Deadline (by Lynda)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  24,000


The Silver Horseshoe Gaming House was one of the finest in San Francisco. The plush surroundings and well-dressed clientele were in complete contrast to the saloons in Virginia City. When Joe Cartwright walked through the doors in the company of his brother Hoss, his face had lit up with anticipated pleasure. In all of his sixteen years he had never been anywhere quite so impressive. He had hardly stepped inside before a beautiful woman took hold of his arm, placing it around her shoulders as she snuggled up to him. She led him towards the bar so that he could treat her to a drink. They passed the roulette wheel and the wheel of fortune, and Joe was amazed at the carefree way that bets were being placed. This was what San Francisco was all about, he told himself, and he had every intention of taking his fill.

Hoss had dragged him off to the restaurant, but Joe had left him there tucking into desert. He wasn’t interested in wasting any more time eating when there was so much to see and do. Instead, Joe had wandered around the gaming room, smiling and laughing with the women and passing pleasantries with the men, before deciding to sit in on a game of poker.

But all that had been hours ago. Things had gone wrong, terribly wrong. In frustration he slammed his cards down on to the green tabletop. His stomach was tied in knots and he licked at his lips, but his tongue and mouth were parched. Staring at the discarded cards he couldn’t understand what had happened. He had been playing so well. Winning. He had felt so smug that at his age he could beat these experienced men at their own game. But not now. Now he was filled with dread. Trying to stem the rising panic, he took a deep breath. This losing streak couldn’t last much longer, surely it couldn’t. He became aware that he was being spoken to.

“Mr. Cartwright! Cartwright!”

He swallowed. “Yes!”

“Mr. Cartwright, I think it’s time to call it a day.”

Joe looked into the pale watery eyes of the man seated opposite. At the beginning of the evening, he had been quite friendly, even jovial, but now he spoke callously. He began to gather the chips in front of him. “I expect you to repay your IOU’s without delay.”

The young man swallowed hard and tried to maintain a dignified demeanour but he stammered slightly when he answered. “M Mr. Caldow, if you will let me try my luck again tomorrow, I I’m sure I can cover those IOU’s.”

The other two men sat at the table sniggered. Caldow gave a hard mirthless laugh. “Mr. Cartwright, you owe me ten thousand dollars. You are barred from my tables until you settle your account. You have forty-eight hours, otherwise…” Caldow gave the impression of thinking hard about what he could do. “…otherwise I might have to send my boys to get it from you.”

Joe Cartwright swallowed hard again, and cast his eyes around the dimly lit gaming room, searching in vain for his brother. Joe had seen Caldow’s ‘boys’, mean looking thugs who patrolled the room and stood guard at the entrance. Caldow’s voice grabbed his attention again. “That would certainly give me satisfaction Mr. Cartwright, but I suspect it might not get me my money.”

The sudden relief that flooded through Joe’s body was, however, short-lived when Caldow continued.

“So after my boys have a word with you if you don’t pay up, then I will have no alternative but to ask your father to settle your debts. Ben Cartwright is a wealthy man by all accounts. I am sure that he will be willing to pay the ten thousand dollars. After all I have your signed notes.” Caldow waved the incriminating pieces of paper in front of Joe’s face then slipped them into his pocket. “Mind you, by the time he pays up, his young son could well have had a tragic accident.” He paused for effect. “The wharf can be a very dangerous place. Water’s deep. Accidents happen all the time. People fall into the Bay. I trust you understand my meaning?” Joe felt as though the man’s eyes were boring into him. “You have until 10 p.m. Sunday. Goodnight sir.”

It was his cue to leave. Joe cast a hasty glance at the three men. He found hostile looks on all of their faces and he fought down the urge to protest, to plead for more time. With as much dignity as he could muster he stood, straightened his jacket and adjusted his tie. Then with a curt nod he left the table, making his way straight to the bar.

A pretty young girl in a sparkling green dress moved up close and slipped her arm through his. “Hi honey,” she cooed. But Joe wasn’t interested and shrugged her off.

“Whisky!” he said, throwing some coins on to the bar.

The bartender poured the drink. Joe tossed it down too quickly. He wasn’t used to the strong liquor and it caught at the back of his throat causing him to cough. He flushed with embarrassment when the bartender smirked at him. He had already downed more beer than he should have and he felt a pang of guilt. Thank goodness Pa can’t see me now, he thought with shame.

He walked unsteadily through the room and found his way to the small salon where the entertainment was held. The crowded room was dimly lit except for the stage and it took Joe a few minutes to spot Hoss sitting at one of the tables. A scantily clad young woman was performing a song and dance routine and the big man was entranced. Joe walked over to Hoss and pulled out a chair and sat down heavily. His head was spinning and suddenly he felt very nauseous. He needed to get out of the hot noisy room.

“Hey Joe, where you been? I thought you were coming to watch the show. You missed most of it.” The man’s eyes hardly wavered from the woman as he spoke. Getting no reply, he twisted slightly in his seat and took a closer look at his young brother. “You okay Joe, you look a little green around the gills?”

Little Joe nodded. “I’m fine,” he said, but his voice had a catch in it and he fiddled nervously with a glass on the table. “Hoss, can we go now? I really think we should be getting back. Adam’s gonna be wondering what’s happened to us.”

“Did I hear you right little brother? You actually want to leave? You were the one who wanted to come here.”

“Yeah, I know, and now I want to go. Come on.” Joe staggered slightly when he got up, and he walked to the nearest door. Casting a last lingering look at the stage, Hoss Cartwright followed his brother. Joe tried to avoid the man who stepped in front of him when he reached the doorway. But the man blocked his way and spoke quietly to him. When Hoss approached he stepped back and let Joe pass by. The man smiled broadly, but his eyes were cold as steel. “Night Joe, see you again real soon,” he called as Joe and Hoss went though the door. Joe ignored him, glad to get outside into the fresh air. Hoss nodded to the man and joined Joe outside.

“You were kinda rude to your new friend weren’t you?” he said.

“He’s not my friend,” Joe snapped. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”

While they walked back to the hotel Hoss regaled Joe with an account of the stage show he had watched. Joe hardly listened to anything Hoss said. The cool night air was clearing his head and the enormity of his problem was beginning to hit home. Forty-eight hours. What was he to do. Hoss’ voice broke into his thoughts.

“There was this fella telling the funniest jokes. Don’t think it would do to repeat some of ’em to Pa though! And dancing girls. Joe, you should’ve seen them. Prettiest little things, with these real short dresses! And Miss Lucy; Joe she was just beautiful and she had the sweetest singing voice you ever did hear. Don’t know why you didn’t come and watch it with me instead of playing cards all evening.”

“Yeah, well I didn’t, so why don’t you just shut up about it!”

Hoss pulled a face as he looked at his disgruntled brother. “What’s up Joe, did ya lose?” he teased.

Joe didn’t reply but instead quickened his pace.

Hoss hurried to keep up with him. “You did didn’t ya?” Hoss said. “How much?”

“Hardly anything at all. And don’t you go saying anything to Adam. You know how he gets.”

Joe stopped suddenly, and Hoss bowled into him. Joe grabbed his arm and looked hard into his eyes. “Hoss please don’t say anything to Adam.”

“Joe, if you got yourself into trouble…”

“I’m not in trouble,” Joe said trying to make his voice light and carefree. “I just don’t want Adam on my back. You know how he gets when Pa’s not around, and if he thinks I’ve been playing cards…”

Hoss thought for a moment. “All right Joe, so long as your ain’t in any trouble.”

*****

Adam Cartwright whistled quietly as he crossed the sitting room and poured himself a whisky from the crystal decanter which stood on the small table. He had already slung his jacket and hat on to his bed and now he loosened his tie and undid the top two buttons of his dress shirt. He swirled the amber liquid round in the glass and then took a slow sip before setting his glass down on the table. He removed his cuff links and placed them on the table next to the decanter and folded back the cuffs of his shirtsleeves before picking up his whisky glass once more. Sprawling in one of the armchairs he settled back, savouring the warming liquor while he waited.

With his younger brothers out on the town without the restraint of either older brother or father, it was no surprise to find that he was the first back at their suite of rooms in the hotel. Hoss and Little Joe had both declined the invitation to the business dinner, declaring that it would be a thoroughly boring and strait-laced evening. In the event though, the dinner had turned out to be a very entertaining affair; particularly as seated next to him at the table had been a vivacious, dark-haired beauty with the charming name of Clarabelle. A sigh of contentment escaped his lips when he recalled how dark her lashes looked against her creamy complexion, how tempting her lips were, and the mischievous twinkle in her deep dark eyes.

Adam’s thoughts turned to the past few days. He decided that things were going extremely well. Tomorrow morning he would finalise the leasing of the vessel to ship the lumber down the coast, and in the afternoon sign the contract to provide a small herd of beef cattle to Clarabelle’s uncle, and to top it all he had a date with the lovely lady on Sunday. He reflected too on how much he was enjoying the company of his younger brothers, glad that he had talked his father into allowing Joe and Hoss to accompany him to San Francisco. He smiled to himself remembering how he had stressed to his father that the younger Cartwrights needed to be conversant with the business side of the ranch. To his younger brothers he had given the assurance that it wouldn’t be all business and they would have plenty of time to enjoy themselves. To give them their due, he had heard very little by way of complaint from either one, and he had been more than happy to give them their freedom tonight. As always, it would be good to get back home, but all in all it had been a very enjoyable and successful trip.

The door was thrown open and his quiet contemplation was noisily interrupted by his brothers.

“Evening gentlemen,” he said with a lazy smile.

“Hey Adam! You’re back early.” Hoss greeted Adam, his face beaming.

“Hi Adam, how was your evening? Did you have a good time?” Joe asked.

“As a matter of fact I had a very good evening,” Adam replied. Joe pulled a face and flopped down in the other chair. “It wasn’t all business you know Joe,” Adam said, giving his youngest brother an amused look. “So what have you two been up to then?”

“Well we found this real nice place didn’t us, Joe! Food was delicious, and there was a stage and they put on a show. There was this little fell, you should have heard the jokes he was telling Adam.” Hoss began to chuckle as he recalled the evening. “He told this one about…”

Joe yawned loudly and got to his feet. “I can’t stand to listen to all this again. I’m off to bed. Night!”

When Joe had closed the bedroom door, Adam turned to Hoss. “So, did he behave himself?”

“Sure he did Adam.”

“He seems to be slurring his words a little don’t you think?” Adam’s eyebrows came together in a frown, his face taking on an expression of concern.

“Aw come on Adam, he just had a couple of beers. Let me tell you this joke, you’ll love it. Now, how did it go…”

*****

“Come on you two, get a move on!” Adam scolded, in an effort to rouse his brothers the next morning. San Francisco was already bustling about her business, and back home the working day would be well under way. In spite of the lateness of the hour, the dining room was almost full, the diners taking a leisurely breakfast as though there was little else to do with the day. The three men found a table and perused the menu.

“Are you gentlemen ready to order?” the waitress asked.

“Yes, we’re ready,” Adam answered. “I will have scrambled eggs, fried ham and potatoes, and some toast please. Coffee to drink.”

“And I’ll have the same,” Hoss said, “and I’ll take some flapjacks too.”

“Will that be five or ten sir?”

“Oh, best make it ten,” Hoss said, causing Adam’s eyebrows to rise slightly.

The waitress looked across at Little Joe who was staring at the menu. Hoss nudged his elbow. “Joe, the lady wants to know that you want for breakfast.”

“Coffee!”

“And to eat sir?”

“Nothing, just coffee. Thank you.”

The woman put her notepad and pencil in her pocket and hurried away. She returned almost immediately with a pot of coffee and proceeded to fill their cups, leaving the pot on the table.

“How come you ain’t havin’ breakfast Joe?” Hoss asked.

Joe gave a small sigh and frowned slightly. “I’ve got a headache. I don’t feel hungry.”

Adam observed his young brother for a moment. “What gives me the feeling that hangover would be a more appropriate word,” he said caustically.

“It’s just a headache,” Joe said, and as though to emphasise his point he rubbed his temples. He sat quietly while his brothers ate, occasionally sipping at his coffee, and staring at the table, lost in thought.

“Well if you have both finished we had better be going. The first meeting with the shipping agent is at 10 o’clock,” Adam said, taking a last drink from his coffee cup.

Hoss crumpled his napkin and laid it on the table. “Do we have to come, Adam? You handle this stuff so well, I don’t see why you need me and Joe.”

Joe eyed his oldest brother surreptitiously.

Adam gave Hoss a frustrated look. “It’s why we are here Hoss, remember. This is supposed to be a business trip, for all of us! Don’t start complaining now. Next time Pa might send you on your own, you need to know how to handle these things.”

“Adam!” Little Joe faltered when his brother’s wary gaze switched to him. “Adam,” he repeated quietly, “I… I really don’t feel good. Please don’t make me go.” His lower lip trembled very slightly.

Adam continued to look intently at Joe. “Brother, if I find that you are up to mischief!” Adam warned. Joe shook his head. “All right. You do look kinda peaky, though I doubt there is anything wrong with you that hasn’t been caused by an excess of alcohol!”

Little Joe smiled weakly. “Thanks Adam.”

“We’ll be back around noon for lunch, and you had better be here. Come on Hoss.”

As the two oldest Cartwright brothers left the room, Hoss turned back and gave the youngest a quizzical look. Joe was slumped in his chair fingering his coffee cup.

Adam waited until they were settled in a hack before quizzing Hoss. “So what is really wrong with our little brother?”

Hoss shrugged his massive shoulders. Adam suppressed a smile. His brother certainly looked uncomfortable in his city clothes, pulling constantly at his stiff collar.

“Too much drink!” Adam said, answering his own question. “He’s just a kid Hoss; you were supposed to be watching out for him. Just as well Pa isn’t here.”

“Oh yeah! Well I imagine Pa would be expecting you to be watching him,” Hoss retorted, his discomfort making him unusually grumpy.

“Well, if you had both come to the dinner, then I would have,” Adam said.

Hoss sighed and tugged again at his offending collar.

*****

“Caught you!” Adam’s voice bellowed close to Little Joe’s ear, and he saw his young brother jump with fright.

