By Step, By Half, and By Heart (by DJK)

Summary:    This story follows my story “Between First Borns” which is a WHN to The First Born. It can stand alone, but reading the first story would better set the stage for this one.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  32,190


 

 

She was pretty, petite, pale, and pregnant. Clay had not mentioned that she would be in a family way, but then Clay was very good at not mentioning things. Adam Cartwright’s lips curled into a wry grin. Certain people, like his pa and brothers, sometimes had the same complaint about him. Of course, you could not expect someone to explain everything in a telegram, but then again Clay’s wire had explained next to nothing. Adam sighed. He could quote the whole thing verbatim.

Adam stop You said I should wire if I needed help stop
I need you to go to Denver stop
My wife is there stop She needs a safe haven stop
The Palace Hotel stop Ask for Anna Cleary stop Clay full stop

Adam straightened and strode across the hotel dining room to the table where the woman the hotel clerk said was Anna Cleary sat. He stopped and cleared his throat politely. “Mrs. Cleary? I’m Adam Cartwright.”

She did not speak but inclined her head in invitation for him to sit. He took the seat opposite her.

“Clay described you very well, Mr. Cartwright.” Her tone was flat.

“Call me Adam. We are related in a way, after all.”

“I suppose that’s so if you count stepbrothers-in-law.” She drew in a long breath and squared her shoulders. “I told Clay I can look after myself. There’s no need for you to be here.”

Adam pitched his voice, so that it would not carry beyond their table in the noisy room. “There’s a need for you to go under an assumed name.”

She gave dismissive shrug of her shoulders.

A young girl appeared to take his order. Adam requested only coffee and then leaned back and studied the woman before him. She was not at all what he had expected. He had spent hours of the long trip there considering what kind of woman Clay would have married. Conjuring scenario after scenario in his mind, Adam had imagined many versions of Anna Cleary; the woman before him fit none of them.

Adam’s coffee was delivered before either of them spoke again.

“I expected an explanation when I arrived.” Adam took a sip of coffee and waited.

“If Clay were here, he might give you one.” Her lips curled into a wry smile. “It might even be the truth. Clay has a great deal of respect for you and your family.”

“But not for the truth?”

She sighed. “Truth is never an absolute, at least not in Clay’s world.”

“And in yours?”

She shrugged.

“Well, according to Clay, you need a safe haven. I can take you to one.” Adam had also pondered exactly what he would do with the woman when he arrived. He had made his decision when he saw the swell of her belly.

“Can you?” Her tone was dismissive, but something like longing flickered briefly in her eyes.

“Yes, I can.” Adam’s statement was completely confident.

“Where?”

“The Ponderosa.”

She shook her head. “Not the Ponderosa. Clay didn’t expect that; he wouldn’t…” Her words dropped away.

Adam’s eyes dropped to her waist. “Is the child Clay’s?” He waited for indignation, even a slap in the face, but he had needed to ask.

Her answer was simple and direct, “Yes.”

“Then we’re going to the Ponderosa.”

“The child has no blood claim on the Ponderosa.”

Adam raised his eyes and stared directly into hers. “On the Ponderosa, perhaps not, but on my brother, most definitely.”

“Will you tell Joe who I am?”

Adam dropped his eyes. “I don’t know.”

“Fair enough.” She placed her napkin beside her plate and rose. “I’ll go with you, Adam Cartwright, to your Ponderosa.”

*****

He escorted her to her hotel room and then went to arrange their seats on the stage departing the next morning. After returning to the hotel, he knocked on her door. She opened it only after he announced his presence and did not invite him into her room. When he told her their departure time, she simply stated she would be ready and then closed the door. Adam considered a drink in the saloon down the street but settled for finishing the novel he had brought with him from Virginia City.

The next morning he knocked, and she opened the door.

“I’m ready.” She lowered the tulle veil on her hat.

“Your bill?” Adam inquired not sure of her financial situation.

“I settled it earlier.”

“Your bags?” She gestured to a carpetbag, and he picked it up. “No trunk?”

“None in Denver.”

“Well, then I guess we can proceed.” Adam made a sweeping gesture, and Anna stepped out into the hall.

“Wait! There is something I need to tell you.” Adam’s voice was pitched low and carried only to her ears.

“Yes?”

“You will not be traveling as Mrs. Cleary but as Mrs. Cartwright.”

“Your wife?”

He could not see the wry smile that twisted her lips beneath the veil. “My sister-in-law. Mrs. Clayton Cartwright.”

Her low chuckle held no mirth. “Keep the lie as close to the truth as possible. For an honest man, I have the feeling you are very good at deceit, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Adam, you must remember to call me Adam,” he said chiding her gently.

“Of course, Brother Adam, and I shall remember to answer when you call me Anna.”

She saw the wry smile that twisted his lips before she followed him out of the hotel.

*****

Adam spotted Anna sitting on a crude bench, one a way station worker had placed beneath a large tree. He knew the rough ride in the jerking stagecoach had been difficult for her, and she had not eaten any of the supper provided upon their arrival.

“Are you feeling better?” He stood looking down at her.

She raised her eyes to his face. “I’m fine.”

Adam grinned, for the thought came to him that hers was a very Cartwright answer. “Still,” he said as he went to his heels, so she would not have to crane her neck, “you need to eat something.”

She shook her head.

“Drink this at least.” He held out the cup he had been holding

She shook her head again.

“Yes,” he said more firmly and placed the cup into her hands.

She stared at the down at the contents. “Milk?”

“It’s cold and fresh, so drink up,” Adam ordered and then added gently, “For the baby.”

She lifted the cup to her lips and sipped slowly. When she lowered the cup, she gave him the first real smile he had seen on her face.

“I hate stagecoaches,” she declared as her finger rubbed the tin rim of the cup.

“They make you nauseous?”

She nodded.

“We’ll ask if they have some ginger. It helps settle the stomach.”

She raised her eyebrow skeptically.

“You’ll see. If they don’t have any ginger, we’ll try something else a very wise man showed me.” He smiled at her as he rose to his full height. “Tomorrow will be easier. Now finish your milk.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” she answered and then drained the cup.

*****

The cook at the way station parted with a small bit of ginger, and Anna’s nausea was kept mostly at bay. When it threatened to worsen, Adam tried a trick that Hop Sing had taught him and kept pressure on a specific spot on Anna’s wrist until her sickness receded. As the hours passed in the stagecoach, Adam and Anna slowly started to converse. He found that she was both well-educated and well-read, but none of their conversations contained any information more personal than her favorite author. Adam learned nothing about Clay and Anna’s marriage or the reason Clay had sent for him to protect Anna and the child she carried. He decided to bide his time until they were safely on the Ponderosa and simply remained vigilant at all times. Many of the people who traveled with them for a time remarked on the fact that Mr. Cartwright was very protective and solicitous of his sister-in-law.

“Anna.” She turned at the sound of Adam’s voice. “You shouldn’t wander so far from the station.”

She raised her eyebrow inquiringly. “Do you really think they’re out there somewhere waiting to snare me?”

“That would depend on who they are,” Adam pitched his voice, so there was no chance of him being overheard.

“I suppose it would.” She started to walk back toward the station, but he caught her arm.

“Don’t you think it’s time you told me what I’ve gotten myself involved in?” His tone demanded an answer.

She answered with a question, “Why did you come? When Clay sent you that wire, he was sure you would, but I thought… Why, Adam Cartwright, why did you come?”

“I told Clay that I would help if he needed me. I keep my word.”

“Why would you make him such a promise? From what Clay said, I gather that you were never close, didn’t even know each other that long or that well.”

Adam sighed. “He’s my little brother’s brother. He’s important to Joe; Little Joe is important to me.”

Anna’s lips curled into something that was not quite a smile. “Clay,” she paused as if rethinking her words, “Joe is important to Clay. Your letters…” She cocked her head and focused on Adam’s eyes, “I’ve read your letters; do you mind?”

“No, I wouldn’t expect a man to keep secrets from his wife.”

Her laughter was sharp and rueful. “And you don’t think a woman should keep secrets from her stepbrother-in-law either.” She dropped her eyes from his face and half turned away.

“You can trust me.” It was a simple statement of fact, and it stopped the woman in her tracks.

She turned back and faced Adam. “If I tell you, are you sure you can believe me?”

“No.” The word held no animosity, just truth.

Her laughter rippled from her throat. The she began, “Clay was working for a man, a very powerful and important man.”

Adam arms slipped across his chest, and he stood silently listening.

“He was not, though, an entirely honest man. Clay found out about a…” she paused as if searching for the right word, “a certain transaction. He did not pass that information on to anyone. Then Clay got into a poker game.” She watched the reaction on Adam’s face and then continued, “He… things did not end well.”

“A man was killed.” It was a statement not a question, and Adam’s eyes darkened.

“It really was not Clay’s fault, but, well, the man who died was the son of the man Clay worked for.”

“And this man would have his revenge.”

She shook her head. “Alexander’s father had no love for him.” Her statement was flat and toneless. If Adam had not been watching her eyes so intently, he would not have caught the flicker of pain that filled them. “Still, there was his reputation to be considered, so the man had Clay arrested. The night before the trial, Clay sent word to the man that he would speak of much more than his own innocence if he was placed in a courtroom. Clay was allowed to escape from the jail; he managed to escape from the town. He’s been running ever since.”

“And Clay believes this man would harm you also?” Adam’s voice held an edge of anger.

“This man, Brother Adam, has hired men to settle the matter permanently. The men he has hired would use me, my child, or anyone else to get to Clay or draw him out into the open.”

Adam’s jaw was rigid, and his voice was tight as he inquired, “Does the man know Clay is related to Joe?”

“He didn’t, but I don’t know what his men may have discovered. It’s not a widely known fact, is it?”

Adam rubbed the bridge of his nose. His family had not announced in the papers that Clay was Marie’s son, but neither had they attempted to keep it a secret. Little Joe had claimed him as brother in Virginia City.

Her voice invaded his thoughts. “You said the Ponderosa was a safe haven.”

“It will be.” Adam spoke with assurance, and saw her relax as she turned and walked toward the way station. He rubbed the bridge of his nose once more and wondered what it would cost to keep it so.

*****

They were the only passengers on the final leg of the journey. Since it would be impossible for the driver or the man riding shotgun to hear anything said inside the coach, Adam’s companion spoke freely.

“Will you tell Joe and your family who I am?”

Adam bit his lower lip and hesitated before answering, “Yes. It’s the truth or some elaborate lie.” He gave her a wry smile. “My pa and Hoss can always tell when I’m flat out lying.”

“Your pa and Hoss but not Joe?”

Adam had not thought of it before, but it was true. “Oddly enough, I probably could lie to Joe without him knowing. Maybe, that’s why I never have.”

“You and your half-brothers are very close.” Her observation was not meant as an insult, but Adam’s reply snapped with cold anger.

“There is nothing half about my relationship with either of my brothers!”

His vehemence surprised her. “I…I meant nothing by that. It’s just…” She bit off the rest of her remark. “I’m sorry if I offended you.”

Adam didn’t understand why her words had struck such a raw nerve. “No, I’m sorry; I had no reason to snap at you.” He softened his voice. “What were you going to say? It’s just what?”

“My half-brother and I were not close,” she stated and then closed her eyes as if to block out any further inquiry.

Adam let the discussion end and sunk into his own thoughts.

*****

Adam pulled the hired buggy to a stop in front of the ranch house. His eyes swept the yard and spotted each member of his family. At the sound of the buggy’s approach, Hoss and Joe had come from the barn, and his father stood in the open doorway. Adam jumped down and went around to help Anna to the ground.

“Adam! You didn’t wire that you’d be back today.” Ben approached his eldest with a slightly chiding tone. Adam had also not given an adequate reason for his sudden trip to Denver, and here he was returning with a strange and obviously pregnant woman.

“Pa.” Adam’s intonation of that single syllable conveyed that he wished to postpone any further discussion.

“Yeah, big brother, we would have met the stage,” Hoss interjected walking up with Little Joe sauntering behind.

“It was no trouble to hire the buggy,” Adam said, sidestepping any explanation for his actions.

The woman beside him spoke softly, “Adam, I’m afraid I’m not feeling well. If I…”

“Of course, Anna. You need to lie down. I’ll show you to your room and have Hop Sing bring you a cup of his special tea.” Adam swiftly and solicitously swept his companion into the house quite effectively avoiding any introductions at all.

Ben exchanged questioning glances with his two younger sons. “Do either of you know…”

Hoss and Little Joe shook their heads.

“How could we, Pa?” Joe looked at his father and thought, “But I bet you’ll be getting some answers from big brother right quick.”

“Hoss?” Ben settled his gaze on his middle son.

“No, Pa; you know Adam can keep things closer than bark on a tree.”

Ben shook his head, and the three Cartwrights proceeded into the house.

*****

Adam had used the backstairs to the kitchen when going to speak to Hop Sing. Now he stood at the door to the dining room. He knew his father and brothers would be waiting in the great room for an explanation. He took a deep breath and went to face them.

Every eye in the room settled on Adam as he walked to stand before the fireplace.

“Well, I suppose, you’d like to know…” Adam began.

“Everything,” Ben interjected in a tone that Adam had learned to recognize before he was four.

Adam swallowed and looked not at his father but at Little Joe. “Umm, first, I need to explain something. Ummm,” Adam crossed his arms and tugged at his left ear. “Remember when I delivered those horses to the Lazy K? Well, on the way back I stopped for the night in a little town…” Adam’s voice faltered as he saw Little Joe’s eyes widen. He looked and saw that the same thought had entered his pa’s and Hoss’ minds. “No, no, she’s Clay’s wife!”

“CLAY’S WIFE!” The exclamation rang out in three octaves and three volumes.

“Let me explain.” Adam’s tone was as near to pleading as he ever allowed. Joe was on his feet and stood before his brother with his entire stance demanding an explanation. Ben and Hoss were both leaning forward expectantly. “Like I said, I stopped for the night, and when I went into the saloon, well, Clay was there.”

“YOU SAW CLAY!” Joe shouted, taking an angry step toward his brother.

“JOSEPH!” Ben’s voice drowned the echoes of his son’s shout, “Settle down and let your brother explain!”

Adam’s hand tugged at his ear again. “We had a drink and talked. I told him, Joe, that you missed him, that he always had a home on the Ponderosa. He wasn’t ready, Joe; he just wasn’t ready for that, but he missed you too, so I made a deal.” Adam paused searching his little brother’s face.

“What deal was that, big brother?” Hoss asked softly.

“I agreed not to tell you that I had seen him if he would write and let you know he was all right, and then, well, we agreed that whenever he wrote to you, Joe, I’d write to him and let him know how things were with you.” Adam was still speaking directly to Little Joe.

“You knew…” Joe’s eyes burned with anger.

“No, no, I sent all the letters to general delivery in Denver, so he could claim them when he passed through. I thought…I thought his letters would ease your mind, little brother.”

Joe turned his back to Adam and stared into the fire.

“I told him then that if he ever needed anything, ever needed help, to wire me.”

Hoss murmured softly, “If he needed a big brother…”

“That wire you got the morning you left.” Ben spoke his thought aloud.

“It was from Clay,” Adam admitted. “He said he needed me to go to Denver. That his wife was there and needed a safe haven. I went and brought her home.” Adam finished with a sigh and another tug at his ear.

“Clay’s wife,” Little Joe muttered, “Clay’s baby.” Adam watched as the thought struck his little brother that he was going to be an uncle.

“Just what you should have done, Adam. That little gal needs taking care of at a time like this.” Hoss grinned. “A nephew, Joe, now ain’t that something.”

Ben inquired on a sterner note, “What is this about needing a safe haven? Safe from what, Adam?”

“Where’s Clay?” Little Joe demanded before Adam could answer his father.

“I don’t know. He, well, according to Anna, he… he ran afoul of a powerful man, found out something incriminating about him and then… uh, was forced into killing the man’s son. The man has hired killers after Clay, and he’s in hiding. He’s afraid these men would use his wife and the child to get to him.” Adam looked first at Joe and then at his father.

“What man?” Ben asked.

“I don’t know, Pa. She wouldn’t say. She’s told me very little. I don’t even think Anna is her real name.”

“Does she know where Clay is?” Little Joe’s voice was filled with anger and concern, and he had turned to glare at his brother once again.

“I don’t know, Joe. I left a letter at the Denver general delivery telling Clay that I was taking his wife to the Ponderosa, that we would take care of her, and that he should come here. I told him we’d stand with him.” Adam had used his most fraternal tone when writing the letter to order Clay to do just that.

Little Joe began, “I’ll go…”

Ben cut him off, “You will go nowhere, young man. Denver may well be the last place that Clay would go now. You will stay here and help us look after Clay’s wife and his child.” Ben softened his tone and finished, “It’s what Clay would want you to do, Joe.”

Joe gazed directly into his father’s eyes and recognized the resolve he saw there. He also recognized the fact that his father was right. Clay could be anywhere; he could best help his brother right here on the Ponderosa.

“There’s horses need tending and barn chores,” Hoss interjected, “Come on, little brother, let’s get to ’em.” Hoss exchanged glances with his father and elder brother. He would see to Joe.

Joe looked at his pa and read the message in his expression and slight nod. His pa wanted big brother alone. A wry smile flickered across Joe’s lips, and he followed Hoss out the door.

Ben stood, and Adam dropped his eyes to the floor. Adam asked in the same tone he had used at fourteen, “How much trouble am I in?”

Ben’s answer was steely. “How much trouble should you be in, Adam Stoddard?”

“I didn’t want Joe to go haring off after Clay. I did what I thought best, Pa. It wasn’t that I wanted to deceive anyone.”

“That may be, but when that wire came,” Ben’s voice reached its maximum parental sternness, “it was you who went haring off alone into who knew what trouble without a word. Did you think you could not trust me or Hoss?”

“”No, Pa, it wasn’t that; really it wasn’t. I just…I …I’m sorry. I should have talked to you.”

Ben was not ready to let his eldest off the hook just yet. “Yes, you should have and from here on out you will. Is that clear?”

Adam sighed. He knew that his father’s anger came from his fear of what might have happened, and that the concern that came from his father’s love would never change. “Yes, Pa, that’s perfectly clear.” Then he gave Ben a beseeching smile.

“That never worked when you were young enough for a tanning,” Ben observed.

“Nope, it never did,” Adam countered, his dimples deepening.

Ben capitulated, “You’re forgiven.” He shook his head and sat down in his leather chair.

Hop Sing entered the room and announced, “Missy lesting, need plenty lest. Hop Sing take her supper on tray. You be at table for supper in one hour.” Using his pointed finger to add an exclamation to his words, Hop Sing departed for his kitchen. Ben and Adam exchanged looks and chuckled softly.

“I better get cleaned up then,” Adam stated, and then added in his most polite and humble tone, “May I be excused, Pa?”

Ben accepted the inherent apology. “Of course, son.”

*****

Adam was buttoning his shirt when Hoss walked into the washroom.

“Don’t see no holes in your hide,” Hoss observed with a grin.

“Guess they’re where they don’t show,” Adam responded wryly.

“Did he forgive ya?” Hoss had no need to explain he meant their pa.

“Yeah, but he put me in my place first.” There was a slight whine in Adam’s voice.

“Know the feeling. Sometimes I think it was easier when we just had to take a tanning.”

Adam raised a single eyebrow.

“Yeah, that’s stretching things,” Hoss answered letting out a deep laugh. “With a pa like ours, I guess it ain’t surprising that we turned out such fine, upstanding fellows.”

Adam’s laughter joined his brother’s, but when it faded he turned to Hoss with a serious expression on his face. “I’m sorry if you feel I…”

Hoss’ interruption prevented Adam from finishing his apology. “No need for that, big brother. Ya was just doing what ya thought was right for Joe and Clay. I told Little Joe that.”

