Fallen Angel (by DJK)

Summary:  Little Joe is in a place he shouldn’t be, and sees something he shouldn’t have.
Category:  Ponderosa
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:   8100


 

Little Joe felt a hand cover his mouth as an arm encircled his waist. He stiffened, and his stomach plummeted to his feet, but he eased backward guided by the person behind him. They passed through a doorway, and the arm released him and pulled the door shut. Joe spun to see who was behind him.

Joe’s eyes widen. She ain’t dressed! Joe’s mouth dropped open as he stared at the first grown female he had ever seen wearing only a chemise and bloomers.

“Well, boy, what do you think you’re doing?” she demanded. Her tone was stern and her hands had settled on her hips. Joe briefly wondered how an almost naked lady could sound so much like a mad ma.

“N…N…Nothing, ma’am,” Joe managed to stammer, “I wasn’t doing nothing, really!” Joe dropped his head and chewed nervously on his lower lip, yet he continued to stare at all her clothing revealed.

Her eyes narrowed. “Boy, see that hairbrush?” She pointed toward the small dresser. Joe nodded his head. “Lie to me, and I’ll use it on you backside. Understand?”

His ma had used a hairbrush on his backside numerous times while she was alive. Joe had learned to respect an angry lady with a hairbrush.

“Yes, ma’am,” Joe answered nodding his head again. He considered turning and running, but decided it might be better to try and charm his way out of his predicament. Generally he could charm a female with ease. “I won’t tell ya nothing but the truth, ma’am.”

“Then I repeat, what were you doing?”

“It was just a dare, ma’am. Just a stupid dare.”

“Explain, please.”

“Well, some of my friends, well, we was wondering what it is really like up here, and they dared me to come up and see.” Jack Wolf’s establishment held a fascination for all of the young boys in Eagle Station. Exactly what Jack’s girls did with customers up on the second floor was discussed regularly with varying degrees of accuracy. Joe and his friends were forbidden to enter the hotel/saloon. Even Joe’s two older brothers were forbidden access. They had broken this rule once to their great regret, but even Adam and Hoss had not ventured upstairs. When Joe Cartwright had bragged during lunch about his ability to sneak most anywhere undetected, his school friends had challenged him to explore the second story of Jack’s place. Joe had hesitated but felt forced to comply. He had never in his life walked away from a double-dog dare. Now he fervently wished he had had the sense to go straight home today.

“So you were just going to look?” Joe nodded and tried his best sad-puppy look. “And your friends trust you to tell them the truth?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am, ’cause I was gonna swear on the Bible,” Little Joe answered earnestly.

“I see. You know, if I turn you over to Jack, he’ll thrash you good for trespassing before he tosses you out”

Little Joe straightened up and looked her in the eye, “No, he won’t. He knows my Pa wouldn’t let him get away with that. Jack’s learned better than to cross my pa!”

“Is that so?”

Joe watched the wry grin that slipped onto her painted face. He realized that she was younger than he had thought. She was probably only about his brother Adam’s age, and Adam had just turned twenty-one.

“Then you must be Ben Cartwright’s baby boy,” she said closing the distance between them and placing her finger under the boy’s chin. All of Jack’s girls knew about his past encounters with one Ben Cartwright, and felt he was the only man in Eagle Station that Jack was reluctant to cross.

Knowing that denying his identity was futile, Joe replied, “Yes, ma’am, I’m Joe Cartwright.

“Then Jack might save himself the trouble and just deliver you to your Pa.”

Joe devoutly hoped not. He thought that he might prefer a thrashing from Jack Wolf to facing his pa, but he still hoped to avoid both. Joe let a few tears well up into his eyes. “Ma’am, I could just leave now and save ya any more trouble,” Joe said hopefully.

“Your Pa’s still real strict, is he?” she inquired her eyes softening.

Not noticing the implication of the word still, Joe simply answered, “Yes, ma’am. Please may I go?”

Joe watched as she walked over to the dresser and instinctively placed his hands over his backside. When she opened a drawer and extracted a small book, he relaxed. She walked back to Joe, and he recognized that she held a Bible.

“Put your hand on the Bible, Joe.” The boy did as instructed. “Now vow that you won’t be bragging about what you did.” Joe complied. “Vow that you won’t come up those stairs again until you are full grown and have your own money in your pocket.” Joe repeated the vow. “Okay, now let’s see if we can get you out of here,” she said with a smile and ruffled the boy’s curls. “Stay here.” She picked up a thin robe and pulled it on before slipping out the door.

Left alone, Little Joe looked around. The room was a disappointment. It was small, plain, and sparsely furnished. There was nothing remarkable about it at all. As he looked around, he knocked into the chair where the girl had set the Bible. The Bible fell open on the floor. Joe scrambled to pick it up and noticed a folded sheet of paper that had fallen from its pages. He unfolded it. The paper contained a simple pencil sketch like the one’s his brother Adam often did. Joe’s eyes scanned the picture. He drew his breath in sharply when he saw the lower right-hand corner. He would recognize that signature anywhere: A. Cartwright. Hearing the doorknob turn, he quickly folded the paper and returned it to the Bible. The girl walked back into the room.

