Payment Due (by EPM)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  15,400


“Ya know, Joe, this just ain’t like our older brother at’ll.” Hoss Cartwright stopped long enough to take another swallow of beer. “He generally avoids fights when he can.” Both brothers leaned with their backs against the bar.

“Yeah, wonder what’s gotten into him?” Joe replied. “You know that fella he’s poundin’?”

“Nope.” Hoss turned around and ordered another beer. “You want another one?”

“Nah, I think the fight’s just about over. Guess we’d better collect Adam and head on home.” Joe tipped his glass into the air and drained the last drop.

Adam Cartwright stood looking down at the man he had just soundly thrashed. He was breathing hard and, without thinking, brought the bleeding knuckles of his right hand to his mouth. He raised the same hand to wipe the trail of blood that dribbled from the corner of his right eye. “How much do I owe you, Sam?” he asked the Silver Dollar’s bartender.

“About ten ought to do it,” Sam answered back. “Who is this guy, anyway?”

“Someone who needs to learn when to keep his mouth shut,” Adam answered. He reached into his pocket and handed over the bills. “Sorry about this, Sam.” He picked up his hat and pulled it low over his brow. Turning his attention toward his brothers, he said, “You two ready to go home?” Not waiting for an answer, Adam started for the doors.

Hoss and Joe glanced at each other and shrugged. “Let’s go find out what drove our brother to violence on this beautiful summer afternoon,” Hoss said, winking at Joe. He finished the latest round in one gulp and followed Joe through the swinging half doors.

The three Cartwright brothers rode silently into the warm, late summer afternoon. They hadn’t gone very far when Hoss’ curiosity got the better of him. “Ok Adam, let’s have it. Who was that guy you was wiping the floor with and why was you poundin’ on him?”

“Yeah—give,” Joe added.

“He was a fool, that’s all,” Adam answered, hoping that would be the end of the conversation. He had used a voice meant to warn off any further inquiry but he should have known this would only serve to ignite the inquisitive side of Joe’s nature.

The youngest Cartwright was not about to give up. His bright eyes began to sparkle with the challenge. He’d get the truth out of Adam if he had to pester him to death, just like he did when he was a kid.

“Now Adam, you know you’re gonna have to tell us eventually, so why not make it easy on yourself?” Joe asked. A self-satisfied grin covered his face.

Adam took a deep breath and pivoted Sport around until he faced his brothers. “Alright, I’ll tell you but I want your word it will go no further, especially to Pa.” He waited, his face an uncompromising mask.

“All right, all right—just give it up.” Joe’s patience was at an end. Hoss nodded in agreement.

“The man was Bob Sutton.” Adam stopped to see if either of his brothers would recognize the name.

Joe looked puzzled for a moment. “Now where have I heard that name before?”

‘He’s the boss of a big spread over Carson City way,” Hoss answered Joe’s question.

“Yeah, that’s it!” Joe snapped his fingers. “So why were you trying to beat him silly?”

Adam hesitated then headed Sport toward home again. Joe and Hoss caught up, riding on either side of their brother. “He said some things I didn’t like,” Adam offered.

“Now, we sorta figured that out already,’ Hoss said.

Adam drew his mouth into a thin line until a sharp pain made him remember a well landed punch. “Ethan Daniels is the owner of the Running D and Sutton has been his foreman for years. There’s always been a bit of a rivalry between Pa and Daniels. Nothing ever serious, just some talk back and forth. You’ve both heard it before.” Adam was silent for a moment. “Well, it’s more then just talk now. It seems Mr. Daniels wants to branch out. He bought some land adjacent to ours and now is claiming some of the land he bought is part of the Ponderosa.”

Suddenly Joe’s good humor was gone. “When did this all start and why didn’t Pa tell me what was going on?”

Hoss jumped into the conversation. He knew by Joe’s tone that his hair-triggered temper was about to explode. “Now take it easy, Joe. I didn’t know nothing about it neither. Give Adam a chance to finish.”

“It hasn’t been but a few days since Pa found out. He’s been talking with our lawyer and Roy,” Adam answered. “He’s trying to be civil about the whole matter, hoping Daniels will back off.”

“Yeah, well, you wasn’t bein’ very civil from what I could see.” Hoss’ laughter broke some of the tension.

Adam ducked his head; a shy, half- smile crept onto his face. “No, I guess I wasn’t and I’d just as soon Pa didn’t know what happened.”

Joe broke into the conversation. “Well, he won’t hear it from us but you’re the one who has to explain that face!”

Adam put his hand to his bruised jaw. “Do you think he’d believe that some over-anxious beauty just couldn’t wait to get her hands on me?” He broke into a wide grin that turned into a short grimace of pain.

Hoss and Joe looked at each other, both shaking their heads no. Adam sighed.

*****

“You, of all people! You would be the last one I’d expect to be in a barroom brawl! Joe with his temper, yes and Hoss just for the sport of it but you…”

Ben’s voice rose in volume as he continued. Hoss and Joe had beat a hasty retreat soon after the brothers had arrived home, leaving Ben and Adam scowling at each other across the little kitchen table. A bowl of pink-tinged, cooling water sat between them. Adam continued to hold a cloth next to his battered face.

“I know, Pa. You don’t have to lecture me like a child.” Adam couldn’t keep the exasperation out of his voice.

“Well, only children would try to beat each other silly in a saloon!”

It seemed to Adam’s aching head that his father couldn’t get any louder but he was wrong. He shut his eyes tightly against the escalating pain.

Ben recognized the gesture and immediately softened his tone. “I’m sorry, son. I haven’t given you much of a chance to explain, have I?” He waited.

Adam got up and rinsed the cloth under the cool water of the pump. He placed it gingerly across the right side of his face, then leaned into the cupboard. “I’m not sure you’re going to like my explanation. Ethan Daniels’ foreman was in the Silver Dollar. He was running his mouth about how Ben Cartwright thought he owned ever acre in Nevada and somebody was finally going to prove that we stole half of what we own.” Adam hesitated.

Ben kept his voice even, mindful of his son’s aching head. “That may be hard to hear but hardly worth getting into a fight about.”

“I agree but I couldn’t quite take it when he called you an old pirate who’d do anything to add to what you already stole from other people,” Adam added.

The color in Ben’s face changed to a dark red and he choked over his next words. “An old pirate— he called me an old pirate?” His voice came out as a harsh whisper.

Adam squinted his eyes against the roar that he knew was coming but instead Ben’s voice was held at a controlled fury. “And what did helook like after the fight?”

A smile slowly formed on his eldest son’s face as he said, “A lot worse than me, Pa, a lot worse.”

Father and son walked out into the great room, both feeling that a brandy would go along way to help an aching face and a bruised ego.

*****

The next morning, Hoss and Adam worked in companionable silence trying to fix a wheel on one of the hay wagons. Finally, Hoss spoke up. “Pa sure was madder than a bear with a soar foot this mornin’. He hardly said a word at breakfast, just sorta mumbled to himself.”

“Yeah, I know. He was none too pleased with my behavior, I’m afraid.” Adam rose from his bent position and stretched out his back. “Besides, he was going in to see our lawyer and Roy again this morning.”

Hoss paused from his work. “What do you suppose it’s really all about? I mean, why would Daniels all of a sudden want to take on Pa?” He shook his head. “It just don’t make no sense.”

“I’d like to give you a good reason but I’m afraid I’m as much in the dark as you are. Come on, let’s finish up this wagon and see how Joe’s doing with those cattle.”

As if speaking his name had caused him to materialize, Joe came around the corner of the barn at a gallop.

“What’s wrong with you, boy, ridin in here like that? If Pa was home, he’d have your hide nailed to the side of the barn!” Hoss’ voice held an anger born of fear.

“Never mind that! There’s a crew of men up along the north end and they’re putting up a fence on our property. Just thought you two might like to know.” Joe reined Cochise toward the house. “Where’s Pa?”

“Now just calm down for a minute and tell us what happened?” Adam grabbed Cochise’s reins.

“You deaf? I already told you,” Joe snapped.

“Pa’s in town with Roy and the lawyer. Adam and me, we’ll get saddled up and go with ya. Now just slow down some and tell us everything you know.” Hoss’ voice seemed to cool his younger brother’s blood and Joe dismounted.

While Joe recounted what he’d seen, Adam tried to reason out the best course of action. He knew riding against a number of men without their own crew might be foolhardy but if they met man for man, it could only escalate the dispute. He’d take the chance that Mr. Daniels only wanted to stir up a little dust.

*****

It took the three brothers a good two hours to reach their destination. Joe seemed to have calmed down but Adam knew his younger brother well. The now calm exterior could change in a moment. Both of his brothers made a face at him when Adam cautioned them to keep their tempers. It was on the tip of Hoss’ tongue to remind his older brother of his own behavior in the Silver Dollar yesterday but he remained silent.

The Cartwright land moved gently upward in this section. It was covered with lush green grass and a scattering of old hardwoods. There was plenty of water carried by several swiftly flowing streams. It was ideal summer pasture for a big portion of the Ponderosa’s cattle herd. As they approached, Adam saw a crew of men digging holes and pounding posts. The brothers found themselves staring across an imaginary boundary at a dozen guns.