“What! Oh hi Adam! It’s you.”

“Well?”

“Well what?”

“Where have you been? I thought you were too ill to go out?”

“Oh! Well I was just getting some air Adam, just had a walk up the road and back,” Joe explained, wilting under his brother’s suspicious looks.

“Come on then,” Adam said, walking past Joe and crossing the road to the hotel. Little Joe hesitated casting a look at the front of a nearby café, then followed.

“You okay, Joe?” Hoss asked.

Joe’s smile looked false. “Sure I am Hoss. How was the meeting?”

Hoss’ face scrunched up with distaste. “Sure was boring and complicated. Reckon I never will be much good at contracts and such. Just as well Adam understands what’s going on!”

While they ate lunch Adam outlined his plans for the rest of the day. “This afternoon we need to see Mr. Mountjoy, get the contract signed for the cattle, and then tonight I thought we could all go out together to the theatre,” he said putting emphasis on the word all. “My treat.”

Hoss nodded, his mouth filled with fried chicken, which he quickly swallowed. “Sounds fine to me Adam, just so long as it ain’t Shakespeare. I just can’t get the hang of what they’re all talking about.”

Adam pursed his lips and eyed his brother. “All right Hoss, no Shakespeare. How about you little brother? You going to be feeling well enough to go out tonight?” he asked Joe, who was picking at his food.

Joe nodded without enthusiasm.

“I suppose you may as well stay here this afternoon if you’re still not feeling too good.”

Joe gave him a grateful look. “Thanks Adam.”

“You two will have to amuse yourselves tomorrow. I already have plans,” Adam continued.

“Oh I am sure we’ll be able to find something to do, won’t we Joe?” Hoss said winking at Little Joe. “These plans of yours wouldn’t include a pretty lady would they Adam?”

“Now that is none of your business Hoss,” Adam said leaning back in his chair, a hand resting on his chest and an enigmatic smile playing around his lips. Then pointing at his brothers he added, “Just make sure that the two of you keep out of trouble.”

“Now Adam, when did you ever know me and little brother here to get into trouble,” Hoss said, feigning annoyance.

“Mmm! Well we’ll not get into that. Come on then Hoss; let’s get to it. Joe, I suggest you lie down for a while, you’ll feel better before long.”

“Yeah, okay, see you fellas later,” Joe said “Have fun Hoss!” he added.

“Dadburnit Adam, you think Little Joe’s play actin’ to get out of these stuffy business meetings?” Hoss asked as he and Adam walked through the city centre.

The same thought had crossed Adam’s mind, but he was determined not to spoil this trip by getting mad with the little scoundrel. “Maybe,” he agreed, “but he does look a little pale don’t you think?”

When they arrived at Thomas Mountjoy’s office, Adam was delighted to find Clarabelle there.

“Mr. Mountjoy!” he said shaking hands with the man. Then he turned to the lady, bowing his head slightly, his face lighting up with a smile. “Miss Clarabelle I’m pleased to see you again. May I introduce my brother Hoss.”

Hoss shook hands with Mr. Mountjoy and with Clarabelle.

“Horse, I am so pleased to meet you,” Clarabelle said, smiling at Hoss. “My don’t they grow men big and handsome in Nevada!” she added with a twinkle in her eye, much to Hoss’ consternation. He blushed under her forthright gaze. “I’m sure pleased to meet you too ma’am. And it’s not horse ma’am, just plain Hoss, H-O-S-S.”

“Hoss, yes of course, I’ll remember. Well I will leave you gentlemen to your business. Goodbye Hoss, it was so nice to meet you. Goodbye Adam. I’ll see you later uncle.”

Adam walked her to the door. “So, I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said in a low voice, his eyes drawn irresistibly to her tantalising lips.

Clarabelle’s eyes sparkled and she smiled at Adam. “Mmm, I’m looking forward to it.”

*****

It was late afternoon when Adam and Hoss returned to the hotel. Adam was in buoyant mood. Business had all been taken care of, he had a date with Clarabelle tomorrow, and he was ready for a night on the town with his younger brothers. Much to Adam’s relief Little Joe was in his room, lying on his bed and still looking a little sorry for himself. At the back of his mind Adam couldn’t help thinking that the boy was up to something.

“Come on Buddy, time to get yourself all spruced up,” he said giving his brother a playful dig in the ribs. Joe dragged himself from the bed and began to dress.

Within half an hour Adam and Hoss were ready, and waiting for Joe in the sitting room.

“Whatever is taking that kid so long?” Adam said with exasperation.

“Well you know our little brother Adam. Got to look his best in case there are some pretty little gals to impress!”

Adam tapped on the door then went into Joe’s bedroom. “Come on Joe, aren’t you ready yet?” Seeing that he was fumbling with his tie, Adam walked over to him and took over the knotting of it the way he had done when Joe was a child and their Pa was shouting to them to hurry up. Joe flinched and his hand shot up to his neck.

“What’s the matter, your neck sore?” Adam asked.

“Oh I just got a bit of a crick in it Adam. Must have been the way I was laying.”

“Joe, you sure you’re feeling up to this?” Adam asked as he deftly tied a perfect bow. “We don’t have to go out you know. We can just as easily spend the evening here at the hotel.”

Joe looked up and for a fleeting moment Adam saw something flit across his eyes. Was it fear? Then just as quickly it was gone.

“Hey, I’m not staying in the hotel,” Joe said with a quick grin. “Heck, we’re in San Francisco without Pa. We just gotta go out on the town. Just wait till this place gets a look at the three Cartwright brothers, all dressed up to the nines!”

Adam’s face broke into a dimpled smile. “All right lady killer, let’s go.”

The fog had been rolling on and off the ocean all day, periodically shrouding the city, and by the time the men left the hotel the rain was lashing down. At Adam’s request the hotel doorman hailed a cab and the handsome trio climbed aboard heading for one of the best restaurants in town. A fine meal and a bottle of good red wine put them all in a mellow mood. Adam settled the bill and they retrieved their hats, ready to face the onslaught of weather. To their surprise, the rain had abated and they were able to settle their delicious but heavy meal by walking the block to the theatre. Adam had taken Hoss’ request to heart and had chosen a light-hearted revue. Hoss was the perfect audience. He laughed uproariously at the comedy and was enthralled with the melodrama. Adam enjoyed the show too, but felt a nagging worry about Joe that he just couldn’t put his finger on. However Little Joe seemed to be enjoying himself, and so he deemed the evening a success.

*****

Long after they had all gone to bed, Joe lay awake listening to Hoss snoring. He was scared. He wished he had plucked up courage to tell Adam about his plight. But Adam had been in such a good mood all night that he just couldn’t bring himself to spoil the evening. He had told himself that he would own up when they got back to the hotel. Trouble was the longer he left it the harder it became. He rubbed at his neck, the pulled muscle had caused him agony all night but he hadn’t dared to show it. He thought of the two men who had dragged him into the alley that morning. Not in the dark in some back street the way it might happen in Virginia City. In broad daylight they had pulled him off the main road. When he had told them he hadn’t got the money yet, he had thought they would break his neck. Now he was really scared. With no money there was no doubt about it, he only had one more day left on this earth.

“Hoss! Hoss!” When there was no reaction from his slumbering brother, Joe climbed out of bed and crossed the room. He gave Hoss a gentle shake. Hoss mumbled something but remained sound asleep.

“Hoss! Wake up!” Joe shook Hoss again, harder this time. “Hoss!”

Hoss’ eyes flew open. “What! What’s wrong?”

“Hoss I need to talk to you.”

“Oh Joe, in the morning. Get to bed.” Hoss turned over and closed his eyes.

“No Hoss, I’m in trouble. I need your help.”

Hoss yawned loudly, rubbed his eyes and scratched his head, then began to heave himself up into a sitting position. Joe felt his way across the room and struck a match, lighting the lamp that stood on the small chest of drawers.

“Hoss, I’m in real trouble. I’m gonna have to make a getaway, right about now. Will you help me?”

“A getaway! Joe, what in tarnation are you talking about?”

Joe sat down on the side of Hoss’ bed. “You know when I played poker last night, and said I only lost a little…”

Hoss nodded. “Go on little brother.”

“Well actually, I lost quite a lot and I have to pay it back by tomorrow evening, or I’m dead Hoss, really I am! I’ve tried to raise the money but I can’t do it.”

Hoss shook his head and rubbed his eyes. He yawned once more, a huge gaping yawn accompanied by a loud groan. Then he looked directly at his little brother.

“How much is a lot Joe?”

Joe closed his eyes, but didn’t answer. His stomach began to lurch. This was it. Confession time.

“Come on Joe, how much?” Hoss pressed for a reply.

“Ten thousand!”

Hoss’ eyes almost popped out of his head. “Joe it’s too late and I’m too tired for your wisecracks. Now get to bed.”

“Hoss, they’re gonna kill me!”

“You mean it? Ten thousand dollars?”

Joe nodded.

“How the heck did you manage to lose that much Joe?”

Joe shrugged and a ghost of a smile crossed his face. “It was easy Hoss, real easy.

“They cheat you?”

“Maybe. I don’t know.”

“If they did then you don’t owe nothing. We’ll just go to the police.”

Joe shook his head. “If they did, I can’t prove it Hoss, and I signed IOU’s.”

Hoss thought for a moment. “Skedaddling outa here’s not the answer Joe.”

“I’ve thought about it real hard Hoss. I can’t get the money and Caldow’s got a whole army of men working for him. They’re gonna kill me for sure.”

“You got tell Adam.”

“Oh no, big brother will have a fit.”

“Come on Joe, you just said these yahoos were gonna kill you. You can’t keep that from Adam!”

“He’s hardly got ten thousand dollars in his pocket! There’s nothing he can do Hoss, except get mad at me. Better if I just leave.” Joe looked and sounded completely dejected.

“Joseph, you deserve any yelling that Adam does, and if he paddles your backside for you, you deserve that too. But once he calms down he’ll think of something. Adam’s always full of ideas. You ain’t hiding out, and me and Adam sure ain’t about to let no-one kill you. Besides, you’re just gonna have to tell him.”

Joe sighed loudly and then nodded. “Either way, I’m dead.” He knew Hoss was right. Adam had to know.

Hoss got out of bed, and picked up the lamp. “Come on, no time like the present little brother.”

“What, right now?” he whispered in alarm as Hoss opened the bedroom door.

“Yep, right now.”

If Joe had been nervous about telling Hoss, it was nothing compared to the foreboding he felt at telling his oldest brother about his foolishness. He was ashamed too that he felt so scared. Adam would expect him to be brave. But he didn’t feel brave; he was more frightened than he could ever remember.

Stealthily they crossed the sitting room. Adam’s door was firmly closed. Joe cast a nervous glance at Hoss, who nodded towards the door, but Joe shook his head.

“Joe, open the door,” Hoss said.

“Ssh. You want to wake him up,” Joe said in a loud whisper.

Hoss nodded. “That’s the main idea Joe.”

“I suppose so. Here goes.”

He took a deep breath and lightly tapped on Adam’s door. When there was no answer from inside, he slowly turned the knob, cringing when the door squeaked on its hinges. The room’s interior was dim, lit only by the light from the lamp that Hoss held in his hand. It obvious that Adam was asleep. Joe walked up to the bedside, while Hoss hung back at the foot of the bed.

“Adam!” Joe whispered.

“You gotta speak louder than that,” Hoss advised in a stage whisper.

“ADAM!” Joe spoke loudly but Adam continued to sleep soundly.

“Give him a shake!”

Joe scowled, but followed Hoss’ advice. He took hold of Adam’s shoulder and as he shook it he spoke his brother’s name again, then quickly took a step back.

Deep in his sleep Adam became aware that he was being shaken, and from a distance someone was calling his name. He woke with a start and sat bolt upright. “What’s wrong?” he said irritably, shading his eyes from a brilliant light, at the same time reaching across to the table beside the bed where he had laid his gun.

“It’s all right Adam, it’s us,” Joe whispered from beside his bed.

Adam could make out Hoss, standing behind Joe, holding a light aloft. He grunted and lay down again. “Get rid of the light and get out of here.”

“Adam, we need to speak to you,” Joe said.

“In the morning.”

Joe looked across at Hoss who shook his head. “Now,” he mouthed to Joe.

“Adam, we need to speak to you now.”

“Why?” Adam’s voice came from beneath the covers which he had pulled over his head, in an attempt to shut out the light, and with a bit of luck his brothers too.

“Well, we’re in a bit of trouble,” Joe said cautiously.

Adam pulled down the covers and raised himself on one elbow. He squinted at his two brothers and then sighed. “Seems to me that neither of you are shot, you’re not in jail, you’ve not been shanghaied, so if you don’t mind I need to get some sleep. I’ve a busy day tomorrow, so go away!” Adam lay down and once more pulled the covers over his head.

“Adam, please don’t go back to sleep,” Joe pleaded.

Hoss’ brow furrowed. “How come you’ve got a busy day? I thought all of the business was taken care of?”

Adam lay still and Hoss and Joe looked at each other. Hoss shrugged, then just as Joe was about to speak again, Adam hoisted himself up. “Will you please get that light out of my eyes!”

“Sorry Adam.” Hoss set the lamp on the table by the door.

Adam sighed very loudly. “My busy day really isn’t any of your business, but it just so happens I am taking a very lovely lady to church, then we are having lunch and listening to a band concert in the park.”

“Oh, Miss Clarabelle I suppose?” Hoss said.

“That’s right. So would you both please leave, take the light with you, and close the door behind you.”

Joe swallowed hard, then turned as though to leave, but Hoss grabbed his arm.

“Adam, Joe really needs your help,” Hoss said. He’s got himself into a whole heap of trouble, and he ain’t got much time to get out of it. An’ I don’t know what to do!”

Joe turned to face Adam again. “Please Adam, I am really sorry, but don’t go back to sleep.”

Joe had such a pathetic look on his face that Adam finally gave in. It was obvious that he would get no more sleep until he had heard them out. He sat up, pulling the pillows up behind him, now fully awake and wondering what was coming. He settled back and looked at his two brothers, neither of whom could meet his gaze. “Well?”

Joe swallowed hard and eventually looked at Adam who raised an eyebrow, an expectant look on his face. Joe rubbed the back of his hand across his mouth and then began pacing back and forth.