“Come with me,” she beckoned,” and no matter what, don’t say anything.” She took him by the wrist and led him down the backstairs. As they reached the bottom, a voice called to her. Joe’s heart jumped into his mouth, and he held his breath. The girl answered the voice, and then quickly led him out the back of the building.

“Thanks,” Joe whispered and turned to dart away. She placed her hand on his shoulder, and he stopped. He looked at her inquiringly.

“Joseph Cartwright, if I hear you’ve been bragging about what you’ve done or telling tales that will have your friends trying to follow your lead, I’ll send your pa a note telling him about your visit. Understand me?”

Joe looked directly into the gray eyes before him. “You won’t have no reason to do that, ma’am, no reason at all,” he declared.

“Then get,” she said, releasing her hold on his shoulder.

*****

He rode home as quickly as he could. He was late and prayed his pa was not at the house to notice. His adventure at Jack’s kept running through his mind. He kept thinking about what had happened, what could have happened, and what could still happen if his pa ever found out where he’d been. Then there was the girl- he’d forgot to ask her name- and the picture. How had she gotten one of Adam’s drawings unless he had given it to her? If he had given it to her, Joe wondered when, where, and why. He could not ask Adam without telling him how he had seen the drawing, and he had way better sense than that. Adam might decide to tell Pa or even to tan his little brother himself. Adam sometimes acted more like a second pa than a brother just because he was nine years older than Joe. Now Hoss was not like that. His middle brother was seventeen and his best buddy. He could count on Hoss to always try and keep him out of trouble with their pa. Maybe he could talk to Hoss about the picture.

Joe looked quickly around as he rode into the yard. Seeing no one, he slipped from Paint and led him into the barn. Hoss was inside caring for the horses.

“Where ya been, little buddy?” Hoss inquired with a frown.

Joe ignored the question and asked nervously, “Where’s Pa?”

“Right here, Joseph.”

Joe jumped and spun around to see his father standing just inside the open door. Pa had called him Joseph, and that was not a good sign. Joe swallowed, grinned sheepishly, and stammered, “H…Hi, Pa.”

Ben Cartwright glared down at his youngest son. “Would you like to explain why you’re late, son?” he inquired.

That was about the last thing Little Joe wanted to do, but he could not say that to his pa. A direct lie would also not be wise. He decided to start with an apology. “I’m sorry, Pa. It won’t happen again.”

Having finished his chores, Hoss slipped around them and out of the barn.

“I hope not, son, but that doesn’t explain why it happened today. Were you kept after school?”

“Oh, no, Pa, I wasn’t kept after. I wasn’t in no trouble at school today,” Joe declared vehemently. You can ask the teacher on Sunday. I ain’t been kept after.”

Ben could see that Little Joe was being truthful. “Then why were you late, Joseph?”

“Well, Pa, some of us boys after school we were talking and telling tales,” Joe stated truthfully, “and, well, ya know how it is.”

“You decided to selfishly ignore your responsibilities and enjoy yourself?”

“Yes, sir, I’m sorry.” Joe hung his head and hoped his father would not ask him any more questions. At least everything he had said was true.

Ben closed the distance between them in four strides. He took Little Joe by the upper arm and turned him around. Joe squeezed his eyes shut knowing what was about to happen. Ben delivered two stinging swats to his son’s behind, and then released him. “Joseph, if you are late again this week, you will receive the rest of this spanking. Do you understand me?”

“Y…y…yes, sir. I’m sorry, Pa.”

Ben turned his son to face him once more. “I’ll not have you grow into an irresponsible man, son. I love you too much to let that happen.”

“I know, Pa. I love ya too.”

Ben pulled his son into his arms and gave him a quick hug.

*****

Joe was unusually quiet at supper. Hoss had informed Adam that Joe had been in trouble with their pa for being late, so they all attributed his silence to a mild case of sulks. Adam, though, kept catching his youngest brother staring at him throughout the evening. He could not imagine why, but told himself he would find out the reason eventually. Hoss beat Joe at three straight games of checkers. Something more than a simple reprimand from their pa had to be on Joe’s mind. The next time they were alone Hoss intended to find out what it was.

It was not until Joe came home from school the next day that he and Hoss were alone together. Their pa and Adam were fixing fence in the north pasture and had told Hop Sing to prepare a late supper. Joe had told his friends at school that he had tried the dare but had almost been caught by Jack Wolf. Joe felt that was the true because he would have been caught by Jack if the girl had decided differently. If his friends thought that he had been unable to enter Jack’s place, well then they would not tell anyone he had.

Joe had spent the day thinking about the girl at Jack’s place and Adam’s drawing. Adam did not pass out his drawings to strangers. Why had he given that girl one, unless he knew her well? Joe felt like the information would cause him to explode if he did not let it out. He had to talk to someone. As the two brothers began feeding the barn animals, Joe decided it was time.