“Is he still boiling?”

“I think I got the fire turned down some. Ya need to talk to him though.”

Adam rubbed his hand over his face and then settled his eyes on his brother’s face once again. “Is he still in the barn?” Hoss nodded. “No time like the present then.” Adam started to walk by Hoss but hesitated. Hoss gave him a gentle clap on the back. Adam smiled. It was a smile he had never shared with anyone but his oversized little brother with the warm blue eyes.

*****

Adam entered the barn and saw Joe standing near Cochise’s stall with his back to the door.

“Joe?”

“I’m not mad anymore, Adam,” Joe answered but did not turn to face his brother. His voice sounded sad and weary.

“That almost makes this harder,” Adam thought as he closed the distance between them. “Joe, I…I just thought it would be better for you to hear from Clay from time to time instead of just knowing that I saw him once in the middle of nowhere heading anywhere. I wasn’t trying to keep Clay from you, little brother.” Joe turned toward Adam. Adam swallowed and continued, “I thought it might keep Clay, well, that it would keep him thinking….knowing that he had family and a place to come…someone to go to.”

“It’s all right, Elder Brother.” Joe smiled slowly. “You just can’t help yourself. Anyways, Clay knew you’d see to things and sent for ya.”

The knot that had been in Adam’s stomach since he had arrived in Virginia City unraveled. “Joe,” he said softly, “Clay’s wife, his brother, all the family he has is here. Eventually, this is where Clay will come.”

“I just wish I could be there for him. To have his back, you know.”

“I know.” Adam reached out and squeezed Joe’s shoulder. “We’ll do what we can; we’ll keep his wife and child safe.”

“That’s something, ain’t it? We’re going to be uncles.”

“Yeah, that is something, Joe.”

“Adam,” Joe spoke in almost a whisper, “you, Hoss, and I, well, there never was a time we weren’t brothers. Even when you were away, or we were fussing, or even when I was hating you for whipping my tail, we were always brothers. It wasn’t that Clay was… Adam, Clay had never had a brother. I just wanted him to know what it was like, to have what you and Hoss always gave me.” Joe gave a soft chuckle, “It’s partly your own fault; you taught me how to be a brother.”

Adam finally smiled. Then he ruffled Joe’s hair the way he had a hundred thousand times, “I guess I can’t blame you for being such a good one then.” The last trace of jealousy toward Clay faded into a memory.

Joe’s lips twisted into a grin. “Pa, light into you after we left?”

“Yep,” Adam answered his arms crossing on his chest.

“Does it get any easier to take?”

“Nope.”

“Well, you did deserve it.”

“So Pa made clear.”

Joe giggled and then shook his head. “He’s always gonna be able to do it, isn’t he?”

“I’m afraid so, little brother.”

Joe cocked his head and looked at Adam inquiringly. “Do you think he’ll light into Clay when he gets here?”

“Yep.”

“Think that Clay will, well, do you think that Clay will take it?”

“Yeah. He respects Pa, and he’ll have his brothers to help him understand it’s just that Pa cares.” Adam’s arm slipped around his brother’s shoulders, and they walked to the house for supper.

*****

Supper was a much calmer meal than Ben had feared. Adam recounted in detail his meeting with Clay, the contents of his wire, and his trip to Denver and back. He also told his family everything that Clay’s wife had told him.

“Well, we will do what we can,” Ben stated after several courses of action had been decided. The chief of which was the hiring of a professional investigator through friends in San Francisco. “For now, our first priority is the young lady upstairs. Did she say, Adam, exactly when the baby is due?”

“No,” Adam answered simply while silently chiding himself for never asking.

“Little over a month from now, I’d say, not more than two at the most.” Hoss’ observation was made with a natural and automatic confidence.

Adam grinned. “Well, if the Ponderosa midwife is positive…”

Hoss colored. “Adam, I…”

“No, Brother Hoss, I’m quite willing to bow to your expertise in this area.”

“Pa!” Hoss exclaimed.

Joe started giggling.

“I tend to agree with you, Hoss. We’ll speak to her about seeing Paul.” Ben had as much confidence in his friend’s ability to be discreet as in his medical prowess.

“One of us will need to be near her at all times,” Joe said quietly. The other three Cartwrights all nodded their agreement. It would be an inconvenience, but then caring for family was sometimes an inconvenient thing.

“I’m sure when things are more settled, and she knows us better, she’ll open up a little more. With more information, we may be able to do more for Clay.” Ben studied Little Joe’s face.

Little Joe looked up and smiled at his family. Ben reached over and patted his youngest on the back reassuringly. “Clay is very good at taking care of himself, Joe.”

“I know — almost as good as my pa and the rest of my brothers are at taking care of everyone else.”

“Well, practice does make perfect.” Adam threw out the rejoinder with a wicked grin, and the meal ended in gentle laughter.

*****

The Cartwrights did not remark on their guest’s absence from breakfast, as there was no reason for her to rise as early as working ranchers, but Ben and Joe were surprised when she failed to appear for lunch.

“Mistel Carlwright,” Hop Sing spoke as he came in with a large platter of biscuits and placed it on the table, “Missy still no feel well. Hop Sing tell her stay in bed. Think you need send fol Doctol Paul.”

“If you think so…” Ben’s answer was interrupted when Joe jumped to his feet.

“I’ll go!”

Ben caught his youngest son’s arm, and Hop Sing ordered, “Boy sit and eat filst, no big hurry. Hop Sing tend Missy fine tel Doctol can come.” Hop Sing added a few exclamations in Cantonese.

“Eat your lunch first, Joseph, and then you can go and tell Paul we need him to come by.” Ben patted his son’s arm, and Joe returned to his seat hurriedly starting to eat.

“Joseph! We have time to say grace!” Ben admonished, and Little Joe swallowed and bowed his head.

Ben led them in prayer, and the two men began to eat. Little Joe downed his lunch in half the usual time. Rising, he asked to be excused and was headed to the door before Ben could answer.

“Little Joe!”

“Yes, Pa?” Joe did not even turn his head in his father’s direction as he buckled on his gun belt.

“Your attention, please, young man!”

Joe turned and waited tensely.

“Joseph, you will not race headlong into town. Is that clear?” Ben said sternly.

“Yes, sir.”

“There is no need, son, no need at all to be reckless.”

“Pa, should I send Adam or Hoss back to the house?” asked Little Joe biting his lower lip.

“I think I can handle things, Joseph. Adam spoke to the hands about keeping on the alert for any strangers. Things will be fine, I’m sure.” Ben’s tone was smooth and reassuring.

Joe gave a weak smile. “Yeah, I’m, well, I guess I’m getting in some practice worrying. I expect any nephew of mine is gonna give us plenty of cause for fretting up a storm.”

Ben smiled back. “I’m afraid that might just be so.”

Little Joe left on his mission and managed to keep Cochise from a full gallop all the way into Virginia City. When he returned late that afternoon, Doctor Martin accompanied him into the house.

“Doc’s here,” Joe announced as they entered.

Ben came from behind his desk. “Good to see you, Paul. Did Little Joe explain the situation?”

“Yes, Ben, he did, and you can be assured of my discretion,” Paul answered shaking his friend’s hand.

“I’ll show you up to her room then.” Ben gestured toward the stairs. Joe started to follow his father and the doctor. “Joe, you can see to the animals and get the barn chores started.”

“But…”

“I’m sure Paul does not need your assistance, Joseph. Now do as I said.”

“Yes, Pa.”

Hoss walked into the barn, followed by Adam, just as Little Joe was finishing the evening chores.

“Thought you might join us up in the north pasture, little brother,” Adam observed.

“Pa and Hop Sing sent me to fetch Doc Martin,” Little Joe answered without even bristling at Adam’s implied criticism.

“Doc Martin?”

“Hop Sing thought he should look at Anna. Evening chores are all done, though.” A generous impulse moved Joe to add, “And I’ll see to Sport and Chub for you.”

Hoss and Adam exchanged a look. “Well, that’s mighty fine of ya, Short Shanks. I’m feeling plum tuckered out.”

“Yes, that would be appreciated, little brother,” Adam added. “I’m sure Hop Sing just wanted to be careful, Joe.”

“Yeah. You two go get washed up. I think Hop Sing plans on us eating early tonight.”

*****

Adam, Hoss, and even Little Joe were cleaned up and waiting before Ben and the doctor walked into the great room.

“Doc?” Joe jumped to his feet. Adam and Hoss focused their gazes on Paul Martin.

“There’s no immediate danger, Joe, but I don’t like the current state of things. That young lady must take great care from this point on.”

“The trip was too much for her. I should have…” Adam spoke softly, almost to only himself.

“Adam, as I understand things, you had little choice, and though I would not suggest that any woman eight months pregnant make such a trip, I don’t think it was the trip itself as much as the fact that she has been under great strain from the beginning that has taken its toil. Whatever the reason, it is what she does now that matters.” Paul’s tone was deliberate and professional.

“Tell us what needs to be done, Doc, and we’ll see to it,” stated Hoss matter-of-factly.

Paul exchanged a look with Ben and then continued, “She needs rest, good food, and as little aggravation or worry as possible. I want her off her feet, though I won’t insist she stay in bed. Her mind needs to be occupied and distracted from her very real worries, so I suggest she spend her days on this settee. Of course, she is by no means to walk up or even down those stairs.”

Hoss chimed in again, “Well, that ain’t no problem. Any of us could tote that little gal anywhere on the ranch; I could do it with one arm.”

Paul looked as his friend’s middle son and mentally agreed. “As I was saying, no physical strain at all. I was thinking that a woman to help her with her personal needs…”

This time Adam interrupted, “I’ll go over and speak to Mrs. Shaugassey after dinner, Pa.”

Ben nodded. Neither had any doubt that the Ben Cartwright’s old friend would be returning with Adam.

“That should be all that’s needed. Between her and Hop Sing, that young lady couldn’t be in better hands. The two of them could even manage her delivery if there aren’t any complications.” Seeing the concern that sprang onto the faces of the men around him, Paul added, “Though I’m looking forward to doing the honors myself. I’ll come by in a few days to check on things. You can send for me if there’s any concern before then.”

Hop Sing entered the room and announced that supper was ready. “All leady set place fol good Doctol. He need good meal befole he go.”

“Of course, he does,” Ben agreed as he gestured his friend toward the dinning table.

Paul Martin started to politely decline, but then shook his head. He was hungry, and Hop Sing set one of the best tables in the territory. “Well, I would hate to pass up Hop Sing’s chicken and dumplings,” he stated as he headed to the table.

The five men sat down and were soon enjoying a fine meal.

*****

She heard the soft knock and called, “Come in.” Her eyes widened when she saw the large man enter.

“Excuse me, ma’am. I know we ain’t been properly introduced, and ladies don’t normally receive gentlemen in their rooms, but with ya being family and all, well, I wanted to speak with ya. I’m Hoss.” The smiled bloomed on the big man’s face as he walked to the bedside.

“I didn’t think it could be anyone else from the way Clay described all of you,” she replied.

“No, I don’t suppose it would be too hard to sort us out from descriptions.” Hoss took her response as an invitation to remain and pulled a chair closer. Having settled himself, he continued, “Now, I ain’t aiming to stay and tire you none, but there’s something I wanted to tell ya.”

“Yes.” Her tone and eyes were guarded.

“See, ma’am, the thing is I didn’t want ya up here fretting another night ’cause there ain’t no need. Now I know you must be wanting Clay right bad, and I wish I could fetch him to ya, but seeing as how we can’t, well, what I want ya to know is this…well, to say it simple you’re safe tonight. There are four of us in this house who are gonna see to that. You spent enough time with Adam to know ‘bout him, and Pa and Joe, we all, well, there ain’t nobody gonna get near ya tonight.” Hoss saw the shimmer of tears and impulsively reach out to pat her hand. “Take a good look at me, ma’am. I’m right across the hall. I ain’t an easy man to get by, and nobody is gonna get by me to get to you, so ya can rest easy like the doc says ya should.”

“Thank you.” Her eyes shimmered, but no tears fell. A weak smile came to her lips.

Hoss patted her hand again. “No thanks needed. Cartwrights take care of family is all.”

Her smile brightened as her hands moved to the swell of her stomach. “I think he heard you.”

“Well, he just better listen to his uncle Hoss and settle down easy. Your ma needs her rest — do you hear me, boy?”

“You mean that, don’t you, about being an uncle?”

“Mean it! About the second thing me, Adam, and Joe are gonna do after Clay gets here is set him down and get him clear on the fact that these here uncles and grandpa intend to have a chance to spoil this young’un.”

“It doesn’t matter to you that …”

“Now, Clay, he had a hard time getting his head around the fact that he had real family here, and he didn’t hardly stay long enough to get use to it, but he must have had his heart around it when he sent that telegram.”

Her voice was low and hesitant. “I told him not to send it. I told him I could take care of myself. That we didn’t need to involve anyone else.”

“That’s just it, little gal; when you’re family, you’re already involved, so ya don’t have to do it all yourself. Now, are ya going to rest easy tonight? ‘Cause Doc says I can take ya downstairs tomorrow if you’re feeling up to it.”

“I think I will. I really think I will.”

Hoss patted her hand again as he rose. “Then I’ll be going, so ya can.” He walked to the door. “Good night and sleep tight,” he called as he pulled it closed behind him. He turned and took a step before running into his brothers.

“Hoss, what…”

“I was speaking to her. Letting her know not to fret. I think she’ll rest easier now,” Hoss stated simply.

Adam and Little Joe both understood what Hoss had told Anna. They exchanged a look and then smiled at their brother.

“Well, then, what about a game of checkers, big brother?” Joe invited.

“I’ll play the winner,” Adam stated as the brothers went down the hall.

*****

“Call me Anna,” she said simply as Ben Cartwright introduced himself. Mrs. Shaugassey had helped the girl bath and dress. Hoss had carried her downstairs and settled her on the settee. Now she rested, tucked into a nest of blankets, as she was being introduced to the remaining Cartwrights.

“Anna, then we are very pleased to have you with us,” Ben said with a warm smile.

“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright,” she replied simply.

“Yeah, we sure are,” Little Joe interjected brightly, “and we’re going to take good care of you from now on.”

Anna smiled at the young man, but made no further response.

Ben exchanged a glance with Adam. Paul had said that she should not be upset, so Ben did not ask any of the questions he wanted answered. He started a general explanation of the doctor’s orders and the current arrangements for her stay instead. When it ended, the Cartwright men started about that day’s business.

In the two weeks that followed, a comfortable routine was established. In an effort to follow doctor’s orders, the Cartwrights coddled their guest. Adam loaned her book after book, discussed them all with her, and entertained her by singing and playing his guitar. Hoss and Joe played checkers and chess with her, regaled her with family stories or Virginia City gossip, and brought her all manner of small surprises from wildflower bouquets to kittens. Ben saw to it that she followed the doctor’s instructions, chiding her paternally and supplying everything he could think of for her comfort. Hop Sing not only insisted she eat three meals a day but supplied her with delectable snacks filled with milk and eggs and fragrant herbal teas. Mrs. Shaugassey provided companionship and knitted baby sweaters and caps while Anna sewed tiny gowns. Doctor Martin’s regular visits became more the result of a desire for Hop Sing’s cooking than concern for the young mother-to-be.

Adam leaned against the back of the settee. “He’s restless, is he?”

Anna looked over at Adam and replied, “You all do that, you know.”

“Do what?”

“Everyone says he, never she.” She placed her hands on the swell of her stomach and gazed pensively down. “Joe is always going on about his nephew.”

“We Cartwrights are used to boys is all,” Adam said soothingly.

Anna’s eyes returned to Adam’s face. “Do you think Joe will be disappointed if the baby’s a girl?”

“Joe disappointed?” Adam gave an exaggerated look of shock. “Little Joe has never in his life been disappointed because someone was a girl.”

“I mean it, Adam,” Anna chided and gave him an expectant look.

“No, Joe will not be disappointed. No one will be disappointed if the baby is a girl.” Adam made his response simple and direct.

Anna bit her lip. “Even Clay?” she murmured almost to herself.

Adam was honest. “I’m not sure if I can speak for Clay. We really… “

“Don’t know each other very well,” Anna finished for him.

Adam studied her face and then asked, “How well did you know Clay before you married?”

“Beyond the biblical sense?” she asked with an edge to her voice.

“That’s not what I was asking.”

“But you’ve wondered. You don’t have to ask, Brother Adam. There was no way I could have been with child when Clay and I said I do.”

“I wasn’t asking that,” Adam reiterated.

Her expression shifted slightly. “If it had been Little Joe, would you have asked?”

Adam paused and then answered, “I suppose I would have asked Joe but never his wife.”

Anna dropped her eyes to her lap. “Clay’s not here to ask.”

Adam rubbed the bridge of his nose and then reached over and patted Anna’s hand.

Anna kept her eyes downcast but spoke softly, “I…” She bit her lip. “Clay was charming and irresistible, and we had something in common.”

Adam stayed quiet, and Anna continued, “There wasn’t much love in my life growing up; there wasn’t much in Clay’s childhood either. I could see it in his eyes. It was there behind his smile.” Suddenly her mood lightened, “His smile was something. He was smiling when he asked me to marry him.”

Clay had the same smile as Joe and Marie. Adam nodded understanding, “Your acceptance was assured then. No one says no to that smile. Well, not vulnerable young ladies anyway.”

“Just granite-headed older brothers and stern fathers?”

“Exactly!” Adam replied with a laugh.

Anna’s answering laugh faded quickly, and Adam saw a sheen in her eyes. Guessing, he offered comfort, “Clay will come, we’ll get things settled, and then you’ll have the life you planned.”

Anna chewed on her lower lip, and a tear slipped down her cheek.

“Tell me, little sister,” Adam said softly.

Anna’s eyes brimmed over. “I don’t know… since I’ve been here I’ve seen… I don’t know if …”

Adam pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped her cheeks. “You’re not to fret. Doctor’s orders. Let it out.”

She swallowed. “There was never any love in my home, not like there is here. I don’t know if there’s any in me…if I can love this baby the way Ben loves the three of you.”

Adam reached out and used his finger to lift her eyes to his. “You already do.”

He could see she wanted to believe him, but doubt flicker in the depths of her eyes. Then she dropped her gaze and sighed.

Adam opened his mouth to speak, but Hop Sing bustled into the room with Anna’s afternoon snack, and the moment passed.

*****

Ben glanced at the clock as he heard Joe claim victory in his checkers game with Anna. “It’s getting late,” he observed. His voice caught the attention of each person in the room. “Anna does need her rest.” Ben settled his gaze on his middle son. “Hoss.” The single word was a directive, and Hoss rose to obey.

The doctor had rescinded his orders for total, feet-off-the-floor rest, and Mrs. Shaugassey had returned to her own home, but Anna was still forbidden to walk up or down the stairs.

Hoss walked over to Anna and shook his head reprovingly when she opened her mouth to protest. “Now don’t ya go riling Pa like Joe always does. Pa is gonna see ya follow doctor’s orders to the letter, so ya might as well be good,” he whispered softly.

Anna obediently placed her arms around Hoss’ neck as he swept her into his arms and up the stairs to her room. When he set her down at her doorway, she rolled her eyes.

“Don’t let Pa see ya doing that. It sets a spark to his tinder. Always has.” Hoss’ voice was only half teasing.

“Adam does it all the time. Joe too. I’ve seen even you do it, Hoss Cartwright.”

“Maybe ya have, little gal, but ya should of noticed it was only when Pa wasn’t looking in our direction,” Hoss replied and then laughed softly at himself.

“Clay said your Pa, well, that he was still…” Anna searched for the proper words.

“Clay told ya that we all still mind our pa, did he?” Hoss smiled as Anna’s cheeks flushed. “I don’t suppose he explained why,” he continued in a more serious tone.