Adam watched his young brother. His mop of tussled hair and his night-shirt somehow made him look even younger than his sixteen years. He really is just a kid, thought Adam. What on earth has he been up to now?

“The thing is Adam, I…well I need some money kinda in a hurry, and well we were wondering if you had any idea where we might get some. I mean borrow some?”

Adam considered Joe for a moment. “Why don’t you wire Pa,” he suggested a hint of a smile playing on his lips.

A shocked look flashed across Joe’s face at this suggestion and he turned to Hoss for help.

“That’s no good Adam. Joe needs the money by tomorrow evening or he’s in real bad trouble.”

Hoss looked as worried as Joe and the seriousness of the situation began to dawn on Adam.

“If I don’t get it, I gotta hide out someplace,” Joe said with desperation.

“Well suppose one of you tells me exactly how much money you need, by tomorrow evening, and why?” Adam placed his hands behind the back of his head, his eyes looking from one brother to the other.

“Ten thousand dollars,” Joe ventured in little more than a whisper.

Adam sat up straight. “Ten thousand!” He looked at Joe in astonishment, then threw back the bedcovers and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. He sat still and quiet for a moment. Joe’s startling revelation had sent his mind into a spin and he hardly dared to imagine what else was going to be divulged. He should have known that things were going too well. Slowly he got up from his bed and turned to confront his youngest brother.

“Ten thousand dollars,” he said quietly, then he repeated loudly, “TEN THOUSAND!” his face barely inches from Joe’s. Joe flinched, and avoided Adam’s eyes. Adam pulled on his pants and thrust his arms into the shirt that he had discarded the night before. Joe took the opportunity to send a worried glance over to Hoss.

“I take it little brother that you have been gambling,” Adam said while he dressed. His voice had a cutting edge to it. “And that you let him,” his remark now directed at Hoss.

“He didn’t mean any harm Adam, it just sorta got out of hand.”

“All right, in the other room.” Adam was pointing to the door and both Joe and Hoss made haste to obey. Adam picked up the lamp and brought it with him, placing it on the table. In its light, Adam’s shadow reached high up on the ceiling and seemed to loom ominously over Joe.

“Now suppose one of you relates this whole sorry tale, and I want all of it.”

Hoss sat down in one of the chairs and said nothing.

Adam turned to Joe. “I’m waiting,” he barked.

Joe pulled himself up to his full height, pushing out his chest. “It was just like Hoss said. Things just got out of hand, that’s all.”

“That’s all! Pa specifically told you not to go to the Barbary Coast and not to gamble. Why for once couldn’t you just do as you were told?”

“But we didn’t Adam. We didn’t go to the Barbary Coast did we Hoss?”

Hoss shook his head.

Adam narrowed his eyes and clenched his teeth. “Joe it seems to me that you were awfully eager for me to wake up so that I could help you out of some terrible predicament. How about you stop going round in circles and tell me what has happened, because if you didn’t go to the Barbary Coast and you didn’t gamble, how come you need ten thousand dollars?”

“Calm down Adam and I’ll tell you. Why don’t you sit down?”

Adam complied with a scowl, and Joe began his woeful tale.

“Like I said, we didn’t go to the Barbary Coast; we went to this real nice place. Hoss told you about it. There was a bar, and dancing girls, and there was a stage with performers. You’d a liked it Adam!” If Joe had hoped to win Adam round with this remark, the look on Adam’s face made it obvious that his ploy hadn’t worked. “And there was a wheel of fortune and black jack and all manner of things. And there was this little poker game.”

Adam sighed very loudly and shook his head.

“I was only gonna have a couple of hands Adam, really,” Joe protested, “but I was winning you see, so I couldn’t stop!”

“No, of course you couldn’t.”

Little Joe ignored his brother’s sarcastic tone. “At first they asked me to, but I wasn’t gonna leave while I was on a winning streak.”

Adam looked at Joe in disbelief. “Wait a minute, they asked you to stop, but you didn’t?”

“Yeah, well once they saw how good I was they suggested that I leave. Humph!”

“And how much had you won at this point in time?”

“Four hundred dollars, then five hundred. I couldn’t lose Adam.”

“You couldn’t lose?” Adam rose to his feet. “Why couldn’t I have been an only child?” he muttered to himself.

“Sorry Adam, what did you say?” Joe looked across at his brother who was now pacing up and down.

Adam continued his soliloquy. “But no, I have to have two numskulls for brothers, and then I have the inordinate stupidity to insist that Pa let them come on this trip with me.” Suddenly he turned and walked quickly over to Joe, who stepped back alarmed at his brother’s sudden approach. Adam flicked his hand sharply against the side of Joe’s head.

“Owwee! That hurt!” Joe drew back some more.

“What have you got in there for brains? Saw dust? They let you win. That was the bait and you swallowed it, hook, line and sinker.”

Joe’s pride was obviously hurt by this remark. “You don’t know that Adam. I’m good at poker. I play all the time. I often win.”

Adam’s eyes narrowed as he controlled his fury at his little brother. “Better not let Pa catch you boasting that way. You know how he feels about gambling! So, after you had won five hundred dollars, why didn’t you just quit? Why didn’t you leave once you realised your winning streak was over?”

“Well by then they wouldn’t let me Adam. Every time I tried to leave they said I should stay, my winning streak was bound to come back. And I thought it would too, I felt lucky. Then after a while I just had to keep playing so that I could pay back what I had lost. But I never did win another hand.” Joe’s chin sank on to his chest and his voice became very quiet. “Mr. Caldow made me sign these IOU notes, and then later he said that I would have to pay up in forty eight hours or, or I‘d pay the penalty.”

“Which is?”

“They kill me!”

Adam turned on Hoss. “How did you let him get in this deep? Why didn’t you just drag him out of there? You’ve done it before.”

Hoss squirmed uncomfortably under his brother’s piercing look. “I didn’t realise he was in that deep Adam.” When Adam gave him a lengthy stare, he added, “I was watching the stage show Adam, and it was real good too.”

“Tell me Joe, once they got you hooked by letting you win, did they cheat you?”

Joe shrugged his shoulders.

“They must have Adam,” Hoss said.

“Why?”

“Cos Joe’s right. He is good at poker.”

“Oh come on Hoss. He might win when he plays with his friends, or when he sneaks into the bunkhouse to play with the hands, but let’s be realistic. He’s a sixteen year old kid for goodness sake. These men are professional gamblers. They could easily beat Joe without resorting to cheating.”

“Do you two mind not talking about me as though I weren’t here.”

Adam gave Joe a withering look and perched on an arm of one of the chairs. “This whole thing is incredible,” he said, closing his eyes for a moment and pinching the bridge of his nose

“Adam?” Joe ventured to interrupt his brother’s thoughts. “Have you any idea how I can get the money by tomorrow evening?”

Adam shook his head. “Hoss, will you go downstairs, see if you can rustle up some coffee?”

“I’ll go,” Joe said, eager to please.

“You just sit down and stay put.”

Hoss disappeared into the bedroom to get dressed, and then left to see what he could purloin from the kitchen.

Adam sat down next to his young brother. “Joe, how do you manage to get into trouble so often?”

“I don’t know Adam, just got the knack I guess. You got any ideas at all?”

“Don’t worry Joe, we’ll think of something.” Adam’s initial annoyance had dissipated when he looked into Joe’s troubled eyes. He was well aware that Joe could switch between maturing young adult and irresponsible kid in the twinkling of an eye. And Adam knew too that he had to take his share of the blame for whatever trouble Joe was in. My duty to look after Joe, he thought, shouldn’t have shifted the responsibility to Hoss’ shoulders. Why didn’t I insist that the pair of them attend the dinner, and then none of this would have happened.

“Tell me Joe, what’s the name of this fine establishment, and who do you owe this money to?”

“It’s called The Silver Horseshoe, and the owner’s name is Caldow. He seemed so genuine Adam. I can’t believe that I was taken in like that.”

“Well no doubt they were plying you with drink.” Joe reddened. “Now Joe tell me, if you don’t have this money by tomorrow evening what do you really think is going to happen?” Adam looked steadily at his young brother.

Joe swallowed hard and stammered slightly as he began to speak. “WWell AAdam, Mr. Caldow said that he would ask his friends to be sure to collect or there would be a tragic accident, and then he would have to redeem the IOU’s from my grieving father. Then when we were leaving, another fella came over and said if I wanted to stay alive, I had better get the money. He said that people who owed Mr. Caldow had a strange way of disappearing, never to be seen again. The bodies were never found and the police couldn’t prove anything.” Joe was obviously doing his best to put on a brave face, but he looked at his brother with desperate eyes. “He meant it Adam. A couple of his men grabbed me this morning; I thought they were going to twist my head off.”

Adam looked up sharply. “You were attacked this morning? Does that explain the crick in your neck?”

Joe nodded.

“Joe, would you know these two men again? If we saw them at the Gaming House would you be able to point them out?”

Joe shrugged his shoulders. “I doubt it. They wore hats pulled down low, and the alley was dark, all in shadow. I couldn’t be sure.”

Adam was disappointed with Joe’s reply. He would dearly love to get those two particular individuals in a dark alley and give them a taste of their own medicine. He ran his hand over his face, and his brows drew together slightly in a worried frown. “Why on earth didn’t you tell us about any of this?”

“Didn’t want you to get mad at me, I thought I could fix it.”

Adam sat in silence for a few minutes. “Joe, I have absolutely no idea where to get ten thousand dollars at such short notice on a Sunday. All the banks and brokers are closed.”

“I already tried the banks,” Joe said. “That’s what I was doing when you and Hoss went to the meetings. The first one I went to wouldn’t see me at all. And the second one threatened to have me arrested for forcing my way in under false pretences!”

“What false pretences?”

“Well I said that I was from the Comstock and needed the bank’s services,” Joe said. “He assumed I was going to deposit money. Well it as the only way to get in,” Joe said in response to Adam’s deepening frown. “Then this afternoon I went to see Mr. Peterson.”

“Really! What did he have to say?”

“Oh he was very nice, after he had finished telling me that he thought Ben Cartwright’s youngest son was just a little boy! In fact he said he would let me have the money.”

Adam’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Oh!”

“Oh yes,” Joe continued, “once Pa had signed all the papers guaranteeing the loan!”

“Joe, you know that I have authority to draw money on the Ponderosa account. If you had told me all of this sooner, I would have had no trouble getting the money.”

“I thought I could get it Adam, I just thought I could do it on my own. Mr. Peterson wanted to know what I had to put up as collateral, and how I would repay the loan. I didn’t know what to say. What am I going to do Adam?”

The door opened, and Hoss entered the room, gingerly carrying a tray bearing a pot of coffee and some cups. Joe leapt up to close the door while Hoss placed the tray on the table.

“Got coffee and cookies,” he said picking up one of the cookies to munch on while pouring the coffee. He passed a cup to Adam and one to Joe, then offered the cookies. Adam took two. Joe declined with a miserable shake of his head, and returned to his seat. “You two come up with a plan yet?”

“Not yet, but we will,” said Adam hoping to encourage his fearful little brother.

“I can’t understand it Adam. How do they expect Joe to get the money on a Sunday? Even if he had that much they know that the banks are closed.”

“They weren’t closed yesterday,” Joe said.

Adam shook his head in bewilderment. “What I don’t understand,” he said, “ is why they would take a young kid like Joe for an amount like that. Why would they think he had access to that kind of money?” Adam paused for a moment and then continued with a searching look at Little Joe. “Unless of course you gave them reason to think so.”

Joe stood up and began to pace around the room.

“Did you Joe? Did you say anything that would make them think that?” Hoss asked.

Joe faced his brothers with a shamefaced expression.

“You did didn’t you?” Adam’s voice accusing now. “What exactly did you say? Or were you too drunk to remember!”

“I wasn’t that drunk Adam,” Joe protested, some of his fight coming back.

“So what did you say?”

“Well, at first they didn’t want to let me play. They said the stakes were too high for a boy.”

Adam shook his head in exasperation. “And you got all riled up because they called you a boy I suppose.”

Joe nodded. “I suppose so. I told them that my Pa owned a big ranch and that I had plenty of money. One of the men asked what I was doing in San Francisco and I told them we were on a business trip, hiring a ship to carry our lumber. After that they were really friendly.”

Adam threw his hands up in disgust. “I’m not surprised! They thought you had a big wad of money sitting in your back pocket just waiting to be taken? Pity you didn’t just mention that the money was in the bank and that you had no access to it. I suppose you also told these new friends of yours where you were staying?”

Little Joe hung his head. “They’re going to kill me Adam,” he said, his voice barely more than a frightened whisper. “I keep thinking about what it will be like to be dead!”

Adam looked up quickly at his young brother, his annoyance suddenly gone.

Hoss shot to his feet. “No-one’s gonna kill you Joe. Me ‘n’ Adam won’t let that happen, you know that Joe.”

Joe just shook his head, unconvinced.

“Adam will think of something, you just see if he don’t,” Hoss encouraged, “and there ain’t no-one gonna lay a hand you while I’m around.”

Little Joe smiled slightly. “Thanks Hoss.”

Adam walked over to Little Joe and placed a hand firmly on his shoulder.

“I’m sorry Adam,” Joe said.

“I know you’re sorry Joe,” Adam said kindly. He gave Joe a gentle shake. “And Hoss is right. We’re not going to let anyone hurt you. Okay?”

Joe breathed deeply and nodded.

“Right. Come and sit down. Let’s have our coffee and work out what we’re going to do.” Adam tried to sound positive and Joe seemed to relax a little. “Somehow I don’t think that going to the police is going to help.”

“How come?” Hoss asked.

“Well this is the way I see it. First of all, they probably didn’t cheat. Which means they have a legitimate claim on Joe for the money he lost. Second, even if they did cheat we have absolutely no proof. Third, Joe signed the IOU’s. They weren’t pointing a gun at you were they Joe?”

Joe shook his head.

“Then the notes are legal. And fourth, it’s only Joe’s word against theirs that they threatened him. Without positive proof the police just aren’t going to be interested. It’s not quite the same as going to Roy Coffee!”

