The Dang Fool Woman And The Impossible Man (K.K. Shaulis)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  25,300


 

“Mrs. Amanda Healey?” Ben Cartwright doffed his hat and smiled broadly at the pretty little woman dressed in blue velvet. Her blonde hair was curled and stacked up under a perky little blue hat with a light blue plume that Ben was sure more by design than by accident matched her huge cornflower colored eyes. Also, she was a lot younger looking than he imagined her to be, given the teaching experience that her resume detailed.

“That’s correct, sir,” she seemed to be taken aback by his presence but recovered her composure, smiling up at the tall gray-haired rancher. “And who might you be?”

Must be a bit jumpy from the long trip, he decided putting his hat back on his head. “Well, ma’am, I’m Ben Cartwright. I’m here to take you to Virginia City,” he again smiled and began to take her luggage from her.

“That’s fine, Mr. Cartwright,” she tightly gripped the bags. “I can handle them myself.”

“But, it’s no…” Ben started to say but was distracted by the arrival of…

“Excuse me, ma’am,” Hoss tipped his ten gallon hat to Mrs. Healey. “Pa, I’ve got to take off for Placerville. I should be back tomorrow afternoon.”

“All right, son, but wait just a minute,” Ben put his hand on Hoss’s arm. “Mrs. Healey,” he turned and addressed the woman who looked for the life of him like she was trying to slip away from him. He also took her by the arm. She frowned down at his effort to restrict her movement. “I’d like you to meet my middle son, Eric.”

Hoss rolled his eyes at his father’s use of his proper name.

“Eric, this is Mrs. Amanda Healey, our new school teacher.”

“Please to meet you, ma’am,” Hoss grinned down at her.

“Likewise, Eric,” she smiled at Hoss but looked annoyed at Ben as she pulled her arm out of his grasp.

“Could you excuse us a moment, Mrs. Healey?” Ben asked.

“Please take your time, Mr. Cartwright. I’ll just go into the store…” she said disappearing inside with her luggage.

“You can leave those…” Ben called after her but she was gone before he could get “bags with me” out of his mouth. He turned back to Hoss. “How much money do you have?”

Hoss looked at his father in surprise.

Ben cleared his throat. “I left this morning without taking any money out of the safe and the bank’s closed until Monday,” he explained.

“Well, Pa, I’ve got $40 but I do need money for me and Chubb to spend the night and to pick up something for Adam…” Hoss looked at his father’s hopeful face and caved. “I think I can spare $10,” he reluctantly handed over the money.

“Thanks, son,” Ben grinned. “You never know what emergencies might come up along the way when there’s a lady involved.”

Hoss studied his father’s face and thought he saw a glint in his eye that was suspiciously like the one that his little brother got when a pretty girl caught his fancy. So that’s where he gets it from. “I know, Pa,” Hoss shifted his thoughts back to his father when he realized he was waiting for some kind of a response to his comment. “Don’t spend it all in one place,” he laughed, untying his horse’s reins. “I’ll see you some time tomorrow,” he hauled himself up into Chubb’s saddle and rode away.

Ben turned and strolled into the store. Mrs. Healey was engaged in an animated discussion with the storekeeper. She abruptly broke it off when she saw Ben and moved forward toward him.

“You know, Mrs. Healey, it’s getting late and we have a fairly long ride ahead of us to Virginia City so we really should be going,” he smiled down at the petite woman and tried to take her bags again.

Amanda sidestepped his attempt again and cleared her throat. “I’m afraid that you made the trip from Virginia City for nothing, Mr. Cartwright. I’ve changed my mind. I’m not taking the teaching position after all.”

“What?” Ben looked at her in surprise.

“I’m not going with you,” she spoke up louder in case he was having problems with his ears. The storekeeper and the two ladies he was waiting on looked at the two of them curiously.

Ben smiled sheepishly at them, took the petite schoolteacher by the arm and pulled her and her luggage to a corner filled with saddles and harnesses so they might talk a little more privately.

“Mrs. Healey, we have an ironclad contract,” Ben fought to control his tone. “I should know. I wrote it myself.”

“Hmmm,” she thought, studying his face. “You’re a lawyer, Mr. Cartwright?”

“No, but…”

“Ever study the law?”
“No, but…”

“Then how do you know it’s iron-clad?” Amanda reached down in her carpetbag, took out some papers Ben knew to be the contract and ran her finger down the page. “What about this escape clause, Mr. Cartwright?”

“What escape clause?” he took the document from her.

“Paragraph III,” Mrs. Healey held up three fingers.

Ben looked at her in amazement and scanned the paragraph in question.

“It says that the contract can be cancelled at the option of either party,” she continued as he read.

“Yes. That’s right,” Ben nodded his head.

“Well, I’m canceling it!” Amanda crossed her arms over her chest and gave him a superior look.

“You can’t do that,” Ben protested assuming a similar stance to hers. “It’s too late.”

“Where does it say that it’s too late for me to cancel it?”

“But, Madam…”

“I said, show me where it says there is a time for cancellation, Mr. Cartwright.”

Ben quickly tried to read the document again.

“Find it?” she leaned over and looked up eagerly into his face.

He frowned down into her big blue eyes.

She batted her long eyelashes at him, smiling.

He ignored her and went back to reading.

“You’re not going to find it because it’s not there!” she taunted him. “Furthermore,” she continued, “The contract doesn’t say anything about me having to pay back any money that was advanced to me to come here, does it?”

“No…but…Mrs. Healey…”

“And there is no penalty specified if I decide to cancel the contract. Is that correct also?”

Ben was beginning to wonder if the petite blonde was a lawyer herself. “Now let’s be reasonable…”

“You don’t have a leg to stand on, Mr. Cartwright,” she smirked at him.

Ben fought off the urge to crumble the document in his hand and do the same to the little schoolteacher. “Madam, we will sue you, then, for specific performance…”

“…Of a labor contract?” Mrs. Healey raised her eyebrows. “President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and….”

“…Emancipation Proclamation….” the vein in Ben’s temple began to throb. “Now look here, you…” he shook his index finger at her.

“I believe that it covers this type of situation, too, Mr. Cartwright!” she poked him in the chest with her index finger.

“Good God, woman!” Ben trew his arms up in the air. “It covers slaves in the Confederacy!”

“And women are just as oppressed as any slaves, Mr. Cartwright.”

“I’m not trying to oppress you! I’m trying to get you to honor a legitimate and binding contract to teach, that’s all!” he bellowed at her. Again, he had let the volume of his voice rise to a level that attracted the attention of the mercantile’s other occupants.

“Are you sure?” she glared up at him, her hands on her hips.

Ben turned his back to her, smiled again at the two ladies and the storekeeper who was wrapping up their purchases, counted to ten, took a deep breath and turned back around.

“Now, Mrs. Healey,” he thought he’d try one of the smiles that Little Joe always used to persuade a member of the opposite sex toward his way of seeing things, “I’m sure we can come to some kind of compromise agreement. School is scheduled to start in two weeks, after all.”

“Good luck trying to find me in two weeks,” Amanda smiled and nodded at the other customers as they left the store.

“Maybe you can tell me what you’re going to do instead of teach,” Ben being an old salt tried another tack.

“Quite frankly, I don’t believe it’s any of your business what I’m going to do, Mr. Cartwright,” Amanda took the contract from him and stuffed it in her carpetbag. She then noticed that the storekeeper had disappeared leaving the two of them alone in the store.

“What do you mean?” Ben demanded. “I am the one who hired you and got the school board to advance money to you to get out here! I am responsible for your being here, whether you like it or not!”

“No one is responsible for me especially you, you impossible man!” she declared emphatically picking up her bags and trying to move around Ben.

He took a deep breath and fought hard to control his voice.

“Tell me something,” Ben, hands clasped behind his back, circled the tiny woman like a vulture. “How many times in your sweet little life have you found yourself bottom end up over some enraged gentleman’s lap getting a well deserved serving of the palm of his hand?” he stopped his buzzard-like movements at precisely the spot where he could glare into Mrs. Healey’s huge blue eyes.

Amanda would not rise to the bait, however. “I suppose as many times as you have, Mr. Cartwright,” she stated matter-of-factly dropping her bags, crossing her arms over her chest, cocking her head and returning his glare with a stare.

The corners of his mouth twitched in a slight smile. “Then it’s a wonder that you learned to sit at all,” he snapped and began his circular route again.

Amanda sighed growing impatient with his tactics. “Is this your extremely tiresome and oblique way of telling me that you intend to beat me, Mr. Cartwright?’

“Well, someone sure should.”

“And you’re that someone?”

“Keep it up and I will be, Mrs. Healey.”

“You may be ‘enraged,’ Mr. Cartwright,” she picked up her luggage and turned on her heel to leave the mercantile, “But if you would hit a lady who you just met, then you are no ‘gentleman!’”

“That’s it!” Ben grabbed her by the back of her blue velvet skirt and sat her with her bags down hard on a keg of nails. “You’re going to listen to me, Amanda Healey or, by thunder, I will turn you over my knee right here in this general store!”

She defiantly looked up at him from where he had none too gently sat her and her luggage. Her mood quickly shifted from rebellion to grudging compliance, however, when she recognized the same fire in his brown eyes as she used to see in her late husband’s. He who fights and runs away will live to fight another day, she decided especially when her witnesses had all deserted her. She released her bags, one of which fell heavily on his right foot much to her amusement and his annoyance. “Well, if you’re going to put it that way,” she folded her hands in her lap and looked up at him smiling sweetly, “How could I not want to listen to you with the threat of you beating me hanging over my head, Mr. Cartwright?”

Ben shook his head in exasperation, moved the bag off his toe and sat down beside her on another keg. “Mrs. Healey, I propose that you give me two weeks of your time. Come back with me to Virginia City and get settled in at the accommodations that I’ve arranged for you. Meet a few of the families and the children. Then you can make up your mind whether you want to stay or not,” he smiled tentatively at her.

Amanda thought for a few minutes, considering her options. “All right, Mr. Cartwright. You’ll have my answer in two hours,” she held up two fingers in front of his face but crossed two fingers on her other hand behind her back.

“Two hours?” Ben looked at her in disbelief. “But…”

She raised her right hand to attempt to ward off any further words of protest from escaping from his mouth. “I just arrived on the stage, Mr. Cartwright, and there are a few personal things that I have to attend to before I set out on another long journey, whether it’s to Virginia City or somewhere else.”

Ben took a deep breath and sighed. “All right, Mrs. Healey. I’ll be back here in two hours,” he tipped his hat to her, stepped out the door and headed for the nearest saloon.

But I won’t be, Amanda heaved a sigh of relief, stood up, picked up her bags and went off in search of the storekeeper.

*****

Ben checked his pocket watch for the tenth time in three minutes. What could be keeping that dang fool woman? He grumbled and leaned against the ceiling post in the general store. He was wasting valuable time waiting for her when he could be halfway to Virginia City. “Excuse me,” he addressed the storekeeper who had his back to him sorting pairs of Levi’s. “Did you happen to see the woman I was with anywhere?”

“Been busy,” the little man grumbled moving a big stack of jeans from one shelf to the next. “Don’t have time to keep track of my employees let alone some crazy woman with notions of prospecting for gold,” he snorted.

The man’s statement took Ben totally by surprise. He reached out and grabbed him by the shoulder and turned him around to look at him. “What did you say?” he fixed the man with a glare.

“Your woman friend’s got some fool notion that she’s going to find a mountain of gold.”

Ben frowned. “She told you that?”

The man looked tentatively at Ben and started to rummage through a drawer under the counter. “No, she wrote it to me. She said that she wanted me to have a supply wagon packed and ready to go when she arrived on the morning stage today. Ah, here it is!” he pulled a thick sheath of papers out of the drawer and handed it to Ben. “Sent me this letter about three months ago. She sure got down to specifics. Just look at this listing.”

“And she paid for all this when?” Ben asked scanning the letter and accompanying pages.

“In advance,” the storekeeper pushed his spectacles up his thin nose. “All paid for in advance except for $10.00. All she really had to do was sign the receipt, go out the back door and take off. Here, look at the last page of her letter,” he took the letter from Ben and flipped it open. “She asked me to have everything ready to go as soon as she got here. See?” he pointed the section out to Ben. “She also says something about a teaching position in Virginia City that she originally planned to take but decided to forego … and something about Benjamin Cartwright being…”

“Me. That’s me! What did she say about me?” Ben demanded slamming his fist on the counter.

“Well…um…I…umm…”

“Yes?”

“I was supposed to keep Benjamin Cartwright occupied until …until…”

“…. She could get away,” Ben mumbled. “How long ago did she leave?”

“I guess a couple of hours ago…”

“…When I last spoke to her. You know what direction?”

“Due north to Pyramid Lake toward…”

“…Certain danger,” Ben finished the man’s sentence for the third time.

“Sorry, Mr. Cartwright. If I would have only known…”

“Thanks,” Ben started out the door.

“There is a matter of $10 that she still owes me, Mr. Cartwright,” the little man scurried around the counter to block his exit. When Ben scowled down at him, he added quickly, “Mrs. Healey said you would pay me.”

Ben sized up the storekeeper. He knew he could easily move him out of his way but, in his experience, the smaller the man, the scrappier the man. And anyway, at the moment he wasn’t in the mood to tangle with anyone except a dang fool woman who he felt personally obligated to save from herself.

“All I’ve got is $9.50 on me right now,” Ben said remembering that he had spent four bits of Hoss’s money for drinks at the saloon while he was waiting for Mrs. Healey.

“I’ll take it,” the storekeeper stuck out his hand.

“Fine, but I want that letter in exchange,” Ben began to reach in his pocket.

The storekeeper thought for a minute, considering the value of Mrs. Healey’s writing. “Deal,” he handed Ben the letter and Ben reluctantly handed over all of the money that Hoss had given him. “Nice doing business with you, Mr. Cartwright,” the storekeeper called after him as Ben scrambled into the buckboard and took off toward Virginia City again.

*****

Adam and Sport were really enjoying their trip back from town. The weather was not particularly warm for August and there was a nice breeze blowing out of the mountains. Sport had decided on his own that there was no need to hurry and Adam totally agreed to allow his temperamental steed to set a leisurely pace. After all, he had no chores to do, his brothers were gone for the evening and his father was not due back until…. He frowned as he watched a buckboard pull out of the Carson City road about a quarter of a mile ahead of him. It couldn’t be….

“Come on, boy,” he clucked to his stallion. “Let’s see what’s going on.”

*****

“Dang fool woman!” Ben muttered to himself urging Jake down the road toward Virginia City at a fairly good pace. “…Emancipation Proclamation… Ha! … I’d like to oppress her backside but good… Where the devil would she get such a dang fool idea about finding…”

“If you’re expecting an answer from Jake, I wouldn’t hold my breath, Pa,”

Adam came up along side the buckboard.

I wouldn’t either, Jake agreed with Ben’s oldest son.

“Where are you going any way?” Adam shielded his eyes from the afternoon sun.

Ben took a really deep breath and tried to keep an even tone to his voice. “I’ve got to get Mrs. Healey.”