“Hoss, um, can I tell ya something?” Joe began.

Glad he would not have to pry information out of his brother, Hoss encouraged, “Sure, Short Shanks, ya know ya can always tell your big brother anything.”

“But ya got to promise that you won’t tell Pa.”

“Ya done somethin’ that will get ya in trouble with Pa?”

“Ya got to promise first, Hoss,” Little Joe demanded.

“Now, Punkin, ya know I ain’t never been able to tell Pa something that would get ya in real trouble.”

“Promise, Hoss.”

“I promise.”

“Now promise ya won’t tell Adam.”

“Now, Joe, what’s Adam gotta do with it?”

“Promise, Hoss.”

Hoss was worried that he would regret this action, but concern and curiosity combined to force him into agreement. “I promise, Joe.”

“Well then, ya know those girls that work at Jack Wolf’s place.”

“Course I know girls work at Jack’s place.”

“Well, do you know any of them?”

“Ya mean personal like? Course not! Little Joe, just what have ya got in your craw?” Hoss demanded

“Do ya think Adam does?”

“Does what?” Sometimes talking with his little brother was plum confusing.

“Does Adam know any of them girls personal like?”

“Does Adam know any of Jack’s girls? Course not, Joe. That’s a plum foolish question.”

“No it ain’t,” Joe spat out his tempering flaring, “‘Cause one of them has got something of his.”

“Got something of Adam’s. Can’t be, and anyways how would you know?”

“Cause I saw it in her room,” Joe declared.

“In her room? AT JACK’S!” Hoss shouted realizing the implications of Joe’s statement.

Before Joe could answer, another voice interjected, “What happened at Jack’s?” Joe and Hoss looked to see their brother walking into the barn. For a moment they both froze. Then the blood drained from their faces.

“Nuthin,” Hoss finally muttered.

“N….Nothing. H…honest,” Joe stammered.

Adam knew immediately that his brothers were covering up some kind of trouble. Half of him wanted to just accept their declarations and stay out of it. The other half had to know. He walked over to Hoss and crossed his arms on his chest. “Tell me,” he demanded, “and don’t say what.”

Hoss knew when it was worth resisting his older brother and when it would be a wasted effort. “I promised Little Joe I wouldn’t, Adam. Can’t break a promise to a brother. ‘Sides I don’t really understand the whole thing anyway.”

Adam turned toward Joe. Joe took a step back, and Adam snagged him by the arm.

“So you’re the one with the answers, Joseph. Tell me now!” Adam spoke with his most authoritative voice, which strongly resembled their father’s sternest parental tone.

Joe jerked against his brother’s hold. “Don’t be so high and mighty with me, A-dam! You’ll be in lots worse trouble than me if Pa finds out,” Joe declared angrily.

Adam was taken aback by Joe’s declaration. He breathed in and out slowly as his mind raced to review his recent actions. Was there anything he had done that could get him in serious trouble with his father? Adam could not think of any unsettled accounts. “I don’t know what you think you know, little boy, but whatever it is; you’re wrong.”

“I ain’t wrong. I saw it myself. You’ve been with that girl at Jack’s!”

Adam reacted as if Joe had punched him in the stomach. His hand dropped from Joe’s arm, his legs went weak, his knees buckled, and he abruptly sat down on a conveniently situated hay bale. “He can’t mean what I think he just said!”

Hoss spoke up, “Now wait.” He sat down next to Adam. “I think maybe we best start over. Joe, try telling things so they make some sense.”

Joe took a deep breath and lowered himself to sit on the floor in front of his older brothers. Starting with the issuance of the dare, he told the complete story of his trip to the upstairs floor of Jack’s place. He was interrupted periodically by gasps, groans, and exclamations from his brothers, but he ignored them.

Adam was not sure that his mind had managed to grasp all the significant facts. His thought processes had been repeatedly interrupted by images of his father. Some of those images had set his stomach rolling, and others had made it difficult to breath. He began sorting through the situation by questioning Joe. “You snuck upstairs at Jack Wolf’s ca…at Jack’s place yesterday?”

“Like I already told you.”

“One of the girls who works there took you into her room?” Joe just rolled his eyes and nodded. “She wasn’t dressed?”

“Well, she had on most of her underclothes.” Joe’s eyes widen at the memory.

“Most?” Adam croaked.

“She had on her bloomers and her whatsamacallit,” Joe replied gesturing to his chest.

“Chemise,” Hoss interjected. Adam looked at his middle brother and wondered how the Cartwright most often at a loss for words suddenly knew the correct one.

“Yeah. It was something. She was standing there showing just about everything, but she was fussing at me like some old schoolmarm. She weren’t old, though.”

A fleeting wave of envy passed through both of Joe’s older brothers.

Adam pressed on,” Then she went and got a Bible?”

“I thought she was going for the hairbrush, but she just got the Bible.” Joe wondered if he was going to have to repeat the whole story. Hadn’t Adam been listening?

Adam shook his head as if to clear it. “Why would you think she wanted a hairbrush?”

