Summary: The Cartwrights are enjoying a festive Christmas party at the Ponderosa, when what to their wondering eyes should appear but a corpse in a closet. Oh, my and oh, dear!
Word Count: 6650
The unexpected downpour had played havoc with the Cartwrights’ annual Christmas party — or, at least, tried to. The children from the orphanage would ordinarily have left by the time the dinner guests arrived, but Ben would not allow them to make that long ride in the icy rain. “They’d be drenched by the time you reached Virginia City, Mrs. Brown,” he had told their caretaker. “Dripping noses and hacking coughs for Christmas? What sort of gift is that? And, believe me, I speak as a man with years of experience.”
“I can only imagine,” she had replied, dark eyes sweeping over the three stalwart Cartwright sons, and once assured that there was plenty of room at the Ponderosa for a hoard of overnight guests, she’d accepted — rather quickly, in fact. Due to her responsibilities, she’d never been able to enjoy the evening aspect of the Cartwrights’ Christmas gathering, and having heard from friends how wonderful it was, she frankly relished the opportunity to see for herself.
The other adult guests hadn’t been affected too much. The men considered a drenching a small price to pay to attend a Cartwright celebration. As for the ladies, those who had seen the storm clouds in time simply packed their party dresses and planned to change at the Ponderosa, while those living far enough away for the rain to have caught them unawares decided to call on their pioneer heritage and endure the hardship. After all, there were worse fates that having some handsome young man hover over a girl while she dried out by a roaring fire; even the older women weren’t exactly averse to that sort of coddling. Each and every guest insisted that he or she wouldn’t have missed this party for the world.
Ben and his boys were flattered and, frankly, pleased to have everyone stay, although they didn’t really have enough beds for the entire company, should they all decide to stay the night. That problem could be dealt with after the party, however. First, they had to get everyone fed and feted!
“First thing we need to do is put you on a diet.” Little Joe jabbed Hoss in his well padded ribs. “That alone will leave enough for the whole flock of orphans.”
“Oh, you’re funny,” Hoss snorted with a return elbow that nearly knocked his smaller brother across the kitchen, where the quickly called family conference had been convened.
“First order of business is food for everyone,” Ben said. He turned cautiously to their cook, for Hop Sing’s temper had been known to flare in the face of unexpected challenges. “I know you have dinner for the adults well in hand, and I know such short notice is an unspeakable imposition, but do we have enough on hand for you to prepare something simple—sandwiches, perhaps—for the children, as well?”
Assuaged by his employer’s respectful tone and motivated by his own concern for tiny empty tummies, Hop Sing forewent his usual Cantonese castigation and merely nodded. “Plenty roast beef in pantry, plenty cheese. Still many cookies. Little ones not go hungry.” He considered it a point of personal pride that no one — expected guest or drop-in visitor — ever left the Ponderosa in that dishonorable condition. With his own enigmatic smile, he added, “Mr. Hoss not go hungry, either.”
“Amen to that!” Hoss said with a wide, grateful grin.
The Chinese cook’s forehead wrinkled. “Not sure what do for breakfast,” he admitted. “Not have enough eggs for whole of Virginia City.”
Biting back a remark that the “whole of Virginia City” wouldn’t even fit in their house, Adam suggested practically, “Feed them flapjacks. You don’t need many eggs for that.”
“That right.” The little Chinaman gave Number One Son a respectful bob of his chin. “That what I do.”
“Fine. That’s settled, then.” Ben turned toward his younger sons. “So, as soon as the children finish their supper, you two will be in charge of keeping them entertained upstairs until bedtime.”
“Why us?” Little Joe demanded. “Older brother here’s the one with all the ideas. Put him in charge. I volunteer to keep the ladies—the young, pretty ones, that is—entertained down here.”
Three sets of knife-sharp eyes stared straight through him, while the cook merely mumbled something about foolishment and, shaking his head, went back to his meal preparations. “What?” Little Joe asked, glance shifting from one reproachful face to the next. He lifted his palms toward the ceiling as he shrugged in eloquent innocence. “Well, someone’s got to, and I’m the most charming member of the Cartwright clan.”
“Too dadgum much charm for your own good,” Hoss grunted.
“Who’s side you on?” his younger brother hissed back before turning his most appealing smile back on his father. “I’m the best qualified, don’t you agree?”
