. The men who had served him so devotedly in the years after the war were unable to attend. They, including Sergeant Collier, were incarcerated in the Virginia City jail, awaiting trial on charges of kidnapping, murder, and conspiracy to murder.

“ . . . to know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding; to receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, judgment, and equity; to give prudence to the simple,” Ben read from the first chapter of the Book of Proverbs, verses that Virginia McKenna had insisted be read. It was the passage by which her husband lived. Ben, noting John McKenna’s interpretation of those verses in the faded bruises on Virginia’s and Erin’s faces; Claire, forever silenced by an act of incomprehensible butchery, and the vivid purple, blue, and sickly yellow green bruising on Stacy’s face, was loath to read these passages. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. But fools despise wisdom and instruction.”

Virginia McKenna stood beside the open grave, her eyes riveted to her husband’s closed coffin. She wore a dark brown wool skirt, a couple of sizes too large, and a plain long sleeved white linen blouse. It’s cuffs were worn, and frayed at the edges. She wore no hat or gloves. Her hazel eyes, round with shock and grief, and the way she twisted the handkerchief Ben had loaned her lent Virginia McKenna the air of a lost, lonely, frightened child, with no idea what to do next.

Claire and Erin both wore ill-fitting clothing that belonged to their cousin, Stacy. The elder of the two McKenna daughters stood straight and tall, with a comforting arm around her younger sister and a watchful eye on their mother.

As Ben turned the pages in his Bible to the 23rd Psalm, he understood at last why Claire McKenna had refused to leave with them that night. She had, over the years they had lived with John McKenna, become mother in every sense of the word, short of pregnancy and giving birth, to Virginia and Erin. No mother, human or animal would dream of leaving her children to face danger unprotected. Ben took a deep breath and began to read aloud. “The Lord is my Shepherd . . . . ”

“Stacy,” Virginia McKenna left her daughters, at the conclusion of the funeral ritual for her husband.

Stacy, standing next to Hoss, with Joe behind her to the right, looked over at her aunt expectantly.

“Stacy, please believe me,” Virginia begged. “John wasn’t always . . . well, like this. I remember a time when he was kind, gentle, and the most loving man you’d ever want to meet.”

Stacy looked up at her aunt, her eyes a mixture of grief, rage, and astonishment. She opened her mouth to speak. A gentle, massive hand on her shoulder gave her pause. She glanced up, meeting her brother, Hoss’ eyes. Hoss, imploring with eyes and face, shook his head.

“Ma’am,” Hoss addressed himself to Virginia McKenna, while Stacy closed her mouth and bowed her head, “we’re glad you have those memories now to comfort you.”

Virginia beamed, nodded, then made her way back to her daughters.

“How can she say that?” Stacy said softly, looking from Hoss to Joe. “After all that . . . that . . . I can’t even think of something nasty enough to call him . . . did to her, Claire, and Erin . . . how can she still defend him?”

“She loves him,” Hoss said simply, “and maybe she does remember a time he was all the things she just said.”

“I want no part of him at all,” Stacy said through clenched teeth. “Virginia McKenna is my aunt, Claire and Erin are my cousins. John McKenna is nothing to me.”

“Stacy, you can’t— ” Joe started to protest.

“To say he’s my uncle is to in the same breath say he’s my mother’s brother,” Stacy said. “I won’t dishonor Miss Paris’ memory that way.”

*****

Paris McKenna’s memorial, a simple service held at grave site, took place the next day, in the afternoon.

“It says somewhere in the Bible, I ain’t sure where exactly, that the greatest act of love is when a man . . . or woman, for that matter, gives up their own life for another,” Hoss addressed the small group assembled on the Ponderosa, at Paris McKenna’s grave site. The assembly included the Cartwrights, Hop Sing, Candy, the McKennas; Stacy’s best friend, Molly O’Hanlan; and Sheriff Roy Coffee.

Hoss noted with dismay that Ben held himself apart from Joe, Stacy, and Molly. Joe and Molly flanked Stacy on both sides, standing straight and tall like a pair of buttresses. The former, with one arm around Stacy’s shoulders, looked over at Hoss, with tears flowing unchecked down his cheeks. Molly, with her arm protectively around Stacy’s waist, gazed up at him with a fierce look in her eyes and jaw set with determination. Hoss wanted to kiss her, knowing that Molly O’Hanlan was going to prove one friend Stacy, and for that matter maybe the entire Cartwright Family, could count on in the days to come, when the identities of Stacy’s parents and circumstances surrounding her birth became known.