“Isn’t that why you took off early this morning to go to Carson City?” Adam was confused.

“Yes, but…”

“So you managed to lose the school teacher?” Adam laughed, shaking his head.

“I did not lose the school teacher,” Ben said in very measured tones. “She took off on her own.”

“So where are you going now?”

“To find her.”

“And how will you know where to look?”

“The storekeeper in Carson City told me she was headed north toward Pyramid Lake. She had a two hour head start on me but I think I’ve narrowed the gap considerably since I know where I’m going and I’m not loaded down with a lot of supplies.”

“Do you want me to come along and help?” Adam said half-heartedly.

Ben cleared his throat loudly. “I think I can handle one little woman by myself, Adam.”

“You seem to be doing a Jim-dandy job by yourself so far,” Adam said facetiously.

“Whoa!” Ben abruptly pulled Jake and the buckboard to a halt and glared up at his smart-alecky eldest son. “Do you have any extra cash on you?”

Adam deciding to live dangerously smirked down at his obviously annoyed father from his perch on top of Sport. ”Lady run off with your wallet too?”

“I forgot to get money out of the safe this morning, young man.” Ben’s tone conveyed the message that, even though it was August, Adam was skating on thin ice.

Adam recognized that tone as did Jake and Sport and immediately straightened up. “Well, ah…” he began to dig through his pockets, “All I’ve got is $5…I paid for the saw mill machinery and then had to pick up a few things for Hop Sing,” he motioned to the bundles that were slung across Sport’s rump.

 

“Fine,” Ben extended his left palm to his son who obediently put the money in it. “Let me have any extra ammo you’ve got and your rifle, too, come to think of it. By the way, what kind of things did you have to pick up for Hop Sing anyway?”

“I’m not sure, Pa,” Adam grinned and handed the parcels to his father. “Hop Sing said I wasn’t supposed to look. Quote, just give money to Number 4 cousin and pick up order, unquote.”

“And you didn’t look?” Ben eyed him skeptically, then checked inside one of them himself.

“Pa, I promised Hop Sing,” Adam sounded wounded.

“Well, did you?” Ben gave him a look that was designed to make an offspring quake if he was not telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

“Of course not,” Adam insisted, crossing his heart and holding up his right hand as if to swear an oath.

“Okay,” Ben still didn’t quite believe him but decided to let it go. “Thanks. These just might come in handy,” he turned and put the bundles behind him. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Giddy-up!” he snapped Jake’s reins.

“Now what am I supposed to tell Hop Sing?” Adam asked himself as he watched his father go off in a cloud of dust.

*****

Whoa!” Amanda Healey pulled her team to a halt. She stared at the sun that had sunk fairly low on the horizon and then at the watch that hung around her neck. The stagecoach station manager told her that she was to travel for an hour or so and turn left at the fork in the road to get to Pyramid Lake. The only problem was there were four roads, two of which went left and two went right.

Isn’t that just like a man! She shook her head. Well, Amanda, you’ve got a 50-50 chance, she sighed, then shivered. It really wasn’t as warm as she expected it to be for August.

Suddenly the silence of the countryside was broken by what sounded like rapid-fire gunshots and a horse drawn conveyance thundering toward her.

“What the devil…?” the petite schoolteacher turned in her seat in time to watch Ben Cartwright, Jake and the buckboard pull to a screeching halt in front of her wagon and effectively block her choice of either of the two left roads. The scowl on his face said it all as he tied off the big black horse’s reins, approached the wagon and grabbed the leads out of her hands.

“Going some place, Madam?” he said as another round of what seemed to be gunshots erupted.

Amanda summoned up all of her courage, straightened in her seat and glared at Ben. “I told you it was none of your business, Mr. Cartwright!”

“Wrong answer,” Ben muttered wrapping the reins of her wagon around the brake. He then visually located her carpetbag and valise and reached in the back of the wagon to retrieve them.

“Stop that, you impossible man!” Amanda jumped out of the wagon and tried to grab her luggage away from Ben. In response, he hoisted them up on his shoulders so she could not reach them, tossed them long distance into the back of his buckboard and turned back to her.

“What are you doing?” she demanded backing away from him as another burst of explosions sounded.

“Trying to save our as…scalps, that’s what!” he quickly tried to close the gap that had developed between him and her. She, however, still continued to retreat from him. “Are you hard of hearing, Mrs. Healey?” he paused as more gunshot-like sounds were heard. “We’ve got to go…” he lunged at her and managed to get a hold of her by the arm.

“I’m not going anywhere with you!” she strained against him, digging her heels into the hard dirt surface of the road. “What about my wagon and supplies…”

“I don’t have time to argue with you, Madam,” Ben yanked the petite blonde to him, swung her under his arm and ran for Jake and the buckboard for all he was worth.

“Let me go!” she screamed trying to catch hold of his right leg to trip him up but to no avail.

“The entire Bannock nation is going to be down on us any second,” he growled tossing her into the buckboard’s bed like a sack of grain.

Mrs. Healey landed unceremoniously on her behind on top of her luggage. “Now see here, Mr. Cartwr…” she tried to scramble to her feet.

“Yaw-w-w-w!” Ben already had the reins and was urging the big black gelding forward at top speed.

Amanda lost her footing and fell once again on her backside as Ben did a quick turn to take them back in the direction from which they came.

This is beginning to get painful, she thought holding onto the seat support for dear life with her left hand so she wouldn’t bounce out of the wagon’s bed.

“Our only chance is to get back to the stage station!” he shouted back to her.

“That doesn’t make any sense!” she yelled trying to keep her hat on her head.

“Do you know anything about fighting Indians, Madam?”

“Of course I don’t!”

“That’s just what I thought,” Ben smiled to himself. “Yaw!!!” he steered Jake around the bend and right into the path of an Indian war party. “Hang on!” he advised as he pulled hard on the reins stopping Jake and the buckboard within three feet of the seven mounted Indian braves.

The warriors immediately surrounded them.

Amanda struggled to her feet, again straightened her hat and glared eye to eye with one of the men. He snarled at her but to Ben’s and the others’ amazement, she did not even flinch. In fact, she returned the snarl.

“It appears that I know as much about fighting Indians as you do, Mr. Cartwright!” she said smugly putting her hands on her hips and turning to address Ben.

The brave took that opportunity to grab her from behind and haul her kicking and screaming to the ground.

Ben looked up to heaven, sighed and climbed out of the buckboard to stand in front of the other Indians. He looked back and watched another brave catch Mrs. Healey’s other arm to try to help subdue the petite blonde.

“Good Chief Yellow Sky, I seek parlez with you,” Ben held up his hand and addressed the oldest of the Indians.

“We will have parlez, Ben Cartwright,” the old chief nodded. “Speak.”

“You have lived in peace with the white man for many years. It has been many moons since your warriors have painted their faces and taken up guns against the white man. I am unhappy to see your young braves wearing war paint and carrying guns once again.”

“We have known each other for many years, Ben Cartwright. We do not wish to go to war with the white man but we will, if we must.”

“Then why did you stop us, you horrible savage?” Amanda yelled kicking one of the braves who held her in the shins.

Both Ben and Yellow Sky paused to watch the scuffle between Mrs. Healey and the two braves. Ben shook his head and the chief looked at him sympathetically. He reluctantly decided it was time to come to Amanda’s rescue, or maybe it was the Indians’ rescue? He wasn’t sure at the moment.

“Chief, if you do not want to fight with the white man, why do your warriors fight against one weak, stupid woman? Order your warriors to release her so that we may talk.”

The Chief nodded and spoke to the braves who immediately let go of the little schoolteacher. She darted for Ben but not before she stepped hard on each of the Indians’ toes.

“What do you mean ‘weak, stupid woman’, Mr. Cartwright?” she raged up at him, straightening her hat and her skirt indignantly.

He did not respond to her question. Instead, he grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her none too gently to his side.

It was then that she noticed a strange fire in his eyes that made her think better of saying anything further for the moment. “Why did Yellow Sky stop us if you do not make war on white man?”

“That’s what I want to know too,” Amanda nonetheless chimed in again.

Ben took a deep breath and tightened his grip on her.

“She is your woman?” the chief indicated Amanda with a nod of his head.

Ben looked down at her and frowned. “Not exactly but for now, she is my responsibility.”

“She needs good beating, my friend.”

Amanda looked at the chief in shock. “How dare you, you heathen?” she intoned haughtily, waving her fist and taking a step toward the Indian.

Ben immediately restrained her by yanking her by the back of her dress back to his side. ”Quiet!” he ordered wrapping his left arm around her and placing his right hand over her mouth. “Behave yourself, woman, or I will beat you right now!” he growled in her ear, then again addressed the chief. “Rest assured, Chief, I will severely deal with this woman but good,” the corners of his mouth twitched up in a faint smile.

Amanda glared up at him, her eyes conveying her thought that his head would look oh so good on either a pike or a platter. Ben gave her a similar look before he continued to parlez. “Yellow Sky, what do you intend to do with us?”

“You are good man, Ben Cartwright. You have always been our friend. We have no quarrel with you or your woman. You may go on your way back home.” The chief motioned to his tribesmen to mount and moved toward his own horse. “But do not go any further north. You will not be safe.”

“I understand. Many thanks, old friend,” Ben began to drag Amanda quickly toward the buckboard, his hand still over her mouth.

“Ben Cartwright,” Yellow Sky smiled hauling himself up into his saddle. “We will leave you to attend to your woman,” his eyes sparkled in amusement. “Good luck.” He raised his hand in a farewell salute.

Ben let go of Amanda so he could return the Indian’s gesture. That was all she needed. She broke away from him and then tried to clobber him with a roundhouse to his face. He ducked fortunately and grabbed her from behind, lifted her up bodily and plunked her down hard on the buckboard seat.

Jake who was dozing suddenly looked around to see what was happening when he felt the wagon shake from the force of Mrs. Healey’s sit down.

“Young lady,” his voice was dangerously quiet. “I am this close,” he gestured with his index finger and thumb, “to following Yellow Sky’s advice. Don’t push me!” he roared shaking his index finger in her face.

She gulped looking down at her hands.

Ben quickly looped a rope through the handles of her luggage, tied it off, climbed into the seat beside her and glared at her. Then he gently clucked for Jake to proceed.

She sulked in silence for a while, contemplating her present situation. Then her temper began to flare. She opened her mouth but clamped it shut reconsidering whether this was the proper moment to cross swords with Ben Cartwright. She decided it wasn’t and settled in the seat, her back to him.

Lord, she had just met the man and he was already trying to run her life and tell her what to do! Well, she had had 14 years with her late husband and almost the same amount being her own boss and she was not about to return to having some man run her life and tell her what to do. The first thing she had to do was to figure out how to get shed of him and back to her wagon and horses and supplies. But how?

Silently she studied his face for the next ten minutes trying to determine when would be the most appropriate time for her to ask “What about my wagon and my horses and my supplies?”

“What about them?” Ben demanded glancing over at her.

Obviously he still was upset with the run-in with the Indians. Nonetheless, nothing ventured, nothing gained, she thought. “We have to go back for them!” she managed to whine like a five-year old.

“Didn’t you hear Yellow Sky warn us about us going north?”

“But I paid good money for the wagon and the horses….”

“And I just saved your scalp, woman!” he thundered.

“Thank you very much even though I don’t remember asking you to. Now about my money?”

“What are you talking about? What money?”

“Well, because of your actions in ‘saving my scalp,’ I expect you to pay me for my losses, i.e. the horses, wagon and supplies.”

“I paid you money in advance as a teacher…” Ben was incredulous. One would think that she might be a trifle unnerved by an Indian encounter but not her.

“…And I paid exactly that much for the supplies and horses and…” the petite blonde paused as she watched him pull what looked like her letter to the storekeeper out of his inside vest pocket.

“Seems to me, Mrs. Healey that you paid $300 less than I advanced to you,” Ben put the reins in this left hand and opened up the papers.

“I had expenses to get here…” she tried to explain.

“…And I saved you, “he insisted, stuffing the letter back in his pocket.

“I didn’t ask you to I told you! I want my money that I spent on the supplies now!”

“Only if you agree to teach. And, yes, I know about specific performance and the Emancipation Proclamation!” he added as she opened her mouth to no doubt make the same argument she did before. “In fact, you owe me $9.50 that I had to pay for your wagon and horse and supplies,” he held put his hand dramatically, “And I’d like it now!”

“I don’t have any of your money left.”

“I’ll take it out of your teacher’s pay when we get back to Virginia City.”

“I am not going back there with you and I am not taking the teaching position, Mr. Cartwright!” she crossed her arms over her chest and began to pout.

“Well, you’re not going to go off and look for gold, either, Madam” he glared at her. “Right now I’m the one with the horse and the buckboard and food and $5.00,” his voice began to crescendo. “Now unless you want to walk…”

“You have food?” Amanda’s eyes lit up. “I’m starved.”

Ben couldn’t believe how quickly her mind shifted gears from money and teaching to food. “Well, I really haven’t had time to eat myself since you left me waiting in Carson City…”

“Where is it?” she looked at him anxiously.

“There’s a basket back there behind the seat,” he motioned with his head. “My cook packed it for me this morning for our trip.”

“Well, I should have guessed that a man like you would have a cook,” she sniffed eyeing him up and down. “You probably oppress the poor woman the same way you try to do with other women.”

“Madam, my cook is named Hop Sing and HE is Chinese. Furthermore, I do not oppress anyone. In fact, I am particularly nice to him since he is the best damn cook in the whole Comstock and I don’t want to lose him. If anyone is oppressed in my household, it’s me!” he yelled.

Amanda covered her left ear with her hand, indicating her discomfort with his volume. “But what about your wife?” Surely the little dear is meek and mild as a dormouse being dominated by a man like you!”

“I am not married.”

“It’s no wonder,” she shook her head.

Ben fumed. Why did I come after her in the first place? “You know, I’m beginning to have second thoughts about hiring you to be our new schoolteacher, Mrs. Healey,” Ben watched her move to a kneeling position on the seat and reach for the basket that had shifted its position toward the back of the buckboard. “Your resume is impressive but obviously you have no problem lying and I wonder if you would allow your students the same luxury.”

“How dare you, Mr. Cartwright?” she started to rummage through the picnic basket. “I did not lie to you.”

“You told me that you would be at the general store in two hours.”

“I most certainly did not. I told you that you would have my answer in two hours,” she held up two of her fingers to illustrate the number. “I did not say that I would meet you in two hours,” she held up the same two fingers again.

“So you equivocated?”

She paused to think a moment as she pulled a sandwich out of the basket. “I guess that’s the correct term,” she sat back down in the seat, opened it and laid it on the wooden seat between the two of them.

Ben shifted the reins to his left hand and picked up half the sandwich with his right. He took a big bite of what proved to be roast beef and cheese with mustard. “So,” he finished chewing the bite and swallowed it. “How is that different from an outright lie, Mrs. Healey?”

She swallowed what was in her mouth and turned to look him in the eye. “I already explained that, Mr. Cartwright.”

“My oldest son Adam is a world class equivocator. When he was younger, many times he found himself not being able to sit down for a week because of his selective answers,” Ben looked at her pointedly. “Even now I’m tempted to tan his hide because of his equivocations.”