“I think I can handle it,” Adam observed dryly, “and I further feel that no one could be more qualified to entertain children than an overgrown kid and his ever-cooperative cohort.”
“Huh?” Hoss looked bewildered and then his eyes narrowed and his full lips puckered. The “overgrown kid” was obviously Joe, which, Hoss figured, made him the whatever else Adam had said, something that sounded downright unflattering. Little brother was right: he’d been taking the wrong side.
“Aw, come on,” Little Joe protested. “You ain’t gonna listen to this folderol, are you, Pa?”
“Yes, I think I am,” Ben said with a mirthful arch of his silvery eyebrow, “especially since Adam’s the one with the good ideas.”
“I didn’t say good ideas . . . just ideas,” Little Joe pointed out, his voice petering out in recognition of the weak argument.
“They’re good enough for me.” Both the tone in Ben’s voice and the look on his face said that the discussion was over. He couldn’t help chuckling at his youngest son’s woebegone face. “Plenty of time for dancing after you’ve put the children to bed, Joseph, and I’m sure the ladies — the young, pretty ones, that is — will be even more dazzled by your fresh, charming presence then.” And that was enough to mollify Little Joe.
Adam’s assessment of his brothers’ inclinations proved as accurate as always. After sparing a single sigh over the music striking up downstairs, seventeen-year-old Joe threw himself with abandon into the sport of romping with the youngsters, while Hoss even more easily put his whole, childlike heart into entertaining them. It was a match more made in heaven than in the Cartwright kitchen, though neither of them, of course, would have ever admitted that to their oldest brother.
Eventually, bedtime was decreed, and inevitably the cry for “one more game” was raised by every young orphan. “We ain’t played hide-and-seek yet,” freckle-nosed Jimmy Duncan insisted. “We just gotta have that one.”
“Reckon he’s right, Joe,” Hoss agreed, adding in a whisper for his brother’s ear alone, “and it’ll quiet ‘em down some, less’n they wanna get found right off.”
Little Joe announced with an impish grin, “Okay. Hoss is ‘it.’ Go hide, quiet as mice, while he counts to 100.”
“Real slow,” little Jimmy dictated.
Lower lip pulled solemnly over his upper one, Hoss nodded, laid his head on folded arms against the hall wall and, eyes closed, began to count aloud with exaggerated slowness. The children, according to personal inclination, either tiptoed away quietly or scampered as fast as they could in search of the perfect hiding place.
Hoss had barely reached 30, however, before the deliberate silence of the upper floor was shattered by the sound of a little girl shrieking. Figuring it came from some girl who’d been ousted from her chosen hiding place, he tried at first to ignore it, but quickly realized he was not hearing an outburst of outrage, but a cry of genuine terror. As his head came up, his ears pricked to determine the direction of the sound, and he hurried into his brother Adam’s room, where five-year-old Molly McBride, arms wrapped around one of the bed’s four posters, was screaming her lungs out. “What’s the matter, little doll?” Hoss asked, picking her up and patting her heaving back as her head fell to his shoulder and her screams sputtered into hiccupping sobs. “Come on, honey; you can tell ole Hoss.”
Eyes still squeezed shut, Molly lifted one thin arm and pointed toward Adam’s armoire, the doors of which were hanging open.
“Is that where you was gonna hide?” Hoss asked. “That was a right good spot, Molly. Somebody get there before you?” Her head moved up and down against his shoulder, but her eyes stayed shut and her gasping breath quickened. “Okay, who’s in there?” Hoss called toward the armoire. “You best come on out and tell me what you been doin’ to give little Molly such a fright.”
Not a sound came from the armoire, even when Hoss repeated the order more loudly and sternly. He tried to put Molly down on the bed, so his hands would be free to drag the culprit from the cabinet, but she only clung the tighter to him. “Don’t fret none,” he soothed. “I’ll fix that ornery youngun’s wagon for you.” With grim visage he stalked over to the armoire, pushed aside Adam’s hang-up clothes with one hand and almost let out a holler to rival one of Molly’s, for lying stiff and still in the bottom of the armoire was the body of a man, dark blood crusted above the coppery fringe that circled his bald pate. Thinking of the child in his arms, he managed to gulp down his own shock and bend over to feel for a pulse. There wasn’t one. He turned and walked quickly out of the room.
