Fathers and Sons (by Desideratum Collective)

Summary:  This was written as a for fun effort by nine writers over a period of months. In alphabetical order, we are Dogwood, Grimesgirl, Julee, Kaatje, KEM, KrystynaW, LizK, Patina and Tiggeroo. We hope you’ll enjoy this adventure as much as we did.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  38,118


 

 

Chapter 1, by Julee

Ben opened the door to Adam’s bedroom and strode purposely toward the bed, the light from his lamp illuminating the darkened room. Not yet asleep, Adam squinted into the light and propped himself up on one elbow. Given the discussion between his Pa and brothers earlier that evening, he was fairly certain he knew the reason for the late night visit, but asked anyway. “Something wrong?”

Ben set the lamp on Adam’s bureau and gave his son an apologetic look. “Sorry to bother you, Adam, but it’s almost one and your brothers still aren’t home.”

Knowing exactly where this conversation was headed, Adam groaned. He’d had a long, hard, miserable day and the last thing he wanted to do was chase after his younger brothers. Just thinking about climbing back on a horse made his muscles ache. “C’mon, Pa, you know those two. They probably just lost track of time and decided to stay over.”

Ben nodded, trying to convince himself of it, but his brows knit together in a telltale frown. In his head, he knew Adam was probably right. At eighteen, Little Joe was full of vim and vigor, and at twenty-four, Hoss could easily get caught up in the excitement of a Friday night, but with the mood the town was in, he couldn’t help feeling a bit anxious. “I know you’re probably right, but…”

Holding up his hand to interrupt, Adam ignored the loud protests coming from his over-worked muscles and gave his father a gentle, understanding look. “But you’d feel better if I went after them, is that it?”

“You don’t mind, do you, son? I’d go myself, but …well…I think it might give your brothers the wrong impression.” He sat on the bed and let out a sigh. “Neither one of them seemed to understand that I wasn’t doubting their ability to take care of themselves.”

With a nod, Adam threw back the covers and pulled on his pants. He’d purposefully stayed out of that debate even though he’d silently sided with his father. “No, I don’t mind, not if it’ll make you feel better.” He got to his feet and buttoned up. “But just for the record, you didn’t have a problem tracking me down when I was younger.”

Ben smiled, remembering. “Yes, well, lucky for them, they’ve got an older brother.”

Adam shook his head and smiled as he tugged on his boots. “Somehow, I don’t think they’re gonna see it that way.”

Ben gave him a thoughtful look. “Depends,” he answered simply, but the insinuation wasn’t lost on Adam and he too sobered a little. Despite his belief that his brothers were holed up at the Bucket of Blood or maybe at the hotel, a tiny knot was beginning to form in the pit of his stomach. Fully dressed now, he headed out, chiding himself for worrying prematurely. That was his father’s job. At the door, he turned and offered him a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry, Pa. One way or another, I’ll bring them home.”

*****

Chapter 2, by Kaatje

A man could do a lot of thinking on the road to Virginia City. Especially in the time it took to make the ride in the dark. The summer night was balmy, and both horse and rider knew the way well, but the miles still took time to cover. Aside from an awareness of all the aches and pains left over from a hard day’s work, Adam had one line of thought to occupy his mind. All the trouble his brothers could get into, with the situation in town as it was now.

The population had grown all year, but now the ranks were swelled anew by newspapermen, would-be politicians, gamblers, schemers, and a fresh tide of soiled doves, all arrived in anticipation of the big event. Due to the nature of the trial there was an unpleasant undercurrent. No matter what the outcome, there was almost certain to be an uproar. It was no wonder their father preferred they wait until the excitement was over and the dust died down to seek entertainment there. Of course, Hoss and Joe hadn’t seen it that way, and Pa had eventually consented, with visible reluctance. Adam hadn’t missed the wishful glance that had come his way, either. If he’d gone to look after them, their father would have rested easier, but he hadn’t, and now he wouldn’t rest at all. In all fairness, neither would Pa. Not until he brought his brothers safely home again.

*****

By the time he entered the third saloon, Adam had developed a sharp headache, located just above his eyes. Music from too many tinny pianos hadn’t helped. He supposed the new pain went well with his aching backside and thighs, sore back and tired arms. Breaking horses was work they all did from time to time. However, a bath and dinner had not been followed by bed, but by several hours of drafting in increasingly dim light. If not for that necessity, he probably would have joined his brothers. That the project wouldn’t make him any money was beside the point. A commitment to a friend was still important.

He scanned the still busy poker tables, resisting the urge to sigh when he didn’t see a familiar face, much less his own brothers. Why were all these people still awake and raring to go when he was dead on his feet? Maybe he was getting old before his time, at thirty. Soon, he heard a familiar voice at his elbow.

“Like me to rub away that headache, cowboy?”

Adam smiled involuntarily as he looked down into green eyes that held a twinkle. Folly couldn’t be her real name, but a lot of women in her line of work took on a false one. “How could you tell?”

“Oh, I can always tell.” The petite blonde grinned as she slipped under his arm. “You look like you could do with some company.”

“I’m looking for my brothers.” He was firm, but gave her shoulder a soft squeeze as she pretended to pout. Folly was what most men would call a nice armful, but she’d proved to be more than that. If not for her ingenuity, Joe might have gotten his skull cracked a few months ago. She’d shown a degree of acting ability that had dissuaded a jealous miner equipped with an ax handle. Once Pa had heard the tale, his youngest had been forbidden this particular saloon. Adam was under no delusion Joe’s memory about that would be a long one, though. As he felt her stiffen, he realized her acting skills weren’t as fine as he’d thought. “They’re here, aren’t they?”

“Upstairs.” She sighed. “With the doc.”

His initial annoyance was replaced by alarm, as the words “with the doc” registered. Soon he was at the top of the stairs, with Folly in tow. With seeming reluctance, she directed him to the right door.

“How is he?” His entrance and quick demand got the attention of both Dr. Martin and Hoss. Where Paul nodded acknowledgment, however, Hoss offered a wide eyed stare followed by a wince and a downward glance. Adam made his way through the perfumed and cluttered boudoir, keeping Folly’s hand in a firm grip. She could go after he found out what had happened.

“It’s not as bad as it looks.” Paul Martin stood at the washstand, wringing out a bloody cloth. “I’m only here because I happened to be on other business.”

Paul’s voice reached him, but he was determined to check the damage for himself. Folly succeeded in pulling her hand away, but he didn’t care. Joe lay on the wide bed, his open shirt offering a view of fist sized bruises across his midsection. He turned woeful eyes to Adam’s, before looking away with seeming shame. Hoss cleared his throat and stood, making access to their brother easier.

“Joe.” Adam sat down and touched his brother’s chin gently, turning his face to inspect the marks. A cut on the lower lip showed the source of the blood. He brushed a thumb lightly over a purpling welt beneath Joe’s right eye. There was other bruising, but the color made it stand out. “Who did this to you?”

Joe blinked and swallowed. “You don’t have to whisper around me. I’m not hurt that bad. Don’t have to look at me like that, either.”

“What happened?” Adam didn’t bother denying the whisper, even though he hadn’t—quite. Joe’s tone hadn’t been any louder, and his eyes were welling up. He knew his little brother, and didn’t believe those were tears of pain. Something deeper than bruising was bothering him. Even though the doctor was there, he couldn’t resist checking Joe’s ribs for himself. Some small sarcastic part of him implied he was turning into Pa at that moment. Then again, their father was just what Joe needed at a time like this.

“I don’t know.” Joe seemed to be regaining his composure. “I didn’t see ‘em.”

Adam gave Hoss a quick look, tightening his mouth when all he got was a shrug. “You weren’t with him?”

Hoss turned a little pink, as he glanced at Folly. She was standing forgotten near the bed, and oddly enough, blushed in return. He turned back to Adam. “I was playin’ poker, and Joe’d had a couple of beers. You don’t go with a man when he needs ta…”

“I see.” Adam didn’t need to follow his middle brother’s gaze back to the saloon girl. Hoss had too much delicacy to finish that sentence in front of a woman. He was right, too. Even Pa wouldn’t expect them to accompany Joe when he needed to relieve himself. “How many men?”

Joe turned his head away again. “Just two.”

“Two’s plenty, Joe.” Adam patted his brother’s leg. At barely eighteen, the kid still believed he had to measure up, and sometimes that meant to an impossibly high standard. No man could expect to be stronger, smarter and tougher than everyone. To his embarrassment, Pa often insisted it was his eldest brother’s example the younger man was trying to live up to. Adam wasn’t sure he believed that. If so, Joe had some idealized view of him. More likely, he was trying to live up to their father.

“One of ‘em got my arms as soon as I’d finished…” Now Joe blushed a little, and tried to smile. “I guess you could say they caught me with my pants down. Well, not really, but I wasn’t ready to take anyone on.”

“Not your fault, Joe.” Adam gave him another pat. Poor kid. Still, there were questions to be asked. “Were you robbed? Did they say why they did this?”

Joe shook his head, but looked at him. “The one behind me said it was a warning, but not about what. You figure it had something to do with Pa’s…?”

“Maybe.” Now that he thought about it, that ugly possibility was as good as any. He turned toward Hoss. “It’s not your fault either.”

Hoss shook his head. “I shoulda stayed with him. Pa told me to take care of him. And besides that, we shouldn’t a been here.”

“Well. ” Adam scratched his ear. “If not for what happened, he wouldn’t need to know which saloon it was, but it’ll be a little hard to keep from him now.”

Joe groaned from the bed. “I think I’m hurt too bad to be moved, ain’t that right, Doc?”

“Certainly not, young man.” Paul chuckled and snapped his medical bag shut. “You ride home and listen to your father.”

“Listen to him, he says.” Joe rolled his eyes.

Hoss shuffled nervously. “Yeah, you ain’t gonna be the only one listenin’. I reckon he’ll be loud and clear, too.”

“He tends to be.” Adam added more bad news. “We’re going to have to tell Roy about this.”

*****

Chapter 3, by LizK

Joe didn’t reply; he merely closed his eyes and nodded grimly. Hoss laid a hand on his shoulder, and gave Adam a look.

Adam caught the unspoken message; Hoss would stay with Joe. Turning to Doctor Martin, he walked with him to the door. “Thank you, Doc. Is there anything else we need to watch out for.”

“Nothing, Adam, I think you all know the drill by now. Just try to keep him as quiet as possible until those bruises heal.” He gave Adam a sympathetic look as Adam grimaced. Doctor Martin knew how difficult it was to keep Joe down. “I’ll be out to the Ponderosa in a few days to check on him.” He turned to leave then stopped and turned back. He hesitated a moment, then spoke his voice low. “It might not hurt for the rest of you to make yourself scarce for awhile as well. This was no random incident, Adam. Someone in town is stirring people up, and they don’t have kind feelings towards any of the Cartwrights.”