Joe blushed. Hoss observed, “Same reason Ma would have.”

“Oh. Well, too bad she didn’t use one.”

“Adam,” Joe shouted highly offended.

“Anyway, she left you alone, and you found a paper in her Bible, right?”

“It fell out. I wasn’t going through her things or nothing.”

“Anything,” Adam corrected automatically. “And you say this paper was one of my drawings?”

“I don’t say it. It was!” Joe declared jumping to his feet.

“How could you tell?”

Joe answered speaking deliberately as if he were talking to a very slow-witted child, “I saw your signature in the corner. A. Cartwright with the C curling around the A all fancy the way you always do it.”

Adam had read somewhere that great artists always had a distinctive signature for their artwork. He had developed his when he was only about ten. He looked directly at his little brother. “Are you sure, Joe?”

“Yes, A-dam,” Joe sighed,” It’s not like I ain’t seen it a thousand times before.”

Hoss put his hand on his older brother’s shoulder. “Adam, ya can tell us,” he said with an encouraging squeeze. “If ya think Joe is too little, we’ll send him on, and ya can tell me.”

“I ain’t little!” Joe asserted with a stomp of his foot.

“He can stay because there is nothing to tell.” Adam straightened his back and stated with resolve,” I am not involved with any of the girls who work at Jack’s. I have never given any of them a drawing. I have no idea how she could have gotten it. And Pa knows all about the only time I ever set foot in Jack’s saloon.” He had already paid for that indiscretion, and the consequences had kept him on the narrow path since.

Adam had always been a rotten liar, and he had never directly lied about anything serious to either of his brothers. They both believed him.

“I believe you, brother, but I think you’d best have a better story ready if Pa ever has reason to ask,” Hoss advised.

“Maybe ya dropped it, and she found it,” Joe offered.

“And decided to keep it in her Bible. I hardly think so Joe,” Adam said shaking his head.

“Maybe if you remembered when ya drew it, ya could think how it got missing, and come up with how she might of got it,” Hoss suggested.

“I don’t know; I’ve hardly had time to draw anything since spring started,” Adam said dejectedly.

“Adam, ya know something? Now that I think on it, that paper looked old,” Joe ventured.

“Old?”

“Yeah, you know how paper gets to looking old, and the crease looked real worn.”

“It takes years for paper to look old, Joe. I don’t know…”

“Well, I’m telling ya it was old,” Joe declared indignantly. He was tired of Adam doubting his judgment.

Hoss interrupted, “Joe, what was it a drawing of?”

“Just a girl on a swing.”

Adam’s eyes lost their focus as he concentrated on the voice in his memory. “I’ll have a house with a yard, Adam. There’ll be a big tree, and I’ll have a swing. Whenever I feel bad, I’ll just go out to that swing and fly away from my troubles.” He had wanted her to be happy in his picture, so he had drawn her in a swing. She had laughed and kissed his cheek when he had given the picture to her. It could not be, but that was the only picture he had ever drawn of a girl on a swing. “Joe,” Adam asked softly, “what color were her eyes?”

“The picture didn’t have no color, Adam.”

“Not the picture, Joe; the girl at Jack’s?”

“Her eyes? She had gray eyes, Adam. Big, gray eyes.”

Vangie! It couldn’t be. After so long could Vangie working at Jack’s? It couldn’t be!

“Adam, did ya remember something?” Hoss asked.

Adam shook his head. “It just doesn’t make sense. I don’t know!” They all heard a horse approaching. “That will be Pa. Better get busy!” All three boys were doing chores when Ben entered the barn.

*****

It had to be Vangie, and he had to see her. He had two choices. He could explain to his father and then go. Of course, that meant Joe getting in trouble. Also, if his father ordered him not to go, his leaving would be direct defiance. The second choice was better. He would wait until everyone was asleep and sneak out.

Having carried his boots to the barn, Adam stopped to put them on before saddling Beauty. Then he led the horse quietly out of the barn and away from the yard before mounting. He would be in Eagle Station before midnight, and hopefully home well before sunrise. As he rode, Adam remembered Vangie.

He had been twelve and living in New Orleans. That day it had been hot, New Orleans hot which was totally different then hot anywhere else he had been. Even the breezes were hot and heavy with moisture like a giant beast breathing in your face. He had intended to lie in the shade in the courtyard and read only a chapter of his new book before he started his chores, but as he finished each chapter the next had beckoned, and the heavy air had weighed him down. He had been halfway through the book when he heard footsteps on the bricks. His father had come home for lunch. Pa had usually eaten at the shop, and Adam had never learned why he had decided to return home that day. His Pa had called to him and asked if his chores were done.

“Not exactly, Pa. I plan to finish them after lunch.”

“If they’re not finished, why were you reading?”

“I can do them quick after lunch, Pa.”

“What chores do you have left, Adam?”

“A… al…all of them.”