He leaned, panting, against the wall outside Adam’s door and tried to figure what to do. One thing was sure: he had to have help. “Little Joe!” he called, hoping his younger brother had hidden somewhere close enough to hear without his rousing the whole house. “Get out here; I need you.” Five seconds later, he cried again, “Joe — now!”
Little Joe slowly emerged from his hiding place under Hoss’ bed and came into the hall, face graced with the petulant pout of a four-year-old. “You’re supposed to come find me,” he muttered.
“Never mind that,” Hoss said. “We got trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?” Joe asked.
“Worse than you can imagine,” Hoss grunted. “Didn’t you hear this youngun yellin’?”
“Heard something,” Little Joe admitted. “Just figured somebody got found sooner than they wanted. Molly sick or something?” He reached up to stroke the little girl’s arm and was surprised to see her pull away from him with a whimper.
“Best see for yourself,” Hoss said, pointing toward Adam’s room with his nose as he again attempted to calm the frightened child. As Joe started to enter, he thought to say, “Don’t holler, Joe.” Little Joe shrugged and went inside.
When his younger brother not only didn’t holler, but didn’t return from the eerily silent room, Hoss started to worry. Joe might not be as young as Molly, but he wasn’t half as grown up as he thought he was, either. Hoss himself had been struck speechless at sight of that body in the armoire; how much more a kid Joe’s age? Oughtn’t to have sent him in there alone, without no warning, Hoss scolded himself, and though the last thing he wanted was to take the still shivering girl back into Adam’s room, he forced himself to it.
Little Joe was standing before the open armoire in shock almost as dead cold as what he was looking at. Hoss came up behind him and said softly, “It’s okay, little brother.”
Joe slowly shook his head. “Not for Mr. Lambert.”
“No, reckon not.” Hoss touched a hand to his brother’s shoulder. “Step back, buddy. Ain’t nothin’ you can do for him.”
Little Joe did exactly as ordered and backed away from the body, step by step. When he got about six feet away, he heaved a huge sigh and looked up at Hoss. “We gotta do somethin’,” he said.
“Yeah.” Hoss stood there, staring at the armoire, but no inspiration came from there. “Reckon you best fetch Pa,” he finally said; then, as his brother moved toward the door, he changed his mind. “Joe, get Adam, instead. He’ll know what to do and him leavin’ might be less noticed than Pa.”
“And, Joe,” Hoss added just as his brother reached the door, “don’t let on to folks downstairs that anything’s wrong.”
“Count on it,” Joe said with only a slight quaver in his voice as he disappeared into the hall. He paused to collect himself for just a moment, so his face wouldn’t give anything away; then he rounded the corner and headed down the stairs. From the landing he spotted Adam and groaned inwardly. Trust older brother to be in the middle of a dance with one of the prettiest girls in the territory, but even though he could foresee Adam’s reaction, Little Joe didn’t feel he could wait for the end of the waltz. Swallowing the cabbage-sized lump in his throat, he trotted down the remaining stairs and across the room to tap his older brother on the shoulder. “Can I cut in?” he asked.
“Aren’t you still busy upstairs?” Adam asked with an ominous arch of his eyebrow, while his partner smiled cordially.
“More than you know,” Little Joe muttered. Then he remembered Hoss’ admonition to keep their guests unaware of what had happened above them. With a bow to the lady, he said, “Sorry to interrupt, Miss Jessie, but I need to borrow Adam for just a minute.”
“Oh.” Jessie looked disappointed, whether at shortening her dance with Adam or losing the opportunity to waltz with his cute little brother, neither Cartwright could have said. “Yes, of course.” She opened her fan and holding it before her mouth, coyly said, “Don’t you forget about me, now.”
“Yes, ma’am; I mean, no, ma’am,” Little Joe said, although he was not sure whether the remark had been meant for him or his brother. He snared Adam’s elbow and began dragging him toward the kitchen.
“This had better be important,” Adam hissed.
“More than you know,” Little Joe said again. As soon as he reached the kitchen, he sent furtive glances in every direction and saw only Hop Sing. Not sure whether Hoss’ admonition included their cook, he decided to play it extra cautious and said only, “We need you upstairs, Adam.”
“Why?” Adam demanded. “I think you and Hoss, combined, should be enough to corral a few rowdy children, although I must say the noise from up there has, at times, been loud enough to overshadow the music down here.”