Startled at first by one of the men he saw staring back at him, Adam twisted in his saddle, putting one hand on the back, leaving the other on the horn. His expression softened and he smiled. “Legend—John Legend. Didn’t think I’d ever see you outside of San Francisco.”

The man on the opposite side of the fence line looked hard at Adam then returned the smile. “Adam Cartwright. Didn’t connect the name. Must be getting old; I should have.”

Adam shifted in his saddle. “Oh, I don’t see why. We aren’t the only Cartwrights in the world.”

“Maybe, but you are the only Cartwrights in this part of the territory.” Legend stopped and looked around. “Seems we have a bit of a standoff.”

“It would appear so. How long have you been working for Daniels?” Adam asked.

“Just started last week. He seems to think you’re trying to drive your cattle onto his land. Thinks your property lines are wrong.”

A frown brought Adam’s dark brows together. The anger he so carefully had kept hidden began to show itself. “Yeah, we know what he thinks and he’s wrong. The courts will prove it.”

Joe had been patient long enough. “You gonna sit here jawin’ all day with this guy or are we gonna do something?” he asked.

“Who’s the impatient fella with you?” Legend’s dark eyes shifted toward Hoss and Joe. His smile lost its warmth.

“All you need to know is that I’m a Cartwright and this is Cartwright land you’re on,” Joe snapped back.

Hoss just barely touched Joe’s arm but it was enough for the youth to settle back down into his saddle. “Adam, ain’t ya gonna tell us who yer friend is?” Hoss asked.

Adam turned to face his two brothers. The answer to Hoss’ question might require a little more explanation then he was willing to give.

*****

It was unusually warm for an October evening in San Francisco. Adam Cartwright took off his coat and hung it over his arm as he walked up Bleeker Street. Cresting the hill, he smiled as he saw the beautiful gray stone house he visited each time he was here on business. House— hell, he thought, this had to qualify as one of the most beautiful mansions in the city. The grounds were immaculate with carefully planted and maintained landscaping. Walking paths and benches were scattered among intricate gardens. The house itself was three stories with sparkling leaded windows and a veranda that surrounded the entire first floor.

As he came closer, Adam noticed that the nightly procession of carriages had begun to arrive. They stopped briefly to disgorge their passengers, then moved briskly to the stable area behind the house. It had been too nice and he had been too restless, so walking pleased him more than a carriage ride. It always amused him to see how quickly the visitors to the Bleeker Street address moved into the house. No one took advantage of the gracious porch with its beautiful views of the city and the sea below.

Adam walked along the brick path that led to the veranda steps. Oil lamps filled every window, giving the house a festive air. He walked to the side and sat on the railing, mesmerized by the view of the ocean. A night breeze came up and he replaced his coat. Reaching into an inside pocket, he pulled out one of the new, slim cigars a business associate had given him at the end of their meeting that morning. The negotiations had been successful and he was feeling good about what that meant to the future of the Ponderosa. His father would be pleased. A slow smile crept across his face as he stuck a match. But oh, how not pleased would Ben Cartwright be if he could see his son at this moment. His eldest and trusted partner was sitting on the porch railing of the grandest and most notorious brothel in San Francisco.

He reluctantly turned from the view when he heard approaching footsteps. Adam stood to greet the butler he had known for several years now. “Hello Thomas, how are you?”

“Why, Mr. Adam, I wondered who was sitting out here. Don’t have many folks who want to do that.” He grinned at Adam. “It’s nice to see you again and I’m just fine, sir. Thank you for asking. Would you like me to bring you a glass of brandy or maybe some champagne?”

“No, thank you, Thomas; I’ll be coming in soon.” Adam turned back to the sea. The sun left orange highlights on the waves as it sank past the horizon.

“Would you please tell Miss Gabrielle that I’m here?” Thomas left. Tired of the cigar, Adam walked to the drive and put it out.

As Adam approached the double doors, they were opened by a pair of doormen. Once inside, the serenity of his time on the porch disappeared. He handed his hat to the valet and proceeded from the foyer into a large ballroom to the left. Men of all ages and from all walks of life engaged young women in conversation. An orchestra played waltzes for those who chose to use the dance as a way to communicate. He moved to one side of the room that was entirely taken up by the polished mahogany bar. “Brandy, please,” he asked.

Adam had always been fascinated by how even the bitterest of business rivals mixed so easily at Gabrielle’s. They were gracious, even friendly toward each other. But the cold light of day would find them at each other’s throats once again. Politicians, judges, lawyers, doctors, businessmen—-they were all welcome at Gabrielle’s as long as they played by the house rules and left their private lives outside.

Adam’s musings were interrupted by the arrival of Thomas. “Mr. Adam— Miss Gabrielle says she will see you at your convenience.”

“Thank you, Thomas.” Adam slowly finished his brandy, leaving the price and more on the bar. He moved toward the foyer and ascended the private staircase. Approaching Gabrielle’s door, he felt the same sensations he had when he was twenty-two and just home from college. It made him smile to think back on a time when he was relatively innocent and their liaison had just begun.

It was well into the small hours of morning when he descended the same staircase. Thomas met him at the bottom. “Shall I call for a carriage sir?”

“No—no thank you, Thomas. I think I’ll have a nightcap.” Adam proceeded into the ballroom once more. The atmosphere was much different now. The occupants of the main room were either drinking at the bar or playing cards. A single piano player was all that was left of the orchestra. Not much different from home, he thought, just different trappings. Ordering a brandy, he placed one foot on the railing while the rest of him leaned into the beautifully polished wood. Scanning his surroundings, his eyes came to rest on a group gathered around four men at a poker table. He had seen three of the men before— one a judge, one a mine owner he had dealings with in the past and the third was a local ward politician. The identity of the fourth man eluded him. It seemed, from what he could make out, that the fourth man held most of the luck that evening.

Adam watched him carefully. The man was about his age, dark and tall like himself. His hands played skillfully over the cards, letting Adam know that the gentleman had an intimate knowledge of the pasteboards. His manner seemed as smooth as the cards he handled. For some reason, Adam’s curiosity was peaked and he moved in closer. He heard the stranger say, “I’ll stand pat with these.”

Both the judge and the mine owner had folded on the previous round. That left the stranger and the politician locked in a high-stakes game of who could out bluff the other. “Alright,” the politician said, “Let’s see what you’re holding. You can’t be lucky with every hand.”

“Perhaps lucky enough,” came the answer. “Full house—aces over tens.” The other player threw in his hand. The winner started moving the money toward the already sizable pile that sat in front of him but stopped when he heard his last opponent say, “You’re a cheat, Legend—you’ve been cheating all night.”

No one around the table moved and all conversation ceased with the politician’s accusation. Legend let out a long, slow breath and raised his eyes to stare at his accuser. “You got a reason for saying that or are you worried about explaining some missing money to your constituents?”

Furious, the older man jumped to is feet. His face and neck were dark red highlighted with an unhealthy purplish hue. “How dare you, sir? How dare you sully my reputation in front of everyone?”

“Seems you’re the one who started the name calling,” Legend replied. He hadn’t moved and his voice remained quiet, but every muscle was tensed for a strike. Legend started to rise when he found himself facing a derringer.

“Admit it—-admit you were cheating!” The man was furious and the small gun shook in his hand.

“Can’t admit what isn’t true.” Legend finished standing up but made no move for his own gun. There was no sign of fear in the man.

Adam moved quietly behind the gunman. He reached forward and wrenched the man’s arm downward. The retort of the bullet echoed loudly in the confined space as it buried itself in the oak floor. Adam pulled the derringer from the struggling man. The two doormen appeared to escort the politician out with a warning that his patronage was no longer welcome at Gabrielle’s.

Legend held out his hand toward Adam and said, “Thanks just doesn’t seem like quite enough.”

“It’s more then sufficient,” Adam answered, as he shook the man’s hand then turned to walk away.

“Maybe, but what made you mix into our little fracas in the first place?

Adam stopped. “Well, Mr.—ahhh, I’m afraid I didn’t catch the name,” he replied.

“Legend, John Legend.”

“Mr. Legend. I’ve had a very pleasant evening here at Gabrielle’s and I didn’t want anything to ruin it. And it’s silly for a man to lose his life over a card game. It’s as simple as that.” Adam walked to the bar.

Legend followed him. “I’d at least like to know your name and buy you a drink,” he said.

“The name’s Cartwright—Adam Cartwright, and I think I’ve had enough for tonight. Maybe some other time.” Adam touched his hat and made his way to the doors.

Legend tipped his head to the side and watched the man who had just saved his life walk away. He was curious. Why would a stranger step into the middle of something that didn’t concern him—something that could have gotten him killed? Nobody saves another man’s life then just walks away. No, he thought, somehow payment always comes due.

*****

“You just gonna sit there or are we gonna do something?” Joe’s angry voice cut through Adam’s recollections.

Adam turned back to face Legend. “These are my brothers, Hoss and Joe. And you’re still on the wrong side.” Adam sat motionless. “This is Cartwright land.”

It was Legend who blinked first. He pushed his hat back than placed both hands on his saddle horn, a smile on his face. “Maybe–but the man I work for seems pretty definite.” He turned to the crew of men that were with him. “Pack it up for today; we’re going back.”

“Mr. Daniels’ ain’t gonna like this— and neither is Mr. Sutton,” a young yellow-haired man said.