His father had been angry. Adam had been irresponsible and disobedient. Adam had known from the time he heard his father’s voice there would be consequences. There had always been consequences when he made the wrong choice. Adam had not been surprised by the consequences: a short but effective lecture on responsibility, confiscation of his book, and a time limit on completing his chores. Adam had held his breath and hoped that would be all, but his father had bent Adam over his knee and delivered the final consequence with a heavy hand.

Adam had managed to force down a little lunch and be excused from the table quickly. He had been splitting kindling when he looked up and saw a girl about his size and age standing inside their courtyard. He had never seen her before and could think of no reason for her to be there.

“Who are you?”

“My name is Evangeline,” she had stated simply, “but you can call me Vangie.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Meeting you.” She had smiled then.

“Meeting me? Why?”

“Truthfully?”

“Please!”

“I wanted to see if you were all right.”

“Why wouldn’t I be alright?”

“I saw your father…”

“YOU SAW!” Adam had known immediately she meant that she had seen his father spank him, and he was angry and embarrassed. He had felt his face grow red. “How could you?”

She had raised her hand and pointed to the roof of a neighboring house that was a story higher than theirs. “I was up there.”

It had been an odd beginning for a friendship, but then it had been an odd friendship. Even now he did not know Vangie’s last name. He had never been to her home in New Orleans nor met any of her family. They had talked that first day while he did his chores, and then she had slipped away. She had appeared several times over the next week, but only when Adam was alone. Perhaps that was why Adam had been able to talk to Vangie, as he had never been able to talk to anyone else. He had told her things about what he thought and felt that no one else could have forced him to revel. Actually, at first it had been almost as if she was not real but some imaginary friend he conjured up from time to time. Then she had come when Hoss and Joe were around and even met Marie and his Pa. By that time she had known so many secrets, there seemed no reason to hide others from her. As far as he knew, she had never divulged anything he told her.

Pa had asked questions about his new friend that Adam could not answer. He knew his father had been concerned about the mystery surrounding Vangie’s home, but Pa had not pressed the issue. Perhaps Pa had simply been unwilling to uncover anything that might make him deny Adam Vangie’s company. They had begun meeting and going places together. They had never engaged in mischief or played pranks. At first they had even stayed within the boundaries his father had set for Adam, but Vangie had known so much more of the city. Eventually they had roamed at will.

Vangie had loved to watch Adam draw. She would tell him she knew something he must draw and then lead him to it. He had done these drawing in a special sketchbook that he had kept hidden from his family. Adam knew Joe had been too young to have any memories of the girl but wondered if Hoss or his father did.

*****

Ben Cartwright heard something that woke him. He lay listening for any clue that something was wrong. He heard nothing but rose from bed and checked the main room. Then he went to the window and scanned the yard. He saw nothing amiss. He decided to check on his sons and then return to his bed. Opening the door to the bunkroom, he quietly slipped into the room where his sons slept. The sound of Hoss’s regular snoring assured him his middle son was fine. He walked over to Little Joe’s bunk. There was enough moonlight for him to make out his youngest son asleep on his stomach. Joe’s pillow was on the floor and his bedclothes hung off the side. Ben placed the pillow under Joe’s head and the bedclothes over his body. The boy never stirred.

Ben then walked over to Adam’s bunk and stiffened. The bunk was empty. Where was Adam? Could he have gone to the outhouse? Ben went to check. Failing to find his son, he next went to the barn. Adam was not there, but then neither was Beauty. Worry and anger rushed in. Adam had snuck out. Ben returned to the cabin and checked the rifles. Adam had not gone night hunting. Had Adam gone into town? He would find out in short order Ben thought as he dressed and saddled Buck. If there were some other explanation, he would have it from Adam in the morning.

*****

Adam tied Beauty to the hitching post and walked into Jack Wolf’s Saloon. Standing just inside the door, he studied the people at the bar and the tables. Jack Wolf walked up to him.

“Well, well, if it isn’t Young Cartwright. Does Daddy know you’re out past your bedtime, boy?” Jack inquired grinning widely.

“You needn’t worry about my bedtime, Jack,” Adam replied coldly. He started to walk away. Jack’s hand on his arm stopped him.

“What is it you want, boy?” Jack demanded. Adam shook off Jack’s hand. “Now, boy, I just want to make sure that such a special guest gets exactly what he wants.”

Adam hesitated then asked, “Do you have a girl working here who has gray eyes?”

“Gray eyes? Well, now let me think. Yes, I think we can fill that order. Evie over there has great big gray eyes,” Jack replied with a leer.

Adam resisted the urge to punch that look off of Jack’s face. “I just want to talk to her, Jack.”

“Well then, sit down and order the drinks. I’ll send her right over,” Jack said waving Adam toward an empty table.

“I don’t want a drink, and I want to speak privately,” Adam stated.

“Now, boy, business is business. Her time is my money. You’ll have to pay the going rate for any private time.” Jack smirked,” What you manage to do in that time is your business.”

Adams hands clenched, but he forced them open. Digging into his pockets, he brought out all the money he had with him. Looking at the bills, he realized he had no idea what the going rate was. Jack reached over and plucked most of the money from Adam’s hand. “This will get you an hour with her, boy. Don’t think you’ll need longer than that to talk,” he said with a snicker. “Evie, get over here, ” he called.