“Kids don’t play quiet, Adam,” Joe protested defensively and then remembered that he was here on much too serious business to be sidetracked. “Like I said, we got problems, and we need you to sort ‘em out.”
“What kind of problems?” Adam asked tersely.
“Big — really big.”
“Then, why don’t you let our ‘big — really big’ brother handle it?” Adam started back toward the dining room, but Joe again grabbed his arm.
“No, Adam, it’s gotta be you.” He cast another anxious look at the little Chinaman, who was definitely stretching his ear in their direction, and said, “I mean, it’s more than Hoss can handle — and sure more than I can handle — and you’re the man with all the good ideas, remember? Besides, you’re the oldest, and it kind of concerns you, especially, and…”
Adam exhaled in exasperation. “Don’t babble, boy. Why does it concern me, especially?”
“Well, on account of it bein’ in your room and…”
“My room!” Suddenly, Adam was all business. “If you’ve let those little hellions trash my things, I will personally skin you alive!” He took the back stairs, two steps at a time. Mission accomplished, Little Joe trotted up after him.
Adam charged into his room, prepared to expel whoever had desecrated that sacred refuge and then to lambaste his brothers for dereliction of duty. He stopped short, however, when all he saw was a room in its usual pristine order, except for the presence of Hoss and one tiny, red-eyed little girl sitting on his bed. “If this is some ploy of Joe’s to trade places,” he muttered.
“Hey!” Joe, coming in directly after him, protested. “Watch who you’re accusin’. All I done is fetch you, like Hoss said.”
When Hoss nodded his confirmation, Adam exhaled gustily. “All right, then. Where’s the big problem I’m supposed to solve?”
“Over there,” Hoss said, pointing with his chin.
“In the armoire,” Little Joe added in case Adam wasn’t good at following chin direction.
Eyebrows meeting in a straight line, Adam crossed the room and looked into the still-open armoire. His eyes widened, but years of schooling his expression stood him in good stead, and when he turned around, neither of his brothers saw the slightest sign that Adam had taken the sight of a dead body in anything but stride. “Yes. Well, I do see what you meant by a ‘really big’ problem,” he said to Joe.
“We didn’t know what to do about it,” Little Joe explained, needlessly. “We’re just supposed to help with the kids, not—not . . .”
“Yeah.” Adam nodded his acceptance that being the eldest automatically placed the burden of dealing with dead bodies in the closet on his shoulders . . . especially when the closet was his own. “Why is Molly in here?” he asked pointedly.
“She found ‘im,” Hoss said.
That explained the red eyes. Adam squatted beside the bed and called the child’s name as he gently rested his hand on her head. When she looked up at him, he asked softly, “Sweetheart, did you see anyone else in here, anyone at all?”
The little girl rapidly shook her head side to side. Adam gave her a pat and then stood up. “Well, there’s only one thing to do,” he said. “We’ve got to get the sheriff out here.” He turned to Joe. “That’s a job for you, little brother. Sorry about the long, cold ride.”
Little Joe bit his lower lip. “You sure?”
“Of course, I’m sure,” Adam said, just a bit caustically. Of all the times for the boy to question his authority! “This is a matter for the law.”
“Yeah, but…” Little Joe’s face crinkled with concern. “I mean, it’s in your room, Adam. Won’t that make it look like you…well, had something to do with…I mean, nobody liked Jake Lambert much, but you did have words with him a few days back and…” Little Joe raked anxious fingers through his thick chestnut curls. “I ain’t sayin’…I know you didn’t…you couldn’t…but it looks kinda bad, don’t it, him bein’ here…dead and all?”
Adam almost laughed; in fact, would have done so, in heart-touched delight, had not the situation been so serious. Not boyish rebellion, then, but honest concern for my welfare and reputation. Still, the law was the law. “Thank you for the vote of confidence,” he said. “I must admit, suspicion may initially point my direction, but we can’t very well hide it, can we? Even if Cartwrights were prone to such behavior, there is, after all, a witness.”
Little Joe’s furtive glance fell on the little girl in Hoss’ lap. “Oh…yeah.”
Adam placed an encouraging hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Get the sheriff, Joe.”
“Should I tell Pa first?”
“No, leave that to me.” Just before Little Joe left the room, Adam called softly, “Joe?” When his brother turned toward him, he continued, “It’s not a matter of life and death now. No need to tear up the road, either going or coming. Ride safe.”