“You let me worry about that. Now pack it up,” Legend repeated more forcefully this time. He turned back to Adam, the smile returning. “Maybe sometime you’ll let me buy you that drink I owe you.” He reined his horse around and rode away from the Ponderosa.

The three Cartwright brothers sat in silence while the dust from the retreating riders and wagon settled back to earth.

Hoss spoke first. “You know, Adam, you was always one to play it close to the vest but two strangers in two days?”

“Yeah,” Adam responded, “interesting coincidence.”

“Coincidence? Seems like more then that to me.” Joe was still angry. “This is more than just your own business. The Ponderosa concerns us all.”

Adam’s calm exterior crumbled. “You think I need you to tell me that?” He started to urge Sport toward home but Hoss caught the near rein.

“I agree with Joe. Just what do you know that we don’t?”

Adam jerked Sport’s head away from Hoss and was instantly sorry for it. He took a breath to calm himself and ran his hand across his mount’s trembling neck, murmuring an apology as he did. “I swear. I don’t know any more then you two but I’m about to find out. Let’s go home.”

On the long ride back to the ranch, Adam told his brothers about his meeting with Legend in San Francisco. The two younger Cartwrights momentarily forgot both Ethan Daniels and John Legend, becoming more interested in Adam’s choice of recreation and a woman named Gabrielle. Adam’s rich baritone mixed with Hoss’ loud guffaws and Joe’s high pitched giggles, sending a chorus of voices into the hills.

*****

The smiles and laughter were quickly driven away by their father’s grim expression. Ben was waiting for them in the great room. Unable to sit still, he paced the well worn boards. Adam didn’t stop to remove his hat or gun. He placed himself in Ben’s path. “OK Pa, what did the lawyer say?”

Ben walked to the small table in the corner and picked up the whiskey decanter. Pouring himself a generous amount, he swallowed it in one gulp. Hoss and Joe looked at each other but both knew better then to ask anymore. Their father would answer Adam’s question when he was ready.

“He says our deed for that section isn’t in his safe,” Ben shouted. “After all this time, all of a sudden our deed is missing?” His voice rang throughout the room.

Hoss spoke up. “Now Pa, I know you’re upset but you ain’t doin’ yerself no good yelling like that.”

Joe opened his mouth to speak but Ben’s narrow, hard glare stopped him. “I’ve sweated and slaved — so have you boys — and I’ll not let Ethan Daniels or some lawyer tell me that land is not ours.” He poured himself another measure of the amber liquid. “I’ll see them all in hell first.” He finished the drink and walked up the stairs. They heard a door slam shut.

“Yeow, I’ve seen him mad before and lots of times it was at me but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him this mad.” His brothers could hear the unfamiliar fear that laced Joe’s voice.

“I still say he’s gonna hurt himself if he don’t calm down,” Hoss grumbled.

“Give him a little while. I don’t think he’s about to go to sleep.” Adam looked up at the empty staircase. “I’ll go talk to him.”

Hoss smiled at his older brother and said, “I was hopin’ you’d volunteer.”

The younger Cartwrights had finished dinner, each throwing an occasional glance up the staircase but their father never rejoined them. Before Hoss and Joe retired, they both teased Adam about the joys of being the oldest but he knew they were both grateful that he was the one intervening with their father.

Adam waited a little longer then climbed the stairs to Ben’s bedroom. He knocked softly—nothing. He decided not to wait and walked in. A single lamp, turned low, lit the corner of the room where Ben sat. “You don’t wait to be invited into my room anymore?” he heard his father say.

“No, not if I think something’s wrong,” Adam answered. He saw the momentary anger in Ben’s eyes fade. “Come on, Pa, I know you’re angry about what the lawyer said but don’t you think you’re overreacting a bit? This isn’t the first time someone has questioned our property lines.”

“It’s the first time a man like Ethan Daniels has questioned them,” Ben shot back. “And in case you’ve forgotten, he’s not like any of the others.” He turned to the window and looked out at the tall pines bathed in the moonlight.

Adam watched his father’s shoulders slump. Ben turned back, his voice tangled with weariness. “The lawyer says one of us will have to go to Carson City to verify our records.”

“Alright—that doesn’t seem so bad. I don’t know why we can’t telegraph but if one of us has to go in person, it won’t take all that long.” Adam knew there was more.

Ben was up and started to pace. “I’m not sure of what they’ll find.” His words came out as a whisper.

Uncertain of what he heard, Adam asked, “Pa?”

“Things were different then, not so cut and dry, not like now.” Ben stopped pacing. “I did my best to make sure all the deeds were signed and filed as we added land to the ranch but things get lost, people’s memories fade.”

“Are you afraid Ethan Daniels is right? Is that why you’re so angry?” Adam asked.

“I’m angry at myself. I should have made sure, all those years ago, I should have made sure.” He looked up at his son. “This land is your legacy—yours and Hoss’ and Joe’s.” Ben’s anger was gone. “How could I have let this happen?

Adam drew himself up, his mouth pulled into a tight line. His words were quiet but flint hard. “You’ll have to explain, Pa. One minute you’re ready to send them to the depths of hell and now you sound like you’re giving up. Which is it?”

Ben swung around and stood inches from his son’s face. His voice was hoarse with barely controlled fury. “You watch how you talk to me, boy!”

“Then pick a side! Are you going to fight Daniels or are you gonna bellyache about something you can’t do anything about?” Adam didn’t flinch. “Choose one so Hoss and Joe and I can make some decisions of our own.”

“Just what do you mean by that?” Ben’s tenuous grip on his composure started to slip.

“If you’re ready to back down, stop fighting, then Hoss and Joe and I will have to figure out where we stand. If the Ponderosa means so little to you, then maybe it should be the same for us.” Adam cringed inside at his own words but he prayed they’d have the effect he was hoping for.

“How dare you? How dare you question my loyalty to this land or its future for you boys?” Ben’s face was a high red and his anger clipped off his words. “This ranch came together because of a dream your mother and I had and because Inger and Marie supported that dream. Their lives were tied up in this land as much as mine and you three boys. How dare you question them?”

“Then fight for it! Fight like you always have. Ethan Daniels be damned!” Adam’s anger matched his father’s own.

Ben turned away and walked back to the window—his words were stilted. “I’ll leave in the morning. I should only be gone a couple of days, no matter what I find out.” He turned back to face his son. “I’ll see Hiram’s replacement before I go.”

Adam was caught off guard. “Hiram’s replacement? You never said anything about Hiram not being here.”

“In all the excitement, I guess I forgot. Hiram is back East with family for the next few months. A man named John Harris is taking over his practice until he gets back,” Ben said.

“What do we know about this Harris?” Adam asked.

“Apparently he was recommended to Hiram. I assume he approved or he never would have let Harris take over,” Ben answered.

Adam made a face but didn’t pursue the subject. “Well speaking of excitement, there are one or two things I haven’t had a chance to tell you about either. This morning Joe ran into some trouble up at the north end and…”

By the time Adam had finished, they heard the clock from downstairs strike twelve. Ben said, “It looks as if Daniels is provoking a fight. Maybe I should stay here and you can go to Carson.”

“Now Pa, think about it. It has to be you. I wasn’t old enough to be a part of things when you bought that part of the ranch.” He put a hand on his father’s shoulder. “We’ll be fine. They backed down today and I don’t think Daniels is stupid enough to take on all the Ponderosa riders. He’s just pushin’ to see what we’ll do.”

“And this Legend—what about him?” Ben asked.

Adam hesitated then answered honestly. “I’m not really sure I know.” Adam started for the door. “But I do know that I’m tired. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Adam had the door half open when he heard his father call his name. He stopped and turned back. “I’m grateful to you for helping me see this more clearly,” Ben stated. Adam smiled but was surprised when his father didn’t smile back. “But I meant what I said; don’t ever speak to me that way again — not in my house, not under my roof.”

Adam stared hard at his father but walked away before he said the words that burned in his mouth.

*****

Ben left early, before any of his sons were awake. When Adam came down for breakfast, he found that Hoss and Joe were already at the table. “You two are up early. Pa already gone?” he asked.

It was Hoss who answered. “Yup, he left just as we were comin’ down. I heard you two wrangling last night. How long did that last?”

Adam frowned at the memory of last night’s discussion with his father. “Longer then I wanted it to.”

“What’s Pa giving you a hard time about? You didn’t start this.” Joe passed his brother a pile of fresh donuts.

“No, but it’s complicated.” Adam was quiet for a moment. “Pa’s gone to Carson City to verify our deed for that section of the ranch.” He stopped long enough to tuck in some eggs while they were still warm. “He should be back in a couple of days and maybe this’ll be all over.”

Hoss looked up from his plate. “Maybe?”

Both of his brothers looked at him, waiting for an explanation. Adam put down his fork and wiped his mouth. “Pa’s not sure everything we need to prove that section is ours is on file. He told me last night that he wasn’t sure our deeds were in order.”

“How could that be? That section of land has always been ours,” Joe said.

“Yeah, as long as you can remember, but Adam and I remember when Pa bought it from old man Jacobs.” Hoss swallowed the last of his donut and reached for another. “We wasn’t very old ourselves.”

“Well, we’ll know soon enough, so how about we get to work?” Adam asked.

Joe stood up. “You tell him what happened on the north end?”