“And here we go again with another veiled threat to beat me,” Amanda threw up her hands in exasperation.

“I didn’t say any such thing!” he said wearily.

“You implied it!”

“Seems to me, Madam, that you doth protest too much. Could it be that you may now believe that you lied to me and deserve a trip over my knee?”

She did not answer him right away. “As my students would say, I crossed my fingers behind my back so it doesn’t count anyway,” she declared smugly.

“When my youngest son Joseph was five – he’s a prevaricator — he thought that doing that cancelled out any lies he told me too,” he reached for the canteen. “I never thought it did,” he took a long drink and offered it to the petite blonde.

“How many children do you have, Mr. Cartwright?” she took a drink herself, trying to change the subject away from lying.

“Three, all boys. You met the middle one Hos…Eric. He never lied to me,” Ben decided to keep the theme going in spite of Mrs. Healey’s misdirection tactics. “He always got caught up in the lies of the other two boys and received the same punishment as the other two got.”

“Sounds like you’re an expert on lying, Mr. Cartwright,” Mrs. Healey daintily bit into her half of the sandwich.

“Let’s just say I know one when I hear one,” Ben flicked Jake’s reins and frowned at the setting sun. “We’ll be back at the stage station in about half an hour.”

“Again, I ask you, why do we have to go there?”

He took a deep breath. “Jake is a big strong horse, Mrs. Healey,” he said patiently. “But he can’t keep moving all night. He needs to rest and get some decent food and water. The stage station will have a place where we can bed him down for the night.”

“And us?”

“There might be a room inside or we might have to bunk in the barn.”

“Well, I don’t know…” Amanda became very quiet.

Ben noticed. “You didn’t tell the station manager who you were, did you?”

“He never asked,” she still appeared that something was troubling her.

He cleared his throat. “Madam, you are perfectly safe. I am too tired and too angry with you to try to take any liberties, I assure you. We probably will have to tell the station manager that we’re married to stave off a lot of questions however…”

“I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last man on earth!” the little schoolteacher finally snapped out of her thoughts.

“Nor I you, but we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do for the sake of the…” he paused to consider his choice of word briefly, “…horse,” he decided.

“Wouldn’t we be telling a lie, Mr. Cartwright?” she looked at him critically.

“I imagine but it’s a lie of necessity and it doesn’t hurt anyone. In fact, it actually helps someone.”

“Who might that be?”

“Jake,” Ben guessed that she had a soft spot in her heart for the big black beast of a horse if she was that concerned about her horses.

“All right,” she smiled faintly. “For Jake’s sake, I’ll play along, Mr. Smith.”

“Mr. Smith?” he looked at her quizzically.

“We can’t use our real names. I don’t know what your reputation is like, Mr. Smith, but I intend to protect mine,” she said haughtily.

“Very well, Mrs. Smith. We’ll see how obedient a little wife you can be,” Ben smirked and cast her a sideways glance.

“And how doting a husband and father you can be, Mr. Smith. Right, Jake?” she giggled, reached forward and patted the big black gelding on the rump.

Ben sighed and vowed that he would never volunteer to pick up another schoolteacher again unless it was a male one.

*****

“Old Horace found us some blankets,” Ben announced coming into the barn. “I’ll fix a place for you to sleep. Mrs. …Smith?” he called looking around with more than a little concern that she had slipped away from him again.

“I’m in the stall with Jake. I decided to change into something else to sleep in,” her voice drifted over the partition.

“You changed in front of Jake?”

“I believe, Mr. Ca…Smith, he is only interested in four legged females,” Amanda held up four fingers over the top of the stall.

“I hate to correct you, Mrs. Smith,” he smiled mischievously, “but Jake is not interested in any female anymore.”

“So in any event, I made the correct choice in undressing in front of him instead of in front of you,” she peeked over the partition, her big blue eyes sparkling.

Ben chuckled, shook his head and went back to his work.

“Do you have an extra blanket I could have, Mr. Smith?”

“Here you go,” he tossed the cover over the stall.

“Mr. Smith, I’m curious. Since you have three sons, I assume you’ve been married before,” the petite blonde folded up her dress and draped it carefully over the partition.

“I’ve been married three times before. I lost all of my wives under unfortunate circumstances. And the first Mr.…. er….. Smith?” he raised his eyebrows.

“He was a minor magistrate of the New York State court,” she leaned against Jake to take off one of her shoes. He nuzzled her slightly with his nose but she somehow managed to retain her balance.

“I wouldn’t have guessed,” Ben muttered rolling his eyes and taking off his gunbelt. He put it down on the floor beside a barrel that held a kerosene lantern.

“After he passed away, I went back to teaching,” she continued patting Jake’s neck and coming out from the stall, the blanket wrapped tightly around her. She was in her bare feet and carried her shoes in her left hand. “Where do I sleep, Mr. Smith?”

Ben studied Amanda briefly, his mind wandering as to what she might have on under that blanket. His disconcerting conclusion was not much.

“Um… right here,” he motioned with his hand.

“And you are sleeping where?” she moved cautiously across the floor.

“Right here,” he said matter-of-factly easing himself down on the blanket he had laid out parallel to hers.

“Is it necessary for us to sleep so close?” Mrs. Healey frowned down at him.

Ben sighed wearily. “Yes for two reasons. One, we’re supposed to be newly married and two, I want to keep my eye on you,” he rested his head on a rolled up blanket and turned on his side to face the barn door.

“Pretty tough to keep your eye on me if you’re facing in the opposite direction, isn’t it, Mr. Smith?” she smirked slightly. “Maybe you should sit by the door so I can’t run away?” she suggested moving so she could look down in his face.

He looked up at her and chose to ignore her remarks. “Just get into bed, please, so I can blow out the light.”

“I don’t know…” Amanda was still hesitant as she moved back to the vicinity of her blanket.

Ben yawned. “Here,” he reached over, picked up his gunbelt and plopped it down on the floor between the two blankets. “If I make a move toward you, you can shoot me.”

“Is it loaded?” she asked sitting down gracefully and drawing her legs up under her.

“Of course, it’s loaded,” Ben was astounded she would ask such a question.

“Show me,” she eyed him suspiciously.

Sighing, Ben hauled himself up into a sitting position again. He pulled the gun out of its holster, opened the chamber and counted six bullets touching each in turn so she could see. “Satisfied?”

She nodded.

“Is there anything else?”

“I sometimes need a drink of water during…” Amanda began to rearrange the hay that was under her blanket.

Ben sighed again, got up, retrieved the canteen from Jake’s stall and dropped it beside his gunbelt.

“Now, young lady, is that it?” he asked standing over her, hands on his hips looking very much like a father who was at the end of his patience with his five year old.

“I guess so…” she smiled innocently up at him.

“Good,” he blew out the lantern, eased himself down on the floor in his makeshift bed and rolled to face the barn door again.

“…Except…”

“Except what?” he did not bother to roll back to see what she wanted.

“I forgot to say good night to Jake.”

“Go ahead,” Ben told her gruffly pulling his blanket tightly around himself.

“Good night, Jake!” she called to the big black horse. “Have a good night’s rest!”

Ben noticed the warmth in her voice and, for a moment, began to consider whether somewhere under that feisty exterior there was a gentle, sweet woman after all. He closed his eyes again.

“Oh, and Mr. Smith?” she whispered softly.

“What now?” he growled. This time he did roll over toward her and found himself gazing into her big blue eyes.

“Sweet dreams,” she smiled and closed her eyes.

“Good night, Mrs. Smith,” he smiled, yawned again and drifted off to sleep, not bothering this time to turn away from her.

*****

Ben stretched and yawned and then grimaced as a sharp pain shot through his left shoulder. He had read that there were over 200 bones in the human body and he was sure he ached in every one of them. He definitely was getting too old to be sleeping like this, he thought massaging the shoulder.

“Mrs. Smith!” he called standing up and stretching out to his full six-foot height. No sound except Jake munching on something in his stall. “Mrs. Smith?” he called again surveying the barn. He quickly strolled to the big horse’s stall and looked into it. Her dress and shoes were gone and so were both of her bags.

“I swear I’ll kill her,” he vowed snatching up his gunbelt from where it lay on the floor. “Dang fool…”

“Not so fast there, Mr. Smith,” Horace the station manager appeared in the doorway. He had a shotgun in his hands and appeared to be targeting Ben with it.

Oh-oh. Ben just knew this had to be the handiwork of one pretty little schoolteacher. “Where is Mrs.…?” he stammered, holding the gun belt out to his side to show the man that he did not intend to use it.

“The little lady hopped on the first stage headed for Fallon about 20 minutes ago,” the old man drawled glaring at Ben. “Poor thing was carrying on about what a brute you were and what a mistake she made marrying you after only knowing you for one day.”

“Listen, Horace, “Ben took a step back. “That’s not true. I didn’t even touch…”

“I don’t cotton to men who abuse little women, ‘specially one that is as sweet and innocent as your little Mrs.,” the station manager scowled at him.

“Take my word, Horace. She is neither sweet nor innocent,” Ben insisted keeping his eye on the man’s face and the barrel of the shotgun at the same time. “I appreciate the information and I promise I’ll let her know about your concern when I catch up with her,” he made a move toward putting on his gunbelt.

“Hold on there, Mr. Smith. Before you go running off anywhere, you owe me $5! Pay up or your honeymoon ends right here and now,” the stage manager pointed the double barrels of his shotgun at Ben’s nether regions.

Ben gulped, his eyes wandering down to Horace’s chosen target, and considered the all too real possibility that he like Jake might not be interested in any female anymore if he wasn’t careful.

“How did you get to $5?” he asked smiling agreeably.

“That’s 6 bits for your monster horse,” Horace motioned to Jake who was contently chewing on what Ben thought had to be half a haystack. “6 bits for you and your Mrs. …”

“…She is not my Mrs.….”

“You said she was last night…” Horace looked confused.

“Never mind,” Ben began to reach in his pocket.

“And $3.50 for her stage ticket. She said you would pay…”

“Of course she did,” Ben mumbled.

“…so that totals up to …”

“…$5.00. Here, that cleans me out,” Ben handed the money to the man with his left hand while cautiously pushing the shotgun barrel away from him with his right. “You said Fallon, right?” he strapped on his gunbelt and moved to retrieve his ‘monster’ horse.

“Yep,” the station manager turned to leave but turned back. “By the way, Mr. Smith…”

Ben stopped in mid track.

“She told me to tell you that she never wants to see you again.”

“The feeling’s mutual I can assure you!” he yelled and moved into the stall.

“Sorry, Jake,” Ben patted the black gelding’s muzzle as he arranged the harness hardware over his head. “We’ve got to go after that dang fool woman again.”

Jake whinnied and shook his big head, clearly annoyed that Ben was interrupting his breakfast.

“Listen, at least you got to watch her undress,” he said leading the horse out of the barn.

*****

“Something wrong there, partner?” the stage driver yelled down to the tall gray haired rancher who managed to get his attention.

“I’m here to retrieve your passenger!” Ben yelled up to him as he drove along side the stage. “It seems she made a mistake and does not really want to go to Fallon, sir!” he thought it best to be polite since he was interfering with the schedule of a public conveyance.

The driver looked him up and down. He turned to have a brief discussion with the guard on his right. The guard shrugged. The driver then signaled Ben and brought the stagecoach to a slow steady halt. Ben grinned, thinking to himself that he might have had a future as a hold-up man, and stopped Jake and the buckboard exactly at a place so he could easily talk to the driver and guard.

“Driver, what I do is none of this man’s business!” Amanda stuck her head out of the coach window.

“Hello, darling,” Ben took off his hat and smiled sweetly across at Mrs. Healey. “I’ve come to take you back home.” No hint of temper was revealed in his tone.

“Didn’t you get the message that I never wanted to see you again, you impossible man?” she glared at him.

“I know you don’t mean that, sweetheart,” Ben said calmly. “Driver?” he stood up in the buckboard and crooked his finger at the man. “Could I talk to you privately for a minute, please?”

The driver glanced again at the guard who shrugged again but nevertheless leaned over so Ben could engage him in confidential tones.

“Don’t listen to anything he says, driver!” Mrs. Healey warned. “He’s a big liar even though he’ll tell you he isn’t and a deranged lunatic who claims to be married to me and has been trying to drag me off to Virginia City where I don’t want to go for two days now!” she held up two fingers.

The driver chuckled, reached behind him to retrieve Mrs. Healey’s luggage and handed it down to Ben.

She banged her fist on the side of the coach in exasperation and pulled her head back inside the stage.

“Just get a move on, mister,” the driver drawled as Ben secured Amanda’s bags in the buckboard. “We’ve got a schedule to keep.”

“If you help him, you’ll be an accomplice to a kidnapping!” she shrieked as Ben wrenched open the coach door, jumped in and took her by the shoulders, lifting her slightly out of her seat.

“Listen, young lady, and listen good,” Ben shook her staring her straight in her blue eyes. “This is the last straw. If you don’t come along with me right now, you’re going to wish that you had never heard the name Ben Cartwright.” Even though he was whispering, the murderous intent in his tone was clearly evident.

“I already wish it!” she shot back at him, her eyes flashing.

He took a deep breath and let it out in an effort to calm himself down. When he got a grip on his temper, he continued. “Madam, just in case you are still having trouble deciding, I have one word for you: PRISON,” he released her shoulders and set her back down in her seat hard.

She stared at him in shock. PRISON? She mouthed the word, turning its implications over in her head.

While she seemed to be temporarily paralyzed by his one word, Ben grabbed her arm, stepped out of the stage and dragged her after him.

“Everything work out fine, folks?” the stage driver called down to the two as Ben took Amanda by the elbow and led her to Jake and the buckboard.

“For now, yes,” Ben smiled up at the old man as he helped her up into the seat.

“A word of advice from an old married man, Mr. Smith,” the guard rested his rifle across his knee. “A firm hand applied in the right place just might be the answer to your ‘problems,” he indicated the petite blonde with a nod of his head.

“Humph!” she sniffed and turned her back to Ben and the men.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Ben climbed up on the seat beside her, clucked to the big black horse and steered the buckboard out of the way of the stagecoach and back toward Virginia City.

*****

About two miles down the road, Ben had to say something to Amanda or he would have burst. “I have never been angrier with anyone in my whole life!” he was steaming. “The only reason that I don’t blister your backside right now is because you’ve got to be able to sit down to get to Virginia City!” he glanced over at Mrs. Healey. “So what do you have to say for yourself, young lady?”

“You lied!” she turned toward him and yelled right in his ear.

“What?!?!” he yelled right back at her.

“You just told those people back there we were married!”

“Desperate times call for desperate measures, Madam!” he told her in very measured tones. “Anyway, that was a small one compared to all of the whoppers you’ve told me since I met you!”

“I am not talking to you, Mr. Cartwright!” she sniffed haughtily.

“I’ll bet,” Ben muttered to himself. “What did your late husband teach you about fraud, Madam?”

She did not respond verbally. Instead she folded her arms across her chest and glared at him.