“I think I figured out why since I’ve been here.” She gave him a wry smile.

“Well, if your reason has the words love and respect in it, you’re right.”

“Did you love Clay’s mother?”

Anna’s question took Hoss by surprise, but his brother Adam often came out with surprising questions, and Hoss had gotten use to sudden twists in the conversation. He answered simply, “I loved her; she was my mama.” He looked into Anna’s eyes and then added, “She loved us. She loved Clay too.”

Anna’s eyes widened. “I thought she thought…”

“That Clay was dead. She did, but she loved him.” He saw a certain disbelief in her eyes and continued, “I must have been nine ’cause Little Joe was only about three. We was playing, and Mama was sitting on the porch watching. Then Hop Sing brought out some cookies and lemonade. When we went on the porch to get some, I could see she’d been crying. I didn’t say nothing then, but after we finished, she took Little Joe up and settled him for his nap. I sat there wondering, and when she come back downstairs, I asked her. I knew she’d been married before, of course, but that was the day she told me she had had a baby that died of the fever just after he was born. She told me sometimes when she was really happy watching one of us, ‘secially Little Joe, she’d think about him, and sometimes she’d cry because she loved and missed him.”

As she looked at Hoss’ solemn face, Marie asked herself if she had done right in answering the boy’s question truthfully. “But I have three sons with me to love, so I shall cry no more today,” she said giving him a smile.

“Mama,” Hoss’ voice was hesitant and questioning, “you love your other son who died ‘fore ya hardly knew him, so I figure it’s all right that I love my ma who died, even though I don’t remember her.”

“Of course, mon petite, it is certainly right.” Marie wrapped her arms around her son.

“Hoss.” Anna’s voice brought him out of his memory. “Did you tell Clay about that time?”

Hoss shook his head. “No. I’ll have to see to that when he gets here. Now, ya best get to bed.”

Anna turned and opened the bedroom door. Then she paused and suddenly turned back toward Hoss. She reached out with both hands and pulled Hoss’ hands toward her. She placed one on each side of her stomach and held them there with her own. Hoss felt the baby move restlessly.

“Hoss, will you promise… now don’t unless… if I asked Little Joe he’d promise because of his blood tie, Adam would because of his promise to Clay and, well, you know how he is, and your pa, well, he still loves Marie and this is her grandchild, so I won’t ask them, but I’m going to ask you.”

Hoss waited silently, and Anna took a deep breath.

“Hoss, promise me that you will protect this baby from anything or anyone who would make him feel unloved.”

“Now, gal, I’ve done told ya…”

“I know what you’ve told me. That’s not… Promise me in those words, Hoss, if you can mean them.” Anna’s eyes held desperation, and her fingers squeezed down on his.

“I promise to protect this child from anything or anyone that would make him feel unloved.”

“Thank you.” She smiled though tears were falling down her cheeks. She reached up and hugged him. “He’ll know. If the time comes, he’ll know,” she told herself as she turned and entered her room.

*****

The man watched Adam Cartwright leave the bank and walk down the street. He followed. When Adam entered the Sliver Dollar, a small smile appeared on the man’s face as he waited five minutes before following Adam inside.

Adam noticed the stranger enter the saloon. He had not relaxed his vigilance even though it had been over four weeks since he had brought Anna to the Ponderosa, and there had been no sign of trouble in all that time.

The stranger crossed to the bar and took the space next to Adam. He ordered a beer. After the bartender set a foaming glass in front of him and walked away, the stranger lifted his drink and turned slightly toward Adam. Pitching his voice low, he asked, “A private word?” He inclined his head toward the door to the backroom. Not waiting for an answer, he took his beer and sauntered away. Adam studied him as he disappeared through the doorway and then followed.

Adam leaned against the door jam and surveyed the backroom. The tables were empty except for one where the stranger had taken a chair facing the door. Adam watched the man’s hand slide a leather wallet toward him on the table.

“My credentials, Mr. Cartwright.”

Adam raised an eyebrow, strode to the table, and picked up the wallet. Flipping it open, he studied the credentials that informed him this man was a Pinkerton agent named Samuel Collins.

“Have you found…” Adam began.

“The gentleman in question has not yet been located,” Collins interjected quickly. “But it was felt that you would wish to be apprised of the information we have obtained about the gentleman and the package currently in your care.” Adam settled into the chair opposite Collins.

“What have you learned?”

“Well, the most important fact would be the name of the man who is interested in the gentleman in question. That name is Constantine Seddakis.”

“Constantine Seddakis!” Adam’s exclamation was soft in volume but vehement. He knew the man by reputation, though he had never met him personally.

“You, of course, are aware of Mr. Seddakis’ position in the territory and the resources he has to call upon.”

Adam nodded.

“Mr. Seddakis, being a very private person, managed to keep the story from spreading beyond the local environs of his home.”

“What exactly is the story, Mr. Collins?”

“Mr. Seddakis hired the gentlemen in question in an unspecified roll that took him into the Seddakis home. After about two months, it was clear to the people in the area that Seddakis had taken a great liking to the gentleman in question and that this fact created animosity between the gentleman and Seddakis’ son, Alexander. One night, Alexander Seddakis burst into the room at a club where the gentleman was playing cards. Alexander demanded that the gentleman leave town for good. Words were exchanged and those there surmised that Alexander was incensed by the gentleman’s relationship with Alexander’s half-sister, Juliana Diane, who most people referred to as Julie Dee. The gentleman in question left the club but declared that he would not be leaving town. Alexander followed him. Minutes later, a shot was heard. Alexander Seddakis was found dead. The gentleman in question was holding a fired gun. After Constantine Seddakis arrived, the gentleman was arrested. He later escaped and disappeared. Julie Dee Seddakis disappeared the same night. Seddakis wants both the gentleman and his daughter returned to him, and the men he has hired for the job are very good at what they do.”

Adam Cartwright’s face had slowly turned to granite.

“There is a complete written report in this folder.” Collins pushed a leather packet toward Adam. “You wish us to continue the search for the gentleman as previously instructed?”

“Yes. If you locate him…”

“We operate with in the law, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Of course!” Adam rose, “If the gentleman in question needs to be hog-tied and dragged here, I’ll see to it myself.”

*****

Adam tried to concentrate on the decisions that needed to be made but the anger welling within him was clouding his thoughts.

“It’s not as if I didn’t know her name wasn’t Anna Cleary. Seddakis! Lord in heaven! A powerful and important man she said. Keep the lie as close to the truth as possible she said. By all means, tell the truth but leave out the little details that give the true picture.” A dry, humorless chuckle left Adam’s throat. “I thought I played that game well. It seems I’ve meet a master. So Clay shoots the son of one of the most powerful men in the territory, elopes with his daughter, and then disappears. If I ever get my hands on that…” Several words flicker in his mind so quickly he did not have to admit to himself that he had thought any of them. He sighed. “I won’t do anything I wouldn’t do to Little Joe.” His lips curled into a wry grin. “Which shouldn’t be of much comfort to Clay at all.” The voice that filled his mind with his own name had a Creole accent and a chiding tone. “Well, Ma, it’s only right that if I take on the responsibilities of older brother to your eldest that I get some of the privileges too.” He signaled Sport with his heels, and the horse stretched into a full gallop as Adam tried to outrace his own thoughts.

Adam slowed his horse to a walk as he entered the yard. Dismounting, he turned to lead Sport into the barn.

“Mr. Adam.”

Adam turned to see one of the hands approaching.

“I’ll see to your horse, boss. I think you might want to go straight inside.”

Adam tensed and handed over the reins. “Thank you.” He hurried into the house.

His pa and Little Joe were in the great room. Ben was staring into the fireplace while Joe sat on the bottom steps of the staircase.

“Pa, has something happened?”

Ben turned toward his eldest. “Actually, it’s happening. Anna went into labor about two hours ago.”

“She’s having the baby?” Adam asked and then mentally kicked himself for asking the obvious.

“I’ve sent hands for both the doctor and Mrs. Shaugassey,” Ben stated by way of reply.

“Hop Sing’s getting things ready, and Hoss is with Anna,” Joe added.

“The Ponderosa midwife,” Adam muttered still processing the current situation.

“She asked for him.” Little Joe sounded slightly rejected.

“Your brother, Joseph, is a more calming presence,” Ben offered, “The girl’s scared.”

Adam looked at his father and saw the flicker of fear in his pa’s own eyes, but then his father well knew the dangers of childbirth.

“There’s nothing to be done then but wait.” Adam removed his hat and gun belt. Walking to the stairs, he placed his hand on his brother’s shoulder and stared up at the hall above.

*****

Hoss took Anna’s hands as he saw another contraction coming. As her hands tightened on his, he spoke soothingly until she once again relaxed against the pillows.

“There now, that’s one’s over. You’re doing real well, little gal.” Hoss did not expect an answer. He reached for a damp cloth and wiped Anna’s face.

“I didn’t think it would hurt quit so much.”

Hoss looked away, so she would not read his eyes. He knew the pain would go on for hours more. “Now, little gal, I want you to listen to me. You don’t need to waste no strength trying to be brave. When ya feel like screaming, you just go ahead and let her rip. Ya hear me?”

Anna bit her lip. Dropping her eyes she noticed the marks she had left on Hoss’ hands. “I hurt you!” she gasped.

“You hurt me?” Hoss chuckled, “Ain’t no way a little thing like you could hurt old Hoss.”

“But your hands…”

“These hands have seen worse than you could ever do, so don’t you fret none.”

Suddenly both of them turned their eyes toward the door as they heard it open. In swept Mrs. Shaugassey.

Once Mrs. Shaugassey took control, Hoss was banished downstairs to wait with the other Cartwright men. When Paul Martin arrived, he disappeared upstairs with hardly a word and the waiting continued.

The sounds from upstairs were muffled, but it was clear that Anna was no longer able to fight the pain silently and that she repeatedly called for Clay.

“I don’t know if I can stand it much more,” Little Joe declared jumping to his feet and stomping aimlessly across the room.

“I’m afraid you really haven’t any choice, Joseph. Babies come in their own time.” Despite his words, Ben’s voiced revealed the strain he felt.

Adam set down the cup of coffee that had grown cold in his hands. “Little Joe shouldn’t be the one complaining; he took what… thirteen hours to make his appearance.”

“I never!” Joe was affronted at the accusation.

“I’m afraid you did, son. Though I’m sure your brother Adam is not aware that he took nearly fifteen.”

Joe gave into to his childish impulse and stuck his tongue out at Adam behind their father’s back.

“The only one of my sons who made a quick job of birthing was Hoss. That was probably because I wasn’t there waiting.” Ben smiled at his middle son.

Joe and Adam exchanged glances, and then all eyes were drawn toward the stairs as a different cry was heard. The baby had been born.

Little Joe turned and darted toward the stairs, but Hoss caught his arm stopping him short. “Wait a minute, Short Shanks. I don’t think Anna’s quite ready for company yet.”

“But…” Little Joe tugged his arm free.

“As your brother says, Joseph, it is not yet time for any of us to make an appearance upstairs.” Ben’s voice contained a note that Little Joe had learned long ago to obey automatically.

“Well, I don’t see why,” Joe mumbled under his breath, but he turned away from the stairs.

“Patience, baby brother,” Adam chided giving Joe a clap on the back as he passed. Then Adam and stood and stretched. The sound of footsteps in the upper hall caused all the men to turn and stare expectantly. Hop Sing soon appeared at the top of the stairs.

“Baby here. Strong and healthy. Doctol say he fine boy.”

“A boy!” shouted Little Joe, “I told ya it would be a boy.”

“No shout!” Hop Sing commanded. “Missy have very hard time. Need lest now. You stay downstairs. Hop Sing bling baby to meet family.”

All four Cartwrights beamed at the news, though Adam and Ben shared a worried glance when Hop Sing mentioned Anna’s hard time.

“Well,” Ben said cheerily, “shall we toast the next generation?” He walked over and poured four glasses of brandy.

His sons joined him, and as they each stood with glass raised. Ben offered, “To the child and his mother. May God keep them always.” Glasses clinked. After the brandy was wallowed, Joe lowered his glass, and his family saw the sad expression that had clouded Joe’s eyes.

“Joe?” His father’s tone was gently inquiring.

“It’s just, well… Clay should be here!”

“Hopefully he will be soon,” Ben offered soothingly.

Adam rubbed the bridge of his nose and considered the fact that he would soon have to share the information he had obtained from the Pinkerton agent.

Footsteps once again drew the men’s attention. Hop Sing descended the stairs with a blanket-wrapped bundle. Handing the baby to Ben, he announced, “Numbel one son of Mistal Clay and Missy Anna.”

Ben gazed down at the baby, and his eyes misted. Then he held the child, so his sons could see the baby’s face.

“Why, he looks like Little Joe!” Adam exclaimed softly, “Only little brother took a couple of months to be this size.”

“He is something, now ain’t he! Aren’t ya something, big boy?” Hoss cooed and gently rubbed the baby’s forehead with his finger.

“Is he too red?” Joe asked worriedly, peering at his nephew.

“No,” Ben said with a laugh, “and I’m sure Paul checked for the correct number of fingers and toes.”

The baby squirmed and made small mewling noises.

“Can I hold him, Pa?” Joe asked.

“Sure, son; support his head now.” Ben transferred the baby carefully into Joe’s arms.

“Hey, I’m your uncle Joe. I’ve got lots planned for the two of us, so you just grow fast, ya hear?” The baby squirmed again, and Joe took it as a positive response.

“Now, ya know Pa taught ya to share and not hog things, so handed him over,” Hoss demanded. Joe’s lower lip slipped into a pout, but he passed the baby to Hoss.

“Now, I’m uncle Hoss, and that guy over there is your uncle Adam. We’re all taking care of things, so all ya have to do is rest easy.” Hoss declared and then let Adam hold the little one.

Adam surprised his brothers with his cooing and baby talk. Joe raised his eyebrow and exchanged a look with Hoss. Ben chuckled benevolently.

“Family all meet baby. Now he need to go back to missy,” Hop Sing declared, confident that he would not be contradicted. He took the child and departed up the stairs. “Hop Sing fix big breakfast quick,” he called over his shoulder.

Though it was only a little past two in the morning, the Cartwrights all agreed that would be an excellent idea. They settled into their favorite seats with varied sighs.

“I wonder what Anna will name him?” Little Joe spoke his thoughts out loud.

Adam took a deep breath. To wait longer was to invite accusations of once again keeping things from his family.

“Speaking of names,” he interjected, “I told you I didn’t think her name was Anna.”

“What are you saying, son?” Ben had noticed Adam’s serious tone and nervous shift.

“When I was in town today, well, I was approached by a Pinkerton agent.”

“They’ve found Clay!” Joe was on his feet in an instant.

“No, Joe, no. I would have told you that immediately. You know that.”

“What has happened, Adam?” Hoss inquired quickly.

“It’s all in here.” Adam rose, retrieved the leather packet he had received from Collins, and placed it on the low table in front of his father. “I haven’t read it all, but Collins — that’s the agent’s name — gave me a summary.”

“Tell us then.” Ben focused his eyes on his son and did not pick up the packet.

“Well, we know now with whom we’re dealing.” Adam tugged his left ear and continued, “The man who is having Clay pursued is Constantine Seddakis, and unless I’m much mistaken, the woman upstairs is his daughter, Juliana Diane.”

“Constantine Seddakis!” The name was repeated by each of Adam’s listeners, but none of them asked who the man was. There was no need.

“Tell the rest.” Ben’s tone was now as serious as Adam’s.

Adam told his father and brothers everything that Collins had told him. His listeners made little comment allowing him to finish swiftly.

“Well, now we know,” Ben declared as Adam finished his story. “The Pinkertons are continuing their search?” Adam nodded.

“It’s a good thing we hired them through your friends.” Joe looked at his brother searching for reassurance.

“It will all work out,” Adam offered, and then all four men turned as they heard footsteps on the stairs.

Doctor Paul Martin walked into the room. “Well, now, gentleman, you’ve seen for yourself that the baby is strong and healthy. It wasn’t an easy delivery, but…”

“How is the mother?” Ben asked and braced for bad news.

“Anna had a hard time of it.”

“But she’s all right, isn’t she?” Joe demanded.

“As I said, it was a difficult delivery. She’s quite small and there was some…” Seeing the looks on his audience’s faces, Paul decided to limit the medical details. “She lost more blood then I would have liked, but she should be fine.” He gave the men an encouraging smile but followed it with a stern glare. “If my orders are followed, that is. She needs rest and care. Mrs. Shaugassey can handle the care. She has agreed to stay for the rest of the week. Hop Sing will see to her feeding. None of you, I repeat, none of you will go into that room for at least twenty-four hours. She will rest.”

“But, Doc…” Little Joe began, but he stopped speaking when his father focused a commanding glare upon him.

“If you think it’s best, Paul,” Ben intoned, “No one will disobey your orders.”

“Good!” Dr. Martin smiled again. “Anna and the baby should both be fine if we preserve against complications.”

“Food ready!” Hop Sing’s voice rang out. “Everyone come to table now.”

All five men quickly obeyed the cook’s command and were soon enjoying eggs, ham, fried potatoes, and pancakes.

*****

All three Cartwright sons considered going to visit Clay’s wife that next day, but the combination of their father’s word to the doctor and Mrs. Shaugassey’s position as guardian dragon allowed the new mother to remain undisturbed until the following morning. The Cartwright’s did have the distraction of leftover work to keep them busy, and Hop Sing brought the baby down for two more get-acquainted sessions with the family.

After breakfast the next day, Mrs. Shaugassey answered a knock on the bedroom door. “I ‘spect the whole lot of you plan to come trooping in,” she said surveying the assembled Cartwrights in the hall.

“Only if you think it’s all right,” Ben said placatingly as he slipped passed the woman with his sons following in his wake.

The four men stopped and looked at the woman and child in the bed. The mother’s hair hung down in soft waves around her face and her eyes glowed warmly, but her skin was as pale as the white lace on the bed jacket she wore.

Their reactions to the sight drove any thoughts of confrontation from the men’s minds.

“She’s hardly more than a child herself!” Ben exclaimed silently.

Adam contemplated the scene’s likeness to a fourteenth century Madonna while Hoss thought of frail things in nature. Little Joe drew in a deep breath as a completely new feeling filled him. It brought a flickering of understanding as to his brothers’ over-protectiveness.

“What a beautiful sight, my dear!” Ben walked over and gently kissed the new mother’s cheek. “Congratulations!”

“He’s wonderful, isn’t he?” The proud mother adjusted the baby in her arms the better for him to be seen and adored.

“He’s more than wonderful,” Little Joe walked up, taking the place next to his father. Adam and Hoss followed placing themselves on the opposite side of the bed.

“Never seen one finer!” Hoss declared.

“It seems we’re all in agreement,” Adam added.

“I believe he’s growing all ready,” Little Joe observed.

“The way he’s eating, I should think so,” Anna responded her voice soft and lilting.

“Are you eating?” Ben inquired paternally.

“Of course,” she answered with a conspiratorial smile, “I’d be afraid not to.”

“Girl’s gaining her strength just fine, Ben. Hop Sing and I are seeing to that,” Mrs. Shaunassey intoned from the sidelines.

“Good. Then you will be up and about in no time, my dear…but not until Paul gives his okay.” Ben’s tone warm but firm. His son’s exchanged looks.

Seeing them, Anna giggled softly. “Yes, sir, Grandfather Ben.” Her tone was teasing, but Ben’s chest swelled.

“Such a nice sound that has. I would like hearing that response more often.” Ben gave his eldest a significant look. Adam merely leaned over to study the baby more closely.

“He’s going to have Marie’s smile, just like Joe and Clay,” Adam observed. The discussion then veered to the baby’s various attributes.