“Well it should be. Adam, you’re the one always wants to do things by the law. You suggesting that we just go in there and take care of this ourselves?” Hoss said.

Adam shook his head. “No I’m not. Regardless of whether or not Joe was hoodwinked into believing he was good enough to play with these men, he chose to play and he lost. If he doesn’t pay up, then he’s the one in the wrong. If we go storming into the place there’s bound to be shooting and we’d be out numbered. Ten thousand dollars is not worth dying for.”

Adam knew that if it came to gunplay, then Joe would feel a need to be a part of it, and that idea really worried him. He remembered the times he had come across Joe practising with his gun, shooting at rocks, seeing how quickly he could draw his weapon. He obviously thought himself to be an expert at cards, and he probably considered himself a match for anyone with a gun too. There was no way he was going to allow Joe to be part of a gunfight. He doubted that any of them would come out of it alive.

“Joe shouldn’t have bet more money than he had in his pocket. The only thing to do is for Joe to pay up. He has to face up to his responsibility. No one forced him to gamble. He did it of his own volition.”

“I know you’re right Adam, but I don’t have ten thousand dollars. How am I going to pay?”

“Pity you didn’t think about that before you picked up the cards.”

“Okay Adam, Joe made a mistake. You’re right, he shouldn’t have been gambling. But dadburnit, what are we going to do about it?”

“Joe has to pay the money.”

“Like Joe just said, we don’t have ten thousand dollars. Do we?”

“We’ll have to get it out of the Ponderosa account.”

“Pa’s money!!” Joe said.

Adam nodded. “Of course, you’ll have a little explaining to do when we get back home.”

“But Adam, I need it by tomorrow night, and tomorrow is Sunday.”

“Well, Caldow is going to have to wait until Monday. I’ll go to the bank then and withdraw the cash. What this Caldow really wants is the ten thousand dollars. He doesn’t really want you dead Joe, at least not while he is hopeful of getting the money. He is just going to have to wait until Monday when the bank opens. In the meantime you will have us with you. They won’t try anything.”

“He’ll just say I could’ve gotten it today,” Joe said.

“Well it’s got to be worth a try. I’ll go have a talk to Caldow, but if you’re right and he won’t wait, then the bank will just have to open on Sunday!” Adam said with determination.

Hoss and Joe both stared at Adam.

Adam responded to their unspoken question. “The Ponderosa is a good customer. I’ll just have to go visit the manager and persuade him to do a little out of hours business.”

“Do you know where the manager lives?” Joe asked.

“I’ve been to his house once with Pa. I’m pretty sure I will be able to find it,” Adam said.

“There is another way Adam,” Hoss said.

“Which is?”

“Well, one of us could get into a poker game and win back Joe’s IOU’s.”

“I can’t,” Joe said, “I suggested that. He said I was barred from the tables.”

“May be Joe, but Adam’s not barred,” Hoss said.

Joe and Hoss both looked expectantly at Adam.

“That is the most bird brained idea I ever did hear,” Adam said.

“Why?” Hoss asked.

“Hoss, I am no match for professional gamblers, and even if I was, do you really think they would let me win ten thousand dollars? No, we would probably end up deeper in debt. I suggest we forget that idea.”

Joe and Hoss both appeared discouraged.

“Look, one way or another we’ll get the money. Now it’s not long till daybreak, so why don’t we all get some sleep. We’re going to have a busy day tomorrow,” Adam said.

Little Joe looked guilty when Adam mentioned having a busy day. “Guess I’ve messed up your day with the lovely lady Adam.”

“Don’t worry about it Joe. It’s not that important. Now go and get some sleep.”

Joe nodded, and went into the room he was sharing with Hoss.

“Hoss,” Adam said quietly when Joe had gone, “make sure that the window is secure, and keep your gun handy, just in case.”

“You think they’ll come here?”

“I don’t know. I doubt it, but better safe than sorry.”

Hoss nodded and joined Little Joe in the bedroom.

After his brothers had left the sitting room, Adam checked that the door was locked and then pushed a heavy chair in front of it. He went into his own room, checked the window then lay down on the bed, and worried over what would happen tomorrow.

For Joe’s sake he had tried to sound confident, but he really wasn’t at all sure that the bank manager would co-operate. Whether or not Caldow had actually cheated with the cards, Adam had no doubt that his intention all along was to get as much money out of Joe as they could, and in Adam’s book that amounted to cheating. But this wasn’t Virginia City. Things worked differently here. And Joe was just a boy. He couldn’t risk his little brother’s life. The safest way was to pay up and be done with it. Of course if Joe were hurt, then that would be a whole different story. He wished he could get his hands on the two who had attacked Joe that morning.

Hopefully Mr. Peterson would understand and be willing to let him have the money tomorrow. But what if the manager absolutely refused to open up the bank? He would have to use force then. Even if he signed all the appropriate papers, could it still be construed as robbery? Ten thousand dollars was an awful lot of money to withdraw under threat, even if it was their own money.

Perhaps he was wrong about the police. Maybe he should go to them. Maybe they would do something. They were probably very familiar with Caldow’s unscrupulous methods of collecting money. But then if they wouldn’t help, would they figure out that he would try to get the money anyway? What if they followed him? What if they stopped him from persuading the bank manager to open up and give him the money?

What if? What if? Adam’s mind was racing. May be he should contact Pa. No. Pa couldn’t do anything except worry. First thing was to go see this Caldow. Surely he could persuade him to wait until Monday to get his money. He prayed that Little Joe would be safe. He would tell Hoss to be sure to stay close to him.

*****

Adam came to with a start. Surprisingly he had fallen into a deep sleep, and now Hoss was shaking his arm to wake him. It was Sunday morning already, and time to put his ill-conceived plans to work. Adam dressed quickly and joined his brothers in the sitting room. Hoss looked grim, and Joe’s young face was drawn, his eyes full of apprehension.

“Okay,” Adam said looking in Joe’s direction, “we’re all going to eat breakfast, then I’m going to the Silver Horseshoe and see if I can talk some sense into this Caldow character.”

“I’ve been thinking about that Adam. I should come with you. After all this is my problem not yours.”

Adam pursed his lips slightly. “No I don’t think so Joe, not without the money in your hand.”

“Adam, there’s something I forgot to tell you last night,” Joe said.

Adam bit back the reprimand that had sprung to his lips. Getting cross with Joe wasn’t going to help.

“Go on.”

“Well when I went to the bank yesterday afternoon, I kept on seeing this same man. He always seemed to be on a street corner, or in a café window, or just walking along the street behind me.”

“You were being followed?” Hoss said, “Joe, why didn’t you tell me. I’d have seen him off.”

“Maybe it was just your imagination Joe,” Adam said.

“No, I’m sure he was following me.”

“Was he one of the men who roughed you up in the morning?”

“I don’t know, I don’t think so.”

“What’re you talking about? When did someone rough you up Joe?” Hoss asked.

“A couple of fellas grabbed me yesterday morning and asked if I had the money yet?”

Hoss was furious. “This has gone too far Adam. Demanding that their notes get paid is one thing, but this is something entirely different. What you plan on doing about it?” Hoss glared at Adam.

“Well I don’t plan on doing anything right now.”

“Don’t ya! What’s the matter with you anyway? You gone yella or something? Well I reckon I’ll go over there and just grab those notes back from Caldow, then I’ll crack his head open. He don’t scare me none. He ain’t nothing but a cowardly thief anyway.”

“Hoss you just simmer down. Regardless of what Caldow has done, Joe signed those notes and legally he owes the money. Those men could have easily killed Joe this morning, but they didn’t.”

“Adam! They got you running scared!”

“As long as Joe stays here with us he’s safe. They were just making sure he was good and scared. They want the money Hoss.”

“And that ain’t right either Adam. If he cheated Joe, then Joe doesn’t owe him a dime.”

Adam looked at Little Joe. “But Joe doesn’t know that he was cheated, do you Joe?”

Joe shook his head.

“No I didn’t think so. Hoss, we’ve been over and over this already. I’m sure that they let him win to begin with. But after that, well come on! A sixteen-year old kid! No matter how good Joe thinks he is at playing poker, these men are professional gamblers. They could easily beat Joe without resorting to cheating.”

“Professional gamblers! Professional cheats more like,” Hoss said.

Adam ignored Hoss’ remark. “And without definite proof that they were cheating, there’s nothing we can do. They have a legal claim on Joe for the money and we’re going to have to pay up. By signing those notes he gave his word that he would honour the debt. I agree that the vicious threats they are using to get their money is criminal, but jumping in with two feet is just going to make matters worse.”

“Okay Adam I’ll go along with you for now, but if you don’t come up with the money, then that’s just what I aim to do,” Hoss replied. “I don’t know how you can stay so blamed calm. They’re threatening Joe’s life.”

“You think I don’t know that!” Adam snapped back, “Look, there’s no point going at this like a bull in a china shop. First off I’m going to see if he will extend the deadline, if not I’ll try to get the money. If I don’t manage either, then any jumping that’s to be done we’ll do together, okay?”

Hoss nodded his agreement.

But Adam felt that Hoss’ reluctance was just one more thing that he had to worry about. “What’s the matter with you Hoss? Don’t you think Little Joe’s life is worth paying the ten thousand dollars?”

Hoss was breathing hard in an obvious attempt to control his anger. “You got no call to say that Adam. It’s not the money, and you know it. They’re bullies and they shouldn’t get away with it.”

“I know that Hoss, but we have no choice. We have to play it their way.”

“No we don’t. They cheated Joe. He don’t owe them nothing.”

In sheer frustration Adam slammed his fist down on the table. “You don’t know that. Joe said he didn’t know if they were cheating.”

Adam and Hoss were getting louder and louder, taking their worry and anger out on each other.

“STOP IT. Stop arguing,” Joe screamed.

“All right Joe, all right. Sorry Adam. I didn’t mean what I said. They get me so mad I feel like I want to…”

“I know Hoss. Come on, we’ll work this out.”

Little Joe spoke again, quietly this time. “I don’t think Caldow will listen to you Adam, and I don’t think you’ll get the money either. And that fella that was following me, he’s probably the one who’s going to kill me. Dead on ten o’clock.”

“Well thanks for the vote of confidence Joe. I thought you trusted me a little more than that.”

“I do trust you Adam, but I just don’t think this is going to work. Maybe Hoss is right. But I should be the one to go over there. Tell Caldow that he’s a crook and I’m not paying. I’d rather die that way than being picked off like a sitting duck.”

Adam sent Hoss an exasperated look. “Hoss isn’t right, not this time. And I don’t plan on any one of us dying. If Caldow won’t extend the deadline, then we try for the money. I mean it Joe, no heroics.”

“But Adam, ten thousand dollars! What’s Pa going to say. He needs that money, it’s already spoken for.” Joe sank into a chair and buried his head in his hands and groaned. “I wish I could start Friday all over again.”

“I’m sure that you do, but you can’t. So, Pa’s going to be mad at you for disobeying him and for losing so much money. Given the choice between losing the money and losing you, I think he would probably prefer to lose the money,” Adam said, trying to lift Joe’s spirits a little. “And if it makes you feel any better, Pa’s probably going to be madder with me than with you.”

“Huh! How come?”

“Because I persuaded him to let you come and you are my responsibility while we’re here. I should never have allowed you out on the town without being with you.”

“And I should have been looking out for you when Adam wasn’t there, so I reckon he’ll be mad at me too,” Hoss said.

Joe looked miserable and shook his head. “You act like I was some little kid. It was all my fault. I’m too old to expect either of you to look out for me. Well you won’t have to worry about it happening again. Pa’s never gonna let me off the ranch after this!”

“All right, that’s enough of feeling sorry for yourself. We have a plan. It’s not perfect I know but it’s all we’ve got and we’ll carry it out.”

Joe nodded his agreement

“All right, first off I will go see Caldow; if I get no joy there, then I go to see the bank manager. If that fails, then we’ll figure out what to do next.

Joe looked across at Hoss. “Well what are we supposed to do in the meantime?” he said.

“Just wait here,” Adam said.

“And do what?”

“Joe, there’s nothing to do. Just keep a low profile. He said he would give you until ten o’clock.”

“But Adam, I should come with you. How can I just sit here while you’re out there trying to save my hide? No Adam, I got myself into this mess, I’ve got come with you.”

As stubborn as ever, Adam thought, recognising the touch of defiance in Joe’s voice. “All right, a compromise.” “I’ll go see Caldow, and if he refuses to wait for the money, then we’ll all go to see Mr. Peterson. Okay?”

“Okay,” Joe agreed.

“Good, now let’s go and eat.”

The dining room was almost full again. They didn’t feel much like having breakfast, but Adam insisted that they all ate something. It was going to be a long day and they needed sustenance. During the meal Hoss gave Adam directions to the Silver Horseshoe. It was gone nine thirty when Adam parted from his brothers in the hotel lobby and set out to walk the fairly short distance to the gaming house.

“Good luck Adam,” Hoss called out as Adam left.

Adam acknowledged him with a slight wave of his hand.

“Do you think there’s a chance he can do it?” Joe asked as he watched Adam leave.

“Sure there is. Come on Joe; let’s go upstairs to wait for him. Bet he’ll be back within the hour.”

Hoss picked up a newspaper from the stand by the desk, then laid a hand on Joe’s back and guided him towards the sweeping staircase that led up from the lobby.

*****

Adam had dressed impeccably that morning. His sparkling white starched shirt was worn with a black string tie, his dark suit was new, the frock coat showing off his physic to perfection, drawing attention to his broad shoulders and straight back. His black boots were highly polished and his black hat was angled so as to hide his eyes. On his hips he wore his gun belt slung low, but partly hidden from view by his coat. He knew that when he approached Caldow it had to be with an air of authority. Caldow needed to know that he wouldn’t be cowed or pushed around. He also wanted to impress upon the gambler and his henchmen that he could handle himself and his gun. He had no intention of allowing himself to be drawn into any gunplay, he knew that the odds were definitely not in his favour, but he needed them to think twice before starting any trouble.

After a fifteen-minute walk, Adam reached the Silver Horseshoe Gambling House. The huge door on the main street was firmly closed. He knocked loudly and waited. Eventually a small hatch in the door opened and a man’s face appeared.