“Because of the trial?”

“Partly — that’s the catalyst anyway — but it seems to me there’s something else behind it.” The doctor smiled fondly at the young man. “Just watch yourselves and get out of town as quick as you can, and then stay there until this blows over.”

Adam gave a nod. “Thanks, Doc. We’ll be careful.”

“Good night, Adam.”

Adam turned, chewing thoughtfully on his bottom lip. Doctor Martin wasn’t a man to strain at gnats. He looked over to where Hoss sat beside Joe. “You heard?”

“Yep, I’m afraid Doc’s right. I didn’t notice it at first, but it seemed the longer we stayed in town, the worse the feelin’ got. Seemed everywhere we went there was people starin’ at us. Made me feel like I had the crawly skin. ” Hoss shuddered at the thought.

Adam briefly considered asking Hoss why in the world he and Joe had stayed in town then, and what in the world they were doing in The Yucca in the first place after Pa had told Joe to stay out of the place. But he realized Hoss was already blaming himself for not protecting Joe as it was and he didn’t want to make it worse.

Instead, he leaned over and laid a hand on Joe’s forehead. He was slightly warm, but there was no sign of fever. Relieved, he sat down in the chair next to Hoss. He leaned back and closed his eyes, as weariness threatened to overwhelm him. He felt a hand on his arm, and opened his eyes to find Hoss’ anxious face inches from his own.

“Adam, you all right?” Hoss’ voice was low with concern.

Adam tried to give a reassuring smile. “I’m fine, Hoss, just tired.” He studied Hoss a little closer, noticing the tell tale signs of weariness on his brother’s face as well. “You look like you could use a little shut eye yourself,” he commented.

Hoss lifted a corner of his mouth, and chuckled. “I’ll be all right. The way things are I doubt either on of us is gonna be gettin’ any sleep fer awhile yet.”

Adam acknowledged the truth of Hoss’ statement with a grunt. “No. No sleep for us until we get Joe safely back to the Ponderosa.” He heaved himself to his feet with a sigh. “And we won’t be doing that until I let Roy know what happened. I shouldn’t be long.” He placed a hand on Hoss’ shoulder. “You’ll be all right here?” It was more a question than a statement, and Hoss replied accordingly.

“We’ll be fine. Folly said we could use the place as long as we needed, and ain’t no one gettin’ in here while I’m alive”

“Folly.” Adam repeated. The name sparked an idea in Adam’s mind, and his eyes narrowed thoughtfully. Hoss could almost see the wheels turning, and he realized Adam hadn’t heard a word he’d said after he’d spoken her name.

“Adam?” Hoss tried to bring his brother back to the present.

“Hmmm?” Adam responded but Hoss could tell he was still thinking.

“Never mind, I’ll stay here with Joe; you go on and do what ya gotta do, then get back here so we can get Joe home.”

“Right, I won’t be long.” Adam headed out the door with hardly a backward glance.

Hoss watched him go with a smile on his face. Older brother was on the scent of something, he could tell. He looked over at Joe who slept soundly, with only occasional twitches to indicate his injuries were still hurting him some.

“Well, Little Joe, you sure got the bum end of the deal this time, but ol’ Adam’s gonna make sure whoever did this pays fer it. I could see it in his eyes. And you jus’ don’ worry about a thing ‘cause I’m here with ya, and I’m gonna make sure nothin’ happens to ya. Ya got my word on that.”

*****
Adam stood on the landing near the bottom of the stairs and scanned the crowded room below him. Even with dawn not far away, the place was still humming, the added population from the impending trial and the feverish excitement caused by it gave the town a party atmosphere that at the moment was anything but reassuring to Adam. As it was, the crowd, the dim lights, and the smoky haze made it difficult to see and it took him some minutes to find what he was looking for. Finally he spotted Folly sitting alone in a far corner.

Swiftly he worked his way through the crowd toward her, keenly aware of the hostile glances being thrown his way as he did so. Hoss was right; it was enough to give a person the crawly skin. The town’s mood was worse than Pa had realized; if he had known, he never would have allowed Hoss and Joe to come into town.

He also realized that Doc had been on to something. This was more than people taking sides over Dirk Farrow’s trial, and being upset about Pa’s part in it. Though that was probably a part of it, there seemed something more sinister behind it. He pondered it as he sidestepped a cowboy who had fallen drunk at his feet, then pushed it aside as he approached the corner where Folly sat staring into the whisky glass in front of her.

She looked up as he approached and she wasn’t pleased to see him, Adam could tell that. The look in her eyes became closed and wary. And Adam couldn’t help feeling pleased with himself. Folly knew something, just as he had suspected. He smiled at her as he took the seat across from her.

“Mind if I set awhile?” he asked politely.

“Do I have a choice?” she retorted. Her words were slurred, and he wondered how many of those glasses she’d already had that evening.

He looked at her from under hooded eyes, and gave her a half smile. “Not really.”

“I didn’t think so.” She waved a hand at him wearily. “All right, have at it. But I’m telling you right now.” Her green eyes snapped. “I don’t know nothing,” she stated boldly.

A smile hovered around Adam’s mouth. “Which means you do know something,” he pointed out.

Her only answer was to lift the whiskey glass and give him a look over the top of it as she downed it.

“Come on, Folly. You and I both know this attack on Joe was no coincidence. The man said it was a warning. If you know something that will help me find who did this and why, please tell me.”

He could see her wavering as uncertainty crossed her face. He laid a hand on hers and leaned forward looking deeply into her eyes. “Please, Folly,” he pleaded softly, “I need to know.”

Folly melted beneath that gaze, and all her defenses crumbled. It amazed her how this man could affect her like that, but he always had, from the very first moment she’d seen him. Though she tried hard to keep him from knowing that. He’d never look twice at a girl like her, not seriously anyway. She knew that, but it didn’t make a difference. Everyone thought she was soft on Little Joe because of the way she had stood up for him and protected him from that miner. No one ever suspected that it had been his big brother she was thinking of at that moment. If she had her way, no one would ever know.

As it was, she knew she could never refuse him anything, especially not when he was looking at her as he was now. She pulled her hand away and sighed.

“I don’t know much, Adam,” she said woodenly. “It’s just that I saw Cal Turner and another fella I didn’t know give each other a look and walk out just after Joe did. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but then later I got to wondering.” She stopped.

Adam’s face had hardened at the mention of Cal, and his jaw clenched. The look in his eyes frightened her. “Thank you, Folly. That’s all I needed to know.” He started to rise, but she stopped him with a hand on arm.

“Adam, feelings are running high against your family right now.” Her voice was low, intense and almost a whisper. “There’s some who think your Pa should stay out of Virginia City’s business, and it’s making them do and say things they wouldn’t normally do.” She searched his face, trying to decide if he was hearing her. “Please, be careful. What Joe got, it’s only the beginning…”

She stopped short, not knowing how much more to say. Talking too much could get a girl killed. She’d learned that lesson long ago. She paused, then looked earnestly into his eyes once more. “Just be careful,” she repeated softly.

Adam knew she had been going to say more, but didn’t press it. She had already told him as much as he needed to know. He squeezed her hand gently, and smiled at her. “Thanks, Folly, I’ll be careful.”

She gave him a tight smile and let him go.

As he made his way through the saloon once again, he could feel the hostility coming from every direction. The Yucca wasn’t a saloon he frequented often, its clientele being made up of the seamier sort, and he’d often wondered at Joe being so enamored of the place. But the looks he was receiving now had nothing to do with the fact that he wasn’t really one of them. There was an ugly undercurrent in the room directed toward him, and all he wanted to do was get out of there as quickly as he could.

He breathed easier when he stepped out of the saloon into the cool night air and heard the swinging doors shut behind him. He stepped forward to lean against one of the poles that held up the saloon’s wooden awning. The sky to the east was lightening as dawn approached. Adam ran a hand wearily over his eyes and down his face, stopping at the feel of rough stubble on his chin. He needed a shave, though how long it would be before he got one was anyone’s guess. He let his eyes travel up and down the street. Up here near the saloons the sounds of loud music and even louder voices made an almost eerie contrast to the deadly quiet of the rest of the street.

His thoughts turned to his brothers waiting for him upstairs in Folly’s bedroom. He wondered at the wisdom of leaving Joe and Hoss alone now that he realized the extent of the animosity built up against them. He debated returning and moving Joe first then returning to speak to Roy later. Doc Martin had told them to get out of town as soon as possible, and after seeing with his own eyes what the doctor had been talking about, he had to admit the doc was right. On the other hand, if he waited, any evidence might be gone and the lead he had about Cal Turner might turn cold. He passed a hand over his face once again. If only he wasn’t so tired, maybe it would be easier to decide what to do.

*****

Chapter 4, by Patina

With one more quick glance up and down the street, Adam purposefully strode for Roy Coffee’s office. Even though the hair on the back of his neck prickled as if he was being watched, his stride never faltered. He didn’t want anyone who might be following his progress from the shadows to think that he could be intimidated. What he wouldn’t give to have Hoss and Joe walking at his side so they could scan all directions.

Passing an alley, he was tempted to duck into its shadowed security and wait to see who might be following him. Since he hadn’t heard any footsteps, he assumed that his shadow was walking in the darkness on the other side of the street. Seeing a light coming from Roy’s office up ahead gave him a feeling his father must have felt as a seaman when he saw the beam from a lighthouse signaling a safe haven.

Reaching the door, he quickly looked up and down the street before going inside. Roy could handle trouble easily, despite what people in Virginia City might think. Just because a man had matured didn’t mean that he couldn’t outfox many a criminal mind.

Hearing the door open, Roy turned from the stove and saw his visitor. “What brings ya here this time a night?”

“My brothers, who else?” Adam replied wearily.

“What has Lil Joe done now?”

“It’s nothing he did. Somebody and some help jumped him behind The Yucca.” Roy started to interrupt but Adam only raised a hand. “He’s not hurt too badly considering. Paul has already looked him over and told him to ride home. What if…?”

“Whoever started the job wants ta finish it?” asked Roy.

Adam just blew out his cheeks and crossed his arms over his chest. Why did his family have to attract such interest? Couldn’t people solve problems in ways other than violence?

“Ya know I can’t leave town and escort Lil Joe home.”

“I know that, Roy, but someone’s trying to get to Pa through Joe. Folly said Cal…”

“Folly says lots a things and sometimes she’s even right. I don’t need her addin’ her two cents of misinformation ta what everyone else is tellin’ me.” Seeing Adam’s surprised expression, Roy took a deep breath and swigged some coffee. “I know you’re worried about your Pa and Lil Joe, but I work for all of Virginia City, not jest a few citizens. If Paul said Lil Joe was in good enough shape ta ride home, then that’s what he should do. An’ you should go with him ta make sure he gets home.”

“What about Cal, though?”