“I should have known that you would have been deficient in that piece of information since you are so skilled at twisting the truth,” his insult was calculated to make her answer. It worked, sort of.

“I know what fraud is, Mr. Cartwright,” the petite blonde said evenly. “You just continued to perpetrate one a few minutes ago with…”

“Then you must know what the usual punishment is…” he interrupted her, ignoring her reference to him.

“Under New York State law, one to three years with time off for good behavior,” she ticked off the sentence by rote.

“Which I wouldn’t count on if I were you,” Ben added sarcastically.

“Humph! I’m not talking to you,” she turned her back on him again.

“You already said that,” he reminded her angrily.

Two minutes passed during which time he counted to 10, oh, 20 or more times by his estimation. It didn’t help. Finally, he cleared his throat and continued. “Madam, my first suggestion at your trial would be to lock you up and throw away the key. Then, I’d tell the court that solitary confinement and a diet of bread and water would be in order.”

“That sort of thing is not done anymore, Mr. Cartwright. It’s obvious you know nothing about the law,” she told him emphatically, still not looking at him.

“Well, I’m going to suggest it anyway!” he was even more emphatic than she was in his tone. “You’ve got to be taught a lesson, Mrs. Schoolteacher, that you cannot take money under false pretenses!”

“What do you mean ‘false pretenses,’ Mr. Cartwright?” This time Mrs. Healey twisted around to address him.

Ben looked at her in astonishment. “Surely you’re not going to tell me that you didn’t take the teaching position under false pretenses now, are you?”

Amanda took a deep breath, stood up slightly, grabbed the sides of his head with both hands and turned him to face her. “I did not take the teaching position under false pretenses,” she looked him straight in his dark brown eyes. She then released him sitting back down. “You see, Mr. School Board Member…”

“…President…” he muttered.

“…Excuse me, President,” she corrected. “And non-lawyer,” she slipped into her educator mode, “Under the terms of our contract which you pointed out so proudly that YOU drafted,” she poked him in the forearm with her finger to emphasize YOU.

Ben looked up to heaven for strength.

“…I do not officially start to work for the Virginia City School until the first day of school. I believe you said that that was two weeks,” she waved two fingers in front of his nose, “From yesterday.”

“You said you were canceling the contract because there was no time period in which you had to cancel it nor was there any penalty for cancellation, didn’t you?” Ben’s blood pressure was ready to reach an all time high.

Mr. Healey looked at him and smirked. “Is there anything left in your picnic basket, Mr. Cartwright?” she suddenly remembered that she had not had breakfast and turned to kneel on the seat to reach in the back of the buckboard for the food.

In this position, the petite blonde presented a tempting target for him to vent his anger and frustration in a way that had been threatened by him and at least twice in the last two days had been suggested to him by others. He pulled back his right hand and poised it over her derriere. It took all his intestinal fortitude not to do it. He reluctantly returned his hand to Jake’s reins, took a deep breath and calmly asked her to please respond to his last question.

“My dear Mr. Cartwright,” she handed him an apple, “I simply changed my mind about canceling the contract. Furthermore, I cannot be charged with taking money under false pretenses until I fail to report on the first day of school and I now plan to report. Finally, paragraph X,” she used both hands to indicate the number this time, “Of the agreement provides that all notices, additions, alterations and modifications to the contract had to be in writing. So there really was no way for me to cancel the contract except in writing and you would have had to, of course, agree to accept my cancellation also in writing which you did not.” She gave him a superior smile, sat back down on the seat and took a bite of her apple.

Ben was flabbergasted. I should have swatted you when I had the chance. “Are you telling now that there was no way you could cancel the contract after all?” he said angrily tossing his apple away in a fit of temper and glowered at her.

Mrs. Healey was the one to look at him in astonishment this time. “Mr. Cartwright, that was a perfectly good apple. If you didn’t want it, I’m sure Jake would have liked to have it!” she scolded him like he was one of her misbehaving pupils.

Ben was taken aback by her chiding tone. At the sound of his name, the big horse shook his head and neighed as if he too was rebuking his owner.

“Benedict Arnold,” he mumbled to Jake under his breath. He turned back to Amanda. “Answer me, Madam, before I change MY mind and decide that you don’t necessarily have to be able to sit down to get to Virginia City,” his tone deepened dangerously.

“I just told you I couldn’t cancel the contract, Mr. Cartwright! Are you sure you’re not hard of hearing?” she teased him.

“You mean to tell me that I have been chasing after you for two days to get you to fulfill your contract and you’re now telling me you’re ready to do just that?”

“Isn’t that’s what I just said?”

This time Ben decided to count out loud to “…Ten. Could you be good enough to tell me why you told me you were canceling the contract in the first place?”

“As I said before, Mr. Cartwright, it’s really none of your business but if you must know, I planned to take a little vacation before I started my new position.”

“And you dragged me into your ‘little vacation’?” he roared.

“I didn’t ask you to come along with me, you impossible man!” she laughed at him. “It’s your own dumb fault! Honestly, are you a professional busy body who enjoys poking your nose into other people’s business or just mine?”

“You’re just asking for a spanking, aren’t you, young lady?” he growled in her direction.

“You know,” she tossed the apple core nonchalantly away, “I’ve known you for less than two days and you’ve already threatened me with physical harm no less than five times,” she turned and held up her gloved hand in front of his face to emphasize each number with her fingers. “Do you generally threaten to beat women to get them to come around to your archaic way of thinking or is it just me?”

Ben abruptly stopped the buckboard and grabbed her hand that was obscuring his view. “Only you, three wives who have passed away, and spoiled little brats, which brings me back to you,” he looked her straight in the eye. “And, for your information, I only threaten for so long then I do.”

“Do what?” She ventured to ask but his glare spoke volumes clarifying his answer to her question.

“If I were you, little girl, I’d be on my best behavior because you never know when I might ‘do.’” He then released her hand and urged Jake forward again.

She gulped. No one had ever dared to call her little girl since her late husband did and when he did, she knew she was in deep trouble. She took a quick glance at Ben and immediately concluded that she was and he might ‘do’ any minute. Her best bet was to mend a few fences as fast as she could.

*****

Ben was lost in his thoughts. They had traveled in silence for almost an hour. What had started out as a gray overcast day had turned into one that was warm and bright, a few large fluffy clouds occasionally hiding the sun. Finally his stomach’s growling had gotten the best of him and he had decided for better or worse, the three of them needed to stop, rest and get something to eat. He had unhitched Jake and tethered him within reach of a patch of green grass and a slow moving stream. While he had been busy with the big gelding, Amanda had taken the picnic basket and the canteen under the shade of a huge pine tree. She had spread out a dark gray blanket that had been in the back of the buckboard, sat down and unpacked what remained of the feast that Mr. Cartwright’s cook had put together the morning before. The meal was simple, cold beans, jerky, cheese, bread and thin vanilla cookies but it filled the void. Now the two of them were sitting side by side on the blanket, their backs to the tree watching Jake destroy the grass.

“That horse surely can eat,” Amanda observed, breaking the silence. She stifled a yawn, took off her hat and placed it carefully beside her.

“If you think he can eat, you ought to see Hoss,” Ben moved forward on the blanket and began to gather up the picnic stuff. As he finished putting everything into the basket, he turned to look at the petite schoolteacher. She certainly is a pretty little thing, he decided as he folded up the white linen napkins that Hop Sing had used to wrap the food and placed them on top of the basket.

“Hoss?” she yawned again, unfastened the closures of her blue velvet coat and set the coat down next to her hat. “Who’s Hoss? Jake’s brother?”

He laughed. “Sometimes I think so but no, Hoss is my son Eric,” he explained sitting down beside her again. “His nickname is Hoss. You met him in Carson City. He and that horse can match each other bite for bite,” Ben watched as she undid the top two buttons of her white blouse. “And I should know since I pay for both of their feed bills,” he chuckled.

“Oh,” she turned that bit of information over in her mind. “Ah, Mr. Cartwright,” she glanced at him cautiously.

He raised his eyebrows in response.

“Do you think the Indians have my horses?”

He frowned at her, not wishing to restart an argument between the two of them at the moment. “Madam, we are not going after those dam…. darn horses,” he unbuttoned his shirt cuffs and neatly folded each of them up twice.

“I wasn’t going to ask you to,” she insisted yawning for a third time. “I was just worried about whether anyone was taking care of them, that’s all,” she closed her big blue eyes and settled back against the tree’s rough bark.

Ben studied her briefly as he took off his hat and laid it on the grass beside him. “I wouldn’t worry,” he too yawned. “I’m sure the Indians got them, Mrs. Healey,” he leaned back closing his eyes too. “They’ll take good care of them so don’t worry,” he yawned again. “To them, a good horse is more valuable than a woman,” he gently teased as he drifted off to sleep.

“Oh, really, Mr. Cartwright,” her eyes flew open and she sat straight up glaring at him. “Well, if that’s what you think, I’ll rescind my cancellation right this minute!”

He did not respond.

“Mr. Cartwright?” she anxiously leaned over to examine him closely to see if he was still breathing. She was relieved to note the steady rising and falling of his broad chest and the soft deep snoring that she surmised came from the same place as his booming voice did. He was really quite handsome when he wasn’t scowling, frowning, bellowing, dictating or threatening. I could almost get to like him, she decided yawning, leaning back against the pine and watching Jake uproot a small tree with his teeth. Soon she too was asleep.

*****

Joe couldn’t believe his eyes. He pulled on Cochise’s reins and brought the pinto to an abrupt stop. He squinted, closed his eyes and opened them again. Jake? He drew his gun and scanned the area for his father since he left the day before with the gelding and the buckboard for Carson City. He saw the buckboard off to the left of the big black horse but no Pa. He frowned. “Let’s find Pa, Coochie,” he patted his mount’s neck and kicked her gently in her sides with his heels.

Joe held Cochise to a slow pace, the gun still in his hand. He cautiously checked in all directions as he proceeded forwarded. It was strange how Jake was just standing there as if he was watching someone or something on the ground close by him. Suddenly the black gelding raised up and came up holding something in his mouth that looked like a white flag of surrender. He turned to his left, dropped it and swung back again. He repeated the same movement and came up with another white cloth.

Joe was really puzzled. The horse again dropped the cloth to his left and for a third time reached for something on the ground.

Joe reholstered his gun. “What the devil are you up to, you big hayburner?” he alighted from Cochise and began walking toward Jake pulling his pinto after him.

The horse hearing their approach turned his attention to them with what Joe could finally identify as one of Hop Sing’s good linen napkins clutched in his teeth. Recognizing one of his owners and his pretty little stable mate, Jake brightened and shook the napkin in a greeting.

Joe sniggered at the big horse’s antics and at what appeared to be the remains of a meal strewn on the grass to Jake’s left. Somehow the basket which was slightly mangled from Jake no doubt trying to eat it was still sitting upright on a blanket three feet from … Joe blinked his eyes. He shook his head to clear his vision… a little blonde woman nuzzled up contently against his father. Both were asleep. Her head was rested slightly on his right shoulder and her right hand was holding onto his gunbelt buckle. His father’s right arm circled her protectively.

Cochise and Jake looked at each other and then studied Joe as he considered what might be the best way for him to profit from the scene they had before them. Even the horses knew how Joe’s brain worked. This’ll be good, they both decided watching the youngest Cartwright’s face go through at least fifty different contortions as he thought over his options.

After a few minutes of contemplation, Joe grinned, dropped Cochise’s reins and eased himself down on the grass beside Ben. “Psst, Pa?” he whispered into his father’s left ear. “Pa?” he sent a slight nudge to Ben’s ribcage.

“Huh?” Ben opened one eye and looked at his youngest son. “Is it morning yet?” he asked sleepily.

“No, but…”

“Go back to sleep, Joe,” he closed his eye again.

Joe suppressed a laugh. “Ah, Pa…I hate to pry…”

“Then don’t,” his father told him gruffly.

“Pa, what are you doing here?” Joe was insistent.

“Trying to sleep. Can’t you tell that, Joseph?” he muttered slightly irritated.

“Well, then, if I may ask, who’s the pretty little lady sleeping next to you?”

“Who…?” Ben squinted at his youngest, then at the two horses that seemed to be staring at him.

Joe cocked his head and motioned with his eyes toward Mrs. Healey who was stirring slightly. The horses also turned their heads to look at the schoolteacher.

Through half closed eyes, Ben nonchalantly looked to his right at Amanda. He noted her head on his shoulder, then looked down to her hand’s position on his gunbelt so near to and just above his…His dark eyes opened wide as his brain woke up and realized the impropriety of their sleeping position. He quickly recovered, hoping that Joe had not caught his reaction.

Joe, of course, could not help but notice it but somehow kept it to himself. Jake was not as successful and let out a horselaugh. Cochise wisely kept her peace. Ben glowered at all three of them but it had no effect on any of them.

“Our new schoolteacher,” he whispered back to his son and gently tried to remove Amanda’s hand.

“Oh, I see,” Joe nodded leaning back against the tree and putting his hands behind his head. “Were you this chummy with any of my teachers, Pa?” he teased snickering softly.

“Joseph…”

Even though he was whispering, Joe knew that tone and straightened up abruptly. So did Jake and Cochise.

“Please stop growling at the handsome young man, Mr. Cartwright, and introduce us,” Mrs. Healey stretched and sat up rubbing her big blue eyes.

Ben frowned at her but complied with her request. “This ‘handsome young man,’ Madam, is my youngest son, Joseph. Joseph, this is Mrs. Amanda Healey, our new schoolteacher.”

Instantly Joe decided that he liked her especially if she could get away with using that kind of tone with his father. “Please to meet you, ma’am,” Joe took off his hat, gave her one of his most winning smiles and extended his right hand to her.

Mrs. Healey looked at him critically taking his hand. “Likewise, Joseph.”

Joe chuckled to himself looking at her hand in his and thinking about where it had recently been.

Ben knowing like the horses how Joe’s brain worked cleared his throat sharply as a warning that his offspring should not pursue the topic at ‘hand,’ so to speak.

If Amanda knew what the exchange between father and son was all about, she successfully ignored it. “Is he the equivocator or the prevaricator, Mr. Cartwright?” she addressed Ben still holding on to Joe’s hand.

Ben glanced at Joe who was totally perplexed by the comment, smiled to himself and then turned back to Amanda. “The prevaricator.”

“Prevaricator?” Joe mumbled looking confused.

“Your father means you’re the type of liar who tends to try to confuse the issue to evade the truth, Joseph,” Amanda slipped into her teacher role.

“Who me?” Joe tried to look innocent as she finally released her hold on him.

Ben, Jake and even his beloved Cochise all stared at him in amazement with this remark.

“Prevaricator,” she agreed smiling at Ben.

“Yes, you!” Ben told him emphatically getting to his feet and hauling Joe up with him. “What are you doing here anyway?”

“I saw Jake and thought you might need some help,” he took his pinto by the bridle so he was all set if he had to make a fast get away.

“Well, now that you mention it…” Ben pulled Joe and Cochise along after him out of earshot of Amanda. “Do you have any money on you?”

His youngest blinked at him. This was the question he always asked his father. “Well, um, all I’ve got is my lucky dollar.”