“We’re closed, go away,” he said slamming the hatch shut.

Adam banged on the door for a second time and again the hatch opened.

“I told you we’re closed,” the man said.

“I’m here to see Caldow.”

The man seemed to hesitate. “Mr. Caldow don’t see no-one.”

“He’ll see me,” Adam said, “tell him my name is Cartwright.”

The man banged the hatch shutter closed. A few minutes later Adam heard bolts being drawn and the huge wooden door swung open. Adam stepped into the dim interior.

“This way.”

The man moved off and Adam stepped through a further doorway and followed him through a maze of green baize-covered card tables. To the left there was a wheel of fortune and some pool tables and in the far corner stood an upright piano. At the far end there was an archway which appeared to lead to another room. To the right, a mahogany bar ran the full length of the large room and behind that, on the wall, was a gilt-framed mirror of similar length. The other walls were adorned with huge pictures of scantily clad women in provocative poses. The raffish surroundings must have appealed to Little Joe, Adam thought, remembering Joe describe it as a real nice place!

Adam’s guide led him up a staircase, which was concealed from the room by long, red brocade curtains. From the top of the stairs they passed along a corridor with closed doors on either side. At the end of the corridor, the man stopped in front of a large panelled door. He knocked, then opened the door and gestured for Adam to enter.

The room was richly and ornately decorated, and filled with large plush furniture. A man wearing a dark green velvet jacket, exquisitely embroidered with golden thread, stood in front of a huge gilded fireplace. The ostentatious display of ill-gotten wealth only added to Adam’s carefully masked anger. Two other men flanked the man whom Adam assumed to be Caldow. One was of gigantic proportions, larger than Hoss, with a thick bulging neck and a nose squashed and bent across his broad, mean face. His body seemed to bursting out of his cheap looking clothes. In contrast, the other man was small and wiry with slits for eyes and a pencil thin moustache breaking up his rat-like features. Adam noticed that he wore pistols on both hips. There was a woman too, dressed in a flimsy robe, sitting in a chair just to the side of the big man. She stared appreciatively at Adam.

The man in the fancy jacket moved forward and looked at Adam through cold, milky blue eyes. “You’re not Cartwright. Who are you?” he demanded.

Adam kept his eyes on this man, but was aware of slight movement by the other two. The big man had taken a step forward, and the other fingered his guns. Adam stared coldly back at the man directly in front of him. “I’m Adam Cartwright, I assume you’re Caldow,” he said, his voice had a scornful edge to it.

“Mister Caldow,” the big man growled.

Adam ignored him.

Caldow’s eyes narrowed and he gave a slight nod, Adam’s obvious contempt seeming to rattle him. “Yes, I’m Caldow. I assume you are related to Joseph Cartwright?”

“Brother,” Adam said. “I would like to speak to you alone.”

Caldow considered for a moment. “Very well,” he said, and with a motion of his head he dismissed his lackeys who left by a door at the far end of the room. “You too,” he said to the woman. She gave him a sour look, and pulled herself out of the chair. She walked past Adam, brushing against him as she did so, and left by the door through which he had entered.

“Well sir,” Caldow said when they were alone, “have you come to pay your brother’s gambling debt? I do hope so…for his sake.”

Adam’s eyes flashed, his features became hardened, the tight muscles in his jaw standing out. “Caldow, I believe you to be a cheating, thieving murderer,” Adam said, his voice low and dangerous.

Caldow gave a mocking smile. “Do you? You’re a brave man Cartwright, to make such accusations. Brave or foolish.” When Adam made no comment he continued impatiently. “Cartwright I am a busy man. Do you have my money or not?”

“No.”

“Then I suggest you leave. My condolences to your father. Naturally I will write to him about the outstanding debt.”

Adam fought down the urge to hurl himself at the odious excuse for a man. “You’ll get your money, tomorrow.”

Caldow shook his head. “Ten o’clock this evening. I told your brother, forty-eight hours is all I allow for gambling debts to be paid. I am running a business, and I insist on debts being paid on time.”

“The banks are closed. How do you expect us to get your damned money.”

“Tut tut Mr. Cartwright, losing your temper won’t help. If your young brother couldn’t afford to lose, then he shouldn’t have been allowed to play. As for getting the money, well that’s your problem, the banks were open yesterday. But I warn you as I warned that brat you have for a brother, I expect to be paid in full and on time, otherwise the consequences will be dire.

“What’s to stop me going to the police and telling them you are threatening to murder my brother over a gambling debt, a debt incurred because you cheated him?”

“Nothing at all Mr. Cartwright.” Caldow settled himself in one of the huge armchairs. “You are at liberty to follow which ever course of action you see fit. I suppose it all depends on how important your brother is to you? Live or die, makes no difference to me. Either way I win. You see you can not prove any of your accusations, and I am in possession of your brother’s signed notes. The law is on my side.”

“If he were killed, or if he disappeared, the finger of suspicion would point to you.”

“Oh I doubt it. People are always going missing here. They get drunk and fall into the bay, or they get shanghaied; all sorts of things happen. I don’t think you realise just how big my organisation is, or that the police chief and I are on very friendly terms. And I would still be within my legal rights to expect your father to pay the debt. I suspect that your brother is still a minor, and that makes your father responsible for any and all debts that he incurs.”

“What difference does a few hours make, you’ll get your money.”

Caldow gave a callous laugh. “Look around you Cartwright. Do I look like I need ten thousand dollars? No, it’s the principle of the thing. Besides, if I bend my rules for you, then everyone will expect to get the same treatment. It may surprise you to know that I am well aware of who you Cartwrights are. I am sure that your father will not want me to drag his family’s good name through the courts to redeem his son’s gambling debt, particularly when he is grieving for that same son, following an unfortunate but fatal accident. Believe me it will save us all a lot of grief if you just pay up.”

The tense muscles in Adam’s face twitched. Suddenly he took two swift steps towards Caldow, reached out and grabbed a handful of the richly embroidered fabric, yanking the man up out of his seat. Caldow was caught off guard and Adam slammed a fist into his face sending him sprawling on the floor, knocking over a table and sending a vase of flowers crashing down. Adam lunged at the fallen man, but the noise had brought the henchmen back into the room and Adam felt himself being hauled off Caldow with a strangling grip on his throat, then heard the click of a revolver being cocked very close to his ear. Caldow picked himself up off the floor, straightened his jacket, then took a silk handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed with it at his bleeding lip.

“What do you want us to do with him boss?” the big man asked. He eased his grip slightly on Adam’s throat enabling Adam to speak.

“Caldow, you harm my brother and I will personally find you and kill you.”

The last words came out as a strangled cry as the big man increased his hold again so that Adam could barely breathe and his words choked in his throat.

Caldow gave a cruel, jeering laugh.

“Maybe he should disappear,” the thin gunman said in his weedy voice, pushing the barrel of the weapon hard into Adam’s cheek. “I’ll shoot him with his own gun!”

“No!” Caldow glowered at Adam. “Throw him out. Let it be a warning Cartwright. I won’t be so generous to your brother.”

Adam felt the cold metal leave his face, and then there was a slight easing of the restriction around his throat, and he was dragged across the room towards the door.

“Remember Cartwright, ten o’clock or your bother’s dead.”

Adam was unable to match his captor’s strength, and despite his struggling he was dragged back along the corridor and down the staircase. He lost his footing, tripped and fell, his knees banging against the stairs, supported only by the strangle hold on his neck which made him gasp for breath. Moments later, with Caldow’s threats ringing his ears, Adam was flung out on to the street, his gun and hat thrown down beside him, and he heard the bolts being slid back into position on the inside of the huge door. He struggled to his feet, one hand clutching at his crushed throat while with the other he slipped his gun back into its holster. He stretched to pick up his fallen hat and felt a searing pain shoot through the back of his head, and he pitched forward into black nothingness.

*****

Little Joe paced nervously back and forth across the small sitting room while Hoss stared out of the window, watching anxiously for the first sight of Adam returning to the hotel.

“Why is he so long?” Little Joe said.

“Joe, why don’t you just sit down and try to relax. Adam’ll do okay.”

Ignoring his brother’s suggestion Joe continued with his pacing. “No, he’s been gone too long. You said yourself it wouldn’t take more than an hour. We should go see if he’s all right.”

“No, Adam said to stay here.”

Joe sat down at last, perching on the edge of the seat. “What time is it?” he asked”

Hoss took his watch out of his pocket and flipped open the case. “Eleven thirty.”

Joe thought for a moment. “If Caldow had agreed to wait until tomorrow, then Adam would have been back by now.”

Hoss nodded. “Yeah, I suppose he would.”

“That means Caldow said no and Adam is in trouble, otherwise he would have come straight back.”

“Now listen here Joe, Adam can handle himself. He said to wait here and that’s what we’re gonna do. He hasn’t been that long.”

“All right, ten more minutes, but then I’m going down to the Silver Horseshoe to look for him.”

“Ya know what I think?” Hoss said. “I think Caldow wasn’t at the Silver Horseshoe. He probably doesn’t live there, and Adam has had to traipse all over town to find him. That’s why it’s taking him so long.”

“Ya think so?”

“Yeah, I just said so didn’t I. Here, read the paper. It’ll take your mind off things,” Hoss said, tossing the newspaper at Little Joe.

*****

Adam became aware of a throbbing headache. He reached up and tenderly felt the back of his head. Ouch. An egg-sized lump explained the cause of his pain. He forced open his eyes, trying to recall what had happened. He blinked then rubbed his hand across his eyes and then opened them again. Bars! Cell bars! Gingerly he pulled himself into a sitting position and when the dizziness had passed, he stood up and walked to the front of the cell. It was one of four, and he was the only inmate. He couldn’t figure out why he was there. At first he thought it was Caldow’s doing, then he remembered his unceremonious exit from the Silver Horseshoe.

“HELLO!” he shouted. “HELLO! IS THERE ANYBODY OUT THERE?”

Following his outburst the wooden door to the cellblock opened and a burly man came in.

“Quit hollering,” he said tersely. The man wore a badge on his vest.

“Sheriff, what’s going on? Why am I in here?” Adam demanded to know.

“Deputy US Marshall,” the man said tapping the badge with his finger.

“Deputy Marshall, let me out of here will you. I haven’t done anything wrong, I need to be somewhere. Let me out.”

The Deputy said nothing, just kept on looking at Adam.

“Why am I here?” Adam asked again.

“Humph,” the Deputy grunted, “you’re here because the Marshall wants one of Caldow’s men. Now shut up.” He left the room, shutting the door behind him.

“NO! NO DON’T GO. COME BACK!” Adam yelled. “I AM NOT ONE OF CALDOW’S MEN. HE’S GOING TO KILL MY BROTHER. LET ME OUT OF HERE!”

The Deputy opened the door again. “Who’s gonna kill your brother?”

“Caldow. Caldow lured my brother into running up a gambling debt, and now he is going to have him killed. You’ve got to let me out now.”

The man shook his head. “Sorry mister, no can do. You talk to the Marshall, see if he believes you. Far as I’m concerned you’re one of Caldow’s men, and you stay locked up.”

“Don’t go, please!” Adam said, sensing that the man was about to leave. He felt his pocket, feeling for his watch. “My watch, it’s gone.”

“In the office, along with ya gun belt. Mighty slick looking weapon for someone to be carrying, if he ain’t one of Caldow’s men,” the Deputy said.

“I’ve told you, I am not one of Caldow’s men. What time is it?”

The deputy took out his own watch. “Eleven thirty-five.”

“In the morning?”

“Yes, in the morning.”

“Thank God!” Adam said with relief.

“That all?” the deputy asked.

“No, no please listen to me.”

“Make it quick. I ain’t got all day.”

Adam related the tale of Little Joe’s gambling debt and Caldow’s threat. “You have to let me go. If I don’t get the money my little brother’s life is in mortal danger.”

The deputy seemed to be considering what to do.

“Look, just get your boss will you. I have to get out of here. Caldow’s threatened to murder my brother tonight. If you don’t let me out of here, and my brother dies, then I will hold you just as responsible as Caldow. And when I have finished with Caldow, I will be looking for you, Deputy US Marshall or not.”

“You threatening me?”

Adam closed his eyes and took a deep breath. His head was pounding and he didn’t know how much longer he could hold his temper. “You want a sixteen year old boy’s death on your conscience?”

“I don’t have the authority to let you go.”

“Then for heaven’s sake, get the Marshall now, before it’s too late.”

“All right, but you just calm down. Take it easy, that’s a nasty bang you had on your head.”

“JENKINS!”

The Deputy turned towards the open door. “In here Marshall!”

A tall rangy man stepped into the cellblock. “What’s going on?”

“This here fella claims that he ain’t one of Caldow’s men at all. Says Caldow’s gonna to kill his brother!”

“Marshall, my name is Adam Cartwright. I’m a rancher from Nevada, and I could really do with your help.”

After listening to Adam’s story, Marshall Kay opened up the cell. Adam followed him out to the office where the Marshall handed him his belongings. “Mr. Cartwright, I’d sure appreciate it if you could answer a couple of questions before you go?”

Adam looked at the Marshall through narrowed eyes as he buckled on his gun belt. “Such as?”

“Did you go up to Caldow’s private quarters?”

“Yes.”

“Would you describe them to me, exactly? How you got there, what the rooms are like.”

Adam hesitated.

“Like I told you, this is federal business, and I would be obliged if you would co-operate.”

With obvious annoyance Adam told the Marshall everything he could about the upstairs layout of the Silver Horseshoe.

“Well that’s all, you can go now.”

Adam slipped his watch into his pocket and put on his hat.

“Sorry about the bump on the head Mr. Cartwright,” the Marshall said when he saw Adam wince.

Adam shrugged his shoulders. “I’ve had worse,” he said. “Marshall, now that I have helped you, will you help me. You obviously have something on Caldow.”

Marshall Kay shook his head and pulled at his drooping moustache. “Mr. Cartwright, I’m sorry that we mistook you for one of his men, but there’s nothing we can do for you. I’m grateful for your help and I’d like to oblige you, but this is government business. ’Fraid I can’t discuss it. Sure hope things work out for you and your brother though.”

“Sure, thanks for nothing.”