Roy snorted before saying, “You’re always sayin’ that folks shouldn’t be judged for making mistakes. Just because Cal’s spent some time in jail don’t make him the prime suspect. Go on home, Adam. An’ take Lil Joe with ya.”

Adam sighed wearily. He might as well go back to The Yucca and collect his brothers. Paul did say that Joe was well enough to ride. The boy would have to be in a lot of pain to not want to swing up on Cochise’s back and race for home. “See you later then, Roy.”

“Take care, son.”

Adam left the sheriff’s office and carefully looked up and down the street before heading back to The Yucca. As he walked, he listened for footsteps and thought about Folly. She had implied that Cal was involved in Joe’s beating and she had no reason to cover for the man. Cal had been lots of things — petty thief, hired muscle, and quick draw expert to name a few — and wherever the man went, trouble followed in his wake. For Roy to ignore Cal’s possible involvement in Joe’s beating, there must be someone putting pressure on the sheriff to look for suspects elsewhere.

*****

Hoss had been helping Joe to button his shirt when there was a soft knock on the door. Exchanging a glance with his younger brother, Hoss handed Joe’s pistol to him; Joe held the gun under the covers so it wouldn’t be visible to whoever might be on the other side of the door.

Crossing the room, Hoss leaned close to the door and whispered, “Who’s there?”

“Folly.”

Hoss opened the door just a crack to confirm that Folly was alone. Seeing that she was, he allowed her into the room.

“Do you plan on staying longer?”

Hoss noticed that Folly seemed nervous. She had said they could use her room as long as they needed to, so what had changed?

“Something the matter?” Hoss asked.

“Folks downstairs saw me talking with Adam so they might think I’m giving him information. Working in a saloon, surrounded by crowds, isn’t always safe.”

Hoss shivered a bit and got an uneasy feeling. Adam was out there somewhere right now without protection. And he’d been seen talking with Folly; if someone had been keeping a close eye on her, then they might be keeping watch on Adam, too. Pa had enough to think about without having to worry about more than one son at a time.

“You feel up to riding, Joe?”

Letting out a soft groan, Joe swung his legs over the side of the bed. His ribs hurt but they needed to get home. If Folly was in danger, then it wouldn’t be long before someone figured out that he and Hoss were in her room. Their troubles shouldn’t be her troubles.

As Hoss gave Joe a steadying arm to pull himself up, a gunshot rang out. Both men and Folly went to the window and scanned the darkness. Footsteps could be heard on the sidewalk but the balcony blocked their view.

“You stay here, Joe. I’m gonna go down there and take a quick look.”

Joe still had his gun in his hand and signaled to Hoss that he’d stay and keep Folly in the room. Before Hoss could reach the door, it opened and Adam fell through, onto the floor, blood leaking onto the wood from a hole in his leg.

“I’ll go for the doctor,” Folly said and she hurried from the room. This was all her fault. If she hadn’t let Joe and Hoss use her room, no one would be hanging around here. And if she hadn’t been talking to Adam in plain view, he wouldn’t be up there bleeding.

Going quickly through the shadows in the alley, she was surprised when someone grabbed her arm and pulled her close to the saloon. “What are you doing here?” was all she got out before a man clamped his mouth over hers and kissed her roughly. In the back of her mind, she knew she had to finish her errand and get the doctor, but her knees were weakening from his kiss. Maybe the doctor could wait a few more minutes.

*****

Chapter 5, by Grimesgirl

Ben startled awake. He looked around, wide eyed. What had he heard? A noise from the kitchen made him realize it had been Hop Sing starting his day. He leaned back in the chair where he had fallen asleep only a short hour or two earlier. He neck hurt and his eyes burned. His heart heavy with worry, he hoped that he had slept through the return of his sons. Perhaps they had come home, seen him asleep and, not wanting to awaken him, had gone on up to their rooms. A quick glance at the hat rack quickly dispelled that hope. What could have happened? Adam had promised to bring them back ‘ one way or another’ and Adam was always a man of his word.

Ben rubbed his face hoping to clear his fuzzy mind. Coffee — that was what he needed. He pushed himself to his feet and made his way to the kitchen. Hop Sing was coming back up from the cellar with bacon, eggs and milk. He smiled as he saw his boss. “Mista Cartlight want breakfast now? Coffee ready on stove.”

“Thanks Hop Sing, that’s exactly what I need.” Ben took down a cup and poured the strong, hot brew. A blow across the surface cooled it enough to allow him a swallow. That swallow seemed to clear the cobwebs.

“Let’s hold off on breakfast for awhile, Hop Sing. The boys should be riding in any minute and they’ll no doubt be ready to eat us out of house and home.” Ben tried to sound confident as Hop Sing nodded his understanding but they both knew it was a false confidence.

Ben took his coffee and returned to his chair. His mind started to imagine all sorts of possibilities as to why his sons were not home. He knew the mood of the town and the cause for it. And he was right in the middle of the cause.

*****
It had all started with a trip to the bank. He had been talking to the bank president, Weems, when a scream interrupted their conversation. A gruff voice told everyone to put their hands up and not make any false moves. By now, a child was crying and a woman’s low voice was trying to give assurance and comfort. Ben had moved quickly behind the door where he could see but would hopefully be out of sight until he could decide if he could do anything to stop the robbery.

His shock was overpowering when he saw the robber. He was wearing a bandanna around his face and only his eyes were showing but Ben knew it was Dirk Farrow, the son of one of the wealthiest men in the Comstock. For a moment, Ben dismissed what he was seeing. Dirk had always seemed a happy, easy going young man. As far as Ben knew, he had never been in trouble. Well, not serious trouble. He had been in the normal boyhood scrapes, like many other young boys. But bank robbery? Ben couldn’t seem to grasp such a possibility.

As Ben continued his observations, the two tellers were emptying their money drawers into canvas bags and Dirk seemed to be becoming more nervous by the minute. One of the tellers dropped one of the bags and Dirk seemed to explode. He quickly stepped forward and pointed his gun at the man’s chest. “Pick that up and make it fast. One more trick like that and you’ll regret it.” Although the teller had not been thinking of playing a trick and only his fright had made his hands not work properly, he nodded his head in agreement. He quickly pushed the money back into the bag and handed it to Dirk. The other teller did the same and Dirk started backing to the door, occasionally looking behind him to be sure no one was trying to creep up on him.

Ben knew he had to make his move now. In another few steps, Dirk would be out the door. The next time Dirk looked over his shoulder Ben stepped out into the open, his gun drawn and leveled at Dirk. When Dirk turned his head back, the first thing he saw was Ben and his gun. Dirk didn’t hesitate; he fired. Ben ducked and Dirk ran. The others in the bank seemed to be frozen. No one made a move to try to stop Dirk nor did they go after him as he ran down the boardwalk, turned into an alley, mounted his horse and galloped away. Ben tried to stop him, but by the time he reached the alley, all he saw was the flying dust the horse had stirred up.

Of course, Ben had gone to Roy, reported what had happened. A posse was quickly put together, telegrams sent to Carson City, Reno and points beyond and two days later, Dirk was arrested in Placerville. None of the money was found. Roy and his deputy rode to Placerville, brought Dirk back and locked him in a cell.

Dirk proclaimed his innocence, claimed he was not even in town at the time, said the Cartwrights, especially Ben, had never liked him and now they were accusing him of a crime he didn’t commit.

At first, Ben had been lauded as a hero for stepping forward and taking action. But soon, rumors started to spread. Ben and Ray Farrow had been rivals in several business deals. Farrow had bested Ben on more than one occasion and now Ben was getting back at him through his son. Opinion in Virginia City was turning against the Cartwrights. The good citizens didn’t seem to remember the many times the Cartwrights had helped the town, tried to bring justice to the underdog, donated time and money for the betterment of the town and were just plain, good neighbors. A rumor, true or not, could have a life of its own and this one was proving to have just that.

Ben came back to the present. His worry was only increasing. Where could his sons be?

*****
Hoss was immediately at Adam’s side. His brother was pale and his face tight with pain.

“I’m alright Hoss. We need to get out of town.”

“You’re bleedin’ all over the place, brother. I don’t think you’re ‘alright’. Folly went for the doctor. We’re not going anywhere until he looks you over.”

“Folly? Why did you send her?”

“Nobody sent her, Adam. She just said she’d get the doctor and left,” Joe remarked.

“Did you see who shot you, Adam?”

Adam shook his head. Between his previous exhaustion and the wound, his brain seemed to be slowing down. He couldn’t afford to give in to them. Of all times, this was one time he had to think straight. But even Adam’s strength and stubbornness would only carry him so far. Everything was turning gray. The last thing he remembered was his brothers’ anxious faces and Hoss’ ‘Adam!’

*****
Folly pushed herself away and again asked “what are you doing here?” The answer was accompanied by a harsh laugh, one that make her weak again, but this time it was from fear. “You didn’t think Pa would let them keep me in jail, do you? All it takes is a good attorney and a few dollars to the right person. I hear you’ve been helping those Cartwrights. You know better than that, Folly. What are we going to do about it?”

*****

Chapter 6, by Dogwood

Dawn was beginning to announce the new day while still maintaining its mysterious dark hues over the town. Mystery surrounded the unexpected appearance of Dirk Farrow out of the shadows as well.

He’d made advances toward Folly whenever he was in the Yucca, which she tried to ignore. She needed the job, and the owner of the Yucca made it plain to her she needed to be friendly toward Dirk and any of the Farrow hands. She begrudgingly complied, knowing it was another gesture fueling the fire of an already scurrilous and privileged son.

Folly was on a mission, foolish and obvious as it might have been, but she would go to any ends to get the Cartwrights out of town and more importantly out of her room. She wanted her life to return to whatever was normal for her, and at this moment, it did not include the Cartwrights, much less Dirk Farrow.

His unexpected appearance was as frightening to her as was the question asked …. “What are we going to do about that?”

Wiping the remnants of his kiss from her mouth with the back of her hand, she answered. “You’re making a mistake. There’s nothing that needs to be done about anything. Besides, there’s no way I could help anybody. I can hardly help myself. Why do you think I’m still working at the Yucca?”

Dirk pushed Folly against the cold boards of the building and smiled. He rubbed his finger against her cheek and spoke softly. “That’s not what I’m hearing. You were seen helping Joe Cartwright earlier this evening and then you had a drink with Adam Cartwright. Sounds like you were being pretty friendly.”

Defiantly, she pushed the hand from her face. “I get paid to be sociable.”

Dirk stepped back. “Just a word to the wise …. be careful who you socialize with. People around here aren’t looking too friendly on the Cartwrights.”

“ … And you Farrows are making sure of that, ain’t ya. Yeah, you’re stirring up the town alright but that’s got nothing to do with me. I just want to be left alone. Now get out of my way; I need to get some sleep.”

“Yeah, make sure you do just that,” laughed Dirk. “This will be over soon and we’ll have some celebrating to do. Just watch your step.”