Ben smiled. Joe had had that coin since he was eight years old and no one in the family would ever dream to ask him to part with it. “Well, that’s okay, son. But you could do me a favor and ride ahead to reserve a room for Mrs. Healey at the International House. Tell the proprietor that I will settle up with him on Monday.”

“You’ll do no such thing, Joseph,” the little blonde interrupted. She went over to the buckboard, rummaged through her valise and pulled out a dark blue bag with a drawstring. “I insist on paying for my own room,” she said pulling open the purse and handing Joe a 20-dollar gold piece.

Ben was stunned. She had money?!?

“Oh, and be sure to reserve it for at least a week. It will probably take me that long to find a little house to buy in town. And,” she smiled up at him. “If there’s anything left over, you may consider it yours for the errand.”

“Gee, thanks, ma’am,” Joe grinned broadly as he watched his father slowly count to ten, his hands on his hips all the while glaring at Mrs. Healey. Boy, was he glad that glare wasn’t directed at him.

“I thought you told me that you didn’t have any money left, young lady?” Ben said through clenched teeth.

“Really, Mr. Cartwright,” she laughed, closing the drawstring disrespectfully under his nose and throwing the bag over her shoulder casually. “You ARE hard of hearing…”

Joe noted with amusement that Ben had to bend back to stop from being struck in the chin with her purse.

“…I told you that I didn’t have any of YOUR money left. You never asked me if I had any other money,” she started toward the buckboard to return her purse.

“Then, Mrs. Healey,” Ben was still trying to get a grip on his very fragile temper, “If you had money all along, why did you keep having me pay for things when you knew I…”

“I had to slow you down some way, you impossible man,” she giggled putting the bag back into the valise and rearranging its contents.

Impossible man? This from someone who had her hand on…Joe was still trying to figure this all out.

Ben’s counting to ten again interrupted his thoughts.

“Prevaricator?” Joe asked his father innocently.

“Equivocator,” Ben took a deep breath.

Again Joe looked confused.

“She lies by omission,” Ben explained putting his hand to his forehead in an effort to calm himself. “She only tells you pieces of the story.”

“Oh, like Adam?” Joe decided putting his foot into the stirrup and hoisting himself up into the saddle.

“Worse!” Ben glowered.

“Oh,” Joe’s mouth formed the shape of the word as the petite schoolteacher rejoined them.

“One more thing, Joseph,” Ben grabbed Cochise by the bridle when it looked like Joe was ready to say his good-byes and dash. “Please make sure there’s a whole lot of really soft pillows in that room. Mrs. Healey’s gonna need them by the end of the day,” he looked meaningfully at her and then back to his son.

Amanda was slightly taken aback by another ‘veiled threat to beat her’ but pretended she didn’t hear him anyway. “Thank you, Joseph. I hope to see you in Virginia City later.”

Joe took a final look at his father’s very angry face and smirked. “I hope to SEE you too, ma’am,” he briefly touched the brim of his hat in a farewell gesture. “Good luck to both of you!” he rolled his eyes at them, nudged the pinto with his heels gently and was gone.

Mrs. Healey also took one look at Joe’s father’s very angry face and decided that she had best put some space between her and him very quickly.

When Ben took a deep breath, opened his mouth and had his right index finger poised ready to deliver a scathing lecture to the little blonde, she saw her opening. “Don’t you think we ought to get moving, Mr. Cartwright?” She scooted under his right arm toward the wreckage of the picnic meal, dropped to her knees on the blanket and began repacking the surviving items in the battered basket.

Likewise noticing his ‘very angry face,’ Jake sized up the situation and threw his big body in front of Ben to block his pursuit of Mrs. Healey.

Ben swore to himself and tried to move around Jake’s front but Jake advanced forward cutting him off again. He then tried to navigate around Jake’s backside but again the big horse maneuvered himself to impede his progress. Finally, Ben’s patience with the horse’s horseplay came to an end. “How’d you like to be glue, big fella?” He grabbed Jake by his noseband and looked him straight in the eye.

Jake was momentarily stunned and allowed Ben to slip by him.

“What a terrible thing to say, Mr. Cartwright!” Amanda chided looking up at him. “It’s a wonder you didn’t threaten to beat him too,” she tried to pull the blanket toward her to fold it up but found Mr. Cartwright’s right foot along with the rest of him holding it down to the ground.

“I find my threats have as much effect on him as they do on you, Madam,” Ben smirked, stooping slightly to taunt her.

She frowned down at his foot.

Finally Ben thought he might have a chance of winning one little battle with her. “Having a problem, Mrs. Healey?” he teased and repositioned both of his feet on the blanket to secure what he thought was an even better advantage for him against her.

Undeterred, she released the blanket, got a bigger and better grip on it with both hands and pulled on it with all her might. It still would not budge. She glared up at him, again released her hold on the covering and tried to figure out the best thing for her to do to wipe that silly smirk off his face short of physical violence toward him.

Ben couldn’t help it but he howled at her look of irritation and slapped his right hand against his thigh. After what she had put him through, he was pleased with any victory over her even if it was a small one.

Meanwhile, the big horse having recovered from the ‘glue’ comment had casually moved just behind Amanda and was watching their little contest of wills with great interest, especially since he wouldn’t have minded a bit if he were allowed to join in the fun. Then Jake noticed Ben’s action with his right hand. Something snapped inside him. Immediately, he moved forward, reached down, grabbed the blanket with his teeth, dug in his front hooves and yanked it forcibly toward him with a twist of his big head.

Ben was caught totally off guard and both literally and figuratively flatfooted and off balance. Even his substantial heft was no match for the big horse’s strength and he went flying backward landing on the grass hard with a thud. He later swore he saw Orion and the Big Dipper as he lay there trying to regain his breath. He also swore to give another good talking-to to his youngest for teaching Jake what his eldest referred to as the ‘Trojan Horse.’

Jake himself seemed momentarily surprised that the trick didn’t work the way it was supposed to and he ended up with the blanket but was happy nonetheless since he now had something to play with. Normally all he got was an apple.

“Oh, Ben,” Amanda was instantly down on her hands and knees beside him feeling his forehead. “Are you all right? Speak to me, Ben!”

“You wouldn’t want to hear what I have to say, Madam,” Ben groaned shaking his head to clear it and sitting up with a little assistance from the petite blonde.

She sniffed, all of her concern for the impossible man evaporating. “Based on that comment, I guess you’re not hurt that much, Mr. Cartwright,” she decided getting to her feet. She then turned toward the big black horse who was gleefully whipping the blanket around for all he was worth.

“Shame on you, Jake!” the little schoolteacher put her hands on her hips and looked sternly at the gelding that still had the blanket in his mouth.

Ben noted in amazement that the big horse immediately stopped what he was doing, looked sheepish – a real trick for an equine—and relinquished possession of the cover to Mrs. Healey.

She shook it out and folded it all the while scolding Jake. Jake’s reaction to her rebuke, however, seemed to prove out Ben’s comment to her concerning the impact of his threats on either her or the horse. She silently and just a bit begrudgingly agreed with Ben.

Jake snorted, rolled his big brown eyes at her and ambled over toward the buckboard to wait for his traveling companions and maybe clean the blanket fuzz out of his teeth with a pine bough or two. The blanket was fun for a while but an apple sure would have been tastier.

“I just can’t imagine why that horse would behave that way,” she shook her head as she watched him make mincemeat out of a branch.

“I can,” Ben said also studying Jake. “Here,” he took the blanket from her. “Let’s see if I can show you,” he laid it out on the grass again near the black gelding. He then went to the buckboard and reached into a bucket that was secured to the back of the seat, pulled something out and put it into his right pants pocket. “Come here and sit down right there,” he pointed to a spot on the blanket as he himself took up a reclining position on the other side.

She looked at him suspiciously but nonetheless complied.

“Comfy?” he asked as she too settled herself down on the cover facing him.

She nodded. “So are you going to show me why Jake did what he did?’

“Eventually,” he took a deep breath. “I hate to admit it but Jake knows a trick that was taught to him by the ‘handsome young man’ for – how should I put it? – for courting purposes.”

Mrs. Healey looked confused.

“I don’t know how long Jake’s known it or how many times my sons have used Jake’s talent to their advantage but I want you to know I don’t condone its use. When I saw it, I of course was shocked and chastised my oldest son for using it.”

“Using what, Mr. Cartwright?” she was getting impatient listening to his explanation.

“The Trojan Horse,” Ben smirked.

“Excuse me?”

“I’ve only seen it used once,” he continued, “But I think I know how it works. Are you ready to see if I’m right?”

“Sure, why not?” she sighed heavily, shaking her head.

“Okay,” he smiled as he caught Jake’s attention with a wave, slapped his right thigh and waited.

Sure enough Jake got the message, grabbed the edge of the blanket near Amanda, and jerked it as he did before sending the little schoolteacher flying into Ben’s waiting arms.

“I guess that was how it works,” his dark eyes twinkled mischievously as he looked into Amanda’s very surprised blue eyes. “Anyway, I flew backwards the way I did because I was standing up while you ended up….” He paused glancing down at her ample bosom that was partially revealed thanks to her unbuttoning of her top two blouse buttons. Her skin was so milky white and she felt so soft, so warm, so inviting in his arms. His pulse raced. He felt like a schoolboy. In fact, he thought slowly coming to his senses, he was acting like one.

Their closeness seemed to be having an unsettling effect on Mrs. Healey too. Ben noticed that she appeared to be having trouble breathing. The petite blonde came to her senses before he did, however.

“Let me go, you libertine!” she found her voice and her right hand found the left side of Ben’s face.

Ben swallowed hard, frowned at her and released her. Amanda lost no time in rolling off Mr. Cartwright and scrambling to her feet.

Jake whinnied. He could have told Ben that that sort of thing happened at least 50% of the time to the boys. He then remembered his treat for his performance, walked over to Ben and gently nudged him with his muzzle.

“That’s right,” Ben also remembered and reached into his right pants pocket. “Here you go,” he tossed the big horse the crabapple. “I guess you earned it. I just wonder how many other little tricks you know.”

The big horse swallowed the apple in one gulp and looked for the life of Ben like he was smirking at him.

Ben shook his head not knowing if he was suffering from the effects of his fall or his encounter with the little schoolteacher or both. He slowly stood up just in case.

“Harrumph,” Amanda who had been silently watching the ‘Trojan Horse’ and his master snatched up the blanket from the ground and tossed it into the buckboard not bothering to fold it at all.

Ben noted this with some amusement as he led the gelding by the tether to be harnessed.

She noted his amusement and became even more upset with him, thinking to herself that his ignorance of why Jake had done what he done was all an act. With an air of righteous indignation, she marched over to the tree that they had been picnicking under, buttoning the top two buttons of her blouse as she went. She pulled on and meticulously fastened all of the buttons on her blue velvet coat and picked up her hat. She turned back toward the buckboard and there lying on the ground unprotected she discovered his hat.

Revenge will be oh so sweet, she thought picking it up with her other hand and scrunching its brim tightly as she marched back to the buckboard. Carelessly, she tossed it on the seat and promptly put her heaviest and biggest valise on it with more than a little force. She then pulled a hand mirror out of her bag, straightened her hairdo and topped it off with her blue velvet hat. Before she replaced the bag in the back of the buckboard, she managed ‘accidentally’ to drop it, oh, maybe five or six times on top of Ben’s Stetson. By the time she was satisfied with the vengeance she had reeked on his hat and was ready to travel so were Ben and Jake.

Ben was stunned when he started to climb aboard and found what was left of his hat. Jake? He thought but discarded that notion when he realized that the Stetson was in perfect condition when he awoke and the big horse had not been anywhere near it since then. Hmmm… He glared at her accusingly.

She ignored his glare.

Ben grumbled to himself something that could not be said to a lady, then tried to reshape the hat. When he had it looking more or less like it was supposed to, he put it on his head and sank down wearily onto the buckboard seat. “Do you think we could call a truce until we get to Virginia City?”

“I’m not the enemy, Mr. Cartwright,” she sniffed indignantly, sticking her nose in the air. “And we are not at war.”

“You could have fooled me,” he muttered under his breath.

“What’s that supposed to mean, Mr. Cartwright?” she demanded, all of her anger at the impossible man returning.

“It’s going to be a long afternoon,” Ben thought as she launched into a tirade of what was wrong with men in general and him in particular.

By the time they reached a point at about ten miles from Virginia City, full-scale combat had broken out between the two once more but at a whole new level. All the squabbles, insults and threats of the last two days were relived and rehashed in minute detail.

Even Jake was tired of the fighting after listening to them for half an hour and seriously considered using the Missouri Mule Maneuver to distract them. He mulled it over, however, and realized he would just be prolonging the time that he would have to listen to them quarrel and compromising his own goal of the livery stable and food. He decided that the Runaway Wagon was his only option. He reached down deep inside of him, summoned up all his strength and willed himself to break all land speed records to get Mr. Cartwright and Mrs. Healey to their destination as fast as he could. At least with the wind whipping in his ears at the increased speed, he heard less of the arguing.

Ben was just about to make another ‘threat’ toward Amanda when he noticed out of the corner of his eye that the scenery was passing by a little bit too quickly. He looked at the big black gelding to make sure his eyes weren’t deceiving him. Sure enough, Jake was actually galloping at a dangerous pace and the next stretch of road was downhill. He pulled back sharply on the reins and even tried to signal Jake to slow down by flipping them.

“…And another thing, Mr. Cartwright,” Mrs. Healey was leaning forward looking him straight in the eye and poking him in the chest with her index finger. “I find it absolutely appalling that…”

In a split second, Ben decided between two choices to get the little blonde out of his face: push her to the other side of the seat where she might fall off or…

“Let me go, you impos…!” she screamed and struggled as he put his right arm around her waist and dragged her unceremoniously onto his lap.

“Hold on tight!” he ordered gesturing with his head toward the horse and bracing his feet against the buckboard’s footboard while he grappled with the reins.

Amanda stopped struggling as she too noticed the world swiftly going by, looked at Jake, then at the expression on Ben’s face and decided this was indeed a time when she should listen to him and not argue. Without another word, she closed her eyes, put her head against his chest and wrapped herself tightly around him.

Ben was amazed that she had actually obeyed him but quickly recovered, focusing on stopping what he thought was an out of control horse. “Whoaaaahhh, Jake!!! Whoaaaahhh!!!” he yanked back hard on the reins. “Whoaaaahhh!!!”

The big black who had been oblivious to Ben’s commands suddenly realized that the noisy quarrel had ended. He looked back to see Ben and Amanda clutching each other not unlike the times when he had observed Joe and at least fifteen girls in a similar position when he did this trick.

It worked again, Jake thought smugly slowing his pace and happily flipping his tail. And what an actor that Pa is, he glanced back again. He looks as afraid as she does. The big gelding shook his head and rolled his eyes. And he wonders where the boys get it from! He finally came to a stop on top of a patch of green grass at the side of the road to treat himself to a little reward for his hard work, quick thinking and horse sense.