When the child started to fuss slightly, Mrs. Shaunassey declared he was hungry and that the men must have work to do.

“Before we go,” Little Joe said as he handed the baby to its mother, “what are you going to name this little fellow? Pa wants to record things in the Bible.”

Anna bit her lip. “I’m not sure. Clay was always teasing about names we couldn’t use. If the baby had been a girl, I know he would have wanted to name her Marie. I was thinking…” She gazed into the faces of the men who waited. “You knew Clay’s father. Was he…”

When her words faltered, Ben declared, “He was a good man.”

“Was he a loving man?” Anna’s eyes had settled on Adam.

“Hoss probably doesn’t remember; he was just a little shaver.” Little Joe gave a snort at Adam’s use of the word little in connection with Hoss. “Well, he was quite young, anyway. Jean, though, always had time for him. He took time for both of us. Showing us things, teaching us, telling us stories about New Orleans. He even started teaching me some French. He was a loving man.”

“Then, I thought, well, how does Jean Clayton sound? Do you think Clay will approve?”

“He’ll be pleased as punch,” Little Joe said with a smile. The others murmured their agreement.

“If he wanted a say in the naming, he should have been here,” Adam thought to himself as they left the room.

*****

On her first morning downstairs, the new mother looked up from her empty breakfast plate to see Adam gazing down at her.

“Would you join us, please?” Adam’s tone was quite serious.

She looked over to see Ben, Hoss, and Little Joe waiting in front of the fireplace.

“Is there something we need to discuss?”

“There are a number of things we need to discuss, Juliana.” Adam stressed her name slightly.

She rose slowly and turned to face them. For the first time since they had arrived at the Ponderosa, Adam saw the self-contained woman he had meet in Denver.

“You know then,” she remarked coolly.

“That you are Juliana Diane Seddakis. Yes, we know. Now we need to know the rest of it.” Adam took her arm and looked down into her face. “All the truth this time, Julie Dee.”

“Please don’t call me that. I haven’t been Julie Dee for a while now, and I don’t ever want to be again.” Her voice was brittle and cold like the spring ice on Lake Tahoe. She walked slowly away from Adam to stand before the rest of the Cartwrights.

“We simply want to understand, child.” Ben’s voice was gentle but sternly paternal.

“I don’t know if any of you can truly understand, but I’ll tell you what there is to tell. Perhaps, you’d care to have a seat, gentleman, before I begin.”

Little Joe looked at Adam. He had never seen his sister-in-law this way; she was like a different person.

Adam moved his chin in a gesture that indicated Joe should just sit and listen. Hoss looked at his father who nodded, and the Cartwrights settled into their armchairs and onto the wide hearth.

Juliana Diane Seddakis sat on the edge of the settee with her back straight and her head high. Her hands rested in her lap, and for a moment she looked like a statue. Then she began to speak.

“My father will tell you he is a self-made man. Whether the stories he tells of his past are true, I have no way of knowing. There were no relatives to ask. The stories you’ve read about him in the papers are all ones he has given to them, so…” She shrugged her shoulders dismissively. “I cannot tell you why he is the man he is. Perhaps it is true that he simply made himself what he is.”

“Just what is he?” Joe demanded and then quieted upon receiving the same look from both his father and Adam.

“He is a man who likes to acquire things. What he likes to acquire most is power. Money is useful for the power it brings, and people, well, he collects people for their usefulness too. He collected my mother in a business deal because it was financially beneficial — a wife enhanced his social position, and he needed a son and heir.” At the look on her audiences faces, she added, “These are his words, not mine. My mother fulfilled her appointed role admirably except for the last requirement. She produced only an unnecessary girl child. Oh, she tried several times to correct her failure, but three miscarriages followed, and when I was four, she died bringing a stillborn girl into the world.” Juliana’s eyes dropped to her hands for a moment. Then she raised them and continued, “Six weeks later — yes, I said weeks, not months — my father married again. Alexander was born after ten months. Having served her purpose, my stepmother ceased to be of interest to my father.” Juliana stood and walked swiftly over to Ben’s desk and picked up the picture of Elizabeth Stoddard Cartwright. Turning back toward the Cartwrights, she held the picture for them to see, “She’s been dead for over a quarter of a century, and you show more affection when you speak her name than I ever saw my father give my stepmother. She, on the other hand, loved him to distraction. In fact, her attempts to obtain affection from him distracted her from giving it to anyone else, even Alexander.” She returned the picture to the desk but did not return to the settee.

In distancing herself from the men in the room, she seemed to be distancing herself from the story she told. “One day my stepmother was simply not there. I was ten. My father told me she was dead. No more. Just that she was dead. If there was a funeral, I did not attend. The matter was never discussed in my father’s house or by anyone I knew. I have thought that she might have run away or even taken her own life. Who would have blamed her? But that is only my own musing, not facts, and you wanted only facts.” Her bitterness seemed to fill their mouths with an acrid taste.

“Pa.” The word was an entry from Hoss to stop Juliana’s recitation. Ben shook his head.

“My father did not marry again. There were four governesses from then until Alexander turned eleven. They all had three things in common: they were young, they were very pretty, and they had very little interest in children.” She drew in a deep breath and seemed to force the next words from her mouth. “Alexander and I did not turn to each other. I did not try to substitute for his mother. Perhaps I am too much my father’s daughter for that.”

“No!” The word sprang from both Hoss’ and Little Joe’s lips. Little Joe sprang to his feet and took two steps toward Juliana before Adam caught his arm.

“Let her finish!” Adam hissed.

Juliana seemed not to notice the interruption and continued, “A tutor replaced the governesses for Alexander, and pretty, young housekeepers replaced them for my father; there was no need to replace them in my life. By then my father had built his current house. It is quite large enough for many people to lead their separate lives. Alexander did begin to spend more time with my father. There were things my father felt he could teach Alexander better than any tutor.” Juliana paused and studied the faces of her listeners, and then dropped her eyes to the floor.

“When I was seventeen, the wife of one of my father’s business associates inquired about my debut. I’m afraid I cannot thank her for that. My father began to consider of what value I could be to him. He decided the sale of his daughter on the marriage market might reap some profit. First, I needed to be properly gilded for the sale. He hired a woman from an old society family who was in financial difficulty to educate me for marriage. I think when she accepted the position, she hoped that it might lead to something more. When she realized it never would, well, let’s just say she developed no maternal feelings toward me. She did teach me what a proper lady and society wife should know. My debut was written about in even the New York society pages. My father, having only one daughter, did not hurry to capitalize on his investment. I became his hostess while he waited for the most advantageous way to use my marriage. In the meantime, well, men often speak more freely, even unadvisedly, to empty-headed girls they think can’t understand business anyway. My father simply expected me to repeat to him what I heard.”

Two spots of color had risen on Juliana’s cheeks. They were the only color in an increasing pale face. Ben shot Adam a glance and rose to his feet. Going to Juliana’s side, he placed an arm around her shoulders.

“Perhaps, the rest should wait until later, child,” he said softly. Juliana shook her head. “Then, at least, come and sit down.” Ben led Juliana to the settee, eased her down, and took a seat beside her.

“Then father hired Clay. He has some businesses in which he is a silent partner. He would send Clay to handle things for him at times.”

This time it was Adam who interrupted. “Is one of those businesses in Denver?”

“Yes.”

“He was working for your father when I saw him!”

Juliana nodded. “He started working for my father shortly after he left the Ponderosa. At first, he spent most of his time traveling. Slowly my father changed that. He brought Clay into our home. My father never gave his reasons. He did take a liking to Clay, but I don’t think…. then again you want only facts, not speculation.”

“Juliana!”

Her eyes snapped to Adam and meet his.

She lifted her chin. “My father used Clay to goad Alexander. My father likes to goad people, to move his pawns around the board, create confrontations. It amuses him, and he feels you have more control over people if you keep them off balance.”

Hoss spoke then, “You and Clay?”

“It was not passion at first sight, but Clay was different. He had a warmth that no one else in that house had ever had. He also likes pretty girls.” She shot a glace at Little Joe, and her lips lifted in a faint smile. “He began seeking me out. We talked. He told me about the Ponderosa. He smiled. He made me laugh.”

“Your father?” She knew what Adam was asking.

“My father allowed it because, well, first of all he never expected that Clay would actually fall in love with me. At least, not the way he did. Clay was a known ladies man. Perhaps my father felt a broken-hearted daughter would have fewer fancies about marrying for love. Perhaps it just amused him. More importantly, it infuriated Alexander.”

“Why?” Little Joe was having a hard time considering such a loveless family.

“He was young enough to believe that love would lead to marriage. He was afraid that if Clay and I married, the crown prince might be usurped by the son-in-law. My father fanned those flames from time to time.”

“Tell us about Alexander,” Adam urged.

“Alexander was the prince who wanted the empire. He was what my father had made him. He was barely seventeen, a boy totally under his father’s thumb who thought himself a man. Actually, Clay tried very hard to befriend him.” Juliana stopped speaking and seemed to retreat into her memories.

“What happened that night?” Adam’s voice brought focus back to her eyes.

“Alexander died.”

Her chin dropped, and her hands twisted the fabric of her dress. Then she drew in a shuddering breath and looked up again. Her voice was flat and emotionless when she spoke again. “Alexander and I had a fight about Clay. Alexander was raised to believe that men order and women obey. He ordered me to have nothing more to do with Clay. That’s where the argument started. He actually expected that I would do what he said. When I told him I wouldn’t, well… I don’t know who was angrier that night. Alexander finally realized that I wouldn’t be bullied this time; he decided to confront Clay. Clay was only a peasant, after all. Clay was playing poker when Alexander charged into the room and started ranting. There was no quieting Alexander, so Clay decided to simply leave.” She paused once again and centered her gaze on Adam. “Will you believe me if I tell you Clay wasn’t even wearing his gun?”

“Clay didn’t have a gun!’ Joe’s exclamation cut through the air.

“No, Alexander was shot with his own gun, but it was in Clay’s hand when the other men arrived. They grabbed Clay and held him there until my father arrived. My father’s word is law there. He told them to arrest Clay. They did.”

“But it must have been self-defense! Didn’t Clay tell them?” Joe was once again on his feet.

“Clay told them that Alexander had pulled a gun, that there was a struggle, and that Alexander was shot in that struggle.”

“Then…”

“My father said his son would never draw on an unarmed man. What my father said would have been the only truth in that courtroom.”

Joe turned toward the fireplace and stood with his hands clinched at his sides.

“I tried to convince my father not to have Clay hanged.”

Adam stared at Juliana and said, “You were the one who knew things your father couldn’t let you tell.”

“My father is not a man who can be intimidated. He laughed. He said I could tell anyone anything I wanted, and he would deal with it. Then he dismissed me from his mind. That was his mistake.”

“You got Clay out of jail.” Adam made it a statement not a question.

“It’s surprising how people will obey you when you act as if you have power. The prince was dead; some people mistakenly believed the emperor might give some power to his daughter.” Her eyes dropped. “I’m sure they paid for that mistake. Clay and I escaped together. Three days later we were married. The minister’s wife wore her nightgown and wept into her handkerchief watching the two young lovers from feuding families unite. I had turned twenty-one three weeks before. The marriage was legal and irrevocable after that first night. My father’s men did not find us until four days later.” The chime of the clock interrupted. “Such a long story, gentleman. I shall strive to be more concise. We managed to get away from those men, but my father learned of our marriage. He hired a new set of men more experienced at the task he set them. Clay and I stayed on the move. Then I realized I was carrying a child and that I had been for at least four months. It was another month before I told Clay. Eventually I didn’t have to tell anyone for them to know, and I knew his men would tell my father. We were barely staying ahead of our pursuers. We decided that we had to separate…that Clay would lead them away from me and the baby. I told Clay that I could take care of myself. We traveled separately to Denver. A man there owed Clay his life. I told Clay not to send the wire, but he said Adam could help, that he would help, and I stayed at the hotel as Anna Cleary. Clay left. I truly do not know where he went.”

Mrs. Shaughnassey appeared at the top of the stairs with Jean in her arms. The baby was fussing and his cries began to grow louder. “This one here is wanting to be feed, missy.”

Juliana looked up at her child and her eyes filled with tears, “My father will want his grandson.” Her head swung around, and she pinned Hoss with burning eyes. “You promised.” She said clearly and then rose and darted up the stairs.

*****

The long discussion among the four men after she left remained soft and calm. After all was said, the Cartwrights agreed that things remained much the same as before Juliana’s revelations. They needed to remain ever vigilant, they needed to locate Clay, and they needed to love and protect the woman and child upstairs.

Little Joe stood beside Adam at the credenza as they buckled on their guns. Softly Joe said, “She told the truth, Adam.”

“I believe her.” Adam did not say the word but, yet Joe knew his brother well enough to hear it in his voice. He turned and gazed into his older brother’s eyes, and raised his eyebrow questioningly.

Adam leaned over to tie down his holster. Then he straightened and said, “I just wonder if there is any more truth she hasn’t told.”

“She’s a good person, Adam.”

“I know, little brother; it’s just…just my Yankee cynicism.”

Little Joe’s nose wrinkled in puzzlement at the word, and shook his head.

Adam slapped him on the arm. “Come on. There’s work to do, and we’re already behind.”

“Just like always,” remarked Joe as the two departed.

When Juliana next came down the stairs, she had Jean in her arms. The little one eased the tensions in the room, and no more was said about Juliana’s past.

*****

The man lay flat looking down at the house below. From his vantage point, he could see without being seen. He watched the ranch house and its surrounding yard and outbuildings intently. Over a few hours, he saw each of the Cartwrights come and go as well as Hop Sing and various hands, but he had yet to see Juliana.

Hoss decided to take a shortcut back to the house but not to save time. He was not in a hurry. He simply wanted to be alone and hardly anyone ever took this route. His pa and Adam would fuss if they knew. He would be alone in an isolated area and would be taking a risk, but Hoss needed to think. To think, he needed to be alone with the land, but he would not be reckless. He promised himself he would stay alert. His kept his promise and noticed the signs immediately. He followed them and found the horse. Slipping his pistol from the holster, he followed the tracks. Most people would never have seen the man in hiding, but Hoss was not most people, and this was his land. He managed to position himself behind the man, with the click of Hoss’ pistol being the first sound that the intruder heard.

“Stay still.” Hoss’ voice was commanding. “Keep your hands where they are.” Hoss swiftly divested the man of his gun. “Now turn over.”

The man rolled onto his back and casually propped himself on his elbows even as he gazed up into the gun barrel. “It always amazes me how a man of your size can be so quiet,” he drawled.

“Clay!” The volume of the exclamation was held down by astonishment. The mustache was gone, and the hair, even the skin, seemed darker, but the smile was positive identification. Hoss’ pistol dropped back into its holster. With one hand, Hoss hoisted Clay to his feet.

“Lordy, boy, we’ve had folks searching the territory and half the states for you.”

“They had company, Hoss.”

“Yeah, well, ya here now, so no matter.” Clay suddenly felt himself engulfed by a bear hug.

When Hoss allowed him to breathe again, Clay managed to ask, “My wife?”

“Safe and sound and doing fine,” Hoss reassured, “And that boy, well, he’s got your mark on him that’s certain; only, he’s a strapping thing. Not quite as big as his uncle Hoss started out, Pa says, but he may catch-up yet.”

“The boy?”

“You’re a pa, Clay. Juliana had the baby a week ago now. He’s done got everybody in the house wrapped around his finger. It’s about time he did the same with his pa.”

“A boy. She had a boy. I have a son.” Clay looked like a breeze would blow him over, so Hoss put a hand on his shoulder to steady him.

“A fine son, Clay. It’s time you two get acquainted.”

“I can’t, Hoss.” Clay’s voice was filled with despair. “I shouldn’t have even come this close.”

Hoss’ voice grew unyielding. “You think that now ya got your behind home where it belongs that you’re gonna be leaving? No, sir, ya best think again.” Hoss saw the flicker in Clay’s eyes when he said the word home. “Now, we told ya when ya left, and Adam told ya again, and there ain’t gonna be no more pussyfooting around it. We’re your family, and this is your home. Now let’s get down to that house.”

Hoss suddenly decided his actions needed to follow his words, so he did exactly what he would have down if Little Joe had been standing before him. He spun Clay around to face the house and brought his hand down sharply on Clay’s backside. Clay stumbled a step forward and then turned angrily back to face Hoss.

Hoss stood absolutely still and waited. He had learned long ago that sometimes a body needed to wait and let critters, folks, and especially brothers sort through things to reach acceptance. He knew Little Joe so well that he found he could read the emotions surging through Clay and flickering like summer lightening across his face.

Clay breathed heavily and stared into Hoss’ eyes. Thoughts and memories swept through his mind. Then he felt himself relax.

“If ya don’t, Pa and Adam will have ta come fetch ya. Ya don’t want that, now do ya?” Hoss used the same intonation that he’d used hundreds of times to ask the same question of a reluctant Little Joe.

Clay dropped his eyes and gave Hoss a wry smile. “Naw, I wouldn’t want that.”

“Okay then. We’ll walk down. I’ll come back and see to the horses later. Chub’ll be put out, but I’ll give him some of my special mixture. Your horse too, and they’ll be fine.”

Hoss lead Clay silently through the woods and slipped him into the house without them being seen.

Having entered through the back, the first person they encountered was Hop Sing.

“Look who I done brought for supper,” Hoss stated cheerily.

“Mistal Clay, you home!” Hop Sing exclaimed and then launched into a string of Chinese. Clay did not understand a word except his wife’s name but did understand that he was being soundly scolded. When Hop Sing wound down, he finished with, “Make bigger supper. Add Mistal Clay’s favorites. Out of kitchen.”

Hoss and Clay followed orders. They found Ben and Adam at Ben’s desk. Neither Cartwright looked up until Hoss called, “Pa! Adam!”

“Hoss, did you…Clay!” Ben spotted the man with his son and sprang to his feet.

“Mr. Cartwright. Adam.” Clay smiled and removed his hat. His tone was as polite as if he had last seen them at Sunday services.

“Well, finally…” Ben observed.

Hearing his father’s tone, Hoss quickly interjected, “He came on his own, Pa. Just couldn’t keep from checking on Juliana.”

“Juliana’s fine.” Adam spoke for the first time.

Clay looked at him. “She told you the truth then.”

“Eventually.”

“I’m sorry I had to draw all of you in to this.” Clay’s sincerity was clear.

“You did the right thing sending for Adam,” Ben declared with finality. Looking at his eldest son’s face, Ben continued. “Your wife and baby are upstairs, Clay. Go to them.”

Clay looked at the face of each man in the room and the sprinted up the stairs.

“Does Joe know?” Adam asked Hoss after Clay’s departure.

“Not yet,” Hoss answered. I found him watching the house. Took some convincing to get him down here. Don’t think anyone saw us.”

“Then he’s a family secret for the moment.” Adam crossed his arms on his chest and leaned against his father’s desk.

“Let’s see if we can keep it that way for a while.” Ben returned to his desk chair. “No sense sending for Little Joe. He should be headed back from the north pasture by now.”

“Pa,” Hoss spoke softly, “he was just trying to protect that little gal and the baby.”

Ben fixed his gaze on his middle son. “How many times have you started a sentence with ‘Pa, he was just trying’? Hoss, it’s not as if Clay is a child I plan to punish. There’s no need for you to intercede for him.”

Hoss exchanged a look with his brother. “There’s not?”

Ben watched the silent exchange between his sons. “Well, I do intend to talk to him.” Ben took his eyes off his sons as he sat down.

Hoss rolled his eyes. Adam gave his brother a shake of his head.

“I’ve got horses to fetch and tend. See you two at supper.” Hoss departed, and Adam restarted the discussion he and his father had been having about the bids for a lumber contract.

*****

Hoss was almost finished rubbing down Chubby when Joe led Cochise into the barn.