She pushed her way past Dirk. Her heart beat faster and confusion set in. She needed to reach the doctor and she needed the Cartwright brothers out of her room. Realizing she’d acted on nervous energy and poor instinct had put her in this situation.

A rush of cold made its way down her back and it wasn’t because of the skimpy dress she was wearing. She turned to look back at Dirk and he was gone.

Her mind was racing with both nervousness and questions making little sense …. unsettled … needing a spoke for the wheel of emotions and thoughts to be held together. She needed help but knew she was alone. Going for the doctor was an innate quality of her compassion. This quality could very well harm her or even get her killed

She turned onto Main Street and bumped into Roy Coffey.

“Folly!” Roy said as he grabbed her to stop her fall. “Where are you going in such a hurry and better yet, what are you doing on the street at this hour?”

Reaching for her chest, she tried to catch her breath. “You scared me sheriff.”

“I didn’t mean to. I heard tell there was a gunshot just a while ago and wanted to check it out. You happen to know anything about it?”

“Me? No. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was just getting some fresh air and heading back to my room at the Yucca.”

All his years of being a lawman equipped Roy with a knack for seeing what wasn’t obvious to the average citizen. He peered over her shoulder. Quietly he said, “I’m thinking you best get going.”

She nodded in the affirmative and turned quickly in the direction of the Yucca. Roy rubbed his chin and watched her hurry off. Not in the direction of the doctor’s office but back to the saloon.

She was frightened and had every right to be. This night was turning into her own personal nightmare. It was serious and not a matter to take casually. Joe was beaten and Adam had been shot. The battle was scaling up to become a war and she wanted no part of it. She scanned the area and prayed she’d be able to get the doctor without being seen.

Roy looked at the three horses tied at the hitching post. There was no way they should be there at this hour. His thoughts returned to his earlier conversation with Adam. Something was wrong and his intuition told him the Cartwrights were involved.

*****

“What could be takin’ her so long to git the doc?” Hoss wondered aloud.

Joe, who was now standing but feeling no less pain, checked his gun. “I’m thinking she may have run into some trouble.”

Seeing the concern on his younger brother’s face, he knew the look. “Ya ain’t figuring to leave this room are ya?”

“Somebody’s got to, Hoss. Adam needs a doctor, and from the look of things, he needs one quick.”

“Little brother, I have to agree with ya, but right now you ain’t in no condition and I ain’t about ta have your beatin’ turn into you gettin’ shot too,” Hoss said nervously as he continued to compress Adam’s leg to stop the bleeding.

“Hoss, I’ll give her five more minutes … no more!”

The tone of Joe’s words were set in stone. Hoss knew there was no changing his mind and tried to think of other alternatives. He knew they had a way of getting out of the Yucca without being seen but didn’t want to risk any more injury to Adam. The trip to the Ponderosa was too far.

A quiet knock brought them back to the moment. Joe held his gun steady as he walked to the door. Hoss removed his gun as well.

“Open the door, it’s me … Folly.”

Slowly the door was opened and Folly rushed in.

Seeing she was alone Joe asked, “Where’s the doctor?”

“He should be right behind me. I had some trouble and had to come back here and leave through the rear exit to get him.”

A moan came from the man in dark clothing lying on Folly’s bed. He opened his eyes and felt the pain and fire in his leg. His vision was blurred and he was unsure if he actually heard Hoss’ voice or was dreaming. He tried to move. The rough rolling sea of dizziness overcame him. Taking shallow breaths, he exhaled and the sea became as dark as the clothing he wore. He didn’t move.

A knock on the door seemed almost unexpected. As Joe carefully opened the door, Folly moved to the farthest point away from the bed as she looked at the motionless body.

The doctor, showing signs of being rustled out of a sound sleep, entered.

*****

Ben listened to the ticking of the grandfather clock. He pulled his pocket watch out and double checked the time. What could be taking so long? he thought.

Hop Sing came in with fresh coffee but Ben waved him off. Observing the worry on his employer’s face he offered, “It late when number one son left. Maybe sons decide to stay overnight in town. They be home soon.”

Trying to be optimistic, Hop Sing didn’t believe his own words.

Ben acknowledged the words he heard. Intuitively he felt something was terribly wrong. He sat in his oversized chair and let the softness of the leather comfort his head as he thought.

Did I put my family in harm’s way? I should have thought – thought before allowing Joe and Hoss to go into town. I knew tensions were growing because of my accusations against Ray Farrow’s youngest son. What was I thinking?

Ben closed his eyes and breathed deeply.

What I did was necessary. Was I foolish to think that supporting the punishment of a wrongdoing would not possibly bring a wrongdoing on my family? There’s no point in being a human being if you’re not going to be responsible. This burden of not knowing about my sons is too much. This load is too heavy! I’m carrying yesterday’s burdens into today. If I carry this any further without knowing what’s going on …..

Ben stopped his thoughts abruptly. He was revolving around a pivot of fear and had to put a stop to it.

“Hop Sing,” he called. Strapping on his gun belt, he ordered the diminutive man to rouse the few men sleeping in the bunk house.

“Mista Cartwright you sure you want to do this?”

“Hop Sing, I’m not going to step outside the law, but I’m not going to ride into Virginia City alone. Get going and tell them we’re leaving in five minutes. I’ll explain.”

*****

Chapter 7, by KEM

“Now what have you boys gotten yourself into now?” Doctor Martin asked with a tinge of irritableness.

Despite the fact that he’d said earlier that it was all right for Joe to be taken home that evening, his gut feeling had told him that the Cartwright boys probably wouldn’t be heading home until they found out who had beaten up their youngest brother. And sure enough, there they were, still in Folly’s room. And not only that, now another Cartwright son was badly wounded and without a doubt because of their need for not letting things be. “Folly said Adam’s been shot. How did this happen?” he asked as he made his way over to the bed where the eldest Cartwright son lay still.

“Adam said he was goin’ to see the sheriff about what happened to Joe. Next thing we know a shot rang out and Adam’s fallin’ through the door with a hole in his leg,” Hoss replied with a bit of distress.

“Adam? Adam! Can you hear me, son?” Doc asked.

Not fully unconscious, Adam slowly opened his eyes to try and answer the familiar sounding voice.

“Adam, can you hear me?” Doc asked again.

“Yeah, I can hear you,” Adam finally replied, still not fully clear on what was happening around him.

“Can you tell me how you got this hole in your leg?”

Adam took a minute to soak in his surroundings and then tried to remember what he’d been doing prior to coming back to the room. He remembered that he had gone to see Sheriff Coffee about Joe’s attack. But after that, things seemed a little less clear. He’d been heading back to the Yucca through the back alley entrance to get Joe and Hoss so they could finally head back home when…

“I remember bumping into something or someone as I was coming up the back entrance to the saloon. But before I could be sure of what it was, I heard a crack and then my leg gave out. Someone ran past me and into the entrance of the saloon. All I could think of at the time was Joe and Hoss, they were in danger. The rest… I don’t remember completely, just bits and pieces,” Adam replied finally.

“Do you remember what the person looked like that ran past you?” Doc asked as he examined Adam’s wound.

Adam winced painfully grabbing handfuls of bed sheet as Doc probed his leg. Taking a deep breath to steady his senses, he answered, “I don’t know what the person looked like. But I can definitely tell you what they smelled like. It was one of those expensive tonics.”

“A tonic?” Doc asked a bit confused still examining the wound.

“Yeah, I remember it well because Joe decided to take a bath in one the last time we were at the mercantile. Called himself trying it out. He reeked of it for days. Cochise didn’t even want to get near him, ran off all the chickens, had Hop Sing hopping mad,” Adam added with a slight grin before wincing again from Doc’s handy work, all the while thinking if it wasn’t for the fact it was Doc, he would’ve smacked him hard for making him hurt worse, if that was even possible.

“Yeah, I remember that too. Dang near went hungry that night,” Hoss chimed in agreement.

“Boy need take bath! Boy stink! Boy scare chicken!” Hoss remembered Hop Sing ranting while waving a meat cleaver angrily as he’d gone in search for that evening’s supper.

“Good thing one of them chickens couldn’t seem to smell the stuff. And, didn’t Sally Mae tell Joe to stand down wind from her at the church social?” Hoss said as he reminisced with amusement.

“Laugh it up you two. But, this is no time for foolishness. We need to know who shot Adam,” Joe said quickly to change the subject of his all too recent embarrassment.

“Well, there’s more than likely a number of people wearing this tonic.”

“Not this one, Doc. Tom at the mercantile said it’d been special ordered, but he didn’t say who it was for,” Joe clarified, leaving out the fact that Tom had some other choice words for him for wasting the very expensive tonic that he would have to reorder. “Bet all we need to do is find the person wearing it and we’ll know who shot Adam.”

“That may be easy, because the person who was wearing it must’ve been in this room or near it. I can still smell it,” Adam replied. Then he quickly added, “And, I think it’s making me sick.”

“One of you get something for your brother, and quick!” Doc ordered.

With all the attention being paid to Adam and the shooting, no one noticed the stricken look that claimed Folly’s facial features.

Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. “It’s Sheriff Coffee, open up!”

*****

“Hop Sing!” Ben called as he stood by the hitching post with his faithful riding companion, Buck.

“Yes, Mr. Cartwright,” Hop Sing answered as he returned from the bunkhouse.

“Are the men ready?”

“Yes, they gathering things for trip.”

A few minutes later, the men began filing out of the bunkhouse, gear in hand, ready to see what their boss had in store for them.

“Sorry to have to wake you men like this but, I need your help. My sons went into town earlier last evening and should have been back by now. I have a bad feeling with the town’s current unstable atmosphere due to the impending trial, they may be in trouble. I’m asking for your help, but only if you want to,” Ben said, addressing the men that Hop Sing had been able to gather.

Without needing further explanation, “I’ll go with you,” said one of the men.

“So will I,” said another.

And, the chorus of willingness to help continued. Many had been privileged to receive the assistance of the Cartwrights whenever they needed help. Now it was their chance to return the favor.

“I appreciate this, and I won’t forget it,” Ben said, feeling like a man blessed. “Saddle your horses and get ready to ride out. We have a long trip ahead of us.”

As he mounted his own horse, Ben said a quick prayer that his sons would be safe and that his feelings would be all for naught.

“We’re ready, Mr. Cartwright.”

“All right, men, let’s head out.”

Ben Cartwright and his men quickly rode out, but not without having been observed by a lone figure seated on a horse at the edge of the woods. Once Ben and his men were out of sight, the figure turned his horse and headed back the way he came. He needed to quickly update his boss on this fortunate turn of events.

*****

Chapter 8, by Krystyna

Adam Cartwright closed his eyes and waited for the medication Paul had given him to take a fuller effect. He had talked too much, his head throbbed and the pain in his leg was now aggravated by the way Paul was binding it up in the bandages. He sighed heavily and heard Joe say, as though from a long way off, “He is going to be alright, isn’t he?”