“I will,” Joe promised. He disappeared, and then his head popped back inside. “Uh, I don’t suppose I could take time for just one dance. I mean, it not bein’ a matter of life and death now.”
“Joe,” both brothers drawled with strained patience.
“Guess not,” Joe sighed and this time disappeared for good.
“Where are the other children?” Adam asked Hoss when Joe was gone. “I haven’t heard a peep out of them since I came up here.”
Hoss winced. “Reckon they’re still hidin’. We was playin’ hide-and-go-seek.”
Adam wiped his lips with the back of his hand. “All right. First, you need to get the children to bed, as far from this situation as possible. Put Molly in a room by herself, and I’ll send Mrs. Brown up to be with her.”
“They’re hid all over, Adam,” Hoss protested. “How am I ‘sposed to…”
Adam chuckled. “As I recall, the correct signal is ‘allie allie, all’s in free.’ Just tell them it’s bedtime and no excuses.”
“Yeah, all right. What you gonna do?”
“Tell Pa what’s happened and help him dissuade anyone who thinks of leaving early.”
“Doggone,” Hoss muttered. “You don’t reckon it’s one of them folks downstairs that…”
Adam massaged his temple. “I don’t know. But I am sure that Roy will want to question them.” And me, he admitted ruefully. The argument with Jake Lambert had been a petty thing, but unfortunately a public one, as well, having taken place before the Saturday night crowd at the Silver Dollar.
Silence shrouded the Ponderosa, a heavy silence diametrically opposite to the gaiety that had prevailed only hours before. Since the sheriff’s questioning had kept everyone there into the wee hours of the morning, most had decided to remain until daylight. There weren’t enough beds, of course, but the men had accepted blankets and headed for the barn, while the ladies packed into whatever sleeping quarters remained in the house. Only Adam’s room was unoccupied, except by Jacob Lambert, now stretched out on the bed, a couple of the women having charitably volunteered to see to his laying out until he could be transported to the morgue.
The Cartwrights, with one exception, were again gathered in the kitchen, holding conclave with Roy Coffee over steaming cups of his namesake beverage. Since the sheriff had determined that Little Joe had no significant evidence to give, Ben had detailed his youngest to clear the great room of all the plates, cups and saucers from the coffee, punch and cake served to keep the guests content during the endless questioning. No one seemed to notice that the boy came back regularly with rather small loads of dishes, but moved through the kitchen as though he were knee-deep in molasses. Hop Sing, normally eager to clean up his kitchen and get to bed after one of these late-night affairs, was washing the dishes with deliberate care, apparently unperturbed by the snail’s pace at which Little Joe was bringing him more.
“I’m afraid I may have to take you in, Adam,” Roy said with a sigh.
“I didn’t kill him,” Adam said tersely.
“I believe you, son, but it looks bad, him bein’ found in your room, and you havin’ had a scuffle with Lambert a few days back.” Roy rolled one shoulder to work out the growing kink in his back. “There was plenty of folks volunteered that information to me tonight.”
“It’s fresh on their minds, I suppose,” Ben suggested, “since it only happened Saturday night, but Adam is certainly not the only person Jake Lambert ever had a quarrel with. At one time or another, he’s had cross words with every neighbor within fifty miles.”
“Enough to kill over?” Roy asked skeptically. He had reason enough to know that Lambert was a contentious sort. The man had been in his office, complaining about some man or another, more times than he could count on all his fingers and toes, but it had always been twaddle that no one else would have blinked an eye over.
“And you think my issue was?” Adam exploded. “For the love of mercy, Roy, a few of our cows broke through the fence and trampled his vegetable garden.”
“And you refused to pay him damages,” Roy charged.
“I did not,” Adam sputtered through gritted teeth. “I offered him reasonable damages, but refused to pay $1,000 for a few peas and beans, just because it was a Cartwright cow that nibbled them!”
“Pretty high-priced greens,” Roy admitted.
“Only the best for Hop Sing,” Little Joe put in cheekily as he passed through. The dark looks he got from everyone at the table were enough to make him promptly scamper back into the great room.
“You got to admit it looks bad, Adam,” the sheriff reiterated.
Adam’s lips fluttered as he exhaled his exasperation. “Which is exactly the point. Would I be such a fool as to murder a man and hide him in my own closet?”
“Wouldn’t have been too smart,” Roy said.
“And Adam’s as smart as they come,” Hoss inserted.