“I told him and I assured him that we could handle whatever came along.” Adam stood up and looked at his youngest brother. “He wanted to stay but I convinced him there wouldn’t be any trouble while he was gone.”

Both Hoss and Adam made a point of looking at the youngest Cartwright. “Why are you lookin’ at me?” Joe asked.

“Well, little brother, you sorta got a nose of trouble and we don’t want to see it get cut off,” Hoss answered.

Joe was about to defend himself when Adam said, “Pa would never forgive us if we let his “little boy” get himself into a mess.”

“I can handle myself and I don’t need you two to watch over me!” Joe felt obliged to defend himself.

Adam lost his teasing smile. “I know you can, Joe, but Ethan Daniels is much more dangerous than most men. Pa’d be the first to tell you that.”

Joe’s face told his brothers he understood what they were telling him. He stood up. “Come on, let’s get some work done.”

*****

Bob Sutton’s face still sported the bruises left there by Adam Cartwright’s fists and every time he winced in pain, he cursed his adversary’s name. He walked into the office of Virginia City’s only lawyer. John Harris jumped when he heard someone entering. “What’s got you all riled up?” Sutton asked. “Not that it’d take much in your case.” A sneer twisted his lips.

“Ben Cartwright was here early this morning on his way to Carson City.” Harris was a little man with small eyes and a nervous manner. “He told me he was going to straighten out the deeds to his north section.” The little lawyer wrung his hands and swallowed hard. “You’d better tell Mr. Daniels.”

“Don’t worry, lawyer, Ben Cartwright ain’t gonna be able to straighten out nothing.” Sutton laughed. “I’ll see to that.

Harris froze in place. “You’re going to kill Ben Cartwright? Are you out of your mind? The whole territory will be in an uproar, not to mention his three sons.” He started to back away from the Running D foremen. “I won’t be any part of it. You tell Daniels I don’t want any part of killing Ben Cartwright!”

With the speed of a rattler, Sutton grabbed Harris and pulled him close. “You’re in it up to yer neck so don’t go getting’ any ideas about walkin’ away now.” The nasty sneer returned. “You really want me to tell Mr. Daniels you want out?” When there was no answer, he pushed the frightened little man away. “Just keep yer mouth shut and we’ll take care of the rest.”

*****

Ben kept trying to remember but it had been such a long time and the ranch boundaries had changed many times over the years. Lulled by Buck’s smooth rocking motion, he concentrated on the time he’d bought that section from Mr. Jacobs. The man was well into his seventies with only one child, a daughter who lived in Stockton. Knowing he couldn’t keep up his little spread any longer, he offered to sell it to Ben. Joe was just born and Hoss and Adam still young. Money was tight then but Mr. Jacobs had agreed to sell him the land on time. Ben remembered how grateful he and Marie had been for the old man’s generosity. Papers had been signed and stored in his safe, the same one that still stood in his office at the ranch. Later on, the debt was finally paid off and a prime piece of land was permanently added to the Ponderosa acreage.

As he thought it, though, things started to come back to him. As Virginia City grew, so too did the people who came to be a part of the ever-expanding west. A young Hiram Walker came and was the first lawyer to set up practice. He convinced Ben that all of the ranch paperwork should be kept with him after being duly registered in Carson City. The final deed for that north section should have been in Hiram’s safe! But young Harris swore there was nothing to prove that Ben owned that piece of land. He just didn’t understand how that could be.

Ben’s thoughts wandered and finally turned to the harsh words he had with Adam the night before. He’d let his temper get the best of him. And even though he finally understood what his son was trying to do, the way Adam went about it still rankled. How could Adam even intimate that Ben had given up? He took a deep breath that produced a sigh when he exhaled. They’d talk it out when he got home.

Ben heard the sound of water rushing over rocks. He knew a deep stream ran close to the trail so he reined Buck toward the sound and a cool drink. The stocky buckskin lowered his muzzle. Ben removed his hat and swiped his arm across his brow. Buck startled and shied at the sound of a single gun shot. A red stain blossomed on the back of Ben Cartwright’s blue shirt as he fell into the water. The swift current started to float his body downstream.

*****

The three Cartwright brothers spent the day rounding up horses that would have preferred to stay where they were. The end couldn’t come soon enough. Hot and dirty and bedraggled, they made their way to the lake. Quickly stripping themselves of their clothes, they swam in the cool depths of the indigo waters.

“You think Pa’s found what he was lookin for in Carson?” Hoss asked. The three brothers faced each other, treading water to keep themselves afloat.

“A few days ago I would have said of course, but after last night’s discussion I’m not so sure anymore,” Adam answered.

“I don’t understand.” Joe spoke up. “Pa’s always so careful about that kind of stuff. How could the title be missing?”

Hoss felt somehow he had to defend his father. “He is careful, Joe, but you weren’t old enough to know how things were back then. Hell, even Adam and I didn’t understand what went on with ranch business at the time Pa bought that piece of land.”

“Life was very different when the ranch was just being put together. No law to speak of. People took each other at their word. Not a lot of paper was exchanged.” Adam shook the streaming water from his wavy hair, reaching up to push away a stubborn lock from in front of his eyes. “Virginia City was a lot different when you started growing up.” Adam reached out and sent a spray of water toward Joe. “I don’t know about you two but I could use a nice cool beer,” he said and headed toward shore.

The brothers arrived home and were glad Hop Sing had dinner waiting. Swimming always made them extra hungry, as Ben often told them, like a pack of starving wolves. They cleaned up and headed for town, forgetting for the moment, about Ethan Daniels and his claim to Ponderosa land.

The Silver Dollar was crowded with farmers and cowboys and down-on-their-luck miners. A single piano player ignored the noise surrounding him and continued to play as if for his own entertainment. Adam briefly thought of Gabrielle’s. The trappings were certainly different but the reasons men came were the same.

Joe’s eye was caught by a new saloon girl. Her bright blue eyes and bouncing blonde curls were like magnets to the youngest Cartwright. Hoss and Adam just shook their heads and watched as Joe charmed his way into the young lady’s good graces. They, on the other hand, were content to enjoy a beer and watch the activity that surrounded them.

It was beginning to get late and the patrons of the Silver Dollar were starting to leave. Suddenly, Hoss found himself yawning. “Think I’ll go round up Little Joe,” he said.

“I’m ready too,” Adam replied. You go ahead and find Joe and I’ll get the horses.” Adam watched as Hoss was swallowed up by the remaining crowd. He scanned the room for his youngest brother but instead his eye was caught by a poker game in the far corner of the room. He recognized the fair-haired young man who had been part of the crew they had tangled with yesterday. And right next to him sat John Legend. Adam smiled. Now why doesn’t that surprise me? he thought.

Adam swallowed the last of his beer then started for the doors. Just before he got there, he heard a voice call out. “Now ain’t you two them Cartwright boys who was on Mr. Daniels’ land this morning?” It was the young wrangler’s voice that carried over the din.

Adam momentarily dropped his head onto his chest. We almost made it, he told himself—we almost got out of here without some kind of fight or argument or gunplay. He lifted his head and sighed then headed toward the back of the barroom.

“That’s Cartwright land you were trespassing on,” Joe replied.

“Take it easy, Joe. Not this way,” Hoss warned putting a hand around Joe’s forearm.

Joe shrugged it off. “I ain’t startin’ anything.” But his widened stance and tensed muscles gave Hoss another impression.

The young man stood up. “Shoulda been done with you the other day.” He looked over at Legend. “But now’s as good a time as any.” Both men’s hands were poised over their guns.

A dark shadow walked into Joe’s line of fire. Adam placed his hand over the top of Joe’s gun and pushed it downward. At the same time, Legend reached over and took the young gunman’s sidearm out of his holster. “Hoss is right –not now, not this way.”

“What’d you do that for?” Joe was shaking. “I coulda killed you!”

“Let’s give Pa a chance to do this the right way,” Adam said quietly.

Joe knew Adam was saying the same thing his father would have. “I won’t let them build a fence on our land,” Joe warned. “Pa better get home soon.” He turned and headed out the door.

Adam looked at Legend and didn’t move.

“You comin’?” Hoss asked.

“I’ll catch up with you,” Adam answered. Hoss followed his younger brother into the night.

Legend handed the kid his gun. The young man’s face was twisted with anger. “Someday, Legend, it’ll be just you and me.”

“Best think on that, boy. That could be the day you die.” Legend turned his back and walked over to where Adam was standing. “Quite awhile ago, I wanted to buy you a drink. I don’t know about you but I could use one now.”

“No argument from me,” Adam answered.

The two men stood up to the bar. Legend ordered whiskey. “Here’s to ya,” he said and threw back the shot. Adam did the same. “Not quite the caliber of Gabrielle’s but it’ll stop the shakes.”

“Or burn your insides out,” Adam replied. “You takin’ that kid’s threat seriously?”

“Nah, Billy’s just a loud-mouthed boy lookin’ to be a man.” Legend poured himself another shot. “He keeps it up and he may not see his next birthday. Somebody’ll put him down.” He slid the bottle toward Adam.

Adam held up a hand. “No, not for me. Just how do you see this ending—this dispute between my father and Ethan Daniels?”

Legend took a deep breath and put down his drink. “I like you Cartwright but when a man hires my gun, I owe him something.”

“And is that all it is, money?” Adam asked.