It was odd, he thought, the things that trickle through one’s mind at times like this. For instance, that smell. Someone had just mentioned they could still smell it here, but they couldn’t have, couldn’t possibly have, not here. His brow creased slightly, or could they?

“Folly?” he cried aloud, his eyes opening wide, “Folly!”

Joe and Hoss looked at one another and then at their brother. Why, at a time like this, would Adam choose to talk to Folly. Roy Coffee pursed his lips and bristled his moustache and turned to where the girl had been standing.

“Where is she?” he asked.

“Right here…” Hoss said immediately and turned, stared at the empty space and then looked back at Roy, “She was there a minute ago.”

*****

Tom at the Mercantile was not the handsomest man in the world. He was modest, though; he knew his limitations. With his spectacles, greasy hair, skin prone to boils and pimples, and his stammer, he knew he would never be a success with any girl, so when he heard a light tapping on the glass of the door he opened it with great delight to admit Folly.

“Miss – Fo -Folly?” he exclaimed.

“Close the door, close it, hurry now,” she hissed as she hurried into the store, brushing pass him and seeking the further shadows of the room.

“Ye- yes, of c-course.” Tom replied and closed the door with a sharp snap. For good measure, he pulled down the blind and locked it. “Wh-what’s wrong, Miss Fo-Folly?”

“I need your help, Tom.” she whispered urgently, widening her eyes and looking beseechingly at him, “Oh Tom, I’ve seen how you’ve looked at me, I know you want to be my friend … don’t you?” She lowered her voice so that he had to lean in towards her, and she saw his Adam’s apple jerk convulsively.

“Yes, Miss Fo-Folly, but you’ve – I mean – you’re so pretty and I…” He shivered when she placed a hand on his arm; he could feel it cold and trembling through the linen of his shirt sleeve.

“Tom, I really really need your help.”

“Yes, of course. I mean, just say the word and…”

“I can rely on you, can’t I?” She leaned in closer to him.

He blushed, lowered his eyelids and gulped again, “Yes, anything, Miss Fo-Folly.”

She took a deep breath and turned away from him, lowered her head and pressed a hand against her lips “Tom, I’m in trouble. You know that tonic stuff you ordered for – for a certain person?”

“Yes, sure, I’ve still one jar of it left.”

“Has anyone else used it at all?”

“No, I got strict instructions it was only for him. I sure got a lot lot of tr-trouble when Joe Cartwright bought some, but, but it worked out alright in the end. He won’t won’t come near it again in a hurry.” He frowned, “What’s wrong, Miss Fo-Folly? Did you want to buy some?”

“No, no. It’s…” She bit her bottom lip. “Tom, you know Adam Cartwright got shot this evening, don’t you?”

“He did?” Tom’s honest face looked horrified and he shook his head, “Sure is a fine figure of a man. That’s a darn shame. Is he still…is he still alive?”

“Yes, thankfully, but for some reason he thinks the person who uses that stuff was the person who shot him. He’s wrong, Tom. He’s so wrong.”

“Oh,” Tom sighed, modest to the end; he wasn’t even annoyed at the realization that she was pleading on behalf of someone else, and that there was no interest in him, not really. He frowned, “Will it mean the sher-sheriff coming here to see me?”

“Yes, it will. You mustn’t tell him who uses it, Tom; you have to pretend you know nothing about it.”

“I can’t lie to the law, not even for him, or you.” Tom replied, “I’m sorry.”

“Then give me the other jar of cologne, Tom, and promise me … please, Tom … that you won’t tell anyone I have it. Not even …not even ‘him’.”

Tom licked his lips, and then slowly nodded.

“I won’t forget your help in this, Tom,” she whispered, and kissed him on the cheek.

*****

Roy Coffee tugged thoughtfully at his moustache, successfully pulling out two hairs in the process. He looked at the bruised and blooded Joseph Cartwright and then at Adam, who now lay with his eyes closed and a hand over his brow as though trying to stop the thudding in his temples. “So you can’t give me any better identification on the man who attacked you?”

“No,” Adam replied with a sigh.

“Just a smell.”

Hoss shook his head. “Not just a smell, Roy. A real killer of a smell.”

Roy narrowed his eyes and shook his head, “There’s all manner of smells out there, son, and you’re expecting me to be able to identify a possible killer by just one particular smell?”

“It was wafting around here a bit, until Folly left” Joe said innocently enough, and he frowned as Adam sighed again, “You alright, Adam? You ain’t going to be sick again, are you?”

“No. No, I’m alright.” Adam opened his eyes and looked at his younger brother, “Poor Joe, you sure took a pounding, didn’t you? You should be home now and…and being taken care of.” He looked at Hoss, “No sign of Folly?”

“Nope, she kinda just slipped away. I reckon she’ll be back at work; after all, she ain’t going to git any pay wet nursing us, is she?” Hoss twitched his shoulders and gave an apologetic grimace.

“Well,” Roy shook his head disconsolately, “If you boys don’t mind my saying so, I reckon I’ll just go out and have a ‘sniff around.’ You never know; I may just be able to find the man you’re talking about.”

*****

Folly was well liked in the saloon. She joined one group of card players and draped an arm around a cowboy before strolling to another table, and doing the same there. She talked to several others at the counter and then joined a group singing at the old battered piano in the corner.

By the time Roy Coffee pushed open the bat wings of the saloon, there was a vague murmur of discontent trickling through the building as man after man complained about the stink that seemed to have permeated their clothes, their skin, even the air they breathed. One man lamented in a loud voice, ‘How’m I gonna explain this to my wife!’

Roy stood at the entrance and decided not to enter. At least he knew what the smell was now. He raised his eyes and glanced around the room until they came to rest upon Folly, who was sitting demurely with a group of men in the far corner of the room. Folly ignored the lawman; she wondered what he would do next and sighed with relief when he disappeared into the darkness. She could feel the tension draining away from her, and a new feeling — one of elated relief — take its place. She had done all she could to protect the man she loved. Loved? She shivered, a trickle that slithered down her spine. Loved or feared? She could no longer tell either feeling apart from the other.

*****

Two men waited for the rider to join them. One was heavy-set and elderly, and sat by the campfire smoking a pipe and reading a letter; the other, younger man paced the ground, back and forth, with an impatience that contrasted oddly with the other man’s outer calm.

Both men paused in what they were doing when there came the sound of approaching hoof beats, and when the rider finally entered the camp, they were both on their feet.

“Well, what have you to tell us?” the older man asked, no, demanded from the rider.

“Ben Cartwright’s mustered his men together and headed towards town.” The rider wiped sweat from his brow, “He’s red-hot angry, Marshal.”

“Not surprised considering what’s happened in town,” the younger man replied dourly and looked at the Marshal as though demanding from him some action, some word, and upon receiving only silence, he shook his head angrily, and looked at the newcomer, “You know Joe Cartwright was beaten up? Well, on top of all that, Adam Cartwright was shot.”

“Shot?” the other man gasped, “He’s not dead is he?”

*****

Chapter 9, by Tiggeroo

Two steps inside the saloon and Roy’s nose told him that this was one trail that was going to lead to a dead-end for the time being.

In an instant, he changed his mind about entering further and slowly turned around and left the ‘scent’ behind him. To a lesser experienced lawman, this could have seemed the end of this particular trail, but to an experienced veteran like Roy Coffee, the explosion of scent he had just witnessed meant that the guilty party or someone who knew something was close by. Someone was trying desperately to throw him off the scent, but in attempting to do so, they had just given Roy his first real clue. He reasoned to be extra careful as he moved across the street to ‘sniff around’ some more. As he purposefully strode across to have a little chat with Tom, who could be found at the Mercantile store, Roy’s heart began to beat with a little more excitement as he thought in advance of the questions he was going to ask Tom and how the answers could help him get nearer to knowing who had beaten Joe and who had shot Adam. Roy’s logical problem-solving mind moved further on as he considered that finding those who did these horrible things to Joe and Adam will probably lead them to the person who is trying to turn Virginia City against the Cartwright’s. He shook his head as he remembered how Ben identifying Ray Farrow’s son Dirk in the bank robbery was the catalyst to all this bad-blood being shown to a law-abiding family whom he felt privileged to call his ‘friends’. His friend Ben Cartwright. “Why would anyone want to hurt Ben or his sons?”  Roy thought. “I hope Ben stays back at his ranch and doesn’t come into town looking for his boys. It will only heat things up”.

He resolved in that moment to find out the truth no matter what that truth revealed . . . and quickly before anyone gets killed!

*****

Ben Cartwright rode ahead of his men as they made their way towards Virginia City and he realized that no matter how old he got or even how old his sons got, he would never stop worrying about them when they were ‘overdue’. Was it because he had been widowed three times and each son was a special connection to the wife he had prematurely lost? Or was it because he and Adam had ‘roughed’ it together as they embarked on a wonderful but extremely hard and dangerous journey across America as they searched for their ‘dream’? Or was it because without his sons, there is no purpose to the Ponderosa Ranch? It was probably a combination of all three plus many others but Ben shook his head to throw away the fear that kept calling him as he imagined life without one or even all three of his sons. Ben knew that fear unleashed in an uncontrolled manner could put his sons in more danger than they were already probably in. How did he know they were in danger? Call it father’s instinct. Ben didn’t know how he knew they were in trouble; he just knew they were. He had thought that riding into town would have been enough to stop the pivot of fear entering his thoughts but he had miscalculated. So once again Ben made a conscious effort to gain control of his emotions as he told himself that he couldn’t deny seeing Dirk Farrow robbing the bank and that neither Adam, Hoss nor Joe would have wanted him to. “As soon as I get to Virginia City, the boys will be sitting in the hotel having breakfast”, he tried to convince himself as he spurred his horse on to Virginia City . . .

*****

Roy stepped up onto the sidewalk and started banging on the door of the Mercantile. The door was still locked as Tom hadn’t opened up yet.

“I’m coming,” Tom called. “Oh, oh sheriff, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize it was you,” he said, slightly disappointed as he had hoped that maybe Miss Folly might have been calling again. “C-c-can I help you?” Tom asked a little nervously as he was beginning to remember Miss Folly telling him that the sheriff will probably come to see him and ask questions about the tonic he ordered for someone.

“Hello, Tom,” Roy said as he greeted the storekeeper. Taking his hat from his head, Roy continued, “Looks like it’s going to be hot day weather-wise, judging by the sunrise we had this morning. I know it’s early but I just wanted to ask you a few questions, that’s all, before you get busy with your customers”.

Tom started to stammer “Ye-yes, of course, sheriff. What do you wa-wa-nt to know?”

Roy continued with his questions “There’s a smell around town and I was hoping you might be able to tell me what it is and who bought it?”