Adam watched the girl walk over. It was not until she stood next to him and looked into his eyes that he was sure it was Vangie.

“Now, Mr. Cartwright here is a very special customer, Evie. You know how to treat special customers, don’t you girl?” Evie simply nodded. “Then I’ll leave young Mr. Cartwright in your capable hands.” Jack smirked again and departed.

“Come with me,” Vangie murmured. Adam followed her silently to her room.

Adam closed the door and leaned against it. Vangie turned to face him. He stared at the girl before him. Her gold dress was low cut, short, and garish. Her face was heavily painted.

“What’s your pleasure, Mr. Cartwright?” Her voice was sultry and there was no trace of New Orleans.

“I want to talk to you, Vangie.”

“If you want Vangie, you’re out of luck, cowboy. The only girl here is Evie.”

“Vangie…”

“Didn’t you hear me, cowboy. Vangie’s not here,” she declared vehemently.

Adam stepped forward, then turned, and strode to the dresser. Opening the top drawer, he rummaged through the contents until he pulled out the Bible. Rifling through the pages, he took out the picture, unfold it, and thrust it toward the girl. “If Vangie’s not here, why is this?” Adam demanded.

Vangie walked over and took the picture from his hand. “You still have the same temper, and Little Joe’s still gets into everything, I see,” she said with a wry smile.

“Yeah, he still does, “Adam replied relaxing and leaning against the dresser.

“I never should have left him alone in my room.”

“I wouldn’t,” Adam advised.

“In fact, I should have swatted his behind and shouted for Jack when I first laid eyes on him.”

“Why didn’t you?”

Vangie shrugged. “Is your pa as strict with Little Joe as he was with you?

“No.”

“Was he with Hoss?”

“Didn’t have to be.”

“So Hoss stayed a sweet boy?”

“Yes.”

“For someone who wanted to talk, you aren’t saying much, Adam” Vangie goaded.

“I didn’t come to talk about my brothers.”

“Just what did you want to talk about?”

“What are you doing here?” His eyes clouded.

“Exactly what every other girl in this place does, Adam, and for the same reason.”

“I don’t understand how… I just don’t understand,” Adam said softly.

“Adam, why didn’t you ever follow me home?”

“Follow you home?”

“Didn’t you wonder, Adam? Who I was or where I came from?”

“Of course, but I could never get you to tell me.”

“So, why didn’t you just follow me home and find out? You’re a curious person, Adam, and you usually don’t leave that curiosity unsatisfied.” Adam had no answer.

“I’ll tell you, my friend. You were afraid of what you’d find out!”

Adam recognized the truth in what she said. It was not the whole truth, but he could not deny that what she had said was true.

“I couldn’t tell you, Adam. I needed someone who saw the girl I wanted to be not the daughter of a …” Adam placed his hand over her mouth, so Vangie could not finish.

“You don’t have to stay here.”

“Jack holds my contract, Adam. This isn’t the best place, but it is by far not the worst,” Vangie stated stiffening and backing away from him.

“I’ll help you get away. My pa will help.”

Vangie drew in a deep breath. “You’ll help me get away. Okay, I leave and go where? I do what? Do you honestly think there is a place where I could do anything else?” She watched his eyes as he searched for an answer. “I am what I am, Adam. There are some things you just can’t leave behind.”

“Come to the Ponderosa.”

“And be what, Adam. Joe’s nanny, perhaps?” Her tone had a cutting edge.

Adam took her hands in his. “You could be my wife.”

She pulled her hands from his and turned her back to him. “It wouldn’t work. One day some cowhand or miner familiar with my past would goad you into one fight too many. I’ll not have you in prison or your grave because of me,” she explained in a tightly controlled voice.

“It doesn’t have to be that way.”

“Adam, I’ve known you and your family were here since the third day I was in Eagle Station,” she said turning to face him again. “Don’t you think I’ve thought of coming to you? I’ve thought about it endlessly, but then I think it through to the end. It’s always a bad end.” She sighed, “I’ll try to get Jack to sell my contract, so you…”

“No!” Adam knew he could not change her mind right now, and if she left Eagle Station he would not have the chance to try again later. “Stay here. At least I’ll know you can come to me if you need help.”

She reached up to touch his cheek. “Understand, Adam. Evie can never marry you, but Vangie would have been proud to be your wife.” She turned and walked to the door. Adam knew it would be best for him to leave. Vangie opened the door and gasped. Adam froze. In the hall stood Ben Cartwright.

Adam had never seen his father radiate so much anger. Vangie quickly stepped in front of Ben and placed her hands on his arm. “Let me talk to you, suh,” she pled her voice once again filled with the sound of New Orleans. Ben looked down into her gray eyes, and a rip tide of memory pulled him back.