“Thank you, God,” Ben heaved a sigh of relief, shifted the reins to his left hand, closed his eyes and hugged Amanda for all he was worth. He hated to admit it but that scared the life out of him. He could only imagine what Mrs. Healey must be going through since she did not even try to protest their closeness.

Unbeknownst to Ben, Amanda was thanking God herself not for saving them but that Jake had done what he did. She knew she was in big trouble with Ben and, by endangering their lives, the big black horse had saved her hide so to speak. She owed him – Jake, not Ben – a big kiss for that. Ben, in spite of his heroics, still had not earned that reward in her opinion but he was getting really close. She did believe he deserved a chance to boost his male ego by thinking he was comforting her in some way by holding onto her, however. Why not? She decided. At least he isn’t trying to tell me what to do.

*****

It was about five miles outside of Virginia City and Adam was whistling happily, headed to town with the carriage pulled by Hank, a horse as big as Jake but a few years older. Through ingenuity and persistence, Adam had managed to locate enough loose change in his room and around the house to pass a little time at the Bucket of Blood before he tried to wheedle a dinner invitation from and, if he was lucky, a moonlight ride with a certain brunette young lady who was visiting her aunt. He stopped in mid-whistle. “It couldn’t be….Not again,” he mumbled spying his father and Jake pulled along the side of the road about 300 feet ahead of him.But where was the schoolteacher? He strained to see if he could tell if anything was wrong. He slowed Hank’s pace and pulled beside Jake and the buckboard.

He was totally taken aback by the sight he beheld. He chuckled and then decided to sit and wait for Ben or the little blonde he was holding in his lap to discover him.

It took about a minute for the hair on the back of Ben’s neck to stand up like it did whenever he sensed danger. Not wanting to alarm Amanda, he opened one eye to find his oldest son — chin resting in his hand — studying them with great interest. He also glanced at Jake and found the big horse was studying them too.

“You finally managed to catch up with the schoolteacher, huh, Pa?” Adam smirked looking across at his father and the woman. “And by the looks of things, you don’t want to have to catch up with her again.”

Ben and Amanda both looked at him in a panicky sort of way, then at each other and then back at Adam. In an instant, she released her hold on him and he gently slid her back on the seat beside him.

“If you must know, we were both nearly killed by Jake getting it in his head that we were in some kind of race,” Ben straightened in the seat and tried to assume an air of parental authority. “No doubt it had something to do with one of the tricks that you boys taught him,” he frowned disapprovingly at Adam.

“Sounds like the Runaway Wagon,” his eldest son laughed climbing down from the carriage and giving the big black gelding a pat on his neck. He whispered something into Jake’s ear.

Jake immediately sniggered and took whatever it was that Adam had in his hand.

Frowning at his eldest, Ben decided to move this along. “Mrs. Healey, I’d like you to meet my oldest son, Adam. Adam, Mrs. Amanda Healey.”

“Ah, the world class equivocator,” Amanda extended her gloved hand to him.

Adam was slightly taken aback by her cryptic ‘out of the blue’ assessment of his character but nevertheless politely accepted her right hand while removing his hat with his left. “Please to meet you, ma’am. I was beginning to think that we weren’t going to have the pleasure…” he started what Amanda was sure was going to be a long winded welcoming speech.

“Charmed,” she decided she had to cut Adam off and turned to address Ben. “Now I believe I’ve met your entire household except your cook, Mr. Cartwright, without visiting your house or even getting to Virginia City. This makes me wonder if you have a house at all. I mean, are you all a bunch of wandering gypsies or traveling nomads or something? I mean…”

Adam chuckled. “We live at the Ponderosa, Mrs. Healey.”

“Where?” Amanda looked puzzled.

“Our ranch,” Adam said patiently.

“Ponderosa?” Mrs. Healey mulled the word over in her head.

“Ponderosa,” Adam repeated and then whispered in her ear. “It’s Nevadan for ‘huge ranch run by loud silver-haired man with fists of granite and a head to match,” he smirked and winked at the schoolteacher gesturing with his head toward his father.

Mrs. Healey giggled agreeing with his characterization of the ‘impossible man.’

Ben, clearly not in the mood for his eldest’s humor at the moment, wiped the ‘smirk’ off Adam’s face by clearing his throat and giving him a look the likes of which his son had not seen since he had gotten drunk when he was sixteen.

Being that it was not a real pleasant memory, Adam immediately adjusted his attitude.

“Enough,” Ben just wanted to get to town with no more delays. He climbed out of the buckboard, grabbed Amanda’s luggage and put it in the back seat of the carriage. “We’re trading rigs,” he told his son in a manner that suggested he would brook no argument about it. “You can take Jake the Wonder Horse with you.” He took Amanda by the hand and assisted her from the buckboard and over up into the carriage.

Hank pretty much ignored him as he walked by, also partaking of the green grassy patch that Jake had stopped on top of.

However, as Ben climbed up in the seat beside the little schoolteacher, he began to look skeptically at the backside of the big brown hulk of a horse. “I don’t have to worry about Hank, do I, boy?” he looked suspiciously at Adam.

“I don’t think so, Pa,” Adam smiled impishly, stepping up into the buckboard and positioning his backside on the seat. “Hank doesn’t know nearly as many tricks as Jake does.”

“Somehow that is not very reassuring,” Ben sighed and flipped the reins for the Hank to move. “See that you and Jake behave yourself in town!” he added giving Adam a meaningful look that clearly conveyed the message that horse tricks and horse play would not be tolerated.

“Hmmm,” Adam thoughtfully studied the pair as the carriage disappeared around the bend. “Maybe I should have told him to behave too, eh, Jake?”

Maybe you should have, Jake snickered tossing his head.

******

“I can’t believe the luck,” Ben grinned broadly as he recognized the big man in the ten gallon hat ambling down the Virginia City boardwalk in front of them.

“What did you say, Mr. Cartwright?” Mrs. Healey was gawking around, trying to take in the sights of the town as they drove by and was not paying attention to him.

“Hoss!” Ben yelled slowing Hank to a walk. “Hoss!”

“Who are you talking abo…” she turned to see Ben’s biggest son’s very recognizable form.

Hoss who was whistling and had his hands in his front pockets turned upon hearing the distinctive bellow of his parent. He was slightly surprised to see him driving Hank and the carriage instead of Jake and the buckboard. He recovered, however, took off his hat and approached the couple.

“Hello, Pa, Mrs. Healey. Did you have a nice trip from Carson City, ma’am?” he smiled addressing the little schoolteacher. Golly, but if she doesn’t have the bluest eyes. No wonder Pa ….his thoughts were interrupted by the realization that ‘Pa’ was actually frowning at her. Oh-oh.

“Well, Eric, to be honest….” She herself frowned at his father.

Double oh-oh.

“You? Honest?” Ben muttered under his breath to her which earned him another less than friendly look from the Amanda.

“…The company could have been a little more agreeable,” she remarked sarcastically glancing sideways at Mr. Cartwright who sighed deeply, “But the scenery was absolutely breathtaking especially on the way to Pyramid Lake…”

“Pyramid Lake?” Hoss wasn’t quite sure what she was talking about. “But you were in Carson City. How in the world did you…?”

“The road to Fallon was a bit bumpy, however…” she continued as Hoss became more confused. “And sleeping on the floor of the barn was not very comfortable but we had no real choice…”

“But, Mrs. Healey, I last saw you in Carson C…”

“We had a few slight detours on our way here, son,” Ben decided to interrupt the petite blonde’s slightly garbled description of their itinerary of the last two days. He secured the reins, climbed out of the carriage and extended his right hand to Amanda.

“But…” Hoss was trying to figure the whole thing out, “What happened to Jake?”

“Your father, autocrat that he is, banished him,” Mrs. Healey told him matter-of-factly as Mr. Cartwright took her elbow to assist her.

Hoss chuckled at her comment, then sobered when he glanced back at his parent.

At the mention of the big black horse’s name, Ben’s expression darkened. From the look on his father’s face, Hoss knew that the horse must have been up to his old tricks. Hoss took a deep breath and steeled himself for what Ben was about to say.

“Jake is with Adam who unlike me no doubt is familiar with the Trojan Horse and the Runaway Wagon and whatever other little maneuvers that you children have taught him.”

“Yes, sir,” Hoss fidgeted shifting his weight from one foot to another and nervously moved his hands on the brim of his hat in a circular manner. He did not, however, deny Ben’s indirect accusation of any wrongdoing on his part.

Amanda smiled slightly finding it humorous that the son who was quite a bit larger in all dimensions than the father was squirming like a five year old.

Ben also noticed Hoss’s discomfort and decided to let him off the hook. After all, chances were good that he was probably not the main culprit in the corruption of Jake, but he was a culprit none the less. “Hoss, I think we should continue this conversation with your brothers later at home. In the meantime, could you do me a favor and please take Hank to the livery stable for me? I’ve got to get Mrs. Healey settled at the hotel.”

“Sure thing, Pa,” Hoss grinned, climbed into the carriage and took the reins in his hands.

“I’ll take your bags over to the International House,” Ben grabbed her carpetbag with his right hand and her green valise with his left and lifted them out of the carriage. “Then we can have dinner.”

“I am perfectly capable of carrying my own bags,” Amanda also grabbed her luggage, her right hand on the valise and her left on the carpetbag so that she was standing toe to toe with Mr. Cartwright. “Isn’t this where we left off yesterday, Mr. Cartwright?” she teased coyly smiling up at Ben.

Hoss was ready to pull away but, because of her comment, decided to stop and watch what might be happening between the two of them. After all, it wasn’t every day when his father met his match, especially in a female, and Mrs. Amanda Healey sure seemed to be that.

Ben noticed that Hoss noticed them and turned to address him. “Didn’t I ask you to take Hank to the livery?”

“Yes, sir,” Hoss grinned at him still not moving.

“Well?” Ben raised his voice slightly and fixed his middle son with a glare.

Hoss gulped wiping the grin off his face. “Yes, sir,” he flipped the reins, clucked to Hank and they were gone.

Ben then turned his attention back to Amanda who was still holding her bags with him.

“Why do you always have to argue with me?” Ben asked in exasperation, holding on to the luggage.

“I guess because it’s just so much fun, you impossible man,” she smiled mischievously up at him, tugging on the bags to try to get them from him. “Kind of like waving a red flag at a bull or baiting a grizzly,” she giggled as he tugged back.

Ben was taken aback. What kind of little game was this now?

“Kind of a dangerous thing to do, don’t you think?” he frowned down at her. “Considering my threats to do physical harm to you no less than 5 times in 2 days?”

“You don’t scare me, Mr. Cartwright,” she smirked. “You’re too much of a gentleman.”

“That isn’t what you said before.”

“Well, I changed my mind. It’s a woman’s prerogative, haven’t you heard?” She leaned back trying to use her full weight such as it was to pull her luggage from his grasp.

“Then I’ve changed my mind, too. Carry your own damn bags,” he unexpectedly released his grip on her luggage causing her to lose her balance and fall backwards hard on her caboose against the boardwalk.

His first instinct was immediately to go to her rescue but he stopped himself, waiting to see her reaction. He laughed too, in spite of himself.

“You did that on purpose, Ben Cartwright!” she fumed at him from her position on the walkway.

“I most certainly did not,” he crossed his arms over his chest. “You brought that on yourself, Mrs. Healey,” he said smugly grinning at her.

“Well, you can at least help me up,” she extended her gloved hand to him.

“The only help I’m prepared to give you is over my knee, young lady,” he sobered. “And, for the record, that’s no less than 6 times,” he held up six fingers in front of her face, ”In 2 days,” he reduced the number to two, “I’ve threatened you with physical harm.”

“You impossible man,” she grabbed one of his extended hands and with its assistance pulled herself to her knees and to her feet.

“You already said that,” he observed her dust off her derriere and wince from whatever damage was done to it in her fall. She then whirled around to glare at him.

“Listen here, Mr. Cartwright…” she began to wag a finger in his face.

“No, you listen here, Mrs. Healey,” he grabbed her hand and held it tightly, ”You have made it perfectly clear over the past two days,” he held up two fingers again, “that you do not want nor need my help. I’ve finally got the message. I’m leaving you to your own devices. I’m going to have a drink now and try to forget these last two days.” Once again he emphasized his point by waving two fingers in her face. “Good afternoon,” he touched the brim of his hat, turned and left her standing there gaping after him as he whistled “What Do You Do With A Drunken Sailor?” and disappeared down the street and into the Silver Dollar.

Amanda was flabbergasted. Of all the nerve! She was actually starting to like the man in spite of his bossiness and was even going to accept his dinner invitation but he blew it! Well, he could go and rot on that ranch of his for all she cared! She picked up her luggage and started down the boardwalk. Just who did he think he was? She stomped past the Silver Dollar briefly glancing at its closed swinging doors.

“Hah!” she haughtily addressed the doors on her way past but failed to see the legs of someone crouching behind them. She then turned in the direction of the hotel. Without warning, she was grabbed from behind, flipped around and up over the shoulder of an unknown attacker.

“Aaahhhhhhhhh!” she screamed dropping her luggage and beating on her assailant’s back with her fists. “Let me go!”

“Hoss,” the attacker said calmly. “Please take Mrs. Healey’s bags to the International House. Joseph was supposed to reserve a room in her name.”

“When can I say that Mrs. Healey will be there, Pa?” his middle son asked watching the petite woman fighting his father for all she was worth but making no headway in escaping his hold on her. He had seen his father grab her from across the street and hurried over to intervene if he could.

Ben smirked. “As soon as your father gives her the spanking that she has been asking for for the last two days,” he held up two fingers in Hoss’s face.

Hoss gulped and looked at Ben as if he hadn’t quite heard him correctly.

“Oh, no, he’s not, Eric!” Amanda protested trying to address Hoss. “Get the sheriff! I want this bastard arrested!”

The request as well as the language coming out of the mouth of the proper former schoolteacher stunned Hoss.

“I said move, Hoss,” Ben was getting irritated. “Or you’re next.”

Now Hoss absolutely was sure that his ears weren’t working properly. “But, Pa, is that something you really ought to do to a lady?”

“Normally not, but there are limits to what a gentleman should put up with! And after what Mrs. Healey here just said, I’m not so sure she is a lady. Now, pick up those bags and get going!” he ordered turning on his heel.

“Ben Cartwright, I changed my mind! You’re no gentleman!” she screamed pounding his back with her fists.

“What a surprise,” Ben muttered pushing one of the swinging doors open with his elbow.

“Eric, get the sheriff!” Amanda yelled again and sent a particularly vicious blow to Ben’s back as he vanished with her inside the Silver Dollar.

*****

Ben quickly glanced around the barroom. The only occupant he had seen in there before he ambushed Mrs. Healey was the bartender who he had promised to pay $5 if he made himself scarce. He was nowhere in sight. Perfect.

“Let me go! Let me go! Let me go!” Amanda squealed as he lifted her down from over his shoulder and held her suspended in midair, his brown eyes meeting her blue ones. She immediately quieted as she once again saw the same fire in there as she used to see in her late husband’s. She gulped and looked down at the floor.

“Now give me one good reason why I shouldn’t teach you a lesson you’d won’t soon forget, little girl?”