“Things go well, Short Shanks?”

“Got all the fences repaired.” Joe started to put up Cochise. “Whose horse is that?” Little Joe indicated the horse that Clay had been riding.

“Well, we got us a guest,” Hoss began and then shook his head. “No, that ain’t true, this fellow’s no guest. He’s one of the family.”

“What are you talking…Clay! IS Clay here!”

Hoss grabbed Little Joe and shushed him. “Hold it down, little brother; we’re trying to keep that fact under our hats for now.”

“Clay is here?” Little Joe had lowered his volume to a loud whisper.

“In the house seeing Juliana and the baby.”

Little Joe gave a low whoopee and then lit out for the house. Hoss chuckled, shook his head, and finished putting up Cochise.

Little Joe burst into the house slamming the door behind him. “Clay! Where’s Clay? Hoss said…”

“Take it easy, Joe. Clay is upstairs with Juliana and the baby.” Adam walked toward his brother.

“Oh, yeah. I can’t believe it!” Little Joe headed for the stairs. Adam snagged him by the arm as he passed.

“Joe, we said that Clay was with Juliana.”

Joe tugged his arm from Adam’s grasp. “I know what you said; I’m just…”

“Staying put!” Ben commanded.

“But I want to see Clay!”

“There are sometimes when a man doesn’t want to be interrupted by anyone, baby brother.” Adam’s lips held a slight smirk.

Joe’s flushed face grew a brighter red, and he muttered under his breath. His back was to the stairs, so he did not see Clay quietly making his way down the steps.

“Patience, Joseph,” Ben directed and then fought to control his smile as he spotted Clay.

“Now, Pa, that might be asking too much,” Adam teased as he watched Clay come to a stop directly behind Little Joe.”

“You woke the baby, little brother,” Clay drawled.

Little Joe’s eyes widened. He spun, opened his arms, and launched himself at Clay. Joe had done the same thing with Hoss and Adam thousands of times since he had learned to walk, but Clay was not as large as Hoss or even Adam, and he had never learned to automatically brace for this kind of fraternal assault. When Joe made contact, he wrapped his arms around Clay who tumbled backwards. The two brothers landed in an entangled heap on the floor.

“Owww!”

Clay found himself lying on his back looking directly into Joe’s green eyes. He gasped for breath and managed to say, “I’m glad to see you too, Joe!”

Ben and Adam arrived. Ben hauled Little Joe off Clay, and Adam pulled his stepbrother to his feet.

“Are you two okay?” Ben’s voice was only slightly gruff.

“Fine, Pa, everything’s fine now!” Joe declared putting an arm around Clay’s shoulders.

Clay raised his head and looked at Ben. “Fine, sir.” “Maybe not everything is fine, but some things are darn good!”

Supper that night was a welcome-home celebration. Everyone ate Hop Sing’s delicious food, drank Ben’s wine, and avoided any probing questions or mention of weighty problems. All stories told were of happy memories. When Juliana excused herself to feed Jean, Clay smiled and followed her quickly upstairs. The Cartwrights exchanged knowing looks and settled downstairs to give the couple a period of privacy.

*****

Since Juliana’s arrival, she had not joined the family at breakfast, but the next morning Clay came down and took his place a minute after Little Joe.

“I haven’t had a breakfast like this in months,” Clay declared as he set his fork down after clearing his plate for the third time.

“Well, I better head out before I’m too full to stand,” Adam said wiping his mouth and setting his napkin on the table.

“Ain’t no sense letting this go to waste,” Hoss stated as he snagged the last biscuit, popped it in his mouth, and stood also.

“Pa, do you need anything before I head down to the corrals?” Little Joe said and took the last swallow of this coffee.

“No, Joe.”

“Umm, what would you like me to help with? I want to be useful.” Clay fixed his gaze on Ben.

Ben wiped his mouth and looked at his stepson. “Actually, Clay, I would like to speak to you this morning.”

Clay watched as looks shot between Ben Cartwright’s three sons. “Of course, sir.”

Ben had also seen the looks exchanged by his sons. “You boys, go on. I think Clay should spend sometime with Juliana and the baby today. There are a number of things to consider before he leaves the house.”

“I didn’t think…” Clay began, “You’re right, of course.”

“Well then, see you later.” Adam led his brothers in departing. He returned a few hours later alone. He found Clay sitting on the bottom of the staircase. He walked over and sat beside him.

“I was planning to take a few strips off your hide myself, but it looks to me like Pa skinned you raw.” Adam made his tone slightly teasing.

Clay’s response was soft and serious. “He said a single man can be reckless and irresponsible, but a husband and father can’t afford that kind of self-indulgence.”

“I’m afraid he’s right, Clay.”

“He said a lot of other things that are true too.”

Adam leaned back placing his elbows on the step behind him. “My estimate would be a good hour and a half of other things.”

Clay’s eyes slid sideways to glace at Adam. “About. How did…”

“Personal experience. Pa learned young and from a master how to give a serious dressing down, though I think that just developed a skill for which he had a natural talent.”

“A master?”

“Captain Abel Stoddard, my grandfather. Of course, I’m sure he had other models as well.”

“Is he always so darn right?”

“Most of the time. At least after you give it some thought.” Adam leaned forward. “You know, Clay, Pa saves his best efforts for those he cares about the most, like his sons.”

“If that wasn’t his best effort…” Clay began.

“I’m sure it was,” Adam interjected. “Just accept it, Clay. You are Marie’s son. For Pa, the fact that Marie was dead before he met you does not change one iota the fact that when he married her you became his son also.”

Clay shifted, so he could see Adam’s face.

“And Little Joe, well, Little Joe got in a fight at school when he was ten. The reason was that a boy had dared to say Hoss and I were Joe’s half-brothers and refused to take it back. He still doesn’t believe there is any such thing.”

“You and Hoss?”

Adam sighed. “I won’t tell you that it wasn’t harder for us, but the simple fact is you can’t be part of Pa and Joe’s family without being a part of ours. You will just have to get use to it, Clay. The good of it and the bad and everything in between. So will Juliana. Besides, I like being an uncle.”

A smile spread across Clay’s face. “He is…well, he’s something special. I…I didn’t know I could feel this way.”

“Just don’t think you can get away with not sharing.” Adam heard Clay laugh at his teasing, but watched the young father’s eyes cloud with fear. “We’ll keep him safe, Clay; you don’t have to do it alone anymore.”

“He’d be safer if I…”

“No, you don’t. The time for running is past. There’s a way to deal with this, and we’ll find it.”

“Constantine Seddakis is willing to kill, Adam. At least, he’s willing to pay others to kill for him.”

Adam’s eyes grew dark. “Would he be willing for his daughter to die?”

“If it was the only way to have Jean.” Clay’s voice was flat with conviction.

“Well, forewarned is forearmed,” Adam quoted as he stood.

Clay rose also. “Thank you, Adam. Thank you for keeping your promise.”

Adam raised his right eyebrow, “Did you doubt that I would?”

Clay flashed the smile he had inherited from Marie, “Actually, I never did.”

*****

Hoss had often been teased about his ability to sleep through storms and tempests of all sorts, and he knew it was true that few things woke him from a sound sleep. That is why when he opened his eyes to the darkness of night, he knew something was wrong. Then he heard a sound and eased himself out of bed and across the room. He slipped the door open on its recently oiled hinges and gazed out. In the dim moonlight that filtered in from his window, he saw two men in the hallway studying the door across from his. Acting instinctively, Hoss stepped forward and wrapped an arm around the neck of each man. With a grim purpose, he snapped their heads up against his chest and applied pressure to their throats.

“Drop everything and be still, or I’ll break your necks!” he bellowed.

Over the next five seconds, four doors burst open and four men stepped into the hall. Clay and Adam both had six-guns in their hands. Hoss let his two captives fall clumsily to the floor where they sat choking and gasping for breath.

“Joseph, get a lamp,” Ben ordered. “Hoss, what’s going on?”

“These two was sneaking into Juliana and Clay’s room.”

Joe returned with a lighted lamp. Adam glanced over Clay’s shoulder and saw Juliana standing with the baby in one arm and a gun in the other hand. When he saw that hand start to tremble, Adam stepped to Clay’s side.

“We’ll see to these two, Clay, You see to Juliana.”

Clay opened his mouth to protest, but Juliana called his name. Adam took the pistol from Clay’s hand and gave it to Ben. As Clay went to his wife, Adam closed the door.

“Let’s get these two downstairs.” Adam trained his gun directly at the head of the largest man.

“Check them for weapons first,” Ben stated, pointing his gun at the smaller man’s head.

Joe ran his hands over the two men, divesting them of their weapons. The two had begun to regain control of their breathing and scrabbled to their feet at Ben’s order. As they reached the top of the stairs, the larger man made a move toward Ben’s gun hand. Hoss’ fist slammed into the man’s head and sent him flying down the stairs. He landed on the first floor howling.

Hoss glared at the second intruder and growled, “You going down on your feet or head first?”

The man hesitated. Hoss gave him a push that sent him stumbling down the steps. Hoss followed. When he arrived at the bottom of the stairs, he took both men by the scruff of the neck and dragged them over to the fireplace. Ben, Adam, and Joe followed.

The man who had fallen down the stairs had a hold on his leg and was yelling that it was broken. The other man just sat half-reclining against the hearth panting.

Adam took a stance in front of the two, pointed his gun, and ordered, “Shut up!” With their attention on him, he leaned closer, so they could see his eyes.

“Now, I’m going to ask a few questions, and if you answer them quickly enough, we may let your partner splint your leg before we drag you out of here.” Adam’s voice was cold and his eyes were obsidian.

“If we don’t?” the uninjured man ventured.

“Then we may have to let my brother snap your necks after all.”

“That would be murder!” the injured man managed through his moans.

“No matter. The sheriff is a friend of my father, and you did break into to our home, after all.” Adam straightened to his full height. “Now, who hired you? How much are you being paid? And what exactly were your orders?”

Neither intruder spoke. Adam sighed impatiently then said simply, “Hoss.”

Hoss took a step forward flexing his fingers. The injured man looked at the steel blue of the big man’s eyes and shouted, “Seddakis. Constantine Seddakis.”

His partner growled wordlessly, but the man continued, “We’re getting a hundred a week for the tracking, five thousand for the man or his body, ten for the woman, twenty for the kid but only if it’s healthy.”

Adam inhaled and let the breath out slowly. “And just now you were going to?”

The injured man opened his mouth, but his companion kicked his injured leg, and he only emitted a long howl.

Little Joe held out his hand. In it he held a small bottle and a rag. “They dropped these upstairs.”

Ben took the bottle from his son, unstopped it, and sniffed. Stuffing the cork back in swiftly, he said, “Ether!”

“Well, that’s one feisty filly,” the uninjured intruder said with a sneer, “and we couldn’t have the kid squalling.”

Little Joe had experienced the effects of ether at the professional hands of Paul Martin. At the thought that these men planned to place an ether soaked rag over the face of his nephew, Joe lost control and went after the man. Ben blocked his youngest son’s attack only because he did not want Joe entering Adam’s line of fire.

“Joseph!” Ben’s order was not his usual bellow of anger but a deadly hiss of command.

Adam’s left arm slipped across his chest while his right kept steady aim. “Just one more question. How many more of you has he hired?”

The injured man just moaned; his partner shrugged. Adam did not pursue the matter. The man’s shrug had told him there were others, and he doubted if the man even knew for sure how many. “You can splint his leg,” he granted nonchalantly.

The uninjured intruder snarled, “I ain’t no doc.”

“Well, you’re all he’s gonna get tonight.” Adam stood stock-still. “Joe, get what he needs.”

Little Joe’s breathing was still ragged with anger, but he walked off to get some wood and bandages.

The man had obviously set a broken leg before. When he finished, Hoss tied both men’s hands and feet. Then Little Joe came and stood beside his brother. He held a cloth in his hand. Squatting, he placed the cloth over the first man’s mouth and nose.

“Let’s see how you like it,” Joe said as the man squirmed and then grew still. He then placed the ether-soaked rag over the second intruder’s face. Then he stood and turned his gaze to his father expecting a reprimand. None came.

Adam spoke. “Is anyone planning on going to sleep?” After three negative responses, he continued, “Then we might as well proceed with the council of war. Joe, go and ask Clay and Juliana to join us.”

Little Joe looked to his father.

“Bring down our robes too.” Ben instructed.

When Clay and Juliana came down, the Cartwrights were robed, seated, and waiting. Juliana had little Jean in her arms. Before anyone could speak, Hop Sing entered the room with a large tray. He set it on the low table in front of the fireplace, and then turned to Juliana. “Missy let Hop Sing have little one.”

Juliana gazed down at her son, then she smiled and handed the baby to Hop Sing. “Not coffee, but hot and better for middle of night,” he stated nodding toward the tray with its cups and pot. Then he retreated to the shadows with the baby in his arms.

Adam stood and exchanged a look with his father. Ben inclined his head slightly, and Adam accepted the position of war chief. “Well, then, it seems we have to face a few facts.”

Clay stood and stated calmly, “We’ll be leaving in the morning.”

“NO, YOU WILL NOT.” Ben’s bellowed order echoed through the house.

Clay’s eyes widened, and he automatically sat back down. Juliana paled and bit her lip. The baby did not start to wail only because Hop Sing had covered the small ears with his hands before Ben opened his mouth. Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe, having grown up hearing Ben at his worst and loudest took their Pa’s shout in stride, since it was not directed at them.

Ben placed his hands on his hips and glared at Clay. “Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir. We will not be leaving in the morning.”

“You will not be leaving until all this is settled, if then.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Now that that is settled, you may continue, Adam.” Ben sat down again.

“Well, first we have to assume that Juliana’s father is aware that she, Clay, and the baby are all here or that he will be quick enough. Second, since those two planned to get thirty-five thousand dollars for the three of you, we have to accept that the only people we can trust are those who can’t be bought at any price. That makes for a very short list.” Adam exchanged a look with his father. “For now, the people on that list are those in this house, Doctor Martin, and Roy Coffee.”

“Mrs. Shaugnassey,” Juliana spoke clearly and confidently.

“She’s right, Adam. She’d put Jean above any amount of money,” Ben added.

Adam nodded. Then he shifted his gaze to his youngest brother. “Until further notice, none of us goes anywhere alone.” Adam read his brother’s reaction in the shift of his body. “Joe, if they get a hold on any of us, that person can be used as leverage, so we watch each others backs.”

“Okay, Adam.”

Adam crossed his arms and tugged his ear. “Hoss, when a wild thing is being stalked and they stop running or hiding, what do they do?”

“Attack.”

“We have to make a plan of attack,” Adam stated and gauged the reaction of each person in the room.

“Before you attack, you have to know your enemies weaknesses.” Ben observed.

“My father has very few weaknesses,” Juliana stated wearily.

“Overconfidence.” Clay spoke for the first time since acquiescing to Ben’s order. “It would never enter his mind that we could effectively fight him. He underestimates opponents.”

“Good.” Adam pinched the bridge of his nose. “And we take into account his goal.”

“His goal is to kill Clay and take his son!” Joe spat the words into the room.

“No, not exactly,” Adam spoke slowly his words following a second behind his thoughts. “He wants to punish Clay, yes. He wants to control Juliana again, but he doesn’t want to just take Jean. He wants more. He wants…”

“To replace Alexander with Jean.” Juliana finished Adam’s thought.

“To do that he can’t just steal the boy. Eventually, he wants legal control, legal custody.” Adam took in a deep breath. “Tomorrow Hoss and I will take those two into Virginia City and turn them over to Roy. We’ll tell him what is going on.”

“But,” Clay interrupted thinking of the murder accusation that hung over his head.

Adam looked at Clay. “Did you murder Alexander?”

Clay straightened. “Alexander pulled his gun and tried to shoot me. There was a struggle, and the gun went off. Call it self-defense or an accident, as you will, but it wasn’t murder.”

“My father can buy people who will testify differently.”

“If need be, Roy will deputize Hoss and I and place Clay in our custody at the Ponderosa. Pa, if you call in enough favors, can you keep the trial out of Seddakis’ private territory?”

Ben took a moment to deliberate. “We should be able to keep it from being a star chamber.”

“Juliana, will you tell the Pinkertons what they need to investigate your father?”

“Yes.”

“Then I’ll contact Collins. And tomorrow we’ll bring Hiram Woods back with us.”

“Hiram Woods! Why?” Joe demanded.

“What do even his enemies say is Hiram’s greatest skill?”

Ben answered Adam’s question, “Hiram can write a will so tight that dew couldn’t leak through.”

“Tomorrow Clay and Juliana are going to write their wills.”

“WILLS!” Joe was on his feet.

“Calm down, Joe.” It was Juliana’s soothing voice that caught Joe’s attention. “My father has a blood claim to custody if… well, I think Adam plans to do something about that.”

“You and Clay will make wills that state clearly you do not wish the custody of Jean Clayton DeMarigny or any other children of your union to ever be placed in the hands of Constantine Seddakis. You will then name four people in whom the custody of your child can be placed starting with my father, then Joe, Hoss, and me.”

Clay and Julian exchanged worried looks. “That puts a target on all your backs,” Clay said solemnly.

Ben’s glare was Clay’s only answer. Clay looked again at Juliana. “Thank you. Thank you all.”

“Five names.” Hop Sing spoke and then walked to stand before Juliana. Kneeling before her, he looked at the baby he held and then placed Jean in his mother’s lap. “If wolse happens, Hop Sing can take little one and disappear into Chinese world. Hop Sing would teach boy of his family, and he would know he was loved flom time he was boln. If please, Missy and Mistel Clay.”

Juliana reached out and touched Hop Sing’s face. “Thank you, Hop Sing.”

“Five names then,” Adam stated and then ran his hand over his face. “He can put it to a fight, but it will give us legal ground to stand on.” Adam saw his father and brothers nod. “I think that’s all for tonight.” He looked at the two intruders on the floor who had begun moving slightly from time to time. “Hoss, help me. We’ll lock the two of them in the root cellar for the rest of the night.”

When Hoss and Adam returned, Clay was the only one still in the great room. He was standing before the banked fire.

“Clay,” Hoss said softly. Clay turned, and everything he feared was readable in his face. “We’ve got your back,” Hoss stated gently.

Clay’s features lightened, “Even when Ben Cartwright loses his temper.”

“Now that might be asking a bit much,” Adam retorted his eyes twinkling and his tone teasing.

“Better ya just keep those yes-sirs handy, new brother,” Hoss added reaching Clay’s side and draping a large arm across the smaller man’s shoulders.

Adam made a sweeping gesture toward the stairs, “Your lady awaits.”

Clay shot the two of them a devilish smile, “Now, aren’t I the lucky man!” Then he took the stairs two at a time with Adam’s and Hoss’ laughter following him the whole way.

*****

When Adam and Hoss returned from town the following day, they brought Hiram Woods with them. They had delivered Seddakis’ two men to Sheriff Roy Coffee and told him the entire story. Roy had no paper on Clay and had agreed that he had enough to handle in his own jurisdiction to go searching for possible charges against anyone abiding by the law in Virginia City. He had deputized Adam and Hoss partly so they could take custody of Clay if needed and partly to remind them to stay within the law. Adam had also left a message for the Pinkerton Agent Collins to contact him. Hiram Woods had been told only that Clay’s wife was estranged from her father and wanted to make sure that he would not obtain custody of her newborn in a court of law.

“Well, now that all four copies are signed and witnessed. There should be nothing to worry about Mr. and Mrs. DeMarigny. I’ll leave a copy of each will with you and retain one myself. I’ll also file one at the courthouse, and as a final safeguard, I shall send one to a law firm in Sacramento with specific instructions. I assure that they are very honorable men.” Hiram Woods’ tone was professional and confident as it had been throughout the long day.