“Yeah. Maybe just smart enough to figure he could outsmart the law by acting stupid.”
Adam groaned. “Only if I enjoyed flirting with danger — which I don’t. Furthermore, there was not a drop of blood in my room, not a single sign of a struggle, which indicates that Lambert was actually killed elsewhere.”
“Either that or you cleaned up real good,” Roy said.
Adam rolled his eyes. “In which case I’d have thoroughly cleaned up, including moving the body! Furthermore, I would certainly have put myself in charge of the children’s games, with the express purpose of keeping them out of that room.”
“All right, I’ll grant you that,” Roy said huffily, “but I got no other suspects. You got any to suggest, you’d be wise to start sharin’ ‘em, boy.”
“There was a lot of folks here,” Hoss said. “Any one of ‘em could’ve…”
“No.” Adam was blunt, almost to the point of rudeness. “At a certain point there were too many people here for anyone to have toted a body upstairs without being seen.”
“Especially after we herded the younguns upstairs,” Hoss said with a glum nod. “We was all over the halls after that.”
“So we heard,” Adam grunted, his bottled stress almost palpable to everyone at the table.
“All right. Let’s, at least, see if we can’t narrow down the time that body could’ve been toted up,” Roy suggested. “When were you last in there, Adam?”
“Shortly after lunch,” Adam replied at once. “I went up to change clothes before the orphans were expected, at two.” Then, after a moment’s reflection, he added, “I did go up briefly about four o’clock, but only to get my guitar. We knew by then that the rain would keep the children here longer than expected, and we needed extra entertainment.”
“Mighty fine entertainment,” Hoss praised proudly.
The compliment eased Adam’s tension enough that he could give his brother a token smile. “The armoire was closed then, just as I’d left it, and I had no reason to look inside until Joe called me upstairs, around eight.”
“We took the kids up right after supper,” Hoss added. “That was around six.”
“All right,” Roy said. “That leaves almost six hours, then, plenty of time, so what we need to do now is figure out who had opportunity during that time.”
“We were in the great room that entire time,” Ben said. “No one could have come in without our seeing them.”
“Didn’t come through the front door, then,” Roy concluded, “which would’ve been plumb foolish, anyway.”
“The whole thing’s plumb foolish.” Adam almost spat out the words.
“Easy, son,” his father said and then called across the kitchen, “Hop Sing, did you see anyone come in the kitchen door?”
“Carrying a body, perchance?” Adam added with a roll of his eyes at the utter ridiculousness of the question.
Hop Sing scurried over. “Not see no body, Mr. Ben…but see something.”
Adam sat up in sudden attention. “Yes? What?”
“Mud.” The little cook scowled in distaste. “More work for Hop Sing when not need, with guests coming.”
“Oh.” Adam dropped back into his chair as his first spark of hope fizzled out again.
The Chinese man slapped his palm against the table. “You not understand. Hop Sing see mud — muddy boot prints all up stairs.” He pointed urgently at the back stairs that led from the kitchen to the second floor. “Cartwrights not go up that way; they use front stairs, so be someone else, yes?”
“Yeah!” The others quickly hushed Hoss’ cry, which was loud enough to make Little Joe hurry back into the kitchen with his smallest load of crockery yet.
“Not need muddy boot prints after already clean stairs.” Hop Sing’s grimace betrayed his lingering irritation with whoever had dirtied those stairs, a crime apparently on equal par with murder in his eyes.
“Never mind all that for now,” Roy dictated. “I don’t suppose you left ‘em there?”
Hop Sing looked properly horrified at the thought of his having simply left his floors in that disgraceful condition, especially with guests expected.
Seeing that look, the sheriff sighed. “No, figured you wouldn’t. Would’ve helped, given us some idea of the size of the man, at least.”
Hop Sing frowned in thought. “Bigger than Little Joe, not big as Mr. Hoss.”
“Which describes most men of normal size,” Adam said, resisting the urge to roll his eyes yet again.
“Closer to Mr. Ben than, you, Mr. Adam,” the cook said.
“Narrows it a bit, but still average size.”
“Nonetheless, those boot prints do prove that someone entered the house,” Ben said. “Not an expected guest, but someone who didn’t want to be seen.”
“Points that direction,” Roy conceded. “Don’t see how they could have, though, with Hop Sing in here cookin’ the whole time.”