Little girl? Oh-oh…, she remembered what came next after her husband called her that. Now what am I going to do? Think, Amanda. What did you do when John looked like…?

She began to bite her bottom lip and sniff, thinking of the saddest thing that she could think of which was difficult since just before she was again trying to envision his head on a pike or a platter. She sniffed once more. Somehow she managed to muster up one tear that ran down her right cheek and dropped ker-plop on the toe of his left boot.

He watched it fall and felt a bit guilty but then looked at her skeptically. Was this another trick?

A second tear escaped from her other eye. She sniffed again, added a sob and caused her lower lip to quiver slightly.

That was all it took. He gulped and gently set her back down on her feet.

God, he was as gullible as John… she saw her opening. When he reached into his inside breast pocket to retrieve his handkerchief, she yelled, “Take that, you impossible man!” Then she stomped on his foot and darted behind the bar.

Ben yelped, swore and turned to go after the petite schoolteacher with a renewed fire in his eyes. “Why you….” A glass whizzing past his left ear stopped him dead in his tracks. Another followed, this time shattering on the floor on his right side. “You’re going to be in really big trouble when I get my hands on you again, young lady,” Ben warned as he dodged another glass and upended a table to use as a shield.

Amanda stopped in mid throw and smirked at him. “That’s IF, Mr. Cartwright,” she expertly lobbed a half full bottle of whiskey against the table. It broke, the contents splashed out and a large puddle of the liquor was left lying between the table and the bar rail.

Funny how fighting with women was so similar to fighting with Apache, Ben mused trying to map out a strategy. He made his way in a crouching position toward her, continuing to elude such flying objects as wooden bar stools, metal serving trays and glass pitchers. He was too busy trying not to get hit to notice where he was putting his feet, however. He zigged when he should have zagged, slipped on some of the spilled liquid and slid headfirst toward a brass spittoon that sat against the bar’s footrail. Lucky for him he missed it by an inch or he would have been drenched with God only knew what was in the container. He breathed a loud sigh of relief, then wondered whether Mrs. Healey had seen him slide. There was only one way to find out. “Oooohhhhhhhhh,” he groaned loudly and crouched on the other side of the bar so she could not see him without…

“Mr. Cartwright?”

He was right.

Amanda had watched his fall and leaned over trying to determine if she had disabled him in some way. “Mr. Cartwright?” she pulled herself up onto the bar top. She still couldn’t tell. It’s a curse to be so short. She laid down flat on the bar and peered over the edge. That was Amanda’s big mistake.

Ben was ready for her. He stood up, grabbed her around the waist and hoisted her up again so she was at eye level with him. The fire there was even more intense than it had been before. “Looking for me?” he growled.

Amanda gulped realizing that they were back where they started except he was without a doubt angrier with her now than he was when they started.

At that moment, Roy Coffee came out of the back room and was silently surveying the wreckage while trying to figure out exactly what was happening.

“All right now, you spoiled little brat! You better pray Joseph told the hotel manager about those pillows!” he planted his left foot up on the bar’s footrail and hauled her across his knee as she kicked and struggled against him.

The sheriff’s jaw dropped to the floor but he still didn’t move.

“Noooooo!!!!!!” she struggled as he brought his hand down hard on her behind. “I’ll sue you!!!!!” she cried as he struck her again. “You bastard!!!” she grimaced as the third blow came down. With the fourth downswing and connection, Amanda caught his left arm with her teeth and chomped down on it for all she was worth.

“Ye-ooo-w!!!” Ben howled and dropped the petite schoolteacher from his thigh onto the barroom floor.

She landed hard on her rear with a thud but quickly scrambled to her feet, kicked him in one shin and then the other one.

“I’ll have you arrested, you son of a bitch!!!” she yelled as she stomped out of the swinging doors.

Ben recovered from her attack in record time and started after her.

Roy decided now was the moment to intervene and tried to step in front of his very angry friend. “Ben, I….”

“Not now, Roy!” Ben roared, sidestepped the lawman and stormed outside. After that, all he could remember was running into what he could only imagine but could not quite believe was a brick wall, falling over something really big and an excruciating pain in his head. Then his world went black.

*****

“Traitor,” Ben hissed at his son through the bars of the Virginia City Jail.

“But, Pa…” Hoss tried to explain.

“Just wait ‘til I get you home, ERIC,” Ben glared at him sitting down on the bed and crossing his arms over his chest.

Hoss sighed and rolled his eyes. “Pa, I didn’t know that Sheriff Coffee was in there and when you ran out after Mrs. Healey, well, I can’t help it I was still standing there with her bags. I’m really sorry that you ran into me, but, Dadburnit, Pa, it was your own fault. You started it,” Hoss sighed again and sank down on a chair that was beside the bars.

Ben opened his mouth to say something about her starting it from the moment he met her and how he was the real victim here. He reconsidered and clamped it shut, silently rebuking himself for trying to blame his own improper behavior on someone else. He continued to glare at Hoss, however, since it gave him something else to do rather than think about his own foolishness.

Hoss shifted uncomfortably in his seat, recalling Ben’s previous threat.

“You know, Pa. If Hoss or Adam or me got into this mess, you would think that being put in jail was the very least of the punishment that we deserved,” Joe piped up from his position in the chair on the other side of his father’s cell.

Our Father, who art in heaven…. Hoss held his breath as he watched his father’s glare being transferred from his direction to his younger brother’s.

“Well… it’s true… Pa….” Joe stammered wishing that he could erase his previous statement as Ben rose to his feet and approached him, glaring the whole time. Joe gulped, then took a deep breath. “Honest, Pa,” he held up his hands to protect himself from his father even though he was safely behind bars, “I just saw you and Mrs. Healey from a distance and came over to see what was going on. I’m really sorry that I accidentally tripped you and you slammed headfirst into the side of the freight wagon. We really had no choice but to carry you in here to lie down. Hoss thought you might have had a concussion,” he took another breath. “Pa, I really was only an innocent bystander in this whole thing…just like Hoss… I think I’ll shut up now,” he decided giving Ben his most angelic little boy smile when he figured out that nothing he was saying was affecting the look on Ben’s face. The smile didn’t work either. Joe sighed and looked down at his boots wondering how he ever got both of them in his mouth at the same time. His thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of his oldest brother.

“Hello, brothers,” Adam grinned at Hoss and then at Joe. “I hear you two are fully responsible for putting our ‘uncouth lout of a father’ behind bars. Is that correct?”

Joe gave him a look that should have incinerated him instantly. “You heard incorrectly. It was all an accident.”

“That’s right,” Hoss glowered at his older brother also. “We were actually looking out for Pa’s welfare.”

“Oh, really?” Adam raised his eyebrows. “Well, for your information, Mrs. Healey is ready to build a monument in you two’s honor for making the streets of Virginia City safe for all womankind from this ‘impossible man’!” he did a perfect imitation of Amanda and smirked at Ben.

“Speaking of building, are they building the gallows yet?” Ben asked sarcastically.

“No, not yet but….it might be only a matter of time,” Adam dramatically hung his head. “Then we’ll all be orphans and Mrs. Healey will be free to adopt us and teach us how gentlemen are supposed to treat ladies since we had a pretty poor example when we were growing up, that is, according to Mrs. Healey.” Adam was thoroughly enjoying this chance to get a dig or two in at his incarcerated parent and grinned from ear to ear.

Ben glared at him. “Keep in mind, smart guy, that it’s easier to divide things in half than in thirds.” His father held up three fingers in front of Adam’s face and then reduced it to two.

Adam sobered immediately, realizing that his father was illustrating not the division problem but clearly was communicating his eldest son’s future if he did not straighten up and take the matter more seriously.

“Now tell me what’s going on?” Ben continued to glare.

Adam clutched the bars and leaned in to speak to his father. “Pa, from what I could make out, Mrs. Healey is adamant about not dropping the charges. She said she is black and blue…”

“Black and blue?” Ben muttered in astonishment.

“…from the sheer brutality of the beating you gave her. I tried to reason with her about how she was going to present evidence of your ‘brutality’ to the court,” he chuckled to himself. “It didn’t even faze her. I swear the woman is so mad at you she’d drop her drawers in open court just to put you away for beating her.”

“I did not ‘beat’ her!” Ben insisted. “I swatted her four times…four,” he held up four fingers in front of Adam’s face. “That’s all! In fact, it took all of my intestinal fortitude not to ‘beat’ her. She’s beyond reason!”

“You know, Pa, I only spent five minutes,” Adam illustrated the number with his hand also, “Talking to her and I was ready to…to…well, you know. Any way, I talked to the judge. He has the same position as Roy. Unless Mrs. Healey drops the charges of assault and battery against you, all we can do is post bail….”

“And are you working on that?”

“Well, Pa, with the banks closed for the weekend and… well…I loaned you all the money I had left, I just couldn’t swing it….”

“So go out to the ranch and get…” Ben said impatiently.

“Not an option,” Adam shook his head. “I used that money yesterday to pay for the shipment that came from San Francisco…you remember…for the sawmill…I told you….”

“What about Hoss?”

“Don’t you remember, Pa?” Hoss spoke up. “I gave you $10 yesterday in Carson City. That gave me just enough left to cover my expenses in Placerville.”

Ben sank down on the bunk and covered his face with his hands.

Adam cleared his throat and tried to keep a straight face. “There is, however, one member of the family that you overlooked, Pa.”

Ben looked up hopefully. “Hop Sing?”

“Well, not exactly. It seems that after your baby son right here,” Adam motioned to Joe who smiled weakly at his father, “Arranged for Mrs. Healey’s hotel room, he ran into a streak of luck at the Silver Dollar….”

“So I’m being bailed out by money that Joseph won gambling?”

“And I’m only going to charge you the going rate for interest, Pa,” Joe grinned at his father, then sobered when Ben fixed him with a look that, were he any younger, definitely would have signaled his father’s intention to make sitting extremely uncomfortable for him for at least a week.

“What’s next?” Ben sighed trying to see God through the ceiling. “Where’s Mrs. Healey anyway?”

“Well, after she gave me her terms, she said she was going to soak her quote, sore little bottom in a tub full of suds, unquote,” Adam stifled a chuckle.

Ben counted to ten. “Sore little bottom, my …as…foot! For the record, I only gave her four swats – none of which were particularly hard! She, on the other hand, swore a blue streak at me the likes of which I haven’t heard since my seafaring days. She pulverized my foot, kicked me two times in the shins and bit me one time,” he reached his right hand out between the bars and held up four fingers, then two and then one in front of his son’s face. “She also threw everything at me that she could get her hands on which I am now being obliged to pay for using money that I have to borrow from my Shylock of a baby son at the going interest rate!”

Joe looked offended but wisely said nothing.

“She should be the one behind bars, not me!” Ben took a deep breath and attempted to regain control of his tone and temper. “You said something about terms, Adam?”

“Well, Pa,” Adam cleared his throat. “Mrs. Healey told me that she would drop the assault and battery charges, will not file any additional charges against you for false imprisonment, kidnapping and the rest, and will pay one half of the damages caused by the two of you to the Silver Dollar in exchange for you giving her a sincere apology for the injuries she sustained and you buying her dinner at the International House.”

Ben thought a moment. “Not good enough!” he decided crossing his arms over his chest.

“What do you mean ‘not good enough’? She originally wanted to have you write “I will not beat defenseless women” 500 times on the school’s backboard,” he held up five fingers then made two zeroes using her index fingers and thumbs to convey the number 500.

Ben’s mouth dropped clear to the floor in shock.

“Take it easy, Pa. Legally she is the injured party,” Adam added.

“I want an apology, too.”

“What for?”

“What do you mean what for?” he put his hands on his hips and glared back at Adam. “I chased that dang fool woman all over the Nevada Territory for two…” he held up two fingers, “…whole days trying to bring her back here. She managed to spend every cent of the little bit of money that I borrowed from Hoss and you while she had a wad of cash that would choke Jake. And for my all my efforts to keep her safe and get her back here, I was nearly shot in a very sensitive area of my person…”

“…And I was actually injured in a very sensitive area of my person,” the ‘dang fool woman’ suddenly appeared out of nowhere. She smirked at the sight of Ben behind jail bars. “Hello, Mr. Cartwright, have you come to terms with my spokesman?” she nodded at Adam who tipped his hat to her and offered her Little Joe’s chair knowing full well she would not accept, given her recent encounter with his father. “No, thank you,” she was slightly taken aback by his invitation to sit knowing what he knew, but recovered and smiled sweetly at Ben’s eldest. She then motioned for Hoss and Joe to sit down again.

“My father wants something more than what you offered, Mrs. Healey,” Adam cocked his head toward Ben. “He believes that he is entitled to an apology too.”

“A very sincere apology for the trouble that you put me through these last two days, Madam,” Ben held up two fingers again.

“Mr. Cartwright,” Amanda methodically stripped off her gloves, folded them and placed them in her purse, “Haven’t we been through this before? I told you that I never asked you to chase me nor did I necessarily invite you along for the trip. You, sir, took it upon yourself to interfere with my business, lost your temper when I wouldn’t listen to you and subsequently…uhm…uhm…” she paused searching for the correct word, “…injured me!!!”

“Madam, I swatted you four times and you deserved every swat and more and you know it!!!” Ben roared. “In fact, when I get out of here, it’s going to take all my restraint not to continue what I started!”

There was that fire again in his eyes, but she was getting used to it and, anyway, he was locked safely for her sake in the cell.

They both stood on opposite sides of the bars glowering at each other for at least a minute while the younger Cartwrights watched, thoroughly amused by the whole situation but not daring to show it lest Ben think that they were being disrespectful.

“Oh, that reminds me…” Joe suddenly pulled a piece of paper from his green jacket pocket, “The damages caused by you two to the furnishings of the Silver Dollar totaled $135.00…” Both combatants’ expressions turned from fury to disbelief at the amount of the bill for their confrontation. Before either could say anything, Joe continued. “And, I paid the bartender the $5 you owed him for looking the other way when you…uhm, you know,” he groped for the word but his eyes clearly focused on Mrs. Healey’s ‘very sensitive area of her person.’

Amanda sniffed indignantly.

“And Pa, the bail was $100 since Mrs. Healey charged you…”

“Has the bail been paid, Joseph?” Ben snapped, his anger resurfacing as he directed his gaze toward his youngest.

Joe gulped. “Sure…er… Pa…” he hesitated, “But the judge released you into the custody of…of…of…,” he stammered not wanting to look at his father.

Ben blinked, moved to where he could get really close to Joe and whispered menacingly, looking him in the eye, “Whose custody, boy?”

“Mine,” Amanda gave him a superior smile.

Ben was speechless as were Adam and Hoss.

Joe smiled at his father weakly.

“How in Thunderation did that happen, Joseph?” Ben bellowed at Joe.

“Well, Pa,” Joe took a deep breath. “Don’t get mad at me but Judge Krenshaw thought it would be a good lesson for you to be in the custody of the schoolteacher. It’s just for twenty-four hours and then he will allow her to drop the assault and battery charges. Of course, Pa,” Joe took a breath, “Mrs. Healey has to be on her best behavior for the next twenty-four hours, too, or the judge will personally file charges against her on your behalf for assault and battery and will even let you finish what you started with no consequences on your part for doing so.”