“Hiram, we can’t thank you enough,” Ben said coming up to his lawyer.

“Well, one of Hop Sing’s dinners and some of your brandy will go along way, Ben,” Hiram said cheerily, “and you will be receiving my bill.”

“That comes to me, Mr. Woods,” Clay interjected quickly.

“We’ll discuss that later,” Ben declared. “I’m sure you’d like to wash up before dinner, Hiram.”

“Yes, but one thing more, Ben. A bit of advice.”

“Of course, Hiram. What is it?”

“Well, you all seemed so concerned and, well, Mr. Seddakis is a powerful man and if he is also…” Hiram paused to glance at Juliana.

Juliana raised her chin and said, “The word your looking for is unscrupulous, Mr. Woods. What should we do to prevent an unscrupulous man from circumventing our wishes in court?”

Hiram cleared his throat. “The more people that are aware of your wishes, the harder it would be to say that the wills were faked or coerced or in anyway improper. I wouldn’t suggest that you shout your business from the rooftops, of course, but if some the upstanding citizens of Virginia City saw for themselves that you consider Ben the child’s grandfather and all his sons the child’s uncles, it would bolster the wills at any custody hearing, particularly if some of them also heard that you were estranged from your father.”

“I see your point, Hiram,” Ben replied, “and I think the entire family will be attending church services this Sunday to introduce our newest member to Virginia City society.”

“And some of her best gossips,” Adam added with a wry grin.

“But…” Little Joe began.

“No discussion, Short Shanks,” Hoss interrupted clapping his little brother on the back and shooting a glance at the lawyer. “You know Pa ain’t gonna let you miss church two weeks in a row no matter what excuse you try and use.”

Realizing his mistake, Little Joe murmured his assent.

“Dinner will be ready shortly; we’d better all be getting washed up,” Ben said heartily. “Hiram, follow me.”

When the two older men had exited the room, Little Joe spoke in a loud whisper, “What’s Pa thinking, saying Clay and Juliana will go into town Sunday?”

“Five men with guns and as many hands as we can persuade will be riding to and from town. I don’t think there will be any problem at the church,” Adam said soothingly.

“I don’t suppose so. It’s just…”

“My father won’t do anything in the open, Joe.” Juliana interjected.

“Remember, Joe, we’ve stopped running and hiding.” Clay smiled at his little brother.

Joe smiled back. “That’s right, brother.”

“Besides,” Adam observed, “He won’t expect it. Keep your opponent off balance. I did teach you that, didn’t I, little brother?”

“Yeah,” Joe answered with a smile, “when you were teaching me that the bigger they are the harder they fall.”

*****

Adam answered the knock on the door, stopping first to pick up his gun from the credenza. He held his six-gun in his right hand as he opened the door with his left.

“There’s a man says he needs to see ya, Boss,” announced Sam. “Turned his gun over real peaceable. We checked, and he ain’t carrying anything else.”

“Thank you,” Adam said as he took the pistol from the ranch hand. Then he focused on the man at Sam’s side.

“Come in.” He gestured the man inside and closed the door.

“I received your message.”

“This way, Mr. Collins. Thank you for coming.” Adam led the Pinkerton agent into the great room. “Mr. Collins, may I introduce my sister-in-law, Juliana Seddakis DeMarigny.”

“Ma’am.” Collins doffed his hat and nodded to Juliana.

“And my brother Clay.”

“Sir.” Collins turned to Adam. “We thought he might have arrived here by now.” He turned then and addressed Clay and Juliana, “Congratulations on both your marriage and the birth of your son.” Turning back to Adam he added, “The Pinkerton Agency is glad to have been of service. All accounts can be settled through our San Francisco office.”

“We wish you to be of continued service, Mr. Collins.” Adam stated crossing his arms across his chest.

Collins raised an eyebrow in surprised inquiry. “How so, Mr. Cartwright?”

“We wish you to conduct an investigation into Mr. Constantine Seddakis.”

“The type of investigation that might result in,” Collins paused to consider his choice of words, “information that might be used …. well, as leverage?”

“Exactly.” Adam replied looking directly into the man’s eyes. “Actually, what we require runs more to evidence and collaboration than simple information. My sister-in-law is prepared to supply information that will guide you into the correct avenues for your investigation.”

“I see. Will Mrs. DeMarigny be speaking with me privately?” Mr. Collins tone was clipped and professional.

“Clay and I will meet with you also.”

Collins inclined his head toward the dining room. “Perhaps at the table then.”

The four took seats around the dining table, and Collins took out a pad of paper and a pencil. He had asked a few preliminary questions when Hop Sing entered with a tray off coffee, cookies, and cups. As he sat the tray on the table, Adam watched Collins place his hand over the notes he had made. When Hop Sing had departed to the kitchen, Adam spoke. “All of us trust Hop Sing with our lives.”

Collins looked at Adam and studied his expression. “Very good then. I have found that the Chinese place a great value on honor and loyalty. Shall we continue?”

Several hours later, Hop Sing again entered the room. “Excuse, please. Hop Sing soon need to set table for suppel. Think baby hungly also.”

“I don’t think there’s anymore I can tell you,” Juliana said rising to her feet, “Excuse me, gentlemen.”

“We have plenty here to work with.” Collins rose to his feet also. “I’ll be going for now.”

Adam stood. “Stay for supper before you go. You must be hungry.”

“I’m afraid I must decline, Mr. Cartwright. I appreciate the offer, and something smells wonderful, but we find it best to keep things on a totally business level.”

Hop Sing spoke up quickly, “Have plate for gentleman in kitchen.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem, should it, Mr. Collins? Hop Sing is an excellent cook,” Adam asked.

“Well,” the detective took in another sniff of the orders emanating from the kitchen, “I am hungry, and it is a long ride to town. Thank you. I accept your kind offer.” He followed Hop Sing into the kitchen and took a seat at the pine table. As he finished eating, Hop Sing came over and set a piece of paper on the table in front of him. It was covered with neatly written Chinese characters and had a wax seal at the bottom.

“If you need infolmation flom Chinese community, show them this.”

Collins picked up the paper, studied it, folded it, and placed it in his pocket. Looking up at Hop Sing, he said, “You are a well-educated man.” His eyes then swept around the kitchen.

Hop Sing saw the question in his face and answered it. “Mistral Caltwlight give Hop Sing home when needed one. Give Hop Sing life. Hop Sing very happy with that life. All Caltwlights give Hop Sing lespect.”

“I see. This may prove very helpful,” Collins said patting the pocket where he had placed the paper. “Thank you, and thank you for a marvelous meal.”

*****

Ben led his family into the church with a broad smile on his face, The gossips whispered again behind their hands about how pleased Ben looked each Sunday now, how handsome all the Cartwrights were — including the new stepson — and the fact that the baby would no doubt be spoiled beyond measure with the way that they all doted on him.

At the end of the service, everyone left the church quickly except the Cartwright family who lingered inside planning to discuss with Reverend Handover the upcoming christening of little Jean.

Hearing footsteps, they all turned toward the sound. A man strode down the middle aisle of the church. He wasn’t a tall man, but he moved with the presence of a giant. He clothes were well-cut and expensive; that could be seen in one glance. He stopped a few feet from the Cartwright clan. The sanctuary was quiet enough that everyone heard Juliana gasp.

“Julie Dee.” His bass voice rumbled up from his barrel chest.

“Father.” Juliana’s tone was lifeless and flat. She tightened her arms around her child.

Joe’s hand slipped behind him beneath his suit coat, as did Clay’s and Adam’s. Ben stepped forward placing himself between Juliana and her father.

“Mr. Seddakis, I’m Ben Cartwright.” Ben’s eyes were dark and hard. He spoke with the command voice that had ruled The Wanderer’s quarterdeck.

“I wish to speak to my daughter.”

“You will not be speaking to my daughter-in-law alone.”

They faced each other like two old bulls. Then Constantine Seddakis slid his eyes to gaze at Clay.

“Did you truly think you could kill my son and take my daughter?”

Clay took a step forward. “I didn’t take Juliana. She chose to be my wife.”

Seddakis gave a derisive snort, making it clear to all that his property had no right to a choice. “That can be rectified.” He turned to Juliana. “You will return home with me.”

Clay’s arm slipped around his wife’s waist. Juliana lifted her chin and stared directly into her father’s eyes. “I shall return with my husband and his family to the only real home I have ever known.”

“You think so, girl. I can return your husband to a hangman’s noose.”

“That will not be as easy as you think.” It was Adam’s voice that filled the air with challenge.

“I didn’t murder Alexander.” Clay’s declaration came calm and clear.

“Do you actually harbor the notion that it will matter whether you did or not?” The statement was delivered with a sneer.

“Clay won’t be alone and defenseless this time.” Joe’s voice was surprisingly cool.

“A silly illusion for the naïve is the thought that justice cannot be bought.”

Juliana suddenly thrust Jean into Clay’s arms and stepped in front of Ben.

“You don’t want to take it to a trial, Father.” Her voice was soft and deadly calm.

“We’ve had this discussion, Julie Dee. There’s nothing you can say…”

“Oh, but there is. I killed Alexander. I’ll stand up in court and tell them so.”

Everyone froze, and the silence became solid. A growl began deep in Constantine Seddakis’ throat.

“You?”

“I knew how angry Alexander was. I hesitated, but then I got one of Alexander’s guns and followed him. I got there just in time to see him point a gun at an unarmed man and vow to kill him. I shot Alexander to protect Clay. He grabbed the gun and sent me away to protect me.”

“You think I wouldn’t put the noose around your neck as easily?”

Juliana’s gaze did not waver. “And make yourself the father of a murderer?”

It was Seddakis who broke eye contact. “The jury will discount the feeble attempt of a desperate woman to save her husband.”

“Perhaps you can buy the jury, but even Constantine Seddakis can’t buy everyone at once. Many people will believe, father. It’s a much better story. The drifter you took in kills your son — so ordinary. Constantine Seddakis’ daughter kills his son. Sister kills brother to save her lover — so much more interesting to the masses. They’ll read about in the New York papers.”

Constantine’s hands clenched, and Clay opened his mouth to speak. Adam silenced him with a shake of the head.

“Can’t you hear them, Father? All those bluebloods wagging their tongues. What can you expect from someone raised in the dirt? Which will be worse, Father, the scorn of the arrogant or the pity of the rest?”

Constantine’s hands went for his daughter’s throat. Four guns clicked.

“Seddakis!” Clay’s voice rang out. “Don’t touch her!” Clay’s hands were filled with his son, so Joe stepped between Juliana and her father with a six-gun pointed at Seddakis’ chest.

“Don’t ever touch her!”

Seddakis looked past Joe to Ben. “Guns in a church? You’d murder me on holy ground?”

“It might be your only hope of not going directly to hell.” Adam’s voice dripped with scorn.

Clay had handed Jean to Hoss, drawn his gun, and stepped to Juliana’s side. “Do you doubt I would, Constantine?”

Constantine turned his gaze on Clay once again. “So the prodigal returned home to the fatted calf, and they fortified the castle for him. You really think those walls are strong enough, boy?”

Before Clay could answer, Ben spoke. “Consider what you’re willing to lose, Seddakis. You’re not railroading a lone drifter anymore. This family fights together.”

“Your family will lose everything! I’LL TAKE IT ALL!” Constantine’s roar shook the rafters, but not one of the Cartwrights even shifted. “We’ll see how well you fight when that ranch of yours is gone and you’re in the streets with only the clothes on your back. You’ll beg me to take my grandson.” He turned on his heel to stride away, but Hoss stepped into his path. Constantine stopped short and had to tilt his head back to see Hoss’ steel eyes.

Hoss uttered a single word. “Never.” He held Seddakis in place with his bulk and then stepped to the side.

Constantine Seddakis stormed out the door. Adam and Joe followed with guns still drawn. Juliana began to shudder and dropped to the floor. Clay went to his knees beside her, took her in his arms, and held her against his chest as she sobbed. Little Jean began to wail, and Hoss held the babe to his chest as he cooed to him. Adam and Joe returned.

“He had men outside. Ten or so. They left,” Adam announced. Then he went down on his heels to look into Clay’s face. “Did Juliana…”

“NO! I told you. Alexander and I struggled, and the gun went off.”

“Is that the whole truth?”

The smirk Adam hated appeared on Clay’s lips. “Does it matter?”

Adam’s hand itched to slap the smirk off Clay’s face, but he tugged his eyes to gaze into Clay’s, and then he conceded that it did not. “Only two people will ever know what happened when Alexander Seddakis died, and I’m not one of them.”

“Let’s go home,” Ben ordered gently, and then shepherded his family back to the ranch.

*****

That night Ben walked out to find his eldest son leaning against the corral staring out at the night sky.

“It’s been a long day, son. Everyone else has gone up to bed.”

“He was looking for our weaknesses, Pa,” Adam commented without turning to look at his father.

Ben came to stand next to Adam and leaned against the rail. “I don’t think we showed him any important ones.”

“He could do it, Pa. Not all at once, not quickly, but slowly, a bite at a time, he could do it.”

“And if he does?” Ben’s hand went to rest on his son’s shoulder. “We’ve been poor before.”

“Not Joe.”

“Joe’s a Cartwright. Adam, Seddakis is a powerful man, but even he could not prevent us from finding a place where we could all do honest work to put food on the table and a roof over our heads.”

Adam sighed. “Your dream would be gone.”

Ben’s hand squeezed the shoulder beneath it. “Not the most important parts. I’ve said many times that without my family, wealth would mean nothing. I’m not saying this ranch, financial security for all of us, the resources to employ and help others isn’t important to me, but many, many things are more important.”

“You may have your work cut out for you making Clay and Juliana believe that.”

“Between the three of us we should be able to handle it. They’ll see that Constantine Seddakis could take every piece of property we own, and we would still be far wealthier than he. He already threw away the greatest treasure he could ever have.”

“While we’ve added to ours.” It was not quite a statement nor quite a question.

“I think we all feel that. There’s no greater treasure than a child.” Then Ben’s tone lightened. “Actually, I would not mind adding more of that kind of treasure to our coffers.”

Adam laughed lightly, “Now, Pa, you’re starting to sound like a greedy man.”

“In this case, I shall admit to that weakness.”

Adam straightened and looked at his pa. “You always said patience was a virtue.”

“That it is. So is honoring your father’s wishes.”

Adam raised his eyebrow. “There’s always Hoss and Little Joe.”

“Who, in this area at any rate, have not yet tried my patience.” Ben reached out and placed his arm around Adam’s shoulders. The two of them laughed as they walked back to the house together.

*****

Ben walked out of the house, stood on the porch, and called for his youngest son.

“Over here, Pa.”

Ben located Little Joe over near the barn. Then his eyebrows drew down in a v, and his stride lengthened as he approached the young man.

“Look, Pa,” Joe instructed cheerfully having not noticed the look on his father’s face. ‘He’s gonna be a real horseman. Aren’t ya, J. C.? He loves them already, Pa.” Joe stood with his nephew firmly supported against his chest next to Chubby. Hoss’ mount stood calmly as the baby’s tiny hand patted against the top of his nose.

Ben strode up and demanded, “Hand that baby to me!”

Joe turned handing the baby over to its grandfather with a puzzled look.

“Joseph, I know you have never had any sense when it comes to horses and your own safety, but when it comes to Little Jean…” Ben’s remonstration ended with a snort.

“Pa, J.C. was perfectly fine. He’s not up to dealing with Sport or even Cooch, but Chub here is just like Hoss with little ones. You could set half a dozen young ones crawling over him, and he wouldn’t so much as flick his tail.”

Ben gave another snort. “Have more sense than a twelve-year-old, Joseph, or I may forget you’re suppose to be grown.”

Joe gave a snort of his own, but hid it in a cough at the last second.

Ben cradled the baby and bent his head down with a growing smile replacing his frown. Jean’s little hand patted against Ben’s cheek. “Should Grandpa give Uncle Joe a necessary talking to? Should he?” Ben’s voice had grown soft and teasing. The baby squirmed and gurgled.

“That’s a no, Pa. Isn’t it, J. C.?” Ben looked up and arched his eyebrow. “He really was fine, Pa. Horses don’t scare him at all. We’ll have to keep an eye out for the right kind of pony…”

“Joseph! You will not try to teach Jean to ride before he can walk or talk.”

“Of course not, Pa, but just as soon as he can do both, I get started.” Joe gave his father an impudent grin.

The baby was cradled in Ben’s right arm, so he swung his left hand toward Joe’s backside. Joe sidestepped out of reach easily. “Guess I best get back to work. Tell Hoss…”

“I will tell Hoss nothing. You will wait for your brother.”

“But, Pa, there hasn’t been a sign of trouble…”

“Because we have been vigilant, and we shall continue to be. Is that understood?” Ben’s tone was one with which his son’s never argued.

“Perfectly, Pa.” Just then Hoss came out of the house, and the two departed. Ben took the baby inside and played with him for another half hour.

*****

He did not recognize the man stumbling down the street toward him. When the man lunged into him, Adam instinctively grabbed the man’s arms to steady him. Hoss came up beside them with his gun drawn. When the drunk continued up the sidewalk, Adam turned to Hoss with a silent order. Hoss nodded. They went to Sport and Chubby and mounted. Adam willed himself not to turn and follow the drunk with his eyes. Then they headed for a new destination and a private meeting.

Adam founded his father working at his desk when he finally returned to the ranch house. Hoss had volunteered to stable the horses, leaving Adam to inform their father of what had happened. He walked over and cleared his throat.

“What is it, Adam?” Ben looked up and a chill went over him at the serious look on his son’s face.

“We need to talk, Pa.”

“He blocked our getting the contract then. Well, we knew that would probably happen. I just hate that our men will lose their jobs.” Ben shook his head and tapped the end of his pen against the open ledger in front of him.

“It’s not that. He did block the contract, but that’s not it. We all need to talk.” Adam gave a half-hearted smile. “Time for another council of war.” He reached beneath his shirt and drew out a leather packet. Placing it on the table, he continued, “Hoss and I met with Collins today. It’s all there, Pa. He didn’t think more investigating would add anything.”

“After dinner then.” Ben stared down at the bundle. Raising his eyes to his son’s he asked, “Do you think it will be enough.”

“It depends on how well we play our hand.”

*****

“We have an appointment with Mr. Seddakis. It was made in the name of Mr. Curry.” It was the dark-haired gentleman who spoke.

The four men in expensive, tailored suits had caused heads to turn when they walked into San Francisco’s most expensive hotel. They all radiated power and self-assurance, but the silver-haired gentleman was obviously the one in charge. Now the man standing beside the door to Constantine Seddakis’ suite reached to open the heavy oak door.

“Of course, Mr. Curry. Mr. Seddakis is expecting you.”

A smile flickered across the face of the youngest man, and his green eyes sparkled. As soon has the four men had entered the room, he turned and locked the door. Then Little Joe and Hoss drew their guns and took positions on each side of the only entrance to the suite.

“WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THIS?!” Constantine Seddakis’ roar filled the sitting room of the suit but failed to travel beyond its thick and well-constructed walls.

“We have an appointment,” Adam stated calmly with an arrogant smile.

Seddakis snorted and strode toward the door. Hoss simply stepped in front of it. Seddakis stopped and turned toward Ben. “You have a reputation for being above murder.”

“We have no intention of killing you,” Ben replied, “but my son will see that you do not leave this room until our business is concluded.”

Seddakis turned to face Hoss once more and then retreated across the room. “I’ll have the law on you!”

“That would require some evidence of wrongdoing,” Adam stated clearly unperturbed by the threat. He walked to the oak table in the room and set the business satchel he carried on it. Opening the satchel, he began laying papers out on the table. When he had emptied the satchel, he stepped back.

“Take as much time as you need to read through these. I’m sure they will be of interest. These, of course, are only copies. All original documents are in a variety of safe places.”