Wh-wh-what sort of smell you ta-ta-alkin’ bout sheriff?” Tom stammered as he walked behind the counter. He was always more comfortable behind the counter and he hoped to find a large bottle of confidence on the shelf behind him.

Roy didn’t have to be an experienced sheriff to see that Tom was really nervous about this topic of conversation and so he continued, slightly irritated by Tom’s question to his question. “What sort of smell do you think Tom? A tonic of course! If I wanted to check out a manure smell, I would go over to the livery where they have an awful lot it! If I wanted to check on an anesthetic smell, I would go to Doc. I am talking about the smells you sell…tonics! This tonic was an expensive one and Joe Cartwright apparently tried it the last time he came in here. It was a special one you ordered in. Now do you have any idea which tonic I’m talking about?” Roy leaned over the counter towards Tom to let him know he was not going to get away with another evasive question to Roy’s question.

“Oh yes no-o-ow that you mention it, I do. B-b-b-b-ut unfortunately, I don’t have any in at the moment, sheriff, sorry,” Tom replied.

“Great. Now we’re getting somewhere. What’s it called? Who do you order it in for?” Roy continued with the questioning.

“It’s called Mysterious, sheriff, and I don’t know the name of the man who buys it. Ho-ho-nest, sheriff, I don’t know his name. I-I-I- really am sorry.”

“Ok Tom. Relax, will ya. If you remember anything about this man that will help to identify him, you will let me know now, won’t you?” Roy was a little disappointed but not surprised. Someone had already been here judging by the smell in the saloon. Roy placed his hat on his head and left the store to ‘sniff around’ some more.

Tom stood still behind the counter thinking “Miss Folly, I did just as you said. I never told the sheriff you had the last bottle.” As he watched the sheriff leave the store, he brushed his cheek with his hand as he remembered her kiss.

*****

Ben noticed three riders off to his right. They seemed to be riding at a rather quick pace for men just on their way into Virginia City. “These riders look as if they are on a mission,” thought Ben as he slowed his horse and men to a fast trot instead of a gallop. As the three riders got nearer, it became obvious to Ben that he and his men were the next part of their mission so he stopped and waited for the mystery figures to meet them. Ever cautious, Ben had his hand resting on his gun just in case there was any trouble. “I wonder if these strangers are in any way connected to my sons being overdue at the ranch,” Ben thought to himself.

When the three riders came to a sudden stop in front of Ben, the heavy- set and eldest one said “Howdy.”

Ben replied, “Howdy. My name is Ben Cartwright. You sure seemed in a hurry. Can I help you at all?”

“In that case, yes you can, Mr. Cartwright. I was on my way to talk to Adam Cartwright as he could have some valuable information regarding a man and his business dealings in another state 10 years ago. However, I was on my way to the Ponderosa Ranch when I heard that someone was stirring the people up in Virginia City against the Cartwrights due to yourself, I presume sir, having witnessed Dirk Farrow robbing a bank. Decided to keep my head low and watch what was happening ‘from a distance’, if you know what I mean, Mr. Cartwright”. Having given as much information as he was prepared to for the time being, the rider shifted in his saddle.

Right away Ben felt this man was not telling him the entire story and asked. “Excuse me, sir, you know my name but I don’t remember you telling me yours.”

“Oh, please excuse my bad manners. My name is Taylor, Marshal Taylor.” Pointing to the messenger who had informed him of Ben’s movements towards town, he said “This is my associate Zak Bentley,” and finally pointing to the young man, he said, “And this is a young man with, shall we say, a personal interest in the investigation.”

Ben nodded to each man as he was introduced to him then continued, “Thank you but I still would like to know why you were riding your horses as if there was no tomorrow to meet me, and what has this investigation got to do with my family, and particularly my son Adam, who happens to be missing at this moment with his two brothers”.

Taylor could feel the tension mounting in Ben, and in a way, he could feel for this man as he too had once been in a similar situation when his two sons went missing but, unfortunately, when he found them, they were already dead. Ben’s boys were alive for the moment and he hoped to help keep them that way. However, as a father once himself, Taylor knew that the minute he told Ben one son was badly beaten up and another had been shot, he was going to have a battle on his hands to stop Ben racing into town, and if Ben did that, he might never get to the bottom of his investigation and expose that evil businessman for what he really was . . . a murderer!

“Mr. Cartwright, there is something I am going to tell you but you really have to trust me . . .

*****

Chapter 10 by Julee

Ben gave Marshal Taylor an appraising look, and then with a brief nod, he dismounted, willing to hear him out. Relieved, the marshal got down from his horse, as did his men, and the four of them gathered under a nearby tree while the Ponderosa hands, still mounted, waited. “All right, Marshal. What is it?”

Understanding his impatience, Taylor got to the point. “My purpose in coming here is twofold, Mr. Cartwright. Officially, I’ve been sent to assist in Dirk Farrow’s upcoming trial. The territorial office received word from Sheriff Coffee about the townsfolk being restless and if the trial goes as expected, he wants Farrow out of town and on his way to prison as quickly as possible.”

Ben gave a brief nod. “Feelings are running a little high.”

“Yes, and as the prime witness, I understand most of it is directed toward you.”

Ben shrugged, noncommittally. “Ray Farrow employs a lot of men in these parts, same as me, so I’m not surprised he’s got some supporters.”

“Misguided support from the gossip-mongers isn’t my concern, Mr. Cartwright. It’s the paid support hiding behind the blowhards that worries me.”

“You mean hired guns?”

“Exactly.”

Ben’s brow creased. Along with Barney Fuller, Farrow had been his chief competitor in the mining and lumber industries for about five years now, and while he sometimes resorted to ruthless business tactics, he’d never known him to go outside the law. In his estimation, Farrow was much more likely to hire an experienced defense lawyer for his son than to hire thugs or gunmen. Still, he’d agreed to hear the marshal out. “Go on, you said your reason for being here was twofold.”

Marshal Taylor nodded. “I have a personal interest in this case, and if I can prove what I know to be true, Ray Farrow will be joining his son in prison.”

At that, anger flashed in the young man’s eyes next to him. “Prison is too good for what he done. He oughta swing!”

Marshal Taylor put a steadying hand on the boy’s shoulder, but it was clear to Ben that he shared his sentiment. He shook his head and prepared to leave. “Let me assure you, I have no interest in a personal vendetta, so if that’s all…”

“Just hear me out,” the marshal said, stopping him. “Trust me, it’s in your best interest.”

Ben eyed him and finally gave a begrudging nod. Despite his anxiousness to get to town, the marshal’s forthright manner was beginning to win him over.

Seeing he’d managed to convince him, the marshall gave the younger man by his side a reassuring pat on the back before continuing. “Ten years ago, just after the gold strike in Coloma, I was the sheriff in Placerville. Billy’s father, Dave Murdoch, was my deputy.”

Ben glanced at Billy and saw a deep hurt in the young man’s eyes despite his attempt to hide it behind a hardened façade. He braced himself for what he expected to be a disturbing tale.

“As you can imagine, the promise of gold attracted hundreds of men into the area, including Ray Farrow, who was looking to build a small empire. As soon as he arrived, he went to work acquiring one claim after another. At first, there was no reason to believe his acquisitions were anything but legitimate, but as time went on, there were rumors of individual miners being convinced to sell at gun point.”

Ben shook his head, unable to fathom that kind of greed.

“Now, Dirk was about eighteen at the time, old enough to work but more interested in play. As far as I could tell, his father looked the other way when it came to his gambling and womanizing as long as he put in a good showing every now and then.”

Ben grunted his disapproval.

“Believe me, I shared your opinion, but as long as the boy stayed on the right side of the law, I had no call to comment.”

“But that changed, I take it?”

The marshal nodded. “An old prospector turned up dead and I had a witness who said it was Dirk that killed him. He denied it, of course, but with an eyewitness, I had cause to arrest him. That same day, his father showed up offering my deputy and me a bribe. When we refused, he launched a campaign to discredit us. Told folks we’d trumped up the charges against Dirk in order to extort money from him. Some believed it, but that wasn’t unexpected.” He shook his head in regret. “My mistake was in underestimating him.”

Sensing the man’s pain, Ben gently prompted him to continue. “In what way?”

Remembering, the marshal narrowed his eyes. “He threatened my family…hired a killer to hold my two sons captive until Dirk was released.” He drew a deep breath and looked away for a moment. “Let’s just say,” he continued, “that things went wrong and my sons and Deputy Murdoch ended up dead.”

At that, the hairs on the back of Ben’s neck stood on end and his thoughts drifted to his own sons. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said sincerely, “but what happened? Why didn’t they pay for their crimes?”

“Simple. No proof. Once the word got out, the witness against Dirk refused to testify, and if anyone knew anything about my sons’ deaths or Deputy Murdoch’s, they never came forward.” He looked at Billy. “After that, I quit my job and my wife and I moved to Sacramento. Mrs. Murdoch and Billy did the same. But after a while…well…the desire to uphold the law was still in my blood, so I took a job as a U.S. Marshal. It meant some traveling, but it also meant I could keep an eye on Farrow.”

Ben’s brow furrowed in thought. “You said you were on your way to see my son, Adam. Why?”

“About a month ago, I was sent to transport a convicted killer to prison, and as fate would have it, he recognized me from my days in Placerville. Turns out, he was Farrow’s hired gun.” He gave a half-hearted smile. “It wasn’t easy facing him…the only thing that stopped me from doing something I shouldn’t was the idea that I finally had proof…until I came to my senses and realized no one would take the word of a convicted killer.”

Ben gave a slow nod, but was still perplexed. “An interesting turn of events, but what does that have to do with Adam?”

“Well, somewhere along the line, this fella got religion. He said he wanted to make amends and told me the payoff took place in the hotel’s dining room…said it was crowded and they shared a table with a young man who witnessed it. Of course, he wouldn’t have known the nature of their business, but that young man was your son.”

Ben’s eyes widened, his expression clearly showing his disbelief. “That’s impossible,” he said, shaking his head. “Ten years ago Adam was back east in college.”

“Was he? Or was he on his way? It would have been the spring of 1850.”

Ben thought back. Adam had postponed leaving for college two years after Marie died. So yes, it would have been the spring of 1850. He was nineteen, almost twenty, and he would have been traveling through Placerville and then on to Sacramento to catch the train east. “I suppose you’re right; he would have been passing through the area about that time, but even if he did see something, I doubt he’d remember it.”

“According to this man, they not only had dinner together that night, they were travel companions all the way to Omaha. If that’s true, surely he’d remember the man.”

This extra bit of news brought a troubled frown to Ben’s face. It was ten years ago, but strangely he found himself angry that Adam hadn’t been more discerning. He’d certainly lectured him enough about it at the time. “Well, I guess the only way to know is to ask. So, why don’t we get going?”

Once again, Ben made a move to leave, and once again the marshal stopped him. “Mr. Cartwright, I think you should be cautious about going into town.”