He had been returning to the shop after tending to some business across town when he had spotted his eldest son. He had then walked up behind Adam and watched for a minute. Adam had been seated on a crate drawing in a sketchpad while his friend-Vangie wasn’t that her name- leaned against his shoulder watching and giggling. When he had called his son’s name both children had jumped in surprise. When they had turned to face him, Ben had noticed how Adam quickly hid the sketchbook behind him. He had seen nervous fear flicker in his son’s eyes and had promptly decided he needed to look at that sketchbook.

Adam let me see what your drawing, son.”

“I’m just drawing that building there, Pa. It’s not much…”

“Let me see your sketchbook, Adam!”

As he had flipped through the drawings in the sketchbook, his anger had bloomed and grown. He had recognized many of the things Adam had drawn. Most of them were located in areas of the city forbidden to Adam. He had closed the book and fixed his livid glare on his son.

“Pa, I… I…”

“Can you explain how you drew those pictures without seeing what they depict?”

“I’ve seen them.”

“Can you explain how you could have seen them without disobeying me?”

“No, sir.”

“You will go home, straight home, and wait for me in my room.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Adam, do not disobey me!”

Adam had taken off, and the girl had followed. He had returned to work but left early to go home and deal with his son. As he had entered the courtyard, a figure had stepped in front of him. He had stopped and crossed his arms on his chest glaring down at the girl before him. She had placed her hands on his arm and looked up at him with tears filling her gray eyes.

“Please let me talk to you, suh.”

“What do you want to tell me, girl?”

“I …be mad at me, Mr. Cartwright, not Adam. It’s my fault.”

“My son made his own decisions and is responsible for them.”

“Mr. Cartwright, suh, he’s scared… he’s scared you won’t forgive him!”

“My son will always have my love and my forgiveness, but he will also have appropriate consequences when he disobeys.”

“Are you g…g…going to u…u…use your b…belt?

“That’s not your concern, young lady.”

“Please don’t, please!”

“Young lady, it would be best if you went home now.”

“Mr. Cartwright, you don’t have to forbid Adam to see me. I’m… my mother and I will be leaving New Orleans at the end of the week. Adam doesn’t know. I …if I could talk to him once more to say goodbye, please. We could stay right here. You could watch that we didn’t…”

“Of course you may say goodbye to Adam, but for now you should go.”

“Thank you. Mr. Cartwright, please make sure he knows, really knows you forgive him.”

She had darted away, and he had gone inside to deal with Adam. The tanning had been severe, but he had not used his belt. Afterwards he had taken Adam in his arms even though the boy tried to draw away. He had held his son as the boy sobbed. He had made sure Adam knew he was forgiven.

Vangie backed into her room drawing Ben in with her.

“Pa, let me explain.” Adam began.

“Please do!”

Vangie slipped around Ben and pulled the door closed. Then she moved to stand next to Adam.

“It’s not what you think, Pa.”

“What is it, Adam?”

Adam ran his hand through his hair. Before he could answer, Vangie asked, “Mr. Cartwright, do you remember me? I knew Adam… knew your family in New Orleans.”

Ben nodded, “You’re Adam’s friend Vangie.”

“When he realized I was here at Jack’s, he came to talk to me. He just wanted to be my friend.”

Adam decided to jump into deep water with both feet, “I asked her to marry me, Pa.”

Ben Cartwright looked like he had been punched in the stomach. Vangie quickly interjected, ” I told him no, Mr. Cartwright, never. He just wants to get me away from Jack’s, that’s all.”

Ben drew in a deep breath. “If you need our help, girl, of course we will do what we can…”

“Mr. Cartwright, I tried to explain to Adam. Please help him understand what can’t be changed.”

Adam looked at his father and Vangie. Deep inside he started to accept what Vangie had told him. “Vangie, if you ever need help, come to the Ponderosa, or send word, and I’ll come to you.”

“Okay, Adam.”

Ben could see that something had been settled between the two young people. He would talk in depth to his son, but he would wait for the right time.

Adam turned to his father, “I’m sorry I worried you, Pa.”

“Why didn’t you come and explain to me what you needed to do, son?”

“Well, Pa, there were …um… complications,” Adam replied sheepishly.

“Related to how you came to know Vangie was here?” Ben fixed his eldest with a look that made Adam feel ten years old.

“Well, yes, sir.” Adam bit his lower lip and dropped his eyes to the floor.

Ben knew his eldest well. “Does it involve one of your brothers being in Jack’s?”

“Now, Pa.”

“Which brother, Adam?” Ben demanded.

“Mr. Cartwright, please don’t make Adam say,” Vangie entreated.

“Young lady, please allow me to deal with my sons as I see fit.” Ben’s annoyance was clear in his tone.

“I’ll make a deal with you, Mr. Cartwright.” Vangie flashed a smile at the older man.

“What kind of deal?”

“Mr. Cartwright, your main concern is making sure that none of your sons…um… partake of anything this establishment as to offer. Am I correct?”

“Yes.”

“Then if you don’t make Adam tell you about his brother, if you let the matter rest, then I’ll guarantee that no one here will serve any of your sons, and that if any of them set a toe in this building, I’ll see you are informed.” Vangie extended her hand.