“I ain’t one to sugar coat things,” Hoss continued. “Miss Paris had a lot of stubborn pride about her, ain’t no denying that. For a long time, I kinda think that might’ve been just about all she had in this world. Her pride led her into makin’ some bad decisions along the way. Some of those bad decisions kept Stacy and Miss Paris apart until about a month ago. They also kept Stacy apart from her pa, Ben Cartwright, and her brothers, Adam, Joe, and me.”

The McKenna daughters stood together, behind Joe, Stacy, and Molly. Erin, with her arms wrapped tight around her sister’s waist, buried her face against Claire’s torso and sobbed piteously. Claire held Erin close, stroking the child’s long hair. Their mother, Virginia McKenna, stood a few feet away from her daughters, facing away from the ritual and those gathered, her face buried in the shelter of her hands. Hop Sing and Candy stood next to Claire and Erin.

“The night before last, Miss Paris gave her own life to save Stacy, because she loved her,” Hoss continued his eulogy. “She loved Stacy as a friend, and as a mother loves her child. As far as I’M concerned, and I like to think as far as a Loving and Merciful God might be concerned, there’s a place in heaven for a proud, stubborn woman who loved her daughter so much, she gave her own life so her daughter could live.”

Sheriff Roy Coffee stood at the foot of the grave, hands at his side, his eyes moving from Hoss’ face, to Ben, and then Stacy. Even he, who by his own admission was not the most sensitive person in the world, could see the distance that had grown between Ben and all of his children. He bowed his head, focusing on his hands clasped in front of him, his eyes blinking excessively. In all the years he had known Ben, the boys, Hop Sing, and most recently Stacy, they had come to embody the love, the strength, the trust, and being there for one another, he had come to define as family. He fervently hoped and prayed that the Cartwrights would somehow find the where withal to come to terms with Paris McKenna’s death and the revelations that had come out of it.

After Hoss finished speaking, Ben opened his Bible and began to read from First Corinthians: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I have become as sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. Though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. Though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing,” his voice broke on every third word.

“L-Love suffers long and is k-kind,” Ben continued, his voice trembling, “love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; d-does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love . . . love n-never fails.”

Hop Sing and Candy led the McKenna family back to the waiting buckboard. Sheriff Coffee and Molly O’Hanlan followed, leaving the Cartwright Family alone.

Ben, his two sons and daughter watched as three of the Ponderosa ranch hands began the task of filling in the grave.

Ben stood behind the grave marker, to the left, head bowed, arms folded protectively across his chest and heart. He stared down into the deep shadows of the open grave, his eyes riveted to the place he imagined Paris’ face to be. Overwhelmed by the agony of her loss one minute, bitterly despising her the next, and wondering how two such extremes could possibly exist in such close proximity left Ben fearing his own sanity.

Ben glanced over at Stacy, flanked now on either side by Hoss and Joe, not quite meeting her eyes. He had failed her. In failing to earn the trust of her mother, he had failed both of them in the worst possible way a man could fail a lover and a child. All the anger and rage he held in his heart toward Paris for keeping knowledge of her pregnancy and their child from him could never alter that fact. He had failed Paris and ultimately Stacy as completely as Virginia McKenna had failed her own children.

“Hoss . . . Joseph . . . . ” Ben looked up, meeting the eyes of his two sons. “I’ll see you back at the house later.”

“Where are you going, Pa?” Joe asked with a frown. “It’ll be dark in less than an hour.”

“I know what time it is,” Ben rounded furiously on his younger son, “and I’m not accountable to you for my comings and goings.”

“Pa— ” Joe protested vigorously.

“I’ll see you back at the house later,” Ben said again through clenched teeth. He turned and started walking resolutely toward Big Buck, leaving Hoss and Joe to stare at his retreating form with helpless frustration. Stacy, with mounting rage and a bullheaded determination bordering on reckless foolhardiness, waited until Ben had mounted Big Buck and disappeared into the surrounding woods.

“I’ll see you guys at the house later, too,” Stacy told her brothers, her face set with grim angry resolve.

“Where do you think YOU’RE going?” Joe demanded, placing a restraining hand on her shoulder.

Stacy furiously shook him off with a force and intensity that shocked him. “I’m going after Pa,” she muttered through clenched teeth.

“Stacy, I think you’d better come back to the house with us,” Hoss said.

“I said I’m going after Pa,” Stacy said in a tone that brooked no argument.

Joe and Hoss exchanged worried glances. “How in the world does she expect to find him?” the latter queried with a puzzled frown. “He’s had too much of a head start by now.”

“She learned how to track from the Paiutes, Big Brother, remember?” Joe said tersely. “She’ll find him, make no mistake about it.” He turned and started walking briskly toward Cochise.