“Pretty much. I don’t find this type of work particularly appealing but it finances my other pursuits.” Legend smiled and finished another drink.

“Things like gambling and places like Gabrielle’s?” It was more of a statement than a question. Adam reached into his pocket for a coin.

“Yeah, just like that. I’ve developed a taste for the finer things. By the way, mind if I ask what’s between you and the lovely Gabrielle?” Legend was pretty sure of the answer he’d receive.

“Let’s just leave it that the lady and I are old friends.” Adam didn’t intend to enlighten Legend any more than that. He threw a coin on the bar.

“I told you I owed you one,” Legend called to Adam’s retreating back.

Adam stopped and turned back. “I think I’d rather leave it that way.” He walked through he doors.

*****

Clem hadn’t been a deputy for very long but he’d come to admire and respect the old sheriff. So when he saw the look on Roy’s face after reading a hastily delivered telegram, he knew the news couldn’t be good.

“I want ya to ride out to the Ponderosa and tell the Cartwright boys to get over to Carson City just as fast as they can ride,” Roy said after carefully folding the paper and putting it into his shirt pocket.

“What’ll I tell them when they ask me why?” Clem asked.

“Tell ’em their father’s been shot in the back! And tell ’em I’m on my way over there.” Roy headed for the stable.

Clem felt the sweat gather on his upper lip as he knocked on the oversized front door of the Cartwright ranch house. It was Joe who answered. “Mornin’, Clem. What brings you out here so early?” Joe opened the door wider. “Come on in and have some breakfast.”

Clem held his hat in his hands as he stepped through the front door. “No—no thanks, Joe. The sheriff asked me to ride out and see you and your brothers.” He followed Joe into the dining room. Adam and Hoss each greeted the new man and waited for the message.

“Sheriff Coffee got a telegram from Carson City this morning. Seems your Pa’s been shot. Roy sent me to tell you and to say he’s on his way there now.” Clem began to lose the knots in his stomach that had grown and tightened on his ride to the Ponderosa.

Adam stood up. He felt as if some unknown force wouldn’t allow him to draw a full breath. “Is there anymore to the message, Clem?”

“No Adam, I’m sorry. That’s all there was.” He started to leave then turned back. “Anything I can do?”

“No—no thank you Clem. We’ll be leaving right away.” Adam turned toward his brothers. Neither Hoss nor Joe had moved. None of them heard the front door close.

*****

When Ben awoke, it was to silence. There were no sounds to help him make sense of where he was or why a piercing pain burned through his back. He found himself lying face down on a narrow, cushioned table. Paul, he thought, I must have been hurt and I’m at Doctor Martin’s. But I was almost to Carson City—-how did I get back here? Are the boys here? He lifted his head to look but the pain drove him back down and into the blessed relief of the unaware.

Doctor Earle walked back into his surgery. He had really expected his patient to be awake by now. He hadn’t been in Carson City very long but the name of Cartwright was well known throughout the territory. Nobody could have been more surprised than he was when two cowboys dragged the unconscious man into his office. Of course, he didn’t know this was Ben Cartwright he was working on until after he’d gotten the bullet out and stitched up the wound. The doctor felt for a pulse. He gently replaced the man’s hand at his side and pulled the quilts up over his patient’s shoulders. Better now, he thought as he turned to walk into his outer office. The sheriff was waiting.

*****

They were almost there. The three brothers hadn’t spoken since riding away from the house early on. Even when they stopped to rest the animals, it was by unspoken consent. Each was lost in their own tangle of fear and memories.

Hoss’ face hid nothing—-nor did he try. It just didn’t make any sense to him to try and hide what he was feeling. His father had always been there for him. He understood Hoss’ gentle nature even though it was secreted within a powerful body. His Pa had taught him early on that might didn’t automatically mean right and that controlling his strength and using it to help others, made him a man.

A hand surreptitiously wiped away the overflow from Joe’s shining eyes. Life without his father was unimaginable. He could barely remember his mother’s face. He wondered sometimes if he remembered her at all or was the image in his mind from the picture on his father’s desk. Pa was the only one who understood his mercurial temperament, and instead of trying to make him change, his father taught him how to manage it.

Adam tried to concentrate on what they knew. Their father had left for Carson City yesterday to verify a deed for the northern section of the ranch. Someone had put a bullet in his back and he now lay in the doctor’s office in the same town. Was it some random event or an intentional attack meant to silence Ben Cartwright forever? His mind retraced the past two weeks over and over. And when the fear of losing his father tried to work its way into his thoughts, he buried it deep. He couldn’t help his father or his brothers if he gave in to the pain and terror that threatened to reach up and choke him.

Roy Coffee had arrived in Carson City and Dr. Earle’s office before they did. The brother’s entered the little house and walked through the surgery’s open door. Roy stood talking to a man none of them had ever seen before. Before any of them could speak, Roy introduced the young doctor. “These are Ben’s sons: Adam, Hoss and Little Joe. This is Doctor Earle.”

Without greeting or pretense, Adam asked, “How is our father?”

Taken aback by the abrupt manner of this stranger, the doctor’s tone took on a cool reserve. “Your father was shot in the back. Two men found him on the river bank not far from town and brought him here.” He fidgeted with the eyeglasses he held in his hand. “I’ve removed the bullet and closed the wound.”

“My brother didn’t ask you that. He asked how my father is.” Joe’s emotions boiled over and threatened to catch the doctor in their wake.

Adam reached behind him, his hand finding his younger brother’s arm. Taking a breath to control his own temper, he said; “Just tell us.”

“As I was saying, the bullet is out and his pulse is stronger. As for the rest, we’ll know more when he wakes up.” The young doctor turned and walked toward the back of the house. A silent quartet followed him.

The figure lying across the room was very still. Only when they approached the bedside could they see the slight movement of the covers that hide Ben Cartwright from his shoulders to his feet. Both Joe and Hoss reached to touch their father. Adam knelt down near his father’s face. He was staggered by how fragile Ben looked. He called to him in a soft voice, hoping but not expecting an answer. “Pa—Pa, we’re here now.”

It was late into the evening and Ben still hadn’t roused. The doctor checked his dressing and pulse frequently, but neither had changed. Joe’s anxiety manifested itself in restlessness. Finally, Hoss took him out to stable the horses and find a place where they could get some sandwiches and coffee.

Roy had gone back to Virginia City, making Adam promise that he would telegraph any change in his friend’s condition. Adam remained at his father’s beside. Periodically, he placed a hand on the unmoving man’s back to reassure himself that Ben hadn’t given up, that he hadn’t left them. Slumping back into the chair, he allowed his body to sag with the fatigue that was rapidly catching up with him. He rubbed his tired eyes and waited.

Adam heard soft voices and knew it was Hoss and Joe. His exhausted mind fought to keep him from fully waking but he willed himself to open his eyes. Both of his brothers were leaning close to the bed. Adam heaved himself out of the chair and joined them.

“We just walked in and we heard Pa beginnin’ to stir,” Hoss told his older brother.

Ben’s dark eyes tried to focus from beneath lids that were barely open. “Boys?”

“Yeah Pa, we’re here,” Joe replied. His voice faltered as he swallowed his own relief. He and Hoss stepped to the side so their father could see them.

“Adam—where’s Adam?” Ben’s voice had faded to a soft murmur.

Adam reached for his father’s hand. “I’m right here Pa.”

“I don’t remember….”

The brothers could see the struggle reflected in their father’s eyes as he tried to piece together what had happened.

“It’s ok Pa,” Hoss said. “You was on yer way to Carson City. Do you remember that?”

“Yes, yes I remember. Almost there — then nothing.” Ben tried to change his position but the pain in his back became a fire hot iron.

Joe filled in the missing pieces. “Someone shot you. You were found by two cowhands and brought to the doctors here in Carson City.”

“How bad?” Ben asked.

“I think I’m the one who can best answer that question.” Dr. Earle’s entrance startled them. “Without the onset of complications, you should do well, Mr. Cartwright. But you’ll have to remain here for at least a week before you can be moved.”

“A week?” Ben’s voice was becoming weaker as he slid toward sleep. “Can’t — the deed, need to see about the deed.” But his body won out.

*****

It was close to four a.m. when Joe entered the hotel room. He was greeted by Hoss’ familiar snoring from one bed and a black clad figure in the other. He approached his older brother. “Adam—Adam, you awake?” He jumped back when his brother’s eyes flashed open.

“I’m awake,” Adam answered. He started to sit up.

Joe grabbed at his chest. “Yeah, no kidding. I can see that. You ready to go sit with Pa?”

“How is he?” Adam stretched and pushed himself up.

“He slept most of the time—mumbled some,” Joe answered. “Why would he keep saying he’s sorry?”

“Sorry—sorry about what?” By now Adam had reached for his gun belt and hat.

“You tell me. He kept saying I’m sorry, Adam—-forgive me. Now what’s that all about?” Joe moved to block his brother’s path to the door.

Adam refused to get into the details of his heated discussion with his father but now was no time for an altercation with Joe either. “You know I talked to Pa the night before he left for Carson City.” He tried to keep the frustration out of his voice. “It didn’t end well.”

“Well apparently he’s feeling pretty bad or he wouldn’t be mumbling about it in his sleep.” Joe moved away from the door. “He doesn’t need to be feeling guilty on top of everything else.”