Hop Sing shook his head. “Not whole time, Honorable Sheriff. Hop Sing in out, in out kitchen — much work everywhere for big party.”
“All right, so it could have happened when you was out for a bit, then,” Roy said.
“Yeah, but why take the body all the way down to Adam’s room?” Hoss asked. “Don’t make sense.”
“Bringing it into the house doesn’t make sense in the first place,” Adam snorted. “Far easier to dump it in the shrubbery.”
“Yeah,” Hoss agreed, “but even if there was some reason for that, why not stuff Mr. Lambert into Pa’s room or the one across the hall? They’s both at the head of them stairs — quicker in, quicker out.”
“He’s right,” Ben said. “Why take the chance of going further and running into someone?”
Adam suddenly sat up straight. “Because someone wanted it to be found in my room, wanted suspicion to fall on me.”
Roy gave his head a dubious shake. “Have to be someone who knows this place mighty well for that to be true. Lots of folks know the Ponderosa, know the Cartwrights live here. Not so many would know who sleeps in which room.”
“Sure they would,” Little Joe said, having entered the kitchen again just in time to hear the last exchange.
“Aw, Joe, how could they?” Hoss said.
“Easy,” Little Joe insisted, with a snap of his fingers for emphasis.
“Why don’t you fetch in a few more cups?” Adam suggested testily. “At the rate you’re going, it’ll be dawn before they all manage to make their way to the sink.”
Little Joe handed his small load to Hop Sing and glared at his older brother. “Why don’t you? Seems to me you need someone with a little sense in here.”
Adam favored his brother with his most provoking smile. “Exactly. Which is why I’m at the table and you’re on dish detail. Now, run along, sonny, and let the grownups talk before I give in to my urge to throttle any convenient target!”
Planting both hands on the table, Little Joe glowered across it at Adam. “I know what I’m talkin’ about! Why doesn’t anybody ever listen to me?”
“Sit down, boy,” Roy Coffee ordered. In response to Adam’s arched eyebrow, he added, “I’m willing to listen to any idea at this point, crazy as this one’s likely to be.”
Little Joe’s nostrils flared as he took his seat. “Like I said, figuring out which room belongs to Adam is easy. Any passing stranger could do it. All they got to do is stand in the yard at the right time.”
“And what, precisely, is the right time?” Adam asked sharply.
“Most any time you see fit to holler down from that window, and believe me, it happens more than anyone could imagine!”
“Joseph, this is scarcely the time,” his father said sternly.
The boy flushed. “Oh…right. Sorry, Adam.” When his oldest brother nodded acceptance of his apology, Little Joe leaned forward eagerly. “But don’t you see? If it was my room or Hoss’ we were talkin’ about, it’d be different. We sleep at the back of the house, and Pa’s down at the end, but, Adam, you got the only window that overlooks the front yard. You do a lot of your plannin’ and sketchin’ up there, and you do look out that window more than you think. Sometimes you’re hollerin’ ‘cause you’re mad about something; other times just to tell us something, maybe answer a question we yelled up to you. Sometimes you’re just leanin’ out it, dreamin’ or something. All it takes is for someone to ride into the yard while that’s happenin’, and they’d know which room was yours. For doggone sure, anyone who’s ever worked this ranch knows — not that I’m sayin’ it’s one of them.” He sent a quick glance down the table toward the sheriff, who nodded his understanding.
Adam slowly did, as well. “That’s sound reasoning, Joe.”
“Hey, thanks, Adam.” Little Joe beamed in the glow of his brother’s hard-earned and, therefore, highly valued praise.
Adam ran a mental list of people who’d had the exact opportunity Little Joe had described. Finally, he said, “He’s right, Roy — and I’m pretty sure I know who did it.” He paused for one moment’s longer consideration before making such a serious accusation, and then said with somber confidence, “Frank Walters. I had to fire him last week, and he took it badly.”
“You didn’t have no choice, Adam,” Hoss said.
“We have a strict policy against drinking on the job,” Adam explained for the sheriff. “This close to the holidays, I might have given him a second chance, for the sake of his wife and children, but Walters is not exactly what one might call a happy tippler; he is, to put it mildly, a belligerent drunk.”
“He went after Little Joe with a pitchfork,” Hoss said. “If I hadn’t come along when I did, he might’ve killed the boy.”
“No choice,” Adam said with a regretful shake of his head.