“Joe,” Hoss had to run to catch up with his younger brother, “you ain’t fixing to do what I THINK you’re fixing to do . . . . are you?”

“Only if you’re thinking I’m about to go after the stubborn, hardheaded fools we’ve been blessed with for a father and a sister,” Joe said grimly. “Those two have been spoiling for a fight since Miss Paris died.”

“I’m coming with you,” Hoss said.

*****

The distant whiney of a horse, and the sound of footsteps approaching through the brush drew Ben from his tormented thoughts. “Who’s there?” he demanded.

“It’s me, Pa,” Stacy said marching doggedly into the clearing.

“I said I wanted to be alone,” Ben said angrily, turning away.

“I know what you said,” Stacy said, walking around so she could talk to him face to face.

“Stacy, I’ll be back in a little while,” Ben said in a more conciliatory tone. “I just need a little time to— ”

“I’m not leaving,” Stacy defiantly folded her arms across her chest, “not until I get what I came for.”

“Stacy— ” some of the anger crept back into his tone.

“Dammit, Pa, I’ve just lost my mother,” she said, giving full vent to her own hurt and anger. “I’m NOT going to stand idly by and loose you, too.”

The intensity of her emotions stunned him, with all the force of a blow to the solar plexus.

“You’ve been avoiding us,” she pressed, “especially me.”

“Stacy, I haven’t been avoiding you— ” Ben’s protest sounded flimsy and false even to his own ears.

“The HELL you haven’t! You’ve hardly said two words to me since Miss Paris died,” Stacy turned on him furiously. Her pain and rage pushed her to the edge of tears. She paused and took a deep breath. “Pa, would it help if I told you that I don’t believe John McKenna’s lies?”

“Stacy, he was telling you the truth,” Ben said bitterly, his own voice and anger rising to match his daughter’s. “Miss Paris and I ARE your mother and father.”

“I KNOW,” Stacy shouted back. “THAT WAS THE ONLY THING HE SAID ABOUT YOU, ME, AND MISS PARIS THAT WAS TRUE. WHEN HE TRIED TO TURN THE LOVE THAT YOU AND MISS PARIS HAD FOR EACH OTHER, AND ME COMING INTO THE WORLD INTO SOMETHING VILE AND DIRTY . . . THATWAS THE LIE.”

“DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A . . . A CHILD BORN OUT OF WEDLOCK IN OUR SOCIETY?” Ben demanded furiously. “YOU’RE GOING TO FIND THAT MOST OF THE GOOD PEOPLE OF VIRGINIA CITY AGREE WITH JOHN MCKENNA.”

“I DON’T GIVE A BLOODY TINKER’S DAMN IF THEY DO AGREE WITH THAT . . . THAT . . . THAT NO GOOD SON-OF-A-BITCH, MAY HE ROT IN HELL!” Stacy declared with enraged passion, with all sincerity, using words she had heard Miss Paris utter on a few occasions. “ANYONE WHO DOES AGREE WITH JOHN MCKENNA CAN BLOODY DAMN WELL ROT IN HELL WITH HIM.”

“Stacy— ”

“NO!” Stacy angrily cut him off. “I DON’T CARE ABOUT WHAT PEOPLE THINK OR DON’T THINK. THE ONLY THING RIGHT NOW THAT I DO CARE ABOUT IS HAVING MY PA BACK.”

Emotionally, Ben felt himself reeling against the onslaught of her raw, unbridled primal fury. He also sensed for the first time the same profound agony within her that threatened to inundate him. In the face of this revelation, his own anger suddenly evaporated. “Stacy, I-I’m sorry,” Ben said contritely, his eyes burning with the acrid sting of tears. “The last thing in the world I ever wanted to do was hurt you, but lately I . . . I feel that’s all I’ve done . . . starting from the time you were born.”

“Right before she died? Miss Paris told me I came into the world because you two loved each other,” Stacy continued, her voice trembling. Her own passionate fury was all but spent, leaving pain, the like of which she had never felt before, and a terrible, all consuming grief. “John McKenna told me his children were conceived in fear and born in hatred. You saw the way he treated them. In the end, he was ready to kill Claire . . . his own daughter! Aunt Virginia was going to stand there and let him. You and M-Miss Paris did everything you could to save me.” She began to sob openly, unable to hold back. “Pa, I’d far rather be a bastard child conceived and born into the world because her ma and pa loved each other than any ten children, born to parents married to each other, but conceived in fear and hatred.”