Adam looked at Joe for a minute, his face an unreadable mask. “I’ll see you and Hoss in the morning,” he said and disappeared into the hotel’s dark hallway.

Ben’s sleeping face was lit by a single lamp close to his bedside. Adam stood at the head of the bed and watched his father’s deep, even breathing. Satisfied that Ben was comfortable, he took off his coat and hat than stripped off his gun belt. Restless, he walked to the window. The main street was pitch black. Even the saloon was in total darkness. He rubbed his eyes than slid his hand back through the heavy hair. How had this all happened? All within a little more then a week. His father’s life in jeopardy, land in dispute, confrontations with Daniels’ men. Why?

Adam continued to stare out the window until he heard his father call his name. “Adam—son, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean….” The words were cut off by a short gasp followed by a soft moan.

Adam sat where his father could see him but Ben’s eyes remained closed. He reached out and closed his fingers around his father’s hand. “It’s alright, Pa. I’m here and you’ve got nothing to be sorry about.”

Slowly, Ben’s eyes opened but closed quickly against the pain of the light. Adam turned the lamp as low as he could. Once again, Ben’s eyes opened. “Adam?”

“Right here, Pa.” Adam swallowed hard, hoping to keep the emotion out of his voice.

“I was wrong, boy, real wrong. I should’ve never said those things to you.” Ben stopped to gather his strength.

Adam tried to tell his father that none of that mattered. “We’ve been mad at each other before.” His face lit up with a faint smile. “Don’t suppose it’ll be the last time either.”

But Ben wouldn’t be deterred. “I made you feel as if the ranch wasn’t yours as much as mine.” Adam saw the tears gather in his father’s eyes. “You worked as hard as I did. And too soon— I asked too much of you, too soon.” Ben was struggling to breathe.

Adam began to be afraid. “Please, Pa, it’s over. Please don’t do this yourself.” He gripped his father’s hand harder.

He was startled by the unexpected entrance of Dr. Earle. “What’s going on in here?” He watched Ben’s labored breathing. ‘You should know better than to upset a man who’s just been shot.” The doctor placed himself between father and son.

Adam got up and walked to the window. He watched as the doctor examined his father. “Is he—is he alright?”

The doctor’s tone softened. “Yes, he’s just gone back to sleep.” Clearing his throat and not looking at Adam, the doctor added, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be so abrupt.”

Adam turned around and looked into the night. In a voice just above a whisper, he said, “Don’t worry about it, Doctor. If you knew my father, you’d know that he will do as he pleases, whether good for him or not.”

A flicker of light broke into the darkness of the street below. Adam stared at the orange glow for a moment until he realized that he wasn’t looking at a random lamp that had been lit. It was a fire! Running toward the door, he grabbed his gun belt. “Stay with my father,” he cried.

Out on the street, Adam ran toward the light. The glow he had seen from the window of the doctor’s house now became an angry red tide that enveloped everything in its path. Suddenly, he wasn’t the only one on the street. Men shouted and bucket brigades were quickly formed. Adam knew that the building that was burning could not be salvaged but they worked to save the surrounding structures from being involved. It was well into midmorning before the tired townspeople could stop. They had succeeded in keeping the hungry flames at bay.

Adam wiped the sweat and ashes from his face. He remembered that sometime during the melee, Hoss and Joe had joined the fight. The three weary men now stood together in front of the ravaged building. “I wonder what this place is, er, was?” Joe asked.

A grizzled old man, face blackened with dirt and ash, answered. “It was the land office.” He pointed to a charred, half buried sign. There were enough letters left to know it had once said Carson City Land Office.

*****

Legend sat in the corner of the Running D’s library. He listened carefully to the conversation between Ethan Daniels and his foreman, Bob Sutton.

“Are you sure those documents have been destroyed?” The man sitting behind the desk was somewhere between fifty and sixty. A big man who’d lost his shape and his hair to the march of time. But there was no mistaking the air of authority that surrounded him. That and the feeling of malevolence.

“I told you, Mr. Daniels. There ain’t nothin’ left of the place. There can’t be no papers in there,” Sutton replied.

“Just like you were sure Ben Cartwright was dead?” The sarcasm wasn’t lost on the foreman.

“Who knew two cowhands would wander by and bring Cartwright in? He should be layin’ out there, meat fer the wolves by now.” Sutton slapped his hat against his leg in frustration. “He could still be dead.”

“Don’t be a fool! His three sons aren’t about to let anyone near their old man.” Daniel’s stood up and walked to the coffee service. After pouring a cup, he said, “Maybe it won’t matter now since I have the only proof of who really owns that land and it’s in my safe. Let Ben huff and puff all he wants. I have a deed to that land and he can’t prove otherwise.”

“Sutton, get back to town and take a couple of men with you. Hang around and see if the Cartwright boys have anything in mind. They aren’t just gonna sit still waiting for someone to confess to shooting their father.” Daniels dismissed him with a wave.

Legend continued to stare at his boss, not saying a word.

“You have something to say?” Daniel’s asked.

“Just curious,” Legend answered. He looked at Daniels from behind steepled fingers. “What would make that land so important for you to take on a family like the Cartwrights? Not something a smart man would do unless there was a very good reason.”

“You always this curious when you hire out your gun?” Daniels crossed the floor and sat on the corner of his desk.

“No, not usually. I figure a man can spend his money any way he wants. But this is a little different. I know one of Cartwright’s sons.” He waited for Daniels’ response but before he could answer, Legend continued, “He did me a good turn once.”

Daniels stood up. His face reddened and anger made him stumble over his words. “I hired your gun and for a big price. I don’t care what one of the Cartwrights did for you. You’ll do like I tell you.”

Legend stood up and walked to within inches of the angry man. Looking down, his voice was controlled but his meaning was unmistakable. “And you’ll get what you paid for, but don’t mistake me for one of your hired hands. That could be a very bad error.” He turned and walked out of the room.

*****

The three brothers managed to clean up and change before they went back to the doctor’s office. Ben was awake, although in obvious pain. Joe sat in the chair beside his father while Hoss perched on the arm. Adam took his place behind them. “The doctor told me,” Ben said. “You boys alright?’

“Yeah Pa but there ain’t nothing left,” Hoss replied.

“Somebody made sure there was nothing left,” Joe added. “And we know who that was.”

“Just how do you intend to prove that?” Adam asked.

“I don’t need any proof.” Joe’s anger escalated. “Daniels is behind this and we all know it.”

“You can’t go off half-cocked after Daniels,” Adam answered back, his exasperation clear. “Confronting him won’t prove anything and you could get yourself killed!”

“I don’t care what you think,” Joe started to say.

“Joseph!” Ben’s normally sharp rebuke was weakened. “Listen to me. Adam’s right. You can’t go after Daniels with nothing to back it up.” Ben’s head fell back on the bed. What little energy he had was depleted. After a moment, he continued. “Please—you boys need to be together on this.” His voice hardly above a whisper now, he said, “Please, promise me.”

Hoss spoke first. “Don’t worry, Pa. We will.” He looked at his younger brother but Joe remained silent.

The glare in Adam’s eyes softened as he looked over at his father, “Of course. Pa.”

Tears came to Joe’s eyes. He leaned closer to his father. “I promise, Pa.”

Ben hand reached out to touch his youngest’s cheek. “I believe you, son. Listen to your brothers.” Ben’s eyes closed and his hand dropped to his side.

Ben’s three sons stood silence.

*****

Sheriff Tanner had just finished breakfast and was working on his second cup of coffee when the Cartwright brothers entered the café. He knew who they were without having to be told. What had happened to his normally quiet little town? First Nevada’s biggest rancher is shot in the back and brought in then there’s a fire that could have burned the whole town down. He sighed and shook his head. The three men stopped at his table.

“I’m Adam Cartwright. These are my brothers, Hoss and Joe.” The sheriff started to say something but Adam continued as if he hadn’t heard. “We’d like to know if you have any idea who shot our father.”

Like Roy Coffee, Sheriff Tanner had served the people of Carson City long and well. “Well, son, I spoke with both the men who brought your father in and they didn’t see hide nor hair of nobody else.” He placed his napkin on the table and stood up. “Went out there myself. Lots of people travel that road so whatever prints there are probably don’t mean very much.”

The old sheriff pushed back his chair and reached for his hat. “Some trampled down brushes not far from where your father was shot. Could be the shooter was hidin’ there.”

“If that’s true, then whoever it was knew Pa would be ridin’ that way,” Hoss said. “I’d like to go out there and have a look myself.”

“Help yourself. I hope you can find something I couldn’t.” Putting on his hat and heading for the door, he said, “I’ll be in my office. You come get me and I’ll show you the way.” Sheriff Tanner nodded his head at the three brothers and left.

Hoss slipped into a seat at the next table. “Come on, you two—time we had some breakfast.” Joe and Adam joined him.

“What do we do now?” Joe asked.

“I’ve been thinking about something Pa said the other night when we had that discussion,” Adam said. “I’d forgotten about it until now.” He stopped when the waitress approached to take their order. After she left, he finished his thought. “Pa told me that Hiram was back east on family business and that he had a replacement in his absence. Think I’ll ride back to Virginia City and have a talk with this fellow.”

“With you goin’ back home and Hoss goin’ with the sheriff, where does that leave me?” Joe glanced between his brothers.