“A piece of advice Mr. Cartwright. If you get your money, then you just pay up and get out of here. Believe me Caldow’s gonna get his comeuppance, and I would prefer you not to be around when he does.”

Adam took out his watch. Just gone eleven fifty.

“I have to go.”

“And one more thing, Mr. Cartwright, I would appreciate it if you didn’t mention this little incident to anyone,” the Marshall said, “and I do mean anyone. It’s real important.”

Adam nodded and left the office.

Outside, Adam tried to get his bearings. He walked in what he hoped was the right direction until he hailed a passing hack and gave the driver directions back to the hotel. He leaned back on the seat, wishing his head didn’t throb so much. Well, he had failed to get Caldow to change his mind, and he had fared no better with the Marshall, who had refused to give him any assistance. He hoped that his powers of persuasion would prove to be more effective with the bank manager. He knew that Hoss and Joe would have expected him back at the hotel hours ago and fervently hoped that they hadn’t gone off on their own.

Adam allowed his eyes to close. The blinding headache was making it difficult for him to think. Suddenly the carriage lurched, shaking Adam back to his senses, and he could hear the driver shouting curses at a pedestrian who had foolishly stepped out on to the roadway. Adam peered out of the window, pleased to note that they were almost back at the hotel. Something caught his attention, and he leaned precariously out of the carriage and shouted to the driver to stop. The man brought the horses to a stand still.

“Not there yet mister,” he shouted down to Adam.

“Yes I know, but this will do.” Adam handed the man his fare and a tip, then began to run along the sidewalk in the direction from which he had just come. To keep up his speed he had to veer out on to the road to pass a crowd who were watching a man with a performing monkey, and was himself lambasted with curses from another cab driver. At last he spotted them. “HOSS! JOE!” he yelled. “HOSS.”

Joe and Hoss Cartwright turned, surprised to see their older brother tearing up the road shouting their names. “Adam, where’ve you been? We were just going up to the Silver Horseshoe to look for you,” Hoss said.

“I got waylaid. Come on back to the hotel, we need to talk.”

“Why? What’s happened?” Hoss asked.

“What did Caldow say? Did you see him?” Joe asked.

Adam nodded. “Yes. He won’t give an inch. Wants the money by 10 o’clock. I’ll tell you everything when we get back to the hotel.”

While Hoss was unlocking the door to their rooms Little Joe noticed Adam’s shirt collar.

“Adam, you’re bleeding. What happened to you?”

“Got cracked over the skull. Hurts like the devil. My head feels like it’s going to bust right open!”

Once inside, Adam handed his hat to Joe and took off his jacket. Hoss went into the bedroom and returned with a bowl of water and a towel.

“Sit down Adam, let’s have a look at ya.”

There was an ugly wound on the back of Adam’s head. It was swollen and encrusted with dried blood.

“Did Caldow do that?” Joe asked.

“No. Ouch! Take it easy Hoss.”

While Hoss tended to the wound, Adam related the morning’s happenings to his brothers.

“I don’t understand why the Marshall won’t help, especially as he is obviously after Caldow too,” Joe said.

“Well from the way he was talking, I think he’s on some sort of secret government mission. Anyway, whatever the reason, he’s not getting involved with our problem.”

“So now we go see the bank manager,” Hoss said.

“What time is it?” Adam asked.

Hoss pulled out his watch from his pocket. “One forty.”

“Okay. Still plenty of time.” Adam said, getting up. I’m going to have to lie down for a while. Make sure I’m up by two thirty.”

He walked into his bedroom and sank down on to the bed. He couldn’t believe how badly his head was hurting. He could hardly think and it was a relief to close his eyes. But almost immediately it seemed that Hoss was by his side.

“Come on Adam. Time to get up.”

Adam felt Hoss take hold of his arm and ease him up to a sitting position. “Must have dozed off.”

“Yeah, do you good. You feel any better?”

“Sure,” Adam lied.

“Come on then. We’ve order a pot of tea and some sandwiches, and Little Joe has been to the apothecary down the road and got you some headache medicine.”

“What! You let him out on his own?”

“Well he was determined to go, and like you said they won’t do anything until tonight.”

Adam walked across to the wash stand and peered into the mirror. He sighed and rubbed his hand over his face. Going to have to shave again, he thought.

“Hoss, I’ll just get cleaned up. I’ll be out in a minute.”

By the time the trolley bearing their refreshments arrived, Adam had finished. Clean-shaven and wearing a fresh shirt, he was surprised to feel a little better. He stepped into the sitting room as Hoss was busying himself pouring the tea.

“Hey Adam, you feeling any better?” Joe asked.

“I’m all right Joe.”

“Drink this. It will help with the headache.”

“Joe, you had no business going out on your own.”

“I was okay Adam. Take it.”

Joe handed him a glass containing a murky white liquid. Adam took it, gave it a cursory look and then tossed it back. “Aaggh!”

Joe gave a sympathetic laugh. “Hey brother, if it tastes that bad, it must be good stuff!”

“Here Adam, wash it down with some tea,” Hoss said, handing him a steaming cup.

With some hot tea and sandwiches inside of him Adam began to feel a lot better. Joe’s medicine must have been working too, because the pounding was easing up and his head was beginning to clear. He felt ready to face Mr. Peterson.

By three thirty they had arrived at their destination, a tree lined avenue in the well to do area of the city. To Adam’s dismay, all the houses looked alike.

“Which one is it?” Hoss asked.

Adam looked up and down the road. “I can’t remember. Come on.”

They walked the full length of the avenue on one side of the road, and returned along the other side. None the wiser, Adam decided to knock at the door of one house and ask which was the Peterson home. While Hoss and Joe stayed on the sidewalk, Adam opened the gate of the nearest house and walked up to the large front door, and rapped loudly with the brass knocker. Moments later it was opened by a middle-aged woman, wearing an apron over her black dress.

“Yes sir, what can I do for you?” she asked.

“Hello ma’am. I’m looking for the Peterson home. I am afraid I can’t remember which it is.”

The woman smiled. “Well, you were almost right. It’s the house next door, that way,” she said indicating the house to the right. “But I’m afraid you’re much too late sir.”

“Too late?”

“For the Christening. The service will just about be over now, what a pity you missed it.”

“Oh yes, well I got lost,” Adam said. “We’ll just go over and wait at the house. Do you think there will be anyone there to let us in?”

“Oh yes, Mrs Jones the housekeeper will be there.”

“Well thank you for your help ma’am.” Adam tipped his hat.

“It’s the one next door,” he said when he reached his brothers, “but there is a slight problem.”

Joe groaned. “They’ve gone away.”

“No, but the woman said there’s a Christening and everyone is still at the church. Looks like we are going to have to gatecrash a family party.”

“Bet he won’t even see us,” Joe said.

“He will, won’t he Adam?” Hoss said.

“Of course he will. Come on now Joe, I’ve never known you be such a pessimist.”

Adam set off up the pathway of the Peterson home followed by his brothers. He knocked loudly on the door. “You two just be polite, and let me do the talking,” he instructed them while they waited.

When the housekeeper opened the door, Adam smiled and doffed his hat. “Good afternoon. We are sorry to be so late. It is a while since I was last here. I lost my way.”

“Oh I see, and your names sir?”

“Cartwright, Adam Cartwright from Nevada, and these are my brothers. I suppose we’ve missed the Christening?”

Joe’s eyes widened at his brother’s smooth talking.

“Yes I am afraid that you have. Won’t you come in. Mr. and Mrs Peterson and their guests should be back very shortly.”

The woman took their hats, and ushered them into a library. Three walls of the room were lined with wooden shelves, highly polished and filled with books. The fourth consisted of large windows, which looked out over a landscaped garden. Under a different set of circumstances, Adam would have been intrigued with the room, but today he had far more urgent matters on his mind.

They sat in the large leather armchairs to wait the arrival of the man on whom so much depended. Adam’s calm appearance masked the frantic workings of his mind as he considered their next move. This family gathering wasn’t going to help their cause at all. Adam was sure that the bank manager was not going to be keen to leave his family to conduct some illicit bank business. But on the other hand, being surrounded by his own family might make him sympathetic to the quandary the Cartwright family found themselves in. Well no matter, he was going to have to get George Peterson to co-operate one way or another.

Adam stood up and walked across to the window, looking out to velvet lawns and well-manicured flowerbeds, then turned to observe his companions. Hoss wore a frown and looked worried. Little Joe’s face was pale and he fidgeted constantly with nervous energy. Adam fingered the butt of his holstered gun as he considered their predicament. The slight movement made Joe jump to his feet.

“Adam, you’re not going to shoot Mr. Peterson are you?”

Before Adam could answer, the sound of chattering voices drifted in from the hallway.

“They’re back,” Hoss said, nervously running his finger round his stiff collar.

A few minutes later the library door opened and George Peterson entered and greeted Adam, a beaming smile on his face.

“Adam! Adam Cartwright! What a pleasant surprise.” He shook Adam’s hand vigorously.

Joe and Hoss exchanged knowing looks.

“Mr. Peterson. You know my brothers Hoss and Joe.” In turn the two shook hands with the banker.

“Good to see you Hoss, and Joseph. I didn’t expect to see you again so soon.”

“No sir.”

“We’re sorry to be interrupting a family occasion,” Adam said.

“No, not at all. Always pleased to see you. Come and meet everyone. My first granddaughter’s Christening. Wait until you see her, she’s a little beauty.”

“Yes, I’m sure she is. Mr. Peterson, we really need to speak to you privately for a minute if you don’t mind.”

“All right. Sit down all of you. But I warn you, if I am not back in a few minutes my wife will come looking for us, and she won’t take no for an answer.

Adam hesitated for just a brief moment, casting a glance at his brothers. “I’d like to make a withdrawal from the bank,” he said.

“Fine. Come and see me tomorrow and we’ll sort it out. Now come and join the party.” George Peterson began to rise from his chair.

“No, you don’t understand. I need to withdraw the money now.”

The banker gave a small surprised laugh and sat back down. “Adam, it’s Sunday, and I have my family here. See me tomorrow when the bank opens.”

“No! If I could just explain. We find ourselves in rather a difficult situation.”

The banker suddenly looked suspicious and looked straight at Little Joe, who seemed to be taking a great interest in the carpet.

“Am I correct in thinking that this has something to do with young Joseph’s visit to me yesterday? He was after money in a hurry too.” The banker’s jovial mood faded fast. “What are you up to Adam?”

“Well, Joe has got himself into some trouble, a gambling debt, and it needs to be paid by tonight.”

“I see. I suppose this debt totals exactly ten thousand dollars? The amount you tried to borrow yesterday Joseph?”

Joe nodded under the man’s disapproving look.

“Well I won’t go into the perils of gambling. That’s for your father, and I would have thought, older brother,” he said encompassing Adam with his look of disapproval.

Adam replied. “Well that’s for later. Right now we need the money and if we don’t have it by tonight, well his life will be in danger.”

“Can’t be done.”

Joe made a move to get up, but Hoss put a restraining hand on his arm.

An expert at keeping his feelings hidden, Adam’s expression remained calm while his anxiety increased. “Yes it can, it has to be.”

“Tell me Adam, why didn’t you come along with Joseph yesterday? I would have let you have the money then. Though goodness knows what your father will say about all of this.”

“Well, because I didn’t know then. Joe didn’t tell me until last night. He thought he could handle it himself. I have already been to see the man he owes the money to, but he won’t budge.”

“Surely any reasonable man would wait until tomorrow morning?”

“Yes, but Caldow isn’t reasonable, and Joe has signed IOU’s.”

“Caldow!”

Adam nodded. “You know him?”

“Well I wouldn’t exactly say I know him, but I have heard of him.”

“Then will you let me have the money. I’ll sign all the relevant papers, just as I would if I were making a normal withdrawal on a working day.”

The banker moved to stand in front of the window, hands in his pockets. Adam kept silent, giving the man time to come to a decision. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest and he prayed that the man would agree. Peterson was a good man. Adam didn’t want to have to use force. Please give us the money, he exhorted silently.

George Peterson turned round to face Adam. “It’s not the way to do it Adam. The man’s a bully.”

“A bully! He’s more than that. If what I’ve heard is true, then he is a cheat who thinks nothing of murder.”

“Murder!”

“He’s threatened to have Joe murdered. I’m not sure that Hoss and I can protect him.” Adam’s voice sounded strained, and it had an urgent tone.

The comment brought a look of alarm to Joe’s face.

“But Adam, it’s playing right into his hands. If he is genuinely owed the money, then he should wait until tomorrow.”

Exasperation was beginning to get the better of Adam, and when he spoke it was in measured tones. “Yes, I agree with everything you are saying. It goes right against the grain to pay him a cent. But if I don’t, then Joe is dead! Do you understand what I am saying? They will kill Joe.”

“Adam, it is an idle threat surely. What would he gain by killing young Joseph? There would be uproar. He would never get away with it.”

“But don’t you see, he wouldn’t do it himself. Nothing would happen to him. It would be that hired gun he keeps at his side, or some other lackey. He wouldn’t care who took the blame. And we don’t know who all his men are. It could be someone in the hotel, or just strolling down the street. Could be anyone.”

“You truly believe he will do it.”

“Yes, I do. I met with the man this morning. I believe him when he says he will have Joe killed. He’s evil and has no conscience.”

“Go to the police.”

“And say what? They won’t do anything until there’s a dead body. Besides, Caldow implied that he has the police in his pocket.”

“What’s to stop him from killing Joseph after he gets the money?”

Adam gave a sardonic smile. “A warped sense of honour.”

Peterson paced the floor for a minute.

Adam looked at Joe. The poor kid looked pale and frightened. Adam wished that Joe was back at the hotel, the way he had planned, not here listening to his brother talking about his imminent murder.

“I don’t know Adam. I can’t believe that the whole police force is corrupt. You should let the law handle this.”

Adam shook his head. “Joe signed the notes. Caldow has the law on his side, until Joe is dead, and then it will be too late. Mr. Peterson I have no intention of letting it get that far.” Adam pushed back his jacket to reveal his holster, his hand settling on his gun.

Peterson frowned at Adam’s action. “What do you intend to do? Shoot me? You need me to get you the money, remember!”