“Marshal Taylor, I appreciate you warning me about Farrow, but right now I need to find my sons.”

The marshal eyed his deputy, Zak Bentley, who’d been silent up until now. “But that’s just it, sir; it might be better for you and your sons if you stayed out of town.”

“Oh, and why is that?” he demanded from the deputy.

“Ray Farrow could be using your sons to lure you into town. The trial starts in two days and…to put it bluntly…if you’re dead, that’ll be the end of it and Dirk will go free.”

Ben didn’t dispute it. He’d already considered that possibility. “That may be, but if my sons are in any kind of danger, then all the more reason for me to go.” He gestured to his men. “And it isn’t as if I’m alone.”

The deputy cast a furtive glance at the lawman, who took up the argument. He liked this Ben Cartwright and hated to keep his sons’ injuries from him, but he wanted to hook up with Roy Coffee and see what they could discover without having to worry about Ben getting killed in the process. “All it takes is one well aimed shot. Why not let us scout around first?”

Ben gave him an irritated look. “Marshal Taylor,” he said in a determined voice, “I’m going into town, and if anything has happened to my sons, it’ll be me hunting Farrow down, not the other way around.”

“If? There is no if!” Billy declared, his emotions getting the best of him. “One’s already been beaten and another’s been shot! You need to listen to the marshal, Mr. Cartwright!”

Stricken, Ben glared at the marshal as he swept by him without another word. “Let’s ride!” he called to his men.

Exasperated, Marshal Taylor sighed and gave Billy a long look. “Let’s go,” he muttered.

*****

Roy stepped out of the mercantile and headed down the boardwalk to his office. Out of habit, he surveyed the people on the street. It was mid morning and the day was well underway. Unable to stifle it, he let out a loud yawn. He usually grabbed a quick nap right about now. It was the quietest time of day for a sheriff — the saloons were empty and the business day was humming along. Unfortunately, he’d have to forego it today. He scowled and shook his head, wishing the Cartwright boys had stayed home and out of trouble. Frankly, he was surprised Ben hadn’t put his foot down, but then again, there hadn’t been any reason to think Ray Farrow would resort to violence. Of course, it could have been Dirk’s doing last night. He had a feeling he was behind all the rumors circulating in town. He shook his head. It was a shame the judge let that boy out on bail and even more of a shame that folks were listening to his talk. Anyone with a whit of sense ought to know he was just spoutin’ off a pack of lies to discredit Ben as a witness. And then there was Tom, acting like a dadblamed fool. With Folly being the only other person besides Doc privy to Adam’s comments, he was sure she’d turned his head. Well, he’d let him stew on it for awhile before he pressed him further. In the meantime, he thought, as he opened the door to his office, I’ll just grab a quick shave and a bite to eat. But just as he stepped in, the pounding of hoof beats commanded his attention and he swung back around. He wasn’t surprised to see who it was.

Catching sight of Roy, Ben brought his horse to an abrupt halt, causing a chain reaction with his men. “Roy,” he called anxiously. “Do you know where the boys are?”

Roy squinted up at him, clearly disgruntled by the army of men. “They’re over at the Yucca in Folly’s room, but before you go….”

Ben’s face registered some surprise, but he didn’t stop to question it or listen to Roy’s parting words. He needed to see his boys.

Roy huffed at the quick dismissal and watched as the group made its way down the street. He wanted to talk to Ben, but not before he got that shave and something to eat. He tiredly reached for the door only to be stopped by the pounding of more hoof beats. His eyes narrowed in dismay when he recognized Marshal Taylor. “Confound it!” he grumbled to himself. “You’d think those jaspers at the territorial office would have more sense than to send him!”

*****

Cramped inside Folly’s room, the Cartwright brothers caught up on some much needed sleep. With their backs to each other, Adam and Joe shared the bed, while Hoss, mouth open and snoring, napped in a chair. None of them heard the knock at the door until it grew more insistent and was accompanied by a terse shout.

Sputtering awake, Hoss got to his feet. “Dadburn,” he muttered, “that Folly’s a busy gal.”

Groggy from a drug-induced sleep, but awake enough to recognize their father’s voice, Adam gave a weak chuckle. “I don’t think that’s a customer, Hoss, leastways not that we know of.”

Hoss and Joe grinned, both awake enough to recognize the familiar bellow now. “Better hurry up,” Joe quipped, “before Pa breaks down the door.”

Hoss hastened to open it and was almost bowled over by his father rushing in. “Hoss,” he exclaimed, touching his arm, “are you all right? Where’s Adam and Little Joe?”

Hoss gave him a reassuring smile. “I’m fine and they’re right here.” He pointed to the bed and then reached over and tugged on the window shade. It snapped up, letting in a flood of sunlight.

Swinging his legs to the floor, Joe stood up and gave his Pa a welcoming smile. “Now, Pa, I know I look kind of banged up, but it’s really not that bad.”

Ben put a hand behind his youngest son’s neck and pulled him into a hug. “Could’ve fooled me. Who did this to you, boy?”

“Uh, well, that’s a long story; maybe you oughta check on Adam first.” Joe was happy to see his Pa, but didn’t look forward to telling him he’d ignored his edict about the Yucca. Injured or not, Pa was going to be far from pleased.

Ben looked past him to the bed. Adam was propped on some pillows, one behind his head and another under his wounded leg. He gave his father a sheepish look. “Sorry I didn’t bring ‘em home, Pa.”

His eyes warm, Ben shook his head, dismissing the notion that Adam needed to apologize. “Never mind about that,” he said, resting a hand on his shoulder. “I want to know about your leg. How is it?”

Adam flashed a smile, grateful it wasn’t worse. “Doc Martin said the bullet went in and out, slick as a whistle.”

Glad there were no complications, but upset that it had happened at all, Ben adopted a demanding tone to cover his emotions. “Well, that’s some consolation, I suppose, but how did it happen? And why are you holed up here of all places?”

*****

Chapter 11, by Kaatje

It was too warm in the large bedroom, but not as sweltering as the usual summer day in Nevada. The dusty window shade flapped now and then, stirred by a sluggish breeze. Folly edged around the brass bed carefully, not wanting to wake the two slumberers. Daytime sleep was never as easy, but a gal had to get used to it if she lived this life. It was second nature now to catch a nap when she could, but these girls were young, and still adjusting—almost too young, to her way of thinking. A lot of men enjoyed the company of women who’d done a little living. Still, she’d been consulted on their hiring, and she couldn’t complain. They were pretty enough to attract a lot of attention, especially in a raw town like this. The same was true of her, naturally. The Yucca could boast of having the best looking saloon gals in town. A sigh escaped her as she picked up some of their outer garments from the floor and hung them on the bedpost. She continued making her way across the room. Maybe the sigh was partly for her own lost youth.

Of course, Folly could pass for young in the right light, but that wouldn’t last many more years, lucky as she’d been with her looks. Her thirtieth birthday would come next month. Twice the age of some in this business. She glanced at Thalia, whose eyelids were squeezed tightly enough that she doubted the girl was still sleeping. Poor kid. The sixteen year old had chewed her fingernails down out of fear. If she didn’t do better next time she was given a task, Pete would probably turn her out. He was Ray Farrow’s man through and through, even though folks around here saw him as well-to-do in his own right. The owner of the Yucca saloon had taken pains to be sure Hoss and Joe Cartwright were welcomed here, and it had worked, if not the way Pete had intended. Thalia’s overtures had gone largely unnoticed by Little Joe. Certainly, he was kind enough to the tiny brunette in an off handed way, but the youngest Cartwright had eyes for a more mature woman, and a boldness that belied his years. Folly had found that out herself, gently fending off his sometimes less than sober advances. One thing that could be said of Joe, he was still charming with too much alcohol in him. However, she was no longer in a position that forced her to accommodate every willing customer. Now and then she’d humor one, or accede to Pete’s wishes for a special guest, but she was hostess and that meant she could choose, within limits. There were four other women to take care of that side of things. She’d finally succeeded in turning Joe’s attentions to Opal, despite Pete’s plans for Thalia.

Out of all the bedrooms on the second floor, this one was special. Special by accident, but in a way she could use to her advantage. A rather small water color portrait was her goal. The scene depicted was one of a demure maiden placing flowers in a basket. Folly stepped in close to the wall and removed the oval frame from the nail. Setting the picture on the nearby dresser, she positioned her right eye near a carefully enhanced crack in the plaster. She’d been able to hear parts of the discussion even in the hallway. Ben Cartwright was not a quiet man. In the last few moments, his volume had increased. It was all she could do not to giggle as she got a look. Little Joe’s face couldn’t get any redder. His brothers didn’t seem to be very comfortable either.

Folly gazed at Adam, indulging in a lighter sigh this time. The doctor had done his work earlier, and she’d intended to help. She was certain she wouldn’t have been excused from the room, if not for Cartwright interference. Paul Martin was a practical man, after all. It would hardly have been the first time she’d seen a man without his clothes. Hoss and Joe had been concerned with their oldest brother’s dignity, even if Adam had been largely unaware after drinking the doc’s concoction. She’d simply come to this room and watched anyway. His brothers had undressed him more gently than she’d have thought men could. Too slowly for Dr. Martin, because he’d snapped at them to get on with it. After that, they’d assisted Paul stoically enough, but she’d seen the pain in their eyes when the wound was probed and Adam flinched and groaned involuntarily. The patient was more awake than they’d thought. He’d flinched more when the injury was cleansed, although he’d been quieter about it. Without his brothers, he might have thrashed dangerously during either operation. Hands that had held him down moved to soothe afterwards. Much could be said with a squeeze to an arm, and a brief touch where it wouldn’t hurt. He was very still for the stitching the followed–evidently not as sensitive a procedure. Obviously, their brother’s pain had affected them both deeply. Incredibly, she’d felt an ache in her throat, just from watching. What must it be like to have family who cared that much?

 “Do you mean to tell me you thought it didn’t count anymore, because I said it a few months ago?” Ben Cartwright placed his hands on his hips, incredulity expressed in his stance as well as his face.

Joe squirmed in his place and didn’t meet his father’s eyes.

“Easy, Joe.” Adam’s protest sounded sleepy. Joe was sitting on the bed where he was trying to rest, after all.

“I’m waiting for an answer, young man.”

“Pa, old Carl had moved on. He ain’t here to get jealous anymore. We reckoned there’d be no trouble, with him gone.” Hoss gave a small shrug.

“No trouble.” Ben took a breath and repeated it with more force. “No trouble!  I’d say you ran into plenty of trouble, wouldn’t you?”

“Yessir.” The answers came quickly.

Folly wasn’t sure if that had come from two Cartwright throats or three, until she saw a slight smile on Adam’s face. Two, she thought.

“Joseph Francis Cartwright, stand up. You too, Hoss.”