Adam’s voice was quiet. “Where do you want to be?”

Joe’s eyes filled, making them shine. “Somebody needs to stay with Pa. It’s not right to leave him alone.”

“Thanks Joe. Adam and me’ll feel better knowin’ yer here with Pa.” Hoss smiled at his younger brother.

Adam reached out to lightly squeeze his brother’s shoulder. “I’ll meet you both back here tonight.”

*****

Hoss bent down on one knee to get a closer look. The old sheriff had been right. There wasn’t much to look at. From what they could piece together from his father and the men who brought him in, Ben had stopped to water his horse just outside of town. If he read the signs correctly, his father had been a ways upstream, and after he was shot, must have fallen into the stream and been swept away.

“You know the boys that brung in my Pa?” Hoss asked.

“Yup, know both of them. Good boys—-they work out to the Bar B. Known `em both for quite a spell.” Tanner handed Hoss Chubb’s reins. “They didn’t see nobody and yer father was bleedin’ pretty bad so they didn’t want to waste no time.

“I’m grateful to `em, that’s fer sure.” Hoss mounted. “I’m sorry I doubted you sheriff.”

“That’s ok, boy. Been my father, I’d done the same.” The two rode back into Carson City together.

*****

Adam went directly to Hiram Wood’s office as soon as he hit town. He was greeted by a slight man with small, close set eyes. “My name’s Adam Cartwright. Are you Hiram’s replacement?”

John Harris blanched when he heard the name of Cartwright. How had things gotten to this? Mr. Daniel’s had promised him that he would never be involved. “Yes,” he said, his voice cracking. “I’m John Harris.”

“I’d like to discuss a missing deed with you,” Adam said. He moved closer, causing the little man back up.

“I can’t tell you anything different than I told your father. There is no deed in Mr. Wood’s safe for the piece of land your father talked to me about.” Harris bumped into the counter behind him. He straightened his shoulders and stood as tall as he could. “I can’t give you what I don’t have, Mr. Cartwright.”

Adam once again stepped forward. His hands reached out to straighten the lapels of the lawyer’s suit. “Now, Mr. Harris, why is it I don’t quite believe you?”

Harris squirmed away. He mustered all the courage he had and faced the cold eyes that seemed to stare right through him. “I don’t care what you think, Mr. Cartwright. There is no deed here!”

Adam watched as the sweat started to form on the little man’s brow. He knew Harris was lying. He closed in again. “My father is lying in a doctor’s office in Carson City because some coward shot him in the back. And you, Mr. Harris, know something you aren’t telling me.” Just as he was ready to grab the lawyer and shake him, Adam heard the door open.

“You need some help, Lawyer Harris?” Adam recognized Bob Sutton’s voice right away. “What’s wrong, Cartwright— you taken to botherin’ innocent citizens these days?”

“Is there a reason you’re making this your business, Sutton?” Adam turned his attention away from the lawyer.

“Yeah, Mr. Harris here is a friend of mine. And I don’t like my friends being bullied, especially by someone like you.” His hand rose over the top of his gun.

“Don’t be stupid, Sutton,” Adam replied, his own hand twitched as he tried to hold it still.

Suddenly, a high-pitched whine rose from the corner. “No, Sutton, I told Daniels I didn’t want to be a part of any gunplay.”

“Shut up,” Sutton growled.

Adam looked back at Harris. “Just what part does Daniels have in all this?”

Harris’ eyes darted between Adam and the Running D foreman. “I told you, Mr. Cartwright, there is no deed to that land here.” Fear poured out of his mouth with the words.

“Perhaps not but you know where it is, don’t you?” Adam’s words were clipped by anger.

“I don’t…,” the frightened man started to say.

“I said shut up Harris.” Sutton advanced as the little man cowered in the corner.

“No. no—I don’t want to be a part of this. Help me!” His plea was directed toward Adam.

Before Adam could react, Sutton drew his gun and fired. John Harris fell forward, blood covering the hands that pulled at his chest. He turned his gun toward Adam but too late. Sutton was dead before he fell.

Bending down to see if the lawyer was still alive, Adam felt a hand claw at his arm. Harris’ breathing came in shuttering gasps. “I didn’t want anyone to get hurt. I never meant…” Blood escaped from the side of his mouth and Adam heard the telltale sounds of a man drowning.

“Tell me—what does Ethan Daniels have to do with this?” Adam held the man’s head and shoulders higher.

“Daniels has your father’s deed. Wants that piece of land.” John Harris drew a deep breath. “I never meant for…” His last breath came out on a sigh and the life drained from his eyes. Adam gently laid the man down. He turned at the sound of the door opening. His shoulders slumped in relief when he saw that it was Roy Coffee.

“Adam—what happened? Are you alright?”

When he finished his story, Adam realized how tired he was. The last few days were catching up to him. But he needed to get back to Carson, back to see his father. “I’ll fill in Sheriff Tanner after I see Pa.”

“Why do you suppose Harris got involved in this in the first place?” Roy wondered.

“Greed, power—-I’m not sure we’ll ever really know.” Adam ran a hand over his eyes. “I’m headed back now.”

Roy touched the younger man’s shoulder. “Don’t do anything you’ll regret, son. Let the law handle it.”

Adam nodded at the old sheriff and headed for the door.

*****

It was dark by the time Adam reached Carson City. He went right to the doctor’s office, sure that both his brothers would be there. He walked in and was guided to his father by a bright oil lamp from the back room. He found his father propped up in bed, pillows positioned so he wouldn’t lean against the wound. Hoss and Joe sat on either side of him, joining Ben in an evening meal. Adam took off his hat as he entered.

“What’s wrong, Pa? Hoss eat everything but the broth?” Adam could see the look of relief that covered his father’s pale face.

“I’m glad you’re back, son. I was getting worried,” Ben said. His voice sounded frail.

“Don’t worry, Pa. Everything’s fine.” Trying to change the subject, Adam directed his attention toward his middle brother, “You find out anything?”

“Nah, not much,” Hoss said between bites. “Sheriff Tanner was right; not much to see.”

“What’d you find out from the lawyer,” Joe asked?

Adam hesitated wondering if his news would be too upsetting for his father. But knowing how Ben reacted to things being kept from him, especially something as important as this, Adam knew he had no choice. “John Harris is dead.”

“Dead? Not you—-tell me it wasn’t you.” The words caught in Ben’s throat.

“Now take it easy, Pa.” Adam tried to sooth his father. “No, it wasn’t me. It was Bob Sutton.” His father seemed to take a deep breath and settle back into the pillows. “Before he died, Harris told me that Ethan Daniels is behind this whole scheme. And he has our deed to the north section.”

“Did he tell you why?” Ben asked.

Adam looked at the floor then back at his father. “No, he didn’t live long enough or maybe he never knew.”

“Well, we ought to be able to get it out of Sutton. Does Roy have him?” Joe waited for his brother’s reply.

“No, Joe, Roy doesn’t have him. I killed Sutton.” Adam looked at his father. “I had no choice, Pa. He was going to kill me.”

Ben nodded at his son. “I believe you, son, but where does that leave us now?” He looked and sounded tired.

“It leaves us with Daniels. I promised Roy I’d tell Sheriff Tanner what Harris said and what happened to Sutton.” Adam looked at Hoss and Joe. “Thought maybe the Cartwright brothers might volunteer to go along with the sheriff when he pays Mr. Daniels a visit.”

”We’re with ya Adam, but right now I think you’d better get some sleep.” Hoss rose from his chair.

“I think we’d all better get some sleep,” Joe said as he got up too.

“You ok, Pa?” Hoss asked. “Me or Joe can stay here with you if you want.”

“No, I’m fine. You and Joe go along and get some sleep. I want to talk to your brother for a moment.”

Adam sat down heavily in the chair closest to the bed. He couldn’t help the weary sigh that escaped. He heard the door close behind his brothers.

“I know you’re tired, son, but I wanted a moment to talk to you. The other night before the fire, I know I wasn’t making a lot of sense but…”

Before Ben could finish, Adam interrupted. “Look Pa—we both said some things that night at the ranch that we’re sorry for.” He gave his father a tired smile.

“Are we alright? Ben asked.

Adam put a hand on top of his father’s. “Always, Pa.” He watched the tears gathered in Ben’s eyes. Clearing his throat, Adam said, “Come on now. You’d better rest or that doctor will be chasing me out of here again.”

*****

Ethan Daniels paced back and forth across the wide expanse of his living room. “Sutton was stupid—giving Adam Cartwright a chance to kill him. And I suppose that fool Harris told young Cartwright about the deed.” His only audience was John Legend.

“And if he did, now what?” Legend asked.

“They’ll be coming here and with the sheriff no doubt. Well, they can’t prove anything if they can’t find the deed.” Daniels walked to his safe. “It’s my word against that fool lawyer and Adam Cartwright’s.”

“The Cartwrights seem to swing a lot of weight around here. It could get interesting,” Legend observed.

“I told you before, that’s what I pay you for.” Daniels opened the safe and withdrew Ben’s deed. He read it again as if to reassure himself that he still possessed it then put it back. “Tell the men to be ready in case they start something.”

Legend walked leisurely to the bunkhouse. The men who worked for Daniels were men who walked the edge. They often crossed the line into the unlawful then came back into the relative safety of Daniels’ protection. The only difference between them and their boss was that Daniels was better at hiding his activities behind the guise of respectability.