“You can guarantee all of that, miss?” Ben inquired.

“I can,” Vangie answered with confidence.

“I’ll deal with …my brother, Pa,” Adam declared.

Ben was not sure she could prevent his sons being served in Jack’s establishment, but he was sure Vangie would let him know if they were. He took her hand and shook it. “Agreed. And, Adam, make sure both your brothers know about this deal.”

“Yes, Pa!”

“It’s time to go, son.”

Vangie opened the door, and the two Cartwright men walked out.

*****

Jack Wolf sat at a table with a view of the stairs. He had been pleased when Adam Cartwright had entered his saloon and gone upstairs with Evie. He had been thrilled when Ben Cartwright had stormed in looking for his son, and Jack had been able to direct him to Evie’s room. Jack laughed to himself. If the boy didn’t want his daddy to know he was at here, he should have had more sense than to leave his horse tied at my hitching post. Now Jack intended to enjoy watching the show Ben would put on retrieving his son. He was surprised to see the two of them walking calmly down the stairs. Jack moved quickly to intercept them. “Gentlemen, you can’t be leaving so soon,” he called smoothly.

“Let us pass, Jack,” Ben spoke evenly, but his distaste for the man in front of them was evident in his tone.

“Now, Ben, I just wanted to make sure young Adam’s visit was all he hoped it would be.” Adam stiffened at the smirk on Jack’s face. “He took such a particular interest in my Evie.”

Adam’s hands clenched.

As Adam stepped toward Jack, Ben raised his arm in front of his son’s chest. Adam paused.

Ben fixed his eyes on Jack. “You would do well Jack to remember that both Adam and I have an interest in that girl’s welfare. The welfare of a friend is always of particular interest to a Cartwright.”

Jack Wolf recognized the implied threat in Ben’s words and filed it away in his mind. He took a step back and gestured grandly toward the door. “Come again anytime, gentlemen.”

Ben and Adam walked out, mounted their horses, and rode out of town. About halfway home, Adam stopped his horse. Ben stopped beside him.

Taking a deep breath, Adam addressed his father, “I shouldn’t have snuck out and tried to deceive you. I’ll accept any punishment you think is needed.”

With only the moonlight for illumination, Ben could not see his son’s face clearly, but then he did not needed to see it. He knew every inch of that face and every look it could hold. He had studied it endlessly since the day his son was born. He had been hard on his firstborn, and life had been harder. Adam had always accepted the consequences of his actions. Always dealt with what could not be changed. Ben knew the look those blue eyes held when Adam felt he had angered or disappointed his father.

“If you understand that, Adam, I don’t think any punishment is necessary,” Ben stated softly. Even in the dim light, Ben saw his son’s body relax.

When they arrived home, they went into the barn, lit the lanterns, and started to care for their horses. As they finished, Ben walked to his son.

“Adam, you don’t want Vangie used by Jack and his customers because you care for her, correct?”

“She’s a good person, Pa.”

“You think she deserves to be treated with dignity then?”

“Of course, Pa.”

“Adam, when you are tempted to use any woman the way Jack’s customers use Vangie, I want you to remember there is some father, brother, or friend that feels the same way about that woman as you do about Vangie. Every woman deserves to be treated with respect, son.”

“I promise, Pa” Adam thought a moment. “That’s what you find unforgivable about Jack Wolf, isn’t it, Pa. The way he treats no one with respect?”

“Yes, son, I suppose that’s most of it.”

Ben reached out and brushed back the black locks that hung in his son’s eyes. He touched his cheek and placed his hand under Adam’s chin. Speaking gently he told his eldest, “No matter how old you are, son, if you act as a child, I’ll deal with the child, but I want you to know that tonight you are a man I’m proud to have raised.”

Ben watched his eldest son smile. Hoss and Joe smiled easily. Their smiles were as common as Hoss’s snores and Joe’s giggles. A true smile from Adam was rare. To Ben each smile was a treasure. He drew his son into his arms. “I love you, son. I always have, and I always will.”

“Love you too, Pa,” Adam said so softly Ben was barely sure he had heard.

Adam stepped back and addressed his father. “Pa, sleep in a little. I’ll get things started in the morning.”

Ben thought a moment and then answered, “I think I’ll take you up on that offer, boy.” He walked past Adam and then turned to look back at him. “You can start by dealing with your brothers. Do you plan to spank Joe for going to Jack’s?”

“I hadn’t,” Adam realized what his father had done. He shook his head and said,” That wasn’t fair, Pa! You promised.”

“I promised not to ask, and I didn’t. I promised to let you deal with your brothers, and I will,” Ben replied with a grin. Ben was glad he had guessed correctly. He was also glad it had been Joe at Jack’s not Hoss. He could feel comfortable leaving Joe and his little boy motives for Adam to handle.

“Pa, that’s cutting things mighty close,” Adam admonished.

“Well, son, I learned how to do that from three of the best!” Ben slapped Adam lightly on the arm and the two of them walked to the cabin.

***The End***

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