Adam hardly dared to relax even the smallest amount. “Then you’ll do it?”

Peterson gave a resigned shrug of his shoulders. “Well I don’t like it, but it is your money. I don’t suppose letting you have it out of hours is a real crime. But you keep quiet about this, all of you. I don’t want the board finding out about it.”

Joe and Hoss heaved sighs of relief.

“We will, and thank you,” Adam said, the relief he felt sounding in his voice.

“Don’t thank me. I don’t agree with what you’re doing. And I still have to tell my wife that I am going out on business. That’s going to be the most difficult part. Come on.” He opened the library door and the sound of animated voices drifted in from the party guests,

“Wait for me in the hall. I need to get my keys.”

The brothers retrieved their hats, and waited by the front door, speaking in hushed tones.

“For a while there I didn’t think he was gonna do it,” Hoss said.

“Me neither. You sure scared me in there Adam,” Joe said.

“Sorry little brother, but I didn’t think he was going to agree either. I had to make him feel impelled to give us the money. Your impending demise was the only thing I could think of to bring him round. Better that way than forcing him at gunpoint.”

“Would you really have done that Adam?”

“I would. I wouldn’t have liked it, but I would have done it. Of course then it would have become a crime, and we would all have become wanted men. Don’t somehow think that Pa would have been too impressed by his three sons being wanted for bank robbery!”

A frown darkened Joe’s face. Hoss slapped him on the back. “Quit worrying short-shanks. Didn’t I tell you Adam could do it?

Their conversation was cut short when George Peterson reappeared with his wife in tow.

“Mr. Cartwright,” she chided, “why can’t your business wait? Today of all days!”

Before Adam could attempt a reply, Peterson turned and gave her a peck on the cheek. “My dear I won’t be long, you’ll hardly even have time to miss me!”

*****

An hour later the three brothers parted company with George Peterson on the bank steps. All the appropriate paperwork had been completed. Adam could feel the wad of notes pressing against his chest through the inside pocket of his jacket, where he had put it for safe keeping.

“So Joe, is it back to the hotel, or straight to the Silver Horseshoe?”

Joe answered without hesitation. “To see that snake Caldow. I want to get this over as quickly as possible.”

As they approached the Silver Horseshoe, dusk was falling and the ever-present fog was making a murky night. Adam’s head was beginning to throb again, and like Joe he just wanted to get it over with.

By this time the gaming house was open, the sound of music and voices flooding through the open doorway. Before stepping inside, Adam handed the wad of bank notes to Joe who put them in his pocket. The room was brightly lit, dealers sat at the card tables and the wheel of fortune turned. A buxom woman sat at the piano banging out popular music hall tunes. As Adam let his eyes travel round the room he noted numerous heavies, propping up the walls, or wandering among the gambling public. Their fancy suits could not disguise the fact that they were nothing more than thugs.

“What’ll it be gents?” the barman asked.

“We’re here to see Caldow,” Adam said. “Tell him the name is Cartwright. He’s expecting us.”

The man beckoned to another who was standing at the far end of the bar. “Take these gentlemen to see the boss.”

Joe took a deep audible breath. “This is it!”

“Now remember Joe, you give him the money, get back the IOU’s and we get out of here.”

“Don’t worry Adam, I’m not going to start anything.”

The man led them upstairs to Caldow’s private quarters. Once more Caldow stood before his magnificent fireplace, his bodyguards on either side.

“Three of you this time! You’d better have the money Cartwright,” he sneered. “Joseph’s time is running out!”

Joe reached into his pocket and pulled out the money.

“Before my brother hands that over, I want the IOU notes,” Adam said.

“What’s the matter, Cartwright. Don’t you trust me?”

“Just give me the notes.”

Caldow held up his hand and the big man at his side handed him some sheets of paper, which Caldow then offered to Adam. Adam took the notes and flicked through them, checking the amounts and Joe’s scrawling signature. “Ten notes, two for two thousand dollars, four for one thousand and four for five hundred,” he read out as he looked at them. “That right Joe?”

“Yes Adam, that’s right.”

“Okay.” He nodded to Joe to hand the money over. Joe passed the money to Caldow.

“Don’t mind if I count it do you Cartwright? I never trust anyone.” Caldow made a show of counting out the bank notes. “You see Cartwright. All that whining this morning! Amazing what you can do when you apply yourself.”

“Go to hell Caldow!”

“Tut tut, there’s that temper again.”

“Adam, let’s go,” Hoss said sensing his brother’s growing anger.

Adam turned to the door, grabbing Joe by the arm. “You’re right, let’s get out of this stinking hell hole.”

Moments later, they were out on the street. Adam took a deep breath and exhaled as though to rid himself of the taint of the place. Hoss clapped both of his brothers on the back. “I don’t know about you fellas, but I’ve had enough excitement for one day. What do you say we go back to the hotel and get something to eat? Adam, how’s your head feeling?”

Well it was done. It irked to have Joe hand the money over. Whether or not Caldow had cheated Joe, he was a crook, no doubt about that and a most unpleasant one too. But Joe was still in one piece and Adam felt his anger and anxiety diminish. Now that Hoss had mentioned it, he realised that his head was pounding once more.

“Like I need some more of Joe’s delicious medicine,” he answered.

*****

Adam emerged from his bedroom carrying his portmanteau, which he placed on the floor close to the door.

“Okay, I’m packed,” he shouted to his brothers who were busy with their own packing.

Hoss poked his head out of the bedroom door.

“The stage leaves at noon, so if I’m not back by eleven fifteen you two go up to the depot and I’ll meet you there.”

“Okay. See ya later Adam,” Hoss said.

“See ya Adam,” Joe shouted from within the bedroom.

After Adam had gone Joe wandered over to the window from where he could see the hotel entrance, and watched for his brother. A few minutes later Adam strode out from the hotel and hailed a cab.

“Where do you think he’s going?” Joe asked.

“Don’t know. Maybe he’s going to try to make it up with Miss Clarabelle,” Hoss suggested.

“Oh yeah, maybe. Hoss, you don’t think that he’s going to try to do something about Caldow do you? He’s been real easy on me, all things considered. But I know he wasn’t too happy about handing all that money over.”

“Nah, forget about Caldow, Joe. That’s over and done with. He’s just a bad memory from now on.”

“Maybe for you. I’ve still got to face Pa and explain why his account at the bank is a little short!”

*****

John Hillier rose from behind his desk and came forward to greet his friend, a smile of welcome on his face. “Adam, good to see you.” The two men shook hands warmly.

“You to John. Thanks for seeing me at such short notice. I’m leaving on the noon stage so I appreciate you making the time.”

“No problem. What can I do for you?”

“I need to sell some stock.”

“Which stock you got in mind Adam?”

“Central Pacific Railroad maybe.”

“Mmmm I wouldn’t advise it Adam. They’re still rising. One of the best performing stocks of the moment. Still more money to be made from those shares.”

“Yes I know John. But I’m looking to raise ten thousand dollars pretty quickly.”

“Well then, why don’t I get your portfolio and we’ll have a look.”

John Hillier left the office and returned a few minutes later with a file in his hands. Placing it on his desk, he rummaged through the various papers.

“There are one or two others here too that you could dispose of and make a tidy profit. What about selling a few different ones to realise the amount?”

“That’s fine John. But I don’t have the time to discuss it in detail. I’ll trust you to take care of it for me. I still have somewhere else to go before I make that stage.”

“That’s what you pay me for Adam,” Hillier said with a slight smile. “Once all of the transactions are taken care of, I’ll send you an up to date statement of your account.”

“Thanks. I would like the money paid into our Ponderosa account over at the bank.”

“No problem. If you just sit there for a minute, I’ll go get the authorisation form for you to sign.”

Ten minutes later Adam was satisfied that the Ponderosa wouldn’t suffer due to Joe’s unfortunate run in with Caldow. He left his friend with a promise to spend more time together when he was next in San Francisco.

Back outside, Adam purchased some flowers from a street vendor and made his way to the pretty little house that Clarabelle Mountjoy shared with her aunt and uncle when they weren’t out on their small ranch. He was ushered into the parlour where he was left cooling his heels for fifteen minutes. When at last he heard approaching footsteps, he stood and hid the flowers behind his back. The door opened and Clarabelle stepped into the room.

“Hello Adam.”

Adam smiled his most charming smile. “Hello Clarabelle.” He produced the posy of flowers from behind his back. “A peace offering!” he said hopefully.

Clarabelle accepted the flowers and sat down in a chair. Adam had hoped that she would sit on the settee so that he could sit beside her.

“I’m sorry about yesterday,” he began.

“So am I Adam. I was looking forward to our day together.” Clarabelle looked directly into Adam’s eyes and made him feel uncomfortable.

“Well, so was I Clara, but, well I got caught up with something and just couldn’t make it.”

“Really.”

“Well to be honest with you, my brother got himself into a little bit of trouble. Well actually it was rather a lot of trouble, and it took me the whole day to sort things out.”

“Hoss! He didn’t seem like the sort to get himself into trouble.”

“Oh no, not Hoss. My little brother, Joe.”

“I see. Well couldn’t Hoss have sorted it out?”

“No, I’m afraid not. I won’t bore you with the details.”

“It must have been very serious trouble.”

Adam nodded. He detected a strong trace of annoyance in her voice. He sighed inwardly. This wasn’t going too well. Maybe he should just apologise once more and call it a day.

But Clarabelle wasn’t finished. “A message would have been the courteous thing to do.”

“Yes, I’m sorry, I didn’t think.”

She fingered the flowers in her hand then lifted them to smell their fragrance. Looking coquettishly over the top of the blooms, she said. “You could probably apologise better over dinner.”

Adam smiled. “I would love to Clara, but we’re leaving on the noon stage. Perhaps next time I’m in town I could call on you?”

“Maybe! Perhaps you should leave your brothers behind in Nevada next time,” she suggested with a twinkle in her eye.

Adam flashed a smile. “Oh believe me, I intend to. Now unfortunately I really do have to go.”

He stood to leave, and Clarabelle led him to the front door. Adam turned and moved closer to her in the hope that he would at least be treated to the consolation of a good-bye kiss. Clarabelle turned her head slightly and he had to be content to brush her cheek with his lips.

“I’ll look forward to dinner next time,” she said as they parted.

Adam sighed as he walked down the path. In more ways than one, this trip had not finished in quite the way he had intended.

It was almost noon when Adam made it to the stage depot. He could see his brothers waiting outside the building. Hoss was looking a little anxious, and Little Joe was admiring a shapely blond woman. Even from a distance Adam could see the gleam in his eye. Didn’t take him long to get back to normal, Adam thought, and he slunk up behind him. “She’s much too old!” he said.

Joe spun round to face his brother. “Hi Adam,” he said with a grin.

Hoss looked relieved to see him. “Hey Adam you only just made it.”

“Yeah big brother. We thought we were going to have to leave you behind,” Joe joked.

“Luggage is all loaded Adam. Where’ve ya been anyways,” Hoss asked.

“Oh just a few loose ends to tie up.”

“Not Caldow?”

“No Joe, not Caldow.”

“Miss Clarabelle?” Hoss asked.

Adam nodded.

“Did she throw you out?” Joe asked a remorseful look suddenly flitting across his handsome young face.

“No, not quite. Though she did suggest that I leave my brothers at home on my next visit!”

“You told her about me?”

“Only that you got into a scrape and that it was entirely your fault that I didn’t turn up.”

Joe hung his head.

“Cheer up, I’ve got some good news for you. I’ve arranged to have the Ponderosa account reimbursed.

Joe’s head shot back up and his jaw dropped. “How did you manage that Adam?”

“I’m selling some railroad stock. John Hillier is going to pay the proceeds into the account at the bank for me.”

Joe groaned loudly, and covered his face with his hands.

“Now what’s up with you Joe? Seems like Adam here just saved your neck.”

“Adam how am I ever going to pay you back? Pa would’ve just taken it out of my wages for the rest of my life.”

“Yeah I know, then you would be borrowing from us for the rest of your life!”

Joe still looked worried.

“Look Joe, you don’t have to pay me back. I didn’t pay that much for the railroad shares. The stock has been soaring in value lately. Besides I should have kept you with me instead of letting you off on your own. Then we would never have had this little adventure.”

“I still gotta pay you back.”

“Well if one of your get rich quick, money making schemes ever comes to fruition, you can pay me then.”

“Fruition??”

“Yeah, works out! Makes money!”

“Oh, right. Okay Adam.” Joe held out his hand to Adam and they shook. “Thanks Adam.”

“ALL ABOARD”

“Okay, let’s go.”

The Cartwright brothers squeezed themselves into the coach with the other passengers and began their long journey home.

*****

Ben was well on time to meet the Overland Stage in Virginia City, and was sitting outside the mercantile, browsing through the local paper while he waited the arrival of his sons. He looked up from his reading when he head the sound of galloping horses and the low rumble of the stage. Adam was the first off, and ever the gentleman he gallantly assisted the lady passengers down. Then Hoss and Joe were beside him and the driver was hurling luggage down from the top of the stage.

Ben discarded his paper and walked over to meet them.

“Boys, welcome home!”

“Hey Pa,” Joe greeted his father.

Ben gave Joe a quick hug and shook hands with his older boys. His face was beaming. “I sure missed you fellas. You all okay?” he said giving Joe an especially long look.

“Sure we are Pa, we’re fine,” Adam said.

“You have a good trip?”

Adam nodded as he and Hoss retrieved their bags.

“Joseph, you have a good time?”

Joe looked across to Adam who winked at him. Joe grinned at his father. “Sure did Pa.”

“Come on then all of you. Let’s get home. Hop Sing has been cooking all day!” Ben said with a chuckle.

“Glad to hear that Pa,” Hoss said. “Eating’s pretty good in San Francisco, but I can’t say the same for them way stations though!”

After a veritable feast courtesy of Hop Sing, the family sat around the huge fireplace discussing the events of the last few weeks, both in San Francisco and on the Ponderosa.

“Well I hope that you two have learned a thing or two from your older brother,” Ben said.

“About what Pa?” Joe asked.

“Business, Joseph. Wasn’t that the reason for accompanying Adam on this trip? So that you could learn how to negotiate contracts and deal with people in business?”