Constantine opened his mouth to reject the offer but then went to the table without a word. He began looking through the documents. After reading a few, he slapped the pages in his hands down on the table.

“You think this rubbish will stand up in a court of law!”

Adam crossed his arms casually across his chest. “Possibly, possibly not. It will take a great deal of your time, attention, and money to prevent it. There must be at least a dozen court cases represented, there including a possible charge of murder.”

“Murder!”

“How did the second Mrs. Seddakis die?”

“Eugenia? You can’t make a murder out of that. She hung herself!”

“Perhaps, but your cover-up and lack of grief might lead some to think otherwise.” Adam’s voice was still as cool as if this was the negation for a lumber contract. “You are not the only one with friends in high places, Mr. Seddakis, and I would count on our friendships much more readily than yours.”

Seddakis’ scowl deepened. Adam and Ben casually took seats facing him

“We may not be able to start an all-consuming wildfire, but then have you ever, Constantine — you don’t mind if I call you Constantine — seen a man surrounded by a dozen small fires choking on the smoke and roasting in their heat?” Adam’s inquiry was delivered in a nonchalant tone.

“I’ll destroy you!” Constantine’s exclamation was an angry hiss.

“You can take our properties — we recognized that — which is why we are willing to liquidate them for the capital to fight you.” Ben’s voice showed no strain or hesitation.

The surprise showed on his opponent’s face.

“You see, Constantine, we have our abilities on which to rely: skills, education, experience, strength, ingenuity. Individually we are each capable of supporting a comfortable life; together we are a formidable team. Without the Ponderosa to anchor us, the world presents a wealth of opportunities. I myself have degrees in engineering and architecture that would make my fortune in hundreds of places that have never heard of Constantine Seddakis.” Adam’s voice had taken on a slight lecturing tone like that of a schoolmaster explaining Latin grammar to a rather dim student.

Constantine sputtered and banged his hand on the table.

Ben and Adam exchanged looks that they usually used only when someone else’s child was misbehaving in public.

“You can’t hurt me!” The declaration had a hollow ring even to Constantine’s own ears.

“Are you so sure?” Adam asked smoothly. “Take the time to consider. How loyal are the minions whose loyalty you buy? How intimidated will the cowards remain when your blood is in the water? How quickly are favors forgotten when they were given with a price attached? How many rats will swim off when your ship begins to leak?”

“Which company will you sell to buy the judge on the charge of fraud? What will you liquidate to buy the jury on the charges of extortion? What will happen when the judge freezes your assets?” Ben’s voice prodded like a poker.

Seddakis’ struggle to control his temper was visible to all. Then he straightened, took a deep breath, and pulled a chair to the table. He seated himself before he spoke. “If you’re so sure you can destroy me, why are you here?”

Adam steepled his hands in front of him. “We’re reasonable men. You recognized one type of bloodbath wouldn’t be advisable; we’re trying to avoid another. In some confrontations, even the winners bear scars. Innocent bystanders can be hurt.”

“So you’re here to negotiate?”

“We’re here to make a proposition, to arrange a permanent truce, if possible.”

“I see that your prodigal and mine are not present. Why not?” Seddakis arched an eyebrow.

“Their presence was unnecessary.”

Constantine’s eyes darkened at Adam’s dismissive tone. “Where are they?”

“Let’s just say they are in a safe place and in possession of additional copies of these papers and of the whereabouts of the originals. Now, if I may continue?”

Seddakis’ hand swept in front of him in a gesture that indicated he would listen.

“First, understand that we are entirely willing to use everything at our disposal to fight you. The papers before you represent evidence that could be used against you in a court of law. We shall leave them with you so you can peruse them in depth. As I have said, they are only copies.”

Seddakis’ eyes flicked to the papers strewn before him and then returned to Adam’s face.

“Engineering professors lecture endlessly about redundancy; I’m afraid, Constantine, it has become my second nature. Backup after endless backup, that’s the way it is with me.” Adam noticed with pleasure the way Seddakis’ jaw tighten each time he called him by his first name and the way he shifted each time Adam made reference to his own college education. Juliana had said her father was sensitive to his lack of formal instruction.

“I have my own backups.” Seddakis tried a glare, but Adam seemed not to notice.

“I’m sure you do; your strengths also. We have taken them into consideration. I would advise that you take note of ours. Not to be immodest, but may I review them? My father was a great deal of varied experience and hard earned wisdom. I have acknowledged intelligence, refined by one of the finest universities in the country. Hoss has sure strength and massive resolve. Joe has a wealth of ingenuity and, well, he is quite a crafty fellow, I assure you. Clay has just enough of the devil to manage the dirty work, so to speak, and Juliana is your daughter, Constantine. Juliana has everything she learned from you.” Adam paused. Seddakis’ brow and upper lip were beaded with sweat. “All the attributes of a formidable opposition, Constantine. Oh, yes, you should also consider the additional benefit of being educated at one of the most prestigious colleges on the continent. So many of the most powerful families send their sons there. The contacts established…one can only say they alone are worth the tuition.”

“So you think you hold the winning cards?” Constantine sneered.

Adam’s hand gesture conveyed confidence and a dismissive attitude toward Constantine’s bluster. “Ours is quite a good hand, Constantine.”

“So what would it take for you to fold and leave the table?”

“We’ll begin with the simple things. First, all the damage to our financial dealings that you have orchestrated since our last meeting will be rectified, and it goes without our saying that further interference will cease.”

Constantine’s slight inclination of his head could have been taken for a nod.

Adam continued, “Second, you arrange to have the case of your son’s death legally settled and declared an accident in a way that will put that matter to rest forever.” Adam drew a paper out and laid it on the table.

Constantine simply grunted.

“Third, you sign a paper — I have it here — relinquishing any claim to custody for any child of Juliana Diane Seddakis DeMarigny.”

“Julie Dee will never have a penny of my money nor will her children then.” Constantine delivered the statement as a threat.

Little Joe spoke for the first time, “If you gave her one, she’d throw it back in your face.”

Constantine fixed a glare on Joe. Seeing it, Adam spoke softly, “If you wish an heir, Constantine, well, a virile man has his own options.” Adam arched his brow in a deprecating manner, and Constantine leaned forward with a low growl.

“Fourth, you simply call off the dogs completely and forever.”

Constantine leaned back in his chair. “And if I give my word, you give me the originals?

“No,” Ben answered.

“Those remain in our possession. Call it a guarantee or security, if you will. If there is any sign that you have reconsidered our agreement, then we proceed through the courts.”

“You expect me to accept that!”

“Actually, after due consideration on your part, I do expect you to accept. Your daughter says you are a pragmatic man.” Adam’s voice remained nonchalant, but his eyes burned with an intensity that could not be missed.

“And you would not look at every dog that passed to see if its teeth were bared?”

Ben’s voice was smooth and confident. “There are many dangers in life. My family has always been vigilant and will continue to be so. I must have killed a thousand snakes in my lifetime.”

“And survived a thousand accidents?” Constantine used a tone that had intimidated hundreds of men.

Adam’s voice was dangerously silky and smooth. “It would be best for you to pray that we survive all future accidents. If a member of our family is physically harmed, we shall lay it at your door, and retribution shall be swift. Do not, Constantine, give us reason to make you a dead man.”

Constantine swallowed convulsively.

“And if some catastrophe should befall us all, well, there are others who already have their orders. Remember what I said about redundancy.”

Ben Cartwright stood and looked down at Constantine Seddakis. “Since your words would mean nothing to us, you needn’t say anything. If you have not begun the first step within the week, we shall take ours.”

Adam rose and stepped next to his father. “Don’t bother to rise, Constantine; we can see ourselves out.”

Ben and Adam turned and walked to the door. Hoss slid his gun beneath his suit coat and opened the door. As his family filed out, Little Joe straightened, twirled his gun, slid it beneath his coat, and tipped his hat. Then he gave Seddakis the same smirk Constantine had witnessed on Clay’s face each time he left the poker table a big winner. Joe walked through the door and pulled it shut behind him.

Once again, heads turned as the four Cartwrights exited the hotel. As the doorman watched the men enter the horse taxi, he concluded that the gentlemen’s business must have gone well.

*****

Adam resisted planting his feet on his father’s desk and simply stretched them out before him. “Pa, the last of the lumber for the railroad contract will be shipped out tomorrow. Two days ahead of schedule.”

“Excellent.” Ben looked up and smiled at his eldest. “Joe’s got most of the horses ready for the army, and Hoss says there’s plenty of grass in the west pasture.”

A faint wailing came from upstairs.

Adam rolled his eyes. “Another new tooth?”

Ben raised his eyebrow in silent admonition. “It’s a painful process, Adam.”

“For us all, Pa, for us all.” Adam turned to see Hop Sing scurry from the kitchen to the stairs with a small bottle in his hands. “Thank goodness for Hop Sing and his remedies.” He smiled and then tugged his left ear. “Pa, tomorrow I need to go into town on a few errands. As everyone else has business here…”

“Do you think you’re going into town alone?” Ben eyebrows drew down into a single line.

Adam tugged his ear again and leaned forward. “Pa, we can’t all go around joined at the hip forever. Every sign,” he paused and then repeated with more emphasis, “every sign shows that Seddakis accepted our proposition. Collins says the word went out that there’s no money to be made by harming us, and the Pinkertons are still on retainer keeping an ear out if that should change. It’s as safe now as it has ever been.”

“You think so?”

“Yeah, Pa, I really do. I’m not saying we shouldn’t keep an eye out for trouble, but …” Adam shrugged. “There are others out there with a grudge, Pa. We probably have more to fear from them than Constantine Seddakis. Seddakis values what we could take from him more than most men.”

Ben’s pen tapped against his desk. He sighed, “It’s Juliana and Little Jean that worry me the most.”

“Of course. But Juliana is a capable woman, and Jean, well, we’ll be worrying about that one until he’s grown.”

“And after,” Ben replied with a smile on his lips.

“So things go back to normal?” Adam asked acknowledging that in this matter Ben’s decision would be accepted.

“If you and your brothers, Clay included, agree to take care, act responsibly.”

Adam arched his eyebrow, “Pa, we’re talking about Clay and Little Joe here.”

“They’ve both behaved very well since Clay arrived,” Ben intoned.

“Thank the Lord, but even miracles can have a time limit.”

“Adam!”

“I didn’t mean to be sacrilegious, Pa. Actually, Clay has surprised me.”

“He has stepped up and taken on his responsibilities, but then marriage and fatherhood can bring out the best in a man.” Ben’s smile was paternal and proud.

“Just think what he’d be like if you had had the chance to take him in hand as a boy.” A teasing smile flickered across Adam’s lips.

Ben harrumphed.

“Do you know what he said when we were in town Monday?”

“What?”

“Well, the Johansson boys were running about acting like hooligans as usual, and when we got into the wagon, Clay turned to me and said, ‘Jean won’t behave like that.’ When I teased him and asked if he was sure, he said, ‘I won’t allow it. Pa would have my head if I did.’ Then he said even Hoss and Joe would do more about it than Mrs. Johansson seemed to.”

Ben’s smile broadened. “He’s trying hard to be a good father. That is one child who is very much loved and will always know it.”

“He loves her too,” Adam said softly and more to himself than his father.

“What?”

“Clay truly loves Juliana.”

“Did you think he didn’t?”

Adam bit his lip and then answered. “When I met her in Denver I wondered about her relationship with Clay. Then when she told us about their marriage, I wondered, well, if they had just been caught up in events. But watching them since Clay came, well, he truly loves her, and she loves him.”

“The love of a good woman has been the making of many a man.”

“If it’s worked so well with Clay, just maybe we should keep a better eye out for someone for Little Joe.”

“Little Joe is too…” Ben began to bluster, but the rest of his words were lost in both Adam’s and his laughter.

When the laughter had faded, Adam rose. “Sanctions lifted?”

Ben nodded. “I suppose. I’ll talk to the other boys tonight.”

Adam rolled his eyes at his father’s use of the word boys, but he made sure his pa did not see.

*****

He watched the Cartwright family exit the church. He studied them as they chatted with other departing members of the congregation. His eyes followed them as they moved toward the buggy and the tethered horses. He watched Juliana hand the baby to Ben Cartwright. He saw Ben’s face beam and heard his exclamations about the child. He watched Ben lean down and speak softly to Juliana. He saw her place her hand on her father-in-law’s arm, heard the words, “Oh, Papa Ben”, and witnessed the kiss Juliana placed on Ben’s cheek. He felt the anger fill his mind, pushing out every other thought. He took out the gun he always carried hidden beneath his suit coat and stepped into the open.

“Did you really think you could take what is mine?!” The bellow drew the attention of every person in the churchyard. The late morning sun glinted on the gun as it was leveled directly at Juliana.

“NO!” The shout echoed from at least twenty mouths as the gun fired. Many of the witnesses later said that it seem that things went into a kind of slowed motion. Ben Cartwright turned and hunched his body over that of his wailing grandson, offering the only protection he had. Clay threw himself in front of his wife and then crumpled to the ground as the bullet tore into his back. Little Joe drew and fired in a single motion. Constantine Seddakis fell backward into the dirt. He was dead before his body hit the ground.

“Clay!” Juliana’s wail was keening and sharp. It cut through the air and the momentary paralysis that had gripped the onlookers. The air was filled with shouts, orders, and pleas.

Doctor Paul Martin pushed his way through the crowd that had swarmed down on the victims. “Let me through! LET ME THROUGH!”

He reached the center of the crowd where Juliana sat at Ben’s feet cradling her husband and repeating his name. Looking at the blood soaking the back of Clay’s jacket, he ordered, “We have to get him to my office.” Hoss moved with determination. Going to his heels he pried Juliana’s arms from Clay and in one swift motion lifted him from the ground. Holding Clay like a small child, he carried him determinedly toward the doctor’s office with Joe at his side. Adam raised Juliana to her feet, wrapped his arm around her waist, and supported her as they followed Hoss. Ben cooed and rubbed the wailing baby’s back automatically and joined the procession. Minutes later, the churchyard was empty except for the forgotten body of Constantine Seddakis. Over a half hour passed before Roy Coffee ordered its removal.

*****

Hoss walked into the room where Clay was still lying unconscious. Doctor Martin had removed the bullet and repaired what damage he could. He had given Clay a fifty-fifty chance of surviving. They had tried to get Juliana to leave the room while the doctor operated, but she had refused and become nearly hysterical, so they had allowed her to remain. She had held Clay’s hand the entire time and was still holding it.

Hoss went down on his heels next to Juliana and reached up to cradle her chin in his hand and turn her eyes away from Clay to him. “Jean needs ya.” He said it softly but clearly and then waited for his words to pierce the fog around her mind.

Juliana’s eyes slowly focused on the Hoss’ face. He spoke again.

“Little Jean needs his mama. He’s hungry.” Acknowledgement flickered in Juliana’s eyes, but she did not speak or move. Hoss stood and placed a hand beneath each of her elbows. “Now, you’re gonna come with me and tend Little Jean. Joe’s gonna stay with Clay and look out for him. Pa’s gonna stay with Little Joe.” Hoss’ tone was firm, and he lifted Juliana to her feet.

Little Joe slipped on to the chair she had been using and took his brother’s hand. Ben stood behind his youngest son and placed his hands on Joe’s shoulders. Hoss led Juliana out of the room and into the doctor’s kitchen. He sat her down at the table, walked over to the stove, returned, placed a cup of strong, hot tea into her hands, and held them there.

“Drink this,” Hoss ordered gently. She looked at him, and he saw the question in her eyes. “There’s nothing but tea and milk in there. Doc said no to anything else because you’re still nursing Jean.” He lifted it to her lips, and she drank.

When she had finished the entire cup, Hoss spoke again. “There’s hot water and some clean clothes. Ya need to change before Jean sees ya.”

Juliana stared down at her blood stained dress and realized that Hoss himself had changed out of the blood drenched shirt and pants he had worn when carrying Clay.

Hoss kept his voice conversational as he continued, “Adam took care of some things. He had a hand who was in town take word back to Hop Sing. He sent some things for us all, and we got rooms at the hotel when they’re needed. For now, I’ll leave ya to wash up and change. We’ll bring Jean to ya when ya ready.”

When Juliana walked out of the kitchen, she saw Hoss and Adam sitting on the doctor’s settee. Her son was sprawled on his Uncle Adam’s chest while Adam patted the little back gently.

“He won’t remember, will he?” Her voice was barely louder than a whisper, but it startled the two men. Jean began to cry. Juliana darted across the room and gathered her son into her arms.

“No, Juliana, he won’t remember any of it. He’s way too young,” Adam reassured.

“Ya can use that rocking chair for the nursing,” Hoss urged. “Adam and I’ll wait in the kitchen.”

The two men walked into the next room. Adam went to the stove and poured both of them a cup of coffee.

Adam handed the coffee to his brother. In a whisper he asked, “If…”

Hoss answered before he could go further. “She’ll do. She has family now.”

*****

Joe sat in the darkened room and stared at the man in the bed. Clay was his brother; he loved him; he would not let him die. He sighed. At one time or another, he had faced losing Adam, Hoss, and Pa, but he had never seriously contemplated living without all of them in his life. It was different with Clay. He had only just begun to really allow himself to think of Clay having a permanent place in his daily life. Before Clay Stafford had appeared for the first time, he had never even contemplated another brother and would have told anyone who asked that he had brothers enough, but then Clay said he was Marie’s son, and all that had changed. Still, Clay had left and become only a desire, a source of musings, and series of letters. As much as he hated Constantine Seddakis, Joe pondered the fact that the man had been the one to send Clay back to him. Joe’s hands clenched the bedclothes. Seddakis was dead, and Clay was alive. Clay would stay alive! Joe’s silent declaration became a prayer as his head bent, and his lips murmured it over and over. Ben bowed his head at the sight and joined his prayers to his son’s.

The doctor entered. He quickly and professionally checked his patient.

“Paul, how is he?”

“The same. No worse, which is a blessing in itself.”

“Is there any more we should be doing?”

“If he stirs at all, try to get him to drink. He needs fluids. If not, just keep placing ice chips on his tongue.” Paul tried to make his next statement more of an order. “You both should get something to eat.”

“Joe?” Ben inquired.

“I couldn’t, Pa, but you should. Really you should,” Little Joe answered.

“Joe, you need to…” Paul Martin began.

“I’ll sit with Clay.” Juliana had quietly entered the room.

Ben studied Juliana’s and Joe’s faces and acquiesced. “Of course. I’ll bring you some coffee, Joseph.”

Little Joe nodded as there was no use arguing.

Juliana slipped into the chair Ben had vacated. After Ben and the doctor departed, she began to softly talk to her husband using memories to call him back to her.

*****

Juliana had gone once again to nurse Jean. She watched the first rays of morning brighten the window of Paul Martin’s kitchen. None of the Cartwrights had used the hotel rooms Adam had reserved. They had refused to be anywhere but within call until there was a sign that Clay would improve. Ben, Adam, and Hoss had managed bits of sleep on and off through the night, but Joe and Juliana had shut their eyes only in prayer. Little Jean had been in someone’s arms the entire night. Juliana stroked her baby’s curls and knew no matter what happened she had no choice but to go on.

Ben knocked lightly on the doorframe to the kitchen. When Juliana acknowledged his presence, he entered and poured himself another cup of coffee.

“I’ve sent Hoss to the café to bring back breakfast. You will eat something, Juliana.” Ben’s tone was paternal and unrelenting. “You must for Jean if not for yourself.”

“Yes, Papa Ben.” Juliana’s voice was listlessly resigned.

“Child, Clay is strong, a survivor, and he has a great deal to live for. He’ll pull through.”

Juliana lifted her eyes to Ben. “He was shooting at me.”

Ben went swiftly to the young woman’s side. Leaning down, he wrapped his arm around her. “It is not your fault. It is not your fault.”