With that, Ben embraced her fiercely, clinging to her as desperately as he clung to his pain and grief. He wept openly with her, mourning Paris, the love they once shared, all that had been lost, and all that might have been. He also grieved for Stacy herself, for her growing up years forever lost. He would never know the joy of holding her as a baby, never hear her utter her first word, or see her take her first halting steps. “I-I had no idea,” Ben said, his voice ragged and unsteady. “No idea in the world she was pregnant.”

“I know that, Pa,” Stacy sobbed, her own heart breaking with his. “If you had, you would have moved heaven, hell, and earth itself to find Miss Paris and me.” She paused, then added, “And I know you wouldn’t have stopped looking either, until you DID find us.”

He remembered Virginia McKenna telling him how Stacy obstinately held to this truth, even as her uncle had literally tried to beat it out of her. This precious knowledge of his daughter’s love and trust bolstered him against the guilt that had threatened to inundate him since learning of her true parentage. “I love you, Stacy,” Ben said, his voice breaking under a fresh onslaught of tears. “I have since the moment I first met you at Fort Charlotte.”

“I love you, too, Pa,” Stacy said, sensing that the barriers that had risen the night he and Miss Paris had come to rescue her were gone. Feeling the sting of new tears in her own eyes, Stacy turned her face to his shoulder and wept.

Ben gathered her back into his arms and held her. “L-love and . . . trust,” he sobbed, “truly are the m-most . . . magical things in the world.”

“Pa . . . Stacy,” it was Hoss. “Joe and I are here, too.”

Ben reached out for both of his sons with one hand, while keeping the other arm firmly around Stacy. He felt their arms, their love, surrounding both him and Stacy. He could hear Joe, standing to his left weeping openly, and feel the moistness of Hoss’ tears flowing down his cheeks to mingle with his own. Drawing strength from the loving bonds that connected them all not only with each other, but with the land called Ponderosa, and all that lived, breathed, and had being upon her, Ben and Stacy together found the courage to let go of their pain and grief.

“Good-bye, Paris,” Ben silently mouthed the words, “I love you.” With the release of his own grief and the pain that had inevitably come of the relationship between him and Paris McKenna, he could acknowledge that he had loved her beginning that night she returned to the Ponderosa after putting Mattie on the stage for Chicago. There would always be a special place in his heart for her as there were special places for Elizabeth, Inger, and Marie. It would take time, lots of time, for all of the wounds to finally heal. Even so, he could feel the healing beginning within himself. “Stacy?”

“Y-yeah, Pa?

“Are you . . . alright?”

“Not now,” Stacy shook her head vigorously, “but I will be.”

By her answer, Ben knew that healing was beginning to happen within her as well. “Stacy . . . Hoss . . . Joe . . . thank you for coming after me,” he said gratefully.

“Pa, you’ve done the same for all of us many times,” Hoss said, wiping his eyes against the sleeve of his jacket.

“ . . . and besides, we’re family,” Joe added, his voice catching every other word. “You, me, Hoss, Stacy, Adam, and Hop Sing.”

“ . . . and don’t you ever f-forget it,” Stacy said, giving in to a fresh round of tears.

“I won’t,” Ben promised. The events of the past few weeks had ripped the Cartwrights to shreds individually and had sundered their bonds as a family. But, here, in the woods by the shores of the lake, new and stronger bonds of love and trust had been forged in the fires of released anger and grief. “I . . . guess we should think about getting back to the house,” Ben said reluctantly.

“That’s assuming we don’t get lost trying to find our way through the woods in the dark,” Joe said, wiping away the last of his own tears.

“We won’t get lost,” Stacy said, “not as long as we have the stars to guide us.”

The four began to pick their way through the dim twilight towards the clearing where they had tethered their horses.

“Pa?”

“Yes, Stacy?” Ben automatically placed his arm around her shoulders as they walked.

Stacy slipped her arm around his waist. “Joe told me that the name Miss Paris gave me . . . Rose Miranda . . . was your mother’s name,” she said.

“Yes, it was,” Ben said quietly.

“Pa, I want to change my name from Stacy Louise to Stacy Rose,” she said. “That way, I’d be named for BOTH of my grandmothers. Would you mind?”

Ben smiled. “Not at all,” he said. “In fact, I think Stacy Rose is a much prettier name, and certainly more fitting.”

“Why?”

“Because, you’re a beautiful wild Irish rose, so very much like your mother,” he said, his voice catching on the last word.

“ . . . complete with the thorns,” Joe teased gently.

“Thanks a lot,” Stacy retorted, with a smile.

“Just do me one favor, Little Sister.”

“What?”

“Don’t ever change a thing,” Joe said. “I love you the way you are, rose petals, thorns, and all.”

***The End***

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