“Oh yeah. Sure. We learned lots didn’t we Hoss?”

“Well I sure did Pa,” Hoss said.

“Good, good. Just for a moment there I thought it had been just a holiday for the two of you.”

“Want me to tell you what I learned Pa?” Hoss asked his father.

Ben smiled. “Why yes son, I would be very interested in what you learned.”

“What I learned was to leave business deals to you and Adam. In future I’ll look after all the cattle and all the lumber and you and big brother can look after all them contracts.”

“Oh Hoss, come on now. It can’t have been all that bad.”

“Oh yes it can Pa!”

Adam drank down the last of his brandy. “Well I don’t know about the rest of you, but all this learning has me worn out. I’m for bed.”

Joe and Hoss agreed and the three headed for the stairs.

“Goodnight boys. See you in the morning. Sure is good to have you back.”

Ben sat by the fire for a while, then followed his boys up to bed. His bedroom door was ajar, and when he pushed it open he was surprised to find Little Joe sitting on his bed.

“Joe! I thought you would have been asleep by now.”

Joe gave a quick smile. “Pa, can I talk to you for a minute?”

Ben sat down beside him. “Of course you can Joseph. Is there something wrong?”

Joe hesitated for a moment. “Pa, something happened in San Francisco that I think you should know about.”

*****

When Ben descended the stairs the next morning, his three sons were already eating. Ben took his place at the head of the table.

“Good morning boys,” he said, allowing his gaze to rest momentarily on each of his sons.

“Morning Pa,” the three chorused.

Ben filled a plate with eggs, potatoes and ham, and Adam poured coffee for him. He picked up his knife and fork, and then carefully laid them down again.

Adam stopped chewing and gave his father a sideways look. Something was coming.

“I understand that there was a little more to your San Francisco trip than I was led to believe,” Ben said.

Hoss stopped eating, and Adam and Joe’s eyes locked across the table. Joe swallowed hard and reddened a little.

Adam cleared his throat, a nervous habit well known to his family. “Really Pa? What would that be then?” he said, still looking at his little brother.

“Oh, a little matter of a gambling debt!”

“Oh, that!”

“Yes Adam, that.”

Adam’s eyes moved back and forth between his brothers trying to gauge which one had told his father.

“Well Pa, it all got sorted out,” he said.

“Maybe so, but I think that when my sixteen-year-old son runs up a debt of ten thousand dollars, and his life is threatened, then one of his older brothers should have the decency to tell me, even if it was sorted out.”

“There didn’t seem no point in worrying you Pa, not when it was all over and done with,” Hoss said.

“Adam! Hoss! I am well aware that the pair of you make a habit of covering up for your brother. But this was no prank, and you should have told me.”

Adam resumed eating his breakfast. “Don’t make such a fuss about it Pa.”

“Don’t make a fuss, when Joseph almost gets himself killed!”

“Pa! Don’t get mad at Adam. I told you it was all my fault.”

“Joseph, I know it was your fault. Don’t interrupt.”

“Yes sir, I mean no sir.”

“He was your responsibility Adam, you were supposed to look after him.”

Adam felt his mood change abruptly at his father’s unreasonable attitude. His father was acting as though Joe had been hurt, as though he had been negligent in taking care of his little brother. Adam’s voice rose in anger.

“Yes Pa, I know he was my responsibility. Joe has been my responsibility for years. Now maybe I should have been stricter, not let him go out without me. But I did look after him. He’s not hurt, and you have your money back.” Adam threw his napkin on the table and noisily pushed back his chair. “I’m going to work,” he said and turned on his heel. Moments later the door slammed shut.

After a few moments silence, Ben pushed away his plate of untouched food. “Excuse me,” he said, leaving the table and following Adam outdoors.

Adam was in the barn saddling Sport.

“Adam!”

Adam gave a start. He had been so deep in thought he hadn’t heard Ben approach. He continued with his task without looking round at his father. He spoke harshly, still feeling angry at his father’s words. “Pa, I’ve been taking care of my brothers all of my life. Whenever you’re not there, then I’m responsible for them. I have had that drummed into me for as long as I can remember.”

“He could have been killed. How could you let him just go off on his own like that?”

“He wasn’t on his own. Hoss was with him. They had both had enough of business meetings. I didn’t think it would hurt for them to have some time to themselves. He’s not a baby Pa, he’s sixteen.”

“But Adam…”

Adam turned angrily to face his father, and cut him off. “But what Pa? Joe is fine. Maybe he learned a lesson too. And there is no money missing from your bank account.”

Ben was quiet following this outburst. Adam finished tightening the girth and gathered up the reins.

When Ben spoke again his voice was much softer. “Adam! Adam, I didn’t mean to get so angry. I hardly slept all night thinking of what might have been.”

Adam heard the fear in his father’s words. He wondered how much detail Little Joe had told him. “I’m sorry too Pa. Shouldn’t have shouted at you that way.”

“Well you’re right of course, it’s over and done with and there’s little sense in worrying about something that thankfully didn’t happen.”

Adam looked into his father’s dark eyes. He found no anger or accusation there now. Instead he saw love and concern. Ben tentatively reached out and touched Adam’s arm. Adam felt a sudden need to explain himself.

“Pa, I would never have let Little Joe get killed. I would have defended him with my life, and so would Hoss.”

Ben nodded, his face full of emotion. “Yes. I know. You always take care of your brothers. I know that. Don’t you see Adam? I might have lost all three of you.”

Adam squeezed his father’s arm. “Well, you didn’t. You’re still stuck with us.” He pulled on Sport’s reins and led him out of the barn.

Ben followed him out. “Adam, I wish you hadn’t needed to sell your railroad stock. There’s no reason for you to take the financial loss. I’ll pay you the ten thousand dollars.”

“No Pa. Like you said, it was my responsibility. I’ll take the loss. I’m going over to the lumber mill, see how things are progressing.”

Ben clapped a hand on Adam’s back. “All right son, perhaps we can talk about the money tonight. See you later.”

Adam watched his father while he walked back to the house, then turned back to Sport and mounted up.

“Hey Adam! Wait a minute!” Joe shouted, sprinting across the yard. “Sorry Adam,” he said when he reached his brother. “Didn’t think he would explode like that. Didn’t mean to get you in trouble.”

“Yeah I know. How come you told him anyway? We wouldn’t have said anything.”

“I know you wouldn’t, but my conscience got the better of me,” Joe said with a sheepish grin.

“Well no matter, he’s cooled off. Seems he spent the night imagining all sorts of terrible things. I’m going to the lumber mill, see you later.”

Joe gave Sport’s flank a gentle slap as Adam moved out.

When Joe went back inside the house, Ben and Hoss were sitting by the fire with their coffee. Joe went across and sat on the settee next to his father. Hoss was obviously telling his version of their troubles.

“Pa, I got so mad at that Caldow fella, I was ready to go in there and knock the living daylights out of him. I felt like Adam wasn’t doing nothing. Pa, I even accused him of being a coward. But I was wrong. Adam, well he was just being Adam. Thinking things through like he does. In my whole life I’ve never known Adam do a cowardly thing.” Hoss shook his head, obviously distressed at the way he had treated his brother.

“Hoss, I’m sure that Adam knows you didn’t mean it.”

“I sure hope so.”

Joe spoke. “If it hadn’t been for Adam, I’d be dead for sure. It really wasn’t his fault. I’m grown up Pa. I’m the one who’s responsible for me. You shouldn’t get mad at Adam.”

Ben’s eyes moved from one son to the other. “It seems to me that you’re both quite proud of that older brother of yours,” he said. “Well so am I, and I mean to tell him so too. He seems to think that you have learned a lesson from all of this Joe. Is he right?”

“Yes sir.”

*****

Hop Sing came into the living room from the kitchen. “Mr. Adam! Vely tired man! Vely tired horse ! Look for you.”

Adam went outside, followed by the rest of his family who were curious to see who Adam’s tired visitor was. Adam immediately recognised the man climbing down from his mount. Hop Sing was right. Both man and horse looked exhausted.

“Marshall, what are you doing here?” Adam asked in surprise as he shook hands with the man.

“Mr. Cartwright. Good to see you again. I’ve got a little unfinished business with you.”

Adam was puzzled, but the man appeared reluctant to enlighten him further. “Let me introduce you to my family. My father, Ben Cartwright, and my brothers Hoss and Joe. Pa this is Marshall Kay. We met in San Francisco.”

Ben shook the Marshall’s hand. “Pleased to meet you Marshall. Won’t you come inside.”

In turn the Marshall shook hands with Joe and Hoss as he walked towards the door. Hoss took a close look at the worn out horse. “Marshall, if you’re not particularly attached to this here animal, how would you like to trade him for a fresh one?”

Marshall Kay looked at Adam, who nodded. “Thank you Mr. Cartwright I’d be obliged.”

“Yeah,” said Hoss, “but I’ll wager not as much as this poor old fella.” He gathered the reins and led the animal to the water trough.

“You the fella that cracked my brother over the head?” Joe asked, with an accusing tone to his voice.

“Yeah, ’fraid so. Hope he’s not bearing a grudge,” the Marshall drawled, following the men inside. “You the fella caused him all that trouble?” the Marshall said in a low voice.”

Joe grimaced and nodded.

“Can we offer you some refreshment,” Ben asked.

“Fresh coffee would be very welcome, thank you.”

Ben looked at Joe and with a nod of his head sent the boy into the kitchen for the coffee.

“Nice place you all got here,” the Marshall commented while he was waiting.

“Well thank you,” said Ben. “Maybe you would like to see Adam privately? I am sure we can find something to do outside.”

“Well that all depends on your son Mr. Cartwright,” Marshal Kay said sending Adam a questioning look.

“If this is concerning the trouble we had in San Francisco, then my father is aware of what happened.”

“It is.”

Joe arrived with the coffee and the Marshall savoured his drink for a moment. Then he drew an envelope from his inside pocket and handed it to Adam. “We appreciated your help Mr. Cartwright, and by way of compensation for not assisting you at the time, and the bump on the head, the government is agreeable to you receiving that.”

Adam ripped open the envelope. His eyes opened wide as he looked at the contents. “I don’t understand,” he said passing the paper to Joe.

Joe gave a long low whistle and his face broke into a grin. “Hot diggetty Adam, you got your money back!” He handed to the bank draft to his father who, after looking at it, returned it to Adam. Just at that moment Hoss came back inside.

Joe jumped up. “Hey Hoss, the Marshall has got Adam’s money back.”

“Well I’ll be. How’d you ever manage that? You catch that snake Caldow.”

“That’s exactly what we did. Day after you all left town, the Silver Horseshoe was raided. Adam here had given us a good description of the upstairs of that place. A few of his men were killed, Caldow and the rest are all in custody.”

“You never did tell me exactly what it was you were after him for,” Adam said.

“Well he liked to think he was a big man. Actually he was just one part of a nation wide organisation. They’ve been counterfeiting bank notes, then distributing them through places like Caldow’s gaming house. Caldow took real money from the punters, but when they cashed in their chips he paid out in forgeries. That’s how they got the counterfeit money into circulation. The genuine notes were sent back to the gang’s headquarters in Chicago. We made simultaneous raids on places in St. Louis, Chicago, New Orleans and would you believe on a river boat on the Mississippi.”

“Just as well you didn’t win then Joe, you would have been paid off in forged notes,” Hoss said.

“It sure feels good knowing he’s locked up in jail. That’ll take that arrogant look of his face,” Joe said with feeling.

“But why do we get our money back?” Adam asked. “After all it was Joe’s own fault that he lost it.”

The Marshall looked across at Joe who flushed with embarrassment. “Well, to be honest, I felt real bad about mistaking you for one of his men, giving you that bang on the head an’ all. And I have no doubt that he cheated your young brother here. Your description of the upstairs of the building probably made all the difference in the raid too. There was some reward money up for cracking this gang. Not allowed to take any of it myself of course, but I do have some discretionary powers.”

Adam relaxed back in his chair and put the bank draft in his pocket. “Well I really appreciate this Marshall.” He looked at Little Joe, a rueful grin on his face. “See little brother, see how it pays to do it by the law,” he said.

The Marshall continued. “After the raid I checked your hotel and the stage line. It seemed that you all left safely so I assumed you had managed to get the money to pay off Caldow.”

“Yes, the bank manager was very helpful,” Adam said.

The Marshall drained his cup. “I must be going,” he said standing up.

“Won’t you stay and eat with us?” Ben asked.

“I thank you kindly Mr. Cartwright, but I’m due in Carson City. Made a detour to see your son, but I really gotta get going. You think that you could write out a bill of sale for the horse? Always like to have my paperwork in order.”

“You can take a short cut to Carson across the Ponderosa,” Adam said. “Come take a look at the map.”

While Adam showed the Marshall the way across the ranch, Ben wrote out a bill of sale. Outside, the lawman’s saddle was already on a fine looking roan mare. Mounting his fresh horse, the Marshall took his leave and set off for Carson City.

The Cartwright men had gathered on the porch to see the Marshall off. “Well Little Joe, looks like you are well and truly off the hook now,” Hoss said, giving his little brother a hearty slap on the back, which nearly knocked him off his feet.

“Aw, Adam knew I’d pay him back. I’ve got some good ideas about how to make some money.”

“Oh yeah, well don’t include me in them,” Hoss said with vehemence.

“You might just be sorry you said that big brother.”

“Nope, not me!”

“And failing that,” Joe continued with a mischievous grin, “I heard about this big stakes poker game in town.”

A sharp swot on his backside soon wiped the grin from his face. “Boy, don’t you ever let me hear about you in any big stake poker games ever again, you understand?” Ben said with ferocity, shaking his finger under Little Joe’s nose.

Joe looked suitably chastened. “Sure thing Pa, you won’t ever hear about it,” he said.

Adam put his arm around his father’s shoulders. “Pa, you’re just going to have to do something about that boy. Maybe you should confine him to the ranch for the next ten years.”

The older Cartwrights walked into the house. “You think that would be long enough Adam?” Joe heard Ben ask.

***The End***

With thanks to Lisa for her friendship and encouragement, and to Susan for her advice.

Return to Lynda’s homepage

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.