“Really?” Ben was taken aback by that bit of news and sent a meaningful look at the Amanda.

She paid him no mind.

“It just so happens that the judge knew the late Judge John J. Healey,” Roy Coffee suddenly appeared with the key to the cell in his hand. “They studied the law back east together,” he explained unlocking the door and swinging it open. “Seems the judge also knew Mrs. Healey here and he told me she was a real handful when she was younger,” he disappeared out the door mumbling that he had better things to do than to baby-sit a bunch of crazy Cartwrights.

“Well, I guess it’s time to go,” Joe stood up and tried to slip away but his father’s hand shot out and stopped him dead in his tracks.

“Not quite yet, Joseph,” Ben swung his youngest back in the chair in which he was sitting and glared at his two older sons before they could move. “We’ve got a few things to discuss first.”

“That’s true, boys,” Mrs. Healey quickly decided with Ben on this side of the cell, it was time to join forces with the parent against the children, for her own sake. “There’s the little matter of your teaching Jake some questionable maneuvers like the Trojan Horse and the Runaway Wagon,” she intoned in her best teacher voice looking at each of them individually.

Adam and Joe paled while Hoss pretended to be ignorant of what they were talking about. “Maneuvers, ma’am?”

Ben cleared his throat right down to the bottom of his stomach. “Don’t pull that innocent act on us, Eric. You are probably just as responsible as your brothers on that account.”

Joe cackled and Adam howled while Hoss looked distressed.

“Yes, sir,” Hoss sighed deeply.

Joe’s merriment faded, however, when his father’s piercing brown eyes pierced him again.

“You are the last person who should be laughing, Joseph Francis Cartwright! Don’t think for one minute, that I have forgotten the matter of you gambling again after all the lectures and warnings I’ve given you,” their father growled.

“But…but…but…Pa…That’s how I bailed you out of jail and…oh, what’s the use,” Joe covered his eyes with his hands.

“It’s a good thing Pa took those firecrackers with him or you would have probably been in even bigger trouble, little brother,” Adam laughed slapping Joe on the back.

Firecrackers? Amanda started to think back to the day before.

Upon hearing this exchange, Ben approached his eldest, scowling. “And that’s another matter we have to discuss. How exactly did you know I had firecrackers, college boy? You told me that Hop Sing made you promise not to look in the bags, didn’t you?”

“Well, er, Pa,” Adam blinked into his father’s dark brown eyes which were now inches away from his, “Hop Sing’s cousin told me that’s what they were.”

“But you told me that you weren’t sure what was in the bag when you gave it to me.”

“I wasn’t really sure because I didn’t look in the bags, Pa. You didn’t ask me if I asked Hop Sing’s cousin what was in the bags,” his oldest shrugged his shoulders matter-of-factly.

“Adam…” his father wagged his index finger under his eldest’s nose.

Before he could threaten or otherwise attempt to intimidate Adam, Mrs. Healey realized why the word ‘firecrackers’ was connecting with her.

“Firecrackers!” she frowned up at Ben, stepping between him and Adam. “That wasn’t gunfire, Ben Cartwright! That was firecrackers!” she put her hands on her hips.

“What are you talking about?!?!?” Ben roared down at the little schoolteacher.

Amanda took a deep breath, “When Chief Yellow Sky and his Bannock warriors attacked us yester…”

“Did you say the Bannocks attacked you, ma’am?” Hoss looked at Amanda incredulously.

“Yes, Eric,” Mrs. Healey nodded her head. “And your father made no attempt to drive them off!”

“There’s no Bannocks left within a hundred miles in any direction of here, ma’am,” Hoss gave his father a funny look.

“And Charlie Yellow Sky is a Washoe and the Washoes haven’t attacked anyone in years,” Adam laughed at Ben’s pained expression. “In fact, Charlie has worked for Pa for ten years!” he held up both hands displaying ten fingers.

“So they’re not hostile Indians?” she spun around to look up at Adam.

“So it appears,” Ben’s eldest son smirked at his father.

“You lied to me, Ben Cartwright!” she spun around again and glared up at Ben, hitting him lightly in the stomach with her purse.

“I’m afraid so,” Adam intoned solemnly.

“I’m surprised at you, Pa! I didn’t know you had it in you!” Joe beamed up at his father, realizing that his propensity to mangle the truth was hereditary. “What kind of liar does that make him?” he looked at his brothers and the schoolteacher.

“Fabricator,” Adam and Amanda said in unison.

“But, Pa,” Hoss scratched his head, “Didn’t you always tell us that ‘a man’s word is his bond’?”

“And that ‘lies have a way of catching up with you’?” Joe added grinning.

“And ‘honesty is the best policy?’” Adam chimed in.

Ben frowned at all of them. His own words were coming back to haunt him in a big way.

“I’d say that everyone in this whole family has a huge problem with dishonesty, disrespect and disobedience,” Amanda observed looking at each one in turn. “And I think you all deserve to be punished for your bad behaviors.”

“Punished?” Adam looked down questioningly at the little blonde.

Ben folded his arms over his chest, preparing himself for almost anything.

“Punished,” Amanda repeated clasping her hands and consequently her purse behind her back and pacing up and down in front of the four Cartwright men. “I think after dinner this evening, you three boys can do a little homework for your father.”

“Homework, ma’am? Hoss crinkled up his nose at the thought of having to do anything written.

Ben couldn’t believe that she was threatening his grown-up sons with homework but still did not say anything.

“Homework,” she repeated patiently looking the big man straight in his blue eyes. “Specifically you are going to catalog in detail every trick, maneuver and ploy that Jake and all of your other horses know including any signals, verbal or otherwise that can trigger the tricks, and the consequences of the trick. I think that I need to have it in my hands by the time we all leave for church tomorrow,” she decided stopping in front of their father.

“What makes you think that you can give us homework, ma’am?” Adam sneered at her, his body language clearing sending the message Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, you can’t make us.

“How about me for starters?” Ben spoke up and glared at his eldest son the message that I can make you and you best believe it.

Adam got the message as did the other boys. “That’s good enough for me,” he decided, looking quite contrite.

“But…” Joe started to protest.

“But what, Joseph?” she turned to address ‘the handsome young man’ in the chair. “I think you would be happy to do this with your brothers. Of course,” she moved so that she was standing beside Ben, “If you don’t want to do that, you can write a 1000 word essay for me on the evils of gambling with references to scripture and any other sources that you might want to quote.”

“That’s all right, Mrs. Healey,” the youngest sighed. “I’ll help Adam and Ho…er…Eric.”

“Good,” she smiled up at him. “Oh, and, Joseph?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“I’ve decided that I am going to pay for all of the damages to the Silver Dollar, your father’s bail and even the $5 to the bartender…”

His spirits rose at the thought of being paid back the money he spent. Finally, some good news.

“…But, because you won it gambling which your father does not approve of, I’ve decided to put all that money in the collection plate tomorrow, if that’s all right with your father, that is,” she turned to look at Ben.

“But, Pa, can she do that?” Joe tried to appeal to what he thought was a higher authority.

“You heard the teacher, Joseph,” Ben chuckled thoroughly enjoying that Amanda was putting his youngest in his place.

So did Hoss and Adam. Their joviality was short lived, however, as Mrs. Healey frowned at them, hands on her hips. “Adam and Eric,” her tone triggered something from long ago down deep inside the two because Adam and Hoss sobered appropriately. “I’ve decided that you two gentlemen should pay a penalty too for your, shall we say, transgressions against your father. The $10 that your father owes you, Eric, and the $5 that he owes you, Adam, I will pay and you will forfeit to the collection plate tomorrow.”

Adam and Hoss looked at each other, then said in unison in that sing-songy tone that school children use, “Yes, Mrs. Healey.”

“Such polite boys,” Amanda remarked to Ben as she turned to deal with the last of the misbehaving ‘children.’ “Now as for you, Mr. Cartwright…”

“Isn’t it punishment enough that I was locked in jail for three hours and I am in your custody for twenty-four hours, Mrs. Healey?” Ben sighed deeply.

“Maybe, maybe not,” she smirked up at him, her eyes twinkling. “We’ll see how you behave when we get back to the ranch.”

Ben frowned at her. “The ranch? What about the hotel and dinner?”

“Like you said, you’re in my custody, Mr. Cartwright,” she laughed. “We either have to stay at the hotel together which might seem very improper to some folks given the fact that you are the President of the school board and I am your employee or go back to your ranch run by – an impossible man with rocks in his head? Was that it, Adam?”

“Close enough, Mrs. Healey,” Adam smirked as Ben held up three fingers again and took away one leaving two.

“At your ranch…” the petite schoolteacher continued right where she left off.

“The Ponderosa,” Ben interrupted her, smiling.

She glanced at him, a little annoyed about the interruption, “…We will have many chaperones and I can make sure that all of my punishments which I imposed on your behalf are carried out. Anyway, like I told you earlier, how do I know you’re not a bunch of wandering gypsies or traveling nomads if I don’t get to see this ranch of yours and meet Hop Sing?” she pulled Joe out of his chair by his left hand and took Hoss’s right hand in her other.

“She’s got a point there, Pa,” Adam chuckled.

“Now, I’ve cancelled my reservation for this evening and I’ll just come back to my hotel room after we all go to church tomorrow,” she explained patiently. “Also, the hotel manager, dear that he is, should have Hank and the carriage with my baggage all ready outside for us to go,” she nearly pushed Hoss and Joe into Roy Coffee who was returning to his office.

“Leaving so soon?” Sheriff Coffee asked as the younger Cartwrights plus Mrs. Healey filed past him.

“The sooner the better in my opinion,” Ben reached into Roy’s bottom desk drawer to retrieve his gun.

“You know, you should just rent a place here in town to use to conduct your family business,” Roy teased as Ben buckled his gunbelt. “Taxpayers are not going to think it appropriate that the sheriff can’t use his office every time you all come to town.”

“I’ll take that under advisement,” Ben frowned slightly tying his holster onto his leg. “Thank you for your hospitality, Roy,” he shook his hand.

“See you in church, Ben,” Roy laughed and clapped his old friend on the back. “And do try to stay out of trouble with the teacher.”

“I’ll do my best,” he grinned opening the door.

Hoss was helping Amanda into the carriage and Joe was undoing Chubb’s and Cochise’s reins when Ben stepped out onto the boardwalk.

“Pa, Joe and I will ride on ahead and let Hop Sing know that Mrs. Healey will be with you so he can make up the guest room.”

“Good idea, son,” he said watching his two youngest mount up. “We’ll see you at home.”

“See you later, ma’am,” Hoss tipped his hat to the teacher as did Joe and they were off.

Ben took a deep breath and climbed up in beside Mrs. Healey who was readjusting herself on a pillow that the hotel manager had supplied for her ‘sore little bottom.’ He smiled to himself but made no comment.

“You know, I still intend to give you homework, Mr. Cartwright,” she teased when she had finished making herself comfortable.

“I don’t doubt you will try, Madam,” he took the reins and waited for Adam and Jake to go ahead of them in the buckboard. “But first, I’m going to have a hot bath and a good meal.”

“Can we at least talk about you writing “I will not beat defenseless women” 500 times?”

“Of course, we can talk about it, but you know it wouldn’t apply to you because you are not,” he said matter-of-factly.

“Not what?” she crinkled up her nose at him.

“Defenseless,” he smirked.

“I take that as a compliment, Mr. Cartwright,” she giggled softly.

“You would,” he laughed shaking his head and clucking to Hank to proceed.

They rode in silence for a few minutes watching the sun slowly sink toward the horizon.

About an hour and one half more and it would be dark, he thought.

Hank, though a couple of years older than Jake, was just as strong as the younger horse. Ben knew he wanted to go faster but he held him back so he might have a chance to show the little schoolteacher the setting sun’s reflection on the lake. It always had a calming effect on him and he hoped it would do the same today. He sure could use something calming before he hit the house again.

“Besides the homework,” Amanda finally broke the silence, “There are two other things that I intend to give you, Mr. Cartwright,” she held up two fingers and cleared her throat.

“Only two?” Ben said wearily, his shoulders shagging, all hopes of a serene ride home evaporating. “Well, it’s a long ride out to the Ponderosa. Go on.”

“Number one,” she held up her right index finger, “I now realize that I treated you awfully over these last few days. I was not totally honest with you either. You were more than justified in …er…doing what you did to me. I deserved no less and without a doubt much more as you pointed out. I am truly sorry for everything and hope that you can find it in your heart to forgive me. Do you?” she said softly looking across at him hopefully. “I also will understand if you want to cancel our contract for me to teach. You don’t even have to put it in writing,” she sniffed slightly. “I’ll waive that condition.”

“But, Madam,” he chuckled, “Didn’t you tell me that any modifications or alterations to our contract have to be in writing?”

“I did say that, didn’t I?” Amanda smiled at him sheepishly.

“Hmmm,” Ben thought for a long minute, studying the little schoolteacher. “I will accept your apology if you will accept mine. I really am sorry for everything that has happened especially lying to you about Charlie and his sons. But I will not accept you not teaching here in Virginia City,” he said emphatically. “If you can handle my boys, you can handle any roughneck little hooligan you might encounter at school. You’re exactly the kind of teacher that we need. Anyway, I worked too hard for two days,” he tapped her nose gently with two fingers, “To get you here and I’m not letting you go that easily,” he patted her hand with his left one. “So what’s the other thing you intended to give me?”

“Oh,” she suddenly remembered. “It’s something that I owe Jake but since he’s not here…”

As Ben was trying to figure out what she could possibly owe Jake, she leaned over and planted a light kiss on his left cheek. “Thank you,” she whispered softly.

Ben chuckled. “What did Jake ever do to deserve that?”

“Well, Mr. Cartwright,” she sank back against the padded seat of the carriage, “I guess you’ll just have to ask Jake. Now, about the homework?”

“I thought we had finished that discussion ten minutes ago, Madam,” Ben frowned at her slightly.

“We started but we never finished. How about 250 times? That’s only half of the original number,” she offered.

“I remember where we left off, Madam. How about 25?” he countered.

“How about 100?”

“How about 10?”

“That’s not how you’re supposed to negotiate, you impossible man!” she put her hands on her hips and glared at him.

“I’ll negotiate any way I want to, Madam, and right now my offer had dropped to 0,” he growled at her, his voice rising in volume and pitch.

Here they go again, Hank shook his head. One minute they’re getting along and the next minute… Boy, can these two fight! They’re making my ears hurt. Well, I’ve had to listen to them for half an hour today and I don’t intend to listen to anymore…

“…Are you hard of hearing, Madam?!?!”

“What do you mean by that, Mr. Cartwright?!?!”

“Exactly what I said, Mrs. Healey, there is no way and that’s final!!! End of discussion!!!!!”

Now how did Jake say that Runaway Wagon thing worked? Hank speeded up his pace. Immediately the wind whipping in his ears drowned out the din. Great! I can hardly hear them nowWho says you can’t teach an old horse new tricks? The big brown horse flipped his tail happily and headed for home.

***The End***

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