“I’d have done the same, son,” Ben added.
“You said Walters took it bad,” Roy pressed.
Adam exhaled slowly. “Yes. He begged me not to let him go right before Christmas, and I almost gave in, but decided we just couldn’t take the risk of his actually hurting someone. Then he started spewing derogatory opinions about the Cartwrights in general and me in particular, and he said, ‘If you ruin Christmas for my younguns, Cartwright, I promise you I’ll ruin yours!’ If that’s not an exact quote, it’s close.”
“He threatened you, then?”
Adam laughed harshly. “Well, yes, I’d call that a threat. I didn’t take it seriously at the time, figured it was the liquor talking, but now . . .”
“It’s certainly worth investigating,” Roy said.
“Maybe Hop Sing could size up his feet, compare ‘em to those boot prints,” Little Joe suggested.
“Now, son, you know better,” the sheriff chided gently. “A Chinaman can’t testify against a white man. I’m sorry, but that’s the law.”
“It’s a bad law.”
“Reckon it might be,” Roy conceded, “but still the law. What Hop Sing said means something to me, though. Add that to what you just told us, Adam, and I don’t feel like I got to take you in after all. I’ll bring Walters in for questioning, first thing in the morning. Maybe I can shake him up a bit, get at the truth that way.”
“Thank you,” Adam said, more relieved than his expression revealed.
“Well,” Ben said, “there’s not much night left, but I suggest we turn in and get what sleep we can. Roy, you take the settee. The ladies indicated that having the law in the house would make them feel safer. Adam and I will try to sleep in the chairs, and—”
“And we get sent to the barn,” Little Joe finished.
“Better your young bones than my old ones, young man.”
Little Joe grinned. “Or old Adam’s, either, I guess. I don’t really mind, Pa.” He yawned prodigiously. “Comin’, Hoss?”
Hoss’ mouth gaped even wider. “Uh-huh. Lead away, little brother.”
The two younger men headed toward the barn, and the older trio settled into their assigned spots in the great room. The latter had no sooner drawn blankets beneath their noses, however, before the front door burst open, slamming hard into the credenza, and Little Joe tumbled through. “He’s here,” he cried.
“Santa?” Adam asked dryly.
For a moment the younger man looked perplexed, but then he chided, “Don’t be silly, Adam; it ain’t even Christmas yet. It’s Walters; he’s in the barn. Reckon the rain sort of caught him unawares and he hid in there and fell asleep. Hoss is watchin’ him snore, and I” — he drew himself up to full, self-important height — “come to fetch the law.”
“The law” rose from the settee and did his duty, taking Frank Walters into custody and dismissing everyone else from the kitchen, where he set about interrogating his prisoner. He emerged forty minutes later to announce, “It was him, all right; he confessed.”
“Wow, Inspector Foote of the Yard’s got nothin’ on you, Sheriff Coffee!” Little Joe declared with open admiration.
“I know how to do my job,” Roy said, “if that’s what you mean.” Then he grinned. “‘Course, might’ve been a mite harder if I’d told him the witness I mentioned was a Chinaman, but I think he’d’ve broke eventually. Admitted he was quarreling with Jake Lambert — who ain’t at one time or another? — but said he never meant to kill him, just happened in the heat of a fight. Then he had to hide the body somewhere, and he remembered how mad he was at Adam and…”
“And the rest is history,” Adam concluded.
“Pretty much. Don’t reckon it’ll make the books, though.”
“It’d make a great dime novel,” Little Joe suggested. “Adam could write it for you.”
“I could not,” his oldest brother stated in a tone that brooked no argument, and Little Joe could only sigh for the wealth and fame that would pass them by.
Before the break of day on Christmas morning, four men stealthily entered the Walters’ front yard. The tallest set a tree, dressed in popcorn-and-cranberry garland, apples, oranges and gold-paper-covered nuts, in front of the window, while the smallest and the broadest quickly placed wrapped packages with bright red bows around it. The snowy-haired one added a box of groceries, including a smoked ham and a bag of assorted candies, beside the other gifts. Then they all crept away, for they knew that the family would never accept the Christmas surprise from them, after all that had transpired that holiday season. With the rest of Santa’s elves safe from sight, Hoss tiptoed to the children’s window, gave a mighty “Ho, ho, ho!” and then ran for the secluding woods, eager to get home and see what Santa had left in his own long stocking.