As Legend walked through the door, he was met by the young man who had challenged him in the Silver Dollar. “Get out by the trail and let me know if you see the sheriff coming,” Legend ordered. The boy hesitated as if he were about to argue, but Legend just stared at him until he did as he was told.

*****

“I appreciate you men comin’ along but I don’t think Mr. Daniels will start anything with the law.” Sheriff Tanner had listened to Adam’s story of John Harris’ and Bob Sutton’s deaths. He had agreed to go out to the Running D and confront Ethan Daniels but cautioned them that they only had the word of a dead man to back up their story. Unaware that someone lingered at the top of the next rise, they rode on.

There was no one near to hear the young gunman’s words. “Someday, Legend is gonna push me too far and I’ll kill him!” Billy threw down the piece of grass he had been twisting in his hands and turned his head toward the sound of approaching horses. Carefully peering over the rim of the hill, he could see four riders making their way toward the Running D. He quickly mounted and put his horse into a gallop.

Sliding to a stop, the young man dismounted and ran into the house. Legend blocked his way, but the boy walked around him and stood in front of his boss. “They’re comin’ Mr. Daniels. Four riders—should be here any minute.”

“Good boy, Billy. Tell the men to be ready but keep out of sight. Legend, you stay here with me,” Daniels ordered. The owner of the Running D pulled a shotgun from the rack and handed it to his hired gun. “Stay in here.” He walked through the front door, ready to greet the oncoming riders.

Sheriff Tanner and the Cartwright brothers stopped next to the wide veranda that surrounded Daniels’ house. When the dust of their arrival settled down, they were able to see the owner standing there, waiting for them.

Ignoring the brothers, Daniels said, “Sheriff Tanner, you’re here early this morning. I suppose you came to talk to me about Bob Sutton.”

“Yes, among other things,” the sheriff replied. “I’m sure you know the Cartwrights.” He inclined his head toward his companions.

“Yes—sorry to hear about your father. How is old Ben?” The smile on his face only increased the insincerity of his question.

It was Hoss who answered. “Our father is gonna be just fine but the skunk that shot him ain’t.”

Ignoring the comment, Daniels looked back at Sheriff Tanner. “How can I help you?”

“Lawyer Harris told Adam here that it was you that had Cartwright shot and that you have the deed to the disputed land.” The sheriff waited while Daniels took in the accusation. “What have you gotta say for yourself?”

“I think lawyer Harris was confused. Now why would I have Ben shot? I’ll admit there’s some problem about land boundaries but that’s a long way from having a man bushwhacked.”

Joe spotted a movement just to the right of the barn. He turned his head slightly to see if he could get a better look. Both Hoss and Adam saw Joe’s subtle shift. All three brothers dropped their gun hands close to their sides.

Before anymore could be said, a volley of gunfire erupted from the barn. Joe leaned close to his horse then dropped to the ground, rolling toward the side of the house as he did. “Get down,” he shouted.

Adam and Hoss mirrored Joe’s actions. But before the sheriff could move, he went down under a hale of bullets. His lifeless body was dragged a few yards by his panicked horse before he came to rest in the thick dust.

Hoss had rolled toward the same side of the house as Joe. Adam dove into the opening beside the porch. Gunshots continued to rain in. All three brothers returned fire. Daniels had retreated back into the house.

Adam heard Joe call his name. “Adam, you alright?”

“Yeah, I’m ok,” he shouted back. “But I’m pinned down—can’t move anywhere. Hoss?” A bullet kicked up the dust near his head. Adam flattened himself back against the house.

“Right here, brother, with Joe. We’ll see if we can circle around back. Maybe we can catch `em in a crossfire.” Hoss hesitated a moment. “Don’t go nowhere now.”

Adam snorted out a soft laugh. “Thanks for the advice.” He continued to return fire as Hoss and Joe crept carefully around the back of the house. With silent signals, the two brothers were able to move into position and open fire.

Loyalty didn’t play much of a part in the minds of the Running D men. The local law was dead and they hadn’t bargained for a fight with the Cartwright brothers. Shooting old man Cartwright in the back was one thing but getting shot just so Daniels could cash in on Cartwright land was another. Just too many risks. They began to saddle their horses. “You comin’ Billy?” one of the men asked.

“No, I ain’t comin’ and you shouldn’t be leavin’ Mr. Daniels either,” Billy replied. He felt the fear of being left alone begin to creep up his spine.

“Suit yerself, boy, but you stay here and the Cartwright’ll bury ya.” They mounted and rode out.

Confused by the retreating men, Hoss looked at Joe, “They had us outnumbered. Why do you suppose they’re leaving?”

“Got me, but let’s see if the barn is really empty, just in case.” Joe and Hoss carefully entered on either side of the open double doors.

Billy inched his way toward the rear entrance to the barn. He saw the Cartwright brothers enter and he retreated into the shadows before running out through the back. He headed for the house, hesitating before he walked through the kitchen door.

Adam carefully opened the front door, gun ready. There hadn’t been any gunfire from the house but he knew Daniels was cornered now and the man wouldn’t go down without a fight. The fleeting thought that Legend had to be somewhere close crossed his mind and only served to make the situation more dangerous. His steps were almost silent on wide floorboards as he pushed deeper.

Daniels waited, his revolver ready. Small groans from the old pine floors gave away an advancing enemy. He’d seen the cowards that worked for him ride out and now he could only count on himself and Legend. Well, that was enough. He’d blame the deaths of the Cartwright boys and the sheriff on the men who worked for him. After all, as far as the town knew, he was an upstanding citizen. It had been those men who ambushed Ben and shot down his sons and the law. He’d make them believe it. He’d make them believe he had nothing to do with it.

Adam froze as he approached the doorway to the great room. The telltale sound of a gun being cocked stopped him in mid-step. “Come on in, boy. Come in and lay that gun on the table.” Daniels came out from behind his desk.

“Don’t be stupid, Daniels,” Adam said. “My brothers are right outside. You may kill me but you’ll never leave here alive.”

“You and your brothers will all be dead before this is over.” Daniels took a moment to laugh softly. “Poor old Ben— losing all of his sons will destroy him.”

Adam played for time, hoping his brothers would come soon. “What’s this been all about? People have died, properties have been destroyed. You had my father shot. Why?” he asked.

“Money, what else? Money and power and prestige. That piece of land is the proposed link for a new railway line. I’d lease it to them for a fortune and ship Running D cattle all over California. I’d be bigger than Ben Cartwright ever thought of being.”

Legend seemed to appear out of nowhere, still holding the shotgun in the crook of one arm. He smiled at Adam. “We do seem to meet on the wrong side of things.”

Adam didn’t move but returned Legend’s smile. “Yeah, it does seem that way.”

“Kill him—kill him before the other two come in.” Daniels voice took on the edge of hysteria. When Legend made no move to do as he was told, Daniels repeated himself. “I told you to kill him. I bought you— you and your gun.”

Legend turned to face his employer. “I told you before. It would be a costly mistake to think of me as one of your hired hands.”

All three men were startled when they heard the front door open. “Adam—Adam, you in here?” Hoss’ voice boomed in the otherwise silent house.

Daniels brought his gun up in line with Adam’s chest and started to squeeze the trigger but before he could finish, the blast of a shotgun tore through the room. The owner of the Running D toppled to the floor, blood rapidly pooling beneath him. Legend placed the gun back on his arm and started walking toward Adam, a smile still on his face.

Joe and Hoss ran in, guns drawn. “You alright?” Joe asked.

None of them saw young Billy as he entered from the dining room. Seeing his boss lying dead on the floor, the boy raised his gun and fired at Legend’s back. “I told you I’d kill you someday—I told ya!”

Legend fell forward and would have landed hard if Adam hadn’t been there to break his fall. Adam eased him to the floor. He could hear the air from Legend’s lungs bubble through the fluid that filled them.

Billy’s gun was pointed at the floor. He seemed confused and surprised by what he’d just done. Joe walked over and took the gun out of his shaking hand.

Adam held Legend while Hoss examined the wound. He looked at his older brother and shook his head. The gunman’s eyes opened and he struggled to speak. “Why?” Adam asked.

Legend smiled up at him. “Just consider it payment due.” The smile faded and Adam heard the last breath leave his body. He carefully laid him down and stood next to his brothers. Still looking at Legend, he said, “Let’s get out of here.”

*****

Ben sat up for the first time since he’d been shot. The doctor had helped him into an over stuffed chair that looked out onto the street. The pain in his back was beginning to ease up some but his concern was more for his boys than himself. He squinted into the distance as four riders came into view—four riders leading three horses with bodies draped across their saddles. The fist of fear squeezed his heart and he held his breath until he could see that three of the riders were his sons. He slumped down as the fist lost its hold. They were safe—that’s all that really mattered. Land be damned! It was nothing when put next to the lives of his sons.

In time, the three weary men entered their father’s room, each sitting heavily on whatever was handy. “Is it over? Ben asked.

“Yeah Pa, it’s over,” Hoss answered. The afternoon light began to fade as the brothers recounted what had happened.

Ben knew his family needed time to heal and the best place for that to happen was the Ponderosa. “Could one of you boys go find that doctor? It’s time we went home.”

***The End***

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