“It should have been me.” For the first time tears shone in Juliana’s eyes.

“Clay is your husband. His was an act of love. A wife must accept her husband’s love with grace and thanksgiving.”

She turned her head into his shirt and began to sob. Ben patted her back and cooed gently as he had done with her son the day before.

*****

Joe’s eyes were once again closed in prayer; his folded hands were resting on the bed. He felt a movement; he heard a sound. His eyes flew open. Clay’s head had turned, and his eyelids fluttered.

“Clay! Clay, it’s Joe. Come on, brother, come on. Open those eyes! You can do it.” One of Joe’s hands grabbed Clay’s and the other patted Clay’s cheek gently. “DOC! JULIANA!”

Adam, who had drifted to sleep in the chair across the bed, startled awake and sprang to his feet. Seeing Clay’s fluttering eyes and moving lips, he called, “I’ll get Paul. See if he’ll swallow something,” and darted from the room.

Joe grabbed a waiting glass of water. Raising Clay’s head with one hand, he brought the glass to Clay’s lips. Clay managed to reflexively swallow a few gulps. Then he coughed, and his eyes opened.

“Juliana?” Clay managed to whisper.

“She’s fine, Clay. She’s all right.”

“Jean?”

“Fine. Everybody’s fine, and you’re gonna be fine too. Hear me! Now try to drink a bit more.” Joe brought the glass to Clay’s lips once again.

Juliana burst into the room followed by Paul Martin. Both dashed to the bedside. Adam and Ben hovered just inside the door.

“He’s awake! He spoke to me.” Joe was jubilant.

Doctor Martin gently nudged Joe aside and took Clay’s wrist in his hand. Julian was on her knees on the other side of the bed. Her hand brushed Clay’s hair from his forehead. “I’m here, Clay. I’m here,” she repeated softly over and over.

“Everybody out but Juliana!” the doctor ordered.

“But…”

“No buts, Joseph. Go eat! All three of you go eat!” Paul delivered his orders with a professional glare. Ben took Little Joe by the arm and led him to the kitchen. Hoss was just coming in through the back door.

“Somethin’ happen?” He set the baskets in his hands on the table.

“Clay woke up. He spoke to Joe and took some water,” Adam replied.

“Now, ain’t that a good sign. That boy’s gonna be just fine. Brought some broth for the next time he comes around,” Hoss announced in the cheeriest voice any of them had heard since the preacher finished his sermon.

“Good,” Ben declared. “Now we’re all going to have something to eat.” He gave Little Joe a pointed look and then turned toward Adam who was holding a sleeping Jean. “Hoss, fix a pallet over there for Jean while we eat.”

“He’s fine, Pa,” Adam remonstrated.

“Adam, you will set that baby down and come to the table. He’ll be just fine.”

When they were all seated, Ben asked, “Would you like to give the blessing, Joseph?”

Little Joe nodded. “Dear Lord, We ask you to bless this food, use it to strengthen us for the tasks ahead. We thank you for it and all the blessings you shower on us each day especially our family. Keep Clay in your hands and return him swiftly to our table. Amen.”

“Amen,” each man echoed.

“Joe, when you’ve eaten, you can go to Clay and send Juliana out to eat.” Ben’s tone made it clear that his son would eat an amount Ben felt sufficient before Joe would be allowed to leave the table.

Paul Martin entered the room. Everyone grew quiet waiting for him to speak.

“Well, his rousing is a good sign, a very good sign. No trace of infection, and the fever is still low. If there are no complications, and we can get some fluids and nourishment into him, well, the chances are good he’ll recover fully in time.”

Joe sprang to his feet, “I’ll take the broth…”

“Joseph! Sit down!” Ben ordered.

“He’s sleeping for now, Joe. Just those few words took it all out of him. Eat yourself, and then you can take the broth in and give it a try,” Paul offered in a professional tone.

Joe sat back down with only a slight pout on his lips. Paul took a seat at the table, and they all began to eat.

************

Throughout the day, Clay’s sleep had been deep but natural and his breathing steady and less shallow with the passing hours. Every hour or so they had roused Clay and given him water, broth, or milk. Each time he had spoken a few words and taken in a few more swallows then the time before. His fever had not increased, and Paul murmured approvingly each time he checked the wound and saw no infection. Late in the day, Juliana and Little Joe had both snatched a few hours of sleep. Around ten, Ben, Hoss, and Adam took Jean to the hotel for the night.

Early the next morning, Adam let himself into Doc Martin’s house. He slipped to the door of the sickroom and opened it quietly. Peering in, he saw Joe slumped against the bed asleep. He drew the door closed and went to the kitchen. It was empty. He poured a cup of coffee from the ever-present pot and sipped it as he gazed out the back window. He watched Juliana as she exited the outhouse and walked back into the kitchen.

“Adam!”

“Have you eaten breakfast?” Juliana shook her head. “I’ll get you something in few minutes. Did Clay have a good night?”

“His fever went up a little, but the doctor said that was to be expected,” Julian replied, not bothering to argue with Adam about eating.

“Fevers always rise at night.” Adam stated it as an accepted fact. “Coffee or tea?”

“Tea. Jean?”

“Slept through the night and is still sleeping. Hoss will bring him over as soon as he wakes.” Adam handed Juliana a cup of tea liberally dosed with sugar and milk. He studied his sister-in-law. “Juliana, we need to talk about something.”

Juliana understood his inflection. “Arrangements? I need to…”

“Tell me what you want done. That’s all you need to do.”

“He has a crypt all prepared. I’ll need to take the bod…” Her lips fought to form the word.

Adam set down his cup and took Juliana’s from her. He took Juliana’s hands in his and spoke softly, “Juliana, do you want to attend the funeral?”

“I am his daughter.”

“Not do you think you should. Do you want to be there?”

“No.”

“Do you want to go back and tend to things later?”

“I never want to go there again.” She looked at Adam through lowered lashes. “It’s…I suppose it’s silly, but I don’t want Jean to ever breathe the air there. Not ever.”

“Then let me take care of things,” Adam offered.

“I don’t want you there, not alone.” She shook her head vehemently.

“Then Hoss will come with me. We’ll see to the funeral and speak with the lawyers and whoever.”

“I’ll need to sign…”

“If you sign a power of attorney, I can handle everything that needs settling now. The rest, you and Clay can decide on when he’s up and strong again.”

“I…I…” Julian started to tremble. As the trembling grew more violent, Adam seated the girl and went to his heels beside her. “Juliana,” he murmured gently.

“He was my father. I thought…for so long I thought there was something wrong with me…that he couldn’t love me because of something wrong with me.”

“Not you, Juliana. It was something wrong with him.”

She stared into Adam’s eyes. “I carry his blood.” Her eyes dropped to her lap.

“You’re nothing like him, little sister, nothing like him.” Adam took her chin in his hand and lifted her eyes back to his face. “Do you trust me?’

“Yes.”

“You are not tainted by your father. You’re a good person. You have a family now. They love you, and you love them. You’ll raise Jean with love. We’ll help you.” Adam’s voice was calm, firm, and unwavering. “Juliana, do you believe me?”

She nodded.

“Then you’ll let your big brothers take care of things while you take care of Clay?”

She nodded again.

“Good,” he declared rising to his feet. “Now, first things first. You make some fresh coffee while I go and see about breakfast.”

*****

Joe looked down at his nephew. “Quite a mess you’ve made in there,” he accused wrinkling his nose and removing the soiled diaper from beneath the baby. He reluctantly but efficiently continued to replace the old diaper with a clean one while carrying on a one-side conversation. Jean squirmed, gurgled, and smiled in response. Just as Joe finished, Juliana walked into the room. Joe looked up at the sound of her footsteps.

“There you are. Now why couldn’t you have appeared about five minutes ago,” Joe greeted his sister-in-law.

They had brought Clay home to the Ponderosa the day before. After four days of constant care and rest and without any sign of infection, Paul Martin had declared it was safe for Clay to make the trip, and the doctor had reclaimed his home. Safely ensconced at the ranch, Juliana had taken over all nursing duties while Ben, Joe, and Hop Sing tried to take as much Jean’s care off her hands as possible. Adam and Hoss had departed on their mission to bury Constantine Seddakis and settle his affairs for his daughter.

“I’ve managed not to change a messy diaper in days, and I don’t intend to spoil that if I can avoid it. I’m going to see just how long I can manage to ditch that responsibility.” Juliana’s tone was light and a slight smile came to her lips.

“Hear that, Big Boy. Your mama wants Uncle Joe to become the fastest diaper changer in the West.” Joe patted his nephew’s bottom and smiled. Juliana’s teasing meant the Clay was still improving.

“Your wife will thank me one day, Little Joe.”

Joe shook his head. “I’m gonna pick me an old-fashioned girl who thinks a pa should just pay the bills and play with the children before bed. I know some fathers with half-a-dozen children who’ve never changed a diaper.”

Juliana laughed and took Jean from his uncle. Then her face grew serious. “You won’t be a father like that, Joe,” she said softly. Then she cuddled Jean in her arms and said brightly, “Do you want to go see Papa when he wakes up, little one? He wants to see you. Yes, he does.” She turned toward the stairs.

“Juliana.” Joe’s voice had gone soft and serious.

She looked over her shoulder. “Yes, Joe?”

“I, well, I just…I’m sorry, Juliana.”

She did not ask him to what he was referring. She simply declared, “You saved Clay’s life or mine or even Jean’s. You might have saved all of us.”

“But he was your father. I’m sorry there wasn’t another way.”

“When it comes to my father, Joe, I’m sorry about many things, but the real pity is that he never was.”

She stood lost in thought. Joe tried to imagine what she must be thinking. He tried to understand how a father could fail to love such a person. He struggled to comprehend what it must be like to have a father but not a father’s love. As he watched Juliana ascend the stairs, he shook his head and sighed. Then he said a silent prayer of thanks that such comprehension was beyond him.

*****

Adam stepped from the stage followed by Hoss. Little Joe came down from the elevated sidewalk to greet his brothers. “About time the two of you got yourselves back home!” he declared as he slapped both of his brothers on the back.

“And glad of it,” Hoss returned the greeting and the backslap which sent Little Joe stumbling forward.

“The stagecoach must have been designed by a man five foot two,” Adam declared as he reached out to steady his youngest brother, “It’s a good thing it was only Hoss and I on the last leg.” Joe saw Adam scan the area.

“Pa sent me to get ya,” Joe offered. “I get to be grown up again.”

“How’s Clay?” Hoss asked.

“Fussing nonstop about not being able to get out of bed,” Joe answered quickly, “But Pa’s got him in hand.” A devilish smile turned up Joe’s lips. “I told Clay to stop fussing and just invite his wife to stay there with him. Pa near about burst a blood vessel when he heard me.”

“Didn’t know he was in earshot, did ya, boy?” Hoss grinned back.

“Obviously not,” Adam added. “I suggest we grab a beer before we head home.”

“Sounds good to me,” Hoss quickly agreed.

“If you’re suggesting, you’re buying,” Little Joe tossed over his shoulder as he started toward the Silver Dollar.

Adam harrumphed but smiled. When they arrived at the saloon, Adam ordered and paid for the beers while his brothers settled at a table in the corner.

Adam set a beer in front of each of his brothers.

“Thanks. Next round’s on me,” Hoss declared and took a large swig.

Joe giggled and observed, “You gonna agree to a third round, Elder Brother, or am I drinking for free today.”

“Depends on if you’re a good boy, Little Brother.”

Joe heard the light tone of his brother’s voice and just leaned back and sipped his beer.

“Any problems we need to know about?” Adam inquired after a few swallows.

“No. Really, things have been fine, and Doc says if Pa can keep Clay in line and following his orders all he’ll have to show for everything is a small scar,” Joe answered.

“Juliana?”

Joe shrugged. “She nearly wore herself out taking care of Clay, but now that he doesn’t need so much nursing, things are better for her.”

Hoss set down his beer. “Is she dealing with things okay?”

“I guess,” Joe answered weakly. “She seems fine, but, well, sometimes you can tell, well, that things are haunting her some.”

“It’s going to take time. It’s been less than three weeks.” Adam stated and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Pa and Jean?”

“Pa’s had his hands full, but he’s used to that. That nephew of ours is growing like a weed. Pa says the only baby he’s seen smile as much is Hoss.”

“Hoss was a smiley tyke. Least ways, he was if we kept him feed,” Adam teased.

“Can’t help if it took you longer to learn ya get more flies with honey,” Hoss rejoined.

Adam raised an eyebrow but made no comment, lifting his glass to his lips instead.

“Did you have any trouble? Your telegrams said things were going fine.” Joe took a swig of beer as he waited for Adam to answer.

“Nothing serious. A few vultures wanted to pick the bones, but we shooed them off. Are Clay and Juliana up to wading through the legal matters?”

“I think Pa talked to Doc about that, so you can check with him, but I think Doc’s orders about everything are ‘Take it slow and easy and stop if he tires’.”

Joe saw the shadows enter Adam’s eyes. “What is it, Adam?”

Adam exchanged a glance with Hoss. “It’s just that Seddakis’ affairs are rather complicated and the will, well, that’s not very straightforward either.”

“Juliana and Clay don’t need anything from Seddakis. If he disowned her…”

Adam shook his head, “He didn’t.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose again. “I don’t think he planned to do what he did. I don’t think he had given up on the idea of drawing Juliana and Jean back to him.” Adam sighed. “They have little control over anything, but he didn’t cut her off so they could walk away free of him either. There is Jean to think of too.” Adam shrugged. “Things can be worked out, and truth is, if Juliana doesn’t want things like the clothes and the furnishings in the house and the like, she can sell them for a tidy sum.”

“I don’t think she would want to touch anything that came from there,” Joe declared softly. “Since Doc said Clay was pretty sure to recover, the thing she’s been anxious about was you two being there. It’s like she thinks the place is evil and that it could …” Joe searched for the correct words.

“And the evil could contaminate or infect you if you’re exposed too long.” Adam finished for him.

Joe nodded.

“Little gal’s been through too much,” Hoss asserted. “It would be enough to give anybody strange fancies.” He downed the rest of his beer. “Maybe we should head back and give her and Pa a rest from worrying.”

“Yeah,” Joe replied draining his own glass.

Adam nodded and stood. As the brothers headed for the door, he said dryly, “I should have known I’d be the only one paying.”

*****

Adam stood on the porch and scanned the yard. He saw Clay leaning against a tree, staring at the mountains and the first tinges of sunset. The doctor had released Clay from the house yesterday and his only restrictions were no heavy lifting or tugging. Adam sighed and tugged his ear. Then he strode over and stood beside Clay. “Hop Sing says supper in an hour.”

Clay turned his head toward Adam and smiled. “I’ll be in on time. I just, well, it’s good to be outside.”

Adam nodded his agreement. “I’m not hovering, Clay. I enjoy a sunset myself.”

Clay’s smile deepened, “I’ve learned a lot of things are better for sharing them.”

Adam clapped Clay affectionately on the back, and the two men stood together watching the display of colored sky and clouds. As the shadows drew together into darkness, they turned to walk back to the house.

When they reached the porch, Clay stopped short.

“Are you all right?” Adam asked anxiously.

“Fine. Really I’m fine.” Clay assured swiftly. “Adam, was there something you wanted to say to me?”

“Well,” Adam rubbed his chin, “let’s see. Um, Joe bet Hoss that Jean would say the name Joe before he said Hoss. Joe’s offering side bets to anyone who wants them despite the fact that Jean is just starting to babble.”

Clay shook his head, “That’s a sucker bet. Joe’s name is easier for a little tyke.”

Adam grinned. “That’s why I’m passing on any bets as to when anything remotely like Uncle Adam will pass his lips. Pa told Joe he’d better make sure that Jean says Mama before anything else.”

Clay grinned, “If Jean doesn’t, I plan to fib just little to my wife.”

Adam moved toward the door, but Clay placed his hand on Adam’s arm and nodded toward the two porch chairs. The two men sat down.

“Adam?”

“There was something.” Adam paused, swallowed, and then spoke softly, “A real home, well, a real home is some place you can always leave because you can always come back no matter what.”

“Are you asking if Juliana and I are leaving?”

“I’m saying that the Ponderosa is your home — yours and Juliana’s and Jean’s. Joe, Hoss, and I, well, we each have a spot picked out if the time comes that any one of us wants to build a house. Except for those three spots, you and Juliana have the choice of any place on these thousand acres, and I’ll design the plans with a great deal of joy.” Adam leaned forward, “But if you want to build a house anywhere else, I’ll still be happy to draw the plans.”

“You would?”

“The Ponderosa is your home, Clay, not a gilded cage. We’re your family, not your wardens.” Adam allowed a slight smile to flicker across his lips. “Even if it might have felt that way while you were sick.”

Clay smiled back, but his eyes stayed serious. “I never knew family could mean what it does to me now, and Juliana, well, neither of us wants to risk what we’ve found here.”

“There’s no such risk, Clay. I guess that’s what I wanted to say. Last time you left here, you were running away. I suppose you felt you had to run. I just want you to know that you never have to run away again. If you need to leave for a little while or for a different life, well, then your family will accept that, but we expect to know where you are and to receive lots of letters and daguerreotypes, especially of Little Jean.” Adam’s tone grew more commanding as he continued, “You will visit regularly and – now this is nonnegotiable- when Jean is old enough to learn to ride, you will bring him to the Ponderosa, so we can give him his first pony and Joe can teach him how.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Clay stated with a deep smile. “Adam, I…we…Juliana and I, we don’t know what we want to do with the rest of our lives. Everything is just so different than either of us ever imagined it could be.”

“Then don’t decide anything forever; decide just for now.”

“A father and a husband has to plan for the future,” Clay stated like a child reciting a well-learned lesson.

Adam heard the worry behind Clay’s voice. “You’ve proven yourself a responsible husband and father, Clay.” Then Adam made his voice its most teasing, “To the amazement of many, but still, little brother, you have decidedly done so.”

“I’m learning,” Clay replied softly, “thanks to everyone here. What kind of thank you would our leaving be?”

“So you’ve thought about leaving?”

“I, well, I thought of taking Juliana to New Orleans. I want to face things there, but…”

“Clay, I…well…” Adam bit his lip and then continued, “I had the Pinkerton Agency look into things in New Orleans. Things are settled there. There’s no legal cloud over your head.”

Clay’s eyes widened, and then he laughed, “Joe was right about our high-handed, meddling elder brother.”

Adam arched his eyebrow. “He must have also mentioned that you might as well get use to it.”

“I suppose I am,” Clay replied. “Thank you, Adam. Thank you for everything.”

“No need for thanks,” Adam said dismissively. He watched as Clay leaned forward and placed his chin in his hands.

After a few moments Clay asked, “Will Joe understand if we go away for a while?”

“Yes, at least after his temper tantrum he will. We all will,” Adam spoke reassuringly, “though you can expect us all to make it clear that we would prefer if your dream was found a little closer to home.”

Clay stared into Adam’s eyes. “Did you ever think about not coming back from Boston after college?”

“Yes. I am here because I choose to be. I don’t regret coming home, Clay, but then I don’t regret the time I spent away either.”

“I don’t think forever, Adam, but for a while, maybe, just a little while,” Clay’s voice was hesitant and pled for understanding.

“A little while or a long spell, either way the Ponderosa and your family will be here when you come home.”

Adam stood, and Clay rose and faced him. To both men’s surprise, Adam reached out and pulled the younger man into a quick embrace. “Just remember, no matter where you are, big brother is there for you,” Adam whispered before he released his hold on Clay.

“To give me a kick in the pants if I need it?” Clay teased as he flashed Marie’s smile.

“Most certainly!” Adam declared. Then two brothers walked into their home with their arms around each other’s shoulders.

***The End***

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