Folly put a hand over her mouth to cover a laugh. It shouldn’t really have been funny, but the sick expression on the usually cocky young man’s face amused her. He wasn’t much more than a boy after all. Hoss wasn’t looking much more confident, big and capable as he obviously was.

Ben Cartwright moved closer to his youngest, index finger at the ready. “I mean what I say, whether I say it this month, last month or last year. Is that understood?”

Little Joe gulped dutifully and nodded.

“And you.” The eldest Cartwright pointed at his middle son. “Twenty-four years old. You were supposed to keep him out of trouble.”

Hoss flushed and watched the floor as he nodded. “Sorry, Pa.”

Folly felt a touch of guilt, now. After all, she’d been trying to seduce Hoss Cartwright for some time, with limited success. He’d been slow to accept her advances, possibly due to Joe’s seeming interest at first. Now that Little Joe had turned his attention to Opal, she’d gotten Hoss to allow some touches and an occasional kiss. From his recent responses, she thought it wouldn’t be much longer. Hoss had turned out to be more man than she’d thought at first, though. While obviously attracted to her, he wasn’t allowing Folly to set the pace entirely. In fact, when Joe’s beating had occurred, she’d been leaning in very near to the big man, as he’d played poker. She smiled as she recalled their closeness. Hoss had plainly appreciated her company. It hadn’t been a deliberate distraction, just a continuation of Pete’s orders. As far as she knew, the timing was coincidental.

Adam sighed from the bed and placed a hand over his eyes. He no longer seemed amused. “Pa, there’s more to this than…”

“I know.” Ben seemed to lose some steam, and gave his largest son’s shoulder a pat. “I know. Neither one of you caused this. Sit down, boys.” He paced back toward the door, ignoring the mild grunt from Adam as his brothers plunked down on the empty side of the bed. “Adam, I have more questions.”

“Questions, Pa?” Adam opened his eyes again. “I’ve told you all I know about the shooting.”

Ben leaned against the door frame and crossed his arms, standing in silent thought. As Folly watched this, she was suddenly struck by his resemblance to Adam. There was another man he reminded her of, though. She hadn’t gotten a good look at Ben Cartwright before, but in some indefinable way, he reminded her of Ray Farrow, Dirk’s father. True, Ray Farrow was tall and silver haired — that much they had in common. Maybe it was as simple as bearing, and having an air of authority. Farrow was craggier than Ben and lanky, much like an older version of his son. Folly thought he might even have been as handsome as Dirk once. What set her back was the coldness in his icy blue eyes. A coldness that only surfaced occasionally in his son. Although she was attracted to Dirk, and even fascinated by his wild moods, there was something the Cartwright men had that the Farrows lacked. Adam in particular was at least as fascinating as Dirk, but he would never have real feelings for her. He appreciated her face and figure—he was even amused by her comments, on occasion. That much she could read in his eyes. There was a distance in him, too, though. At least when it came to her.

“What do you remember about the time you left for college?” Ben asked.

“The time I left for college?” Adam’s eyebrows went up, and he started to pull himself to a sitting position.

Hoss was nearer the foot of the bed, but he put a hand on his brother’s good leg. “Doc said to stay flat.”

“Oh, come on, Hoss.” Adam looked at Joe for support, but received a headshake from his youngest brother.

“You’d better,” Ben added.

Adam rolled his eyes as he sank back down. “All right, then.”

A fly buzzed near Folly’s ear and she brushed it away, before returning her attention to the scene. She wondered if the girls behind her were even trying to sleep anymore. As much noise as Mr. Cartwright had made, she thought not.

Adam reached an arm behind his head, at least propping himself a small amount. Dark eyelashes lowered as his mouth took a sober turn. “After we…’’ He paused for a moment. “After we said our goodbyes…”

“What I remember is the night before.” Joe’s interruption was followed by a quiet giggle.

Ben’s eyes widened as Hoss snorted a laugh and Adam chuckled.

“Ah yes, a visit from the Spirit of the Ponderosa.” Adam grinned at his youngest brother.

Folly had never seen this kind of smile on Adam’s face. It was different from his usual. He had an innocent, almost boyish look. Was that expression caused by a fond memory, or was there more to it?

Ben frowned. “Did this have something to do with that trail of flour going between your bedrooms?”

Hoss slapped Joe’s back. “Here I done thought we got it all cleaned up, and Little Joe, too.”

Joe laughed and blushed, but appeared to be pleased when his oldest brother tapped his arm.

“We did get cleaned Joe up, whether he liked it or not.” Adam chuckled again. “I still don’t know where you two got the idea. At least Pa never found the pine needles from the garlands.”

“Pine needles? Just what were you boys up to?” Ben’s lips twitched but he managed to sound annoyed.

“It was just one last prank, Pa.” Joe’s eyes twinkled.

Hoss shook his head, but didn’t lose the small smile he had. “It was a laugh, and I reckon we needed it. We sure had been through one sad and sorry week.”

“Well,” Adam cleared his throat. “It didn’t turn out to be the last prank, did it?”

“Only the last for awhile, brother.” Hoss gave his good leg a pat.

“Well, it sounds like there was no harm done.” Ben Cartwright’s smile had come out. “What I’m asking about is your trip, though. Whom did you…”

A loud rapping on the door cut in. “Ben, open up. I got Marshal Taylor here with me.”

Roy Coffee again. Folly wondered why he was back so soon, and with a marshal. She’d seen a lot of red faces today, but Roy’s face was merely red on the cheekbones. He looked even angrier than when she’d spread the scent among the saloon patrons. Three men accompanied him into the room. One stocky and competent looking — at least the same age as Ben. When he removed his hat, what remained of his hair was gray. The next was around thirty and rangy, with brown hair and an equal air of competence. The third was younger and slighter, with sandy hair and angry dark eyes.

“Ben, you ain’t gotta rehash it fer me. I heard the story from the marshal.” Roy frowned and tucked his thumbs in his gun belt. “Now, all we gotta know is what Adam remembers.”

*****

Adam’s throat was dry from talking. Between Marshal Taylor and Roy, he’d had to go over every detail numerous times. Young Billy Murdoch had been watching a little too intently for comfort. He supposed that was to be expected, since he was talking about the man who’d killed the boy’s father. Marshal Taylor was very cool about the whole thing, dispassionately questioning one point or another. Some of his questions hadn’t seemed relevant to the case, but perhaps he was simply testing memory. Zak Bentley had given Adam an approving nod once or twice during his recitation, but he’d remained silent. Roy’s attitude was the puzzling one. If Adam hadn’t known better, he’d have thought Roy was itching for an excuse to fight with Taylor. A few times he’d tried to object to the marshal’s line of questioning, too.

“You’re sure about it all, then. It was Brian Sebring you traveled with?” Roy asked.

Not again. “From the marshal’s poster, yes. I don’t see why Sebring’s testimony wouldn’t be worth a lot more than mine, though. After all, as far as I knew, he was just a man going to Omaha.”

“But you didn’t recognize Ray Farrow.”

“The man at lunch that day — I’m sorry Roy, but I really don’t think it was Farrow. Changes happen in ten years, but not that many.”

“Ten years is a long time, mister. You only saw him once.” Billy Murdoch said. “Sebring ain’t got no reason to lie. He’s goin’ to the gallows, anyway, if that appeal don’t work. No reason it should.”

“How old are you?” Adam couldn’t help asking the question.

Billy Murdoch bristled. “Nineteen, as if that makes a difference.”

“Nine when your father died, then.” Adam tried to get his leg into a comfortable position again, but he was stopped by a firm clasp on his ankle.

“Doc said not to keep movin’ it around,” Hoss said.

Internally, Adam counted. His leg felt like it was on fire and cramping at the same time and Hoss was not helping, well-meaning though he was. “Let go.” It was a small triumph for him when his brother complied. He shifted enough to get some relief and slipped a hand behind his thigh, trying for some surreptitious rubbing. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his father moving closer.

“I was nine, but I ain’t forgot him.” Murdoch turned to the marshal. “Amos, we can’t have come all this way for nothin’.”

Taylor’s eyes softened as he put a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Billy, it wasn’t for nothin’. He witnessed the cash payment and that verifies Sebring’s story. Just because the man wasn’t Farrow himself doesn’t mean it wasn’t his agent.”

“Damn it, Amos! That ain’t the proof we need!” Murdoch’s eyes were suddenly wet and his voice cracked, even with his obvious anger.

“Excuse us, folks.” Taylor’s hand gripped young Billy’s shoulder a little harder. “Son, come out in the hall here. We need to talk.”

Adam started thinking about the men he knew who worked for the Farrow operation. So many faces—had he met one of them ten years ago? As he was mulling the images over, he heard a loud but feminine sneeze. Roy’s gaze turned in the same direction. There was a bad crack in the opposite wall’s plaster. He’d noticed it before and wondered why The Yucca’s owner hadn’t had it repaired. He’d never actually met Pete Saunders, but the man had enough money by all accounts. It had seemed odd that he’d let some drunken customer break up his building without fixing the damage. Roy was looking at him now, giving him a nod. He quickly turned his attention away from the crack. Fortunately, the perfect distraction had arrived. Another pair of hands were on his leg. “Pa, you don’t have to…”

“How long has this leg been cramping?” Ben demanded, carefully rubbing above the bandaged area. “Will rolling over help?”

“A little while, and not according to Paul.” Adam answered, aware of Roy and Zak Bentley slipping out the door, but not looking at them directly. He hoped they could locate the source of the sneeze.

“Well, you can try it anyway.”

Adam never thought he’d be in for this kind of treatment at age thirty. However, he recognized the inevitable. He allowed his father to help him roll over and rub the uninjured parts of his leg. Pa was good at this, after all, and careful where he indicated real pain. His body relaxed as the cramps started to ease—until he heard Folly and Roy’s voices through the wall. Quite a shouting match, from the sound of it.

*****

Chapter 12, by LizK

Folly tilted her face from side to side, studying herself in the mirror. She tucked a stray curl behind her ear and smoothed the powder over her eyes. Then she moved back and gave herself a wink. Not many women in her business looked so good at her age and she knew it.

She stepped back to get a fuller view of herself. Placing her hands at her hips and turning sideways she studied her figure. She could still turn heads with it, even old goats like Roy Coffee.

She smirked at herself remembering how he’d come charging into the room earlier, eyes blazing, scaring Thalia and Kate out of their wits and startling her — she hadn’t seen him leave the room next door. Boy, had he been fire and brimstone.

She grinned as she smoothed her emerald green dress down over her still slim hips. She liked this dress because it matched her eyes and she knew she looked good in it. It gave her confidence. Something she’d need tonight, that was certain.

Of course she hadn’t needed it earlier, all she’d had to do was bluff and bluster right along with him for awhile, then turn dumb and innocent and twirl the sheriff’s tie a little and he’d calmed down quickly enough, letting her go after warning her to get the wall fixed and to stop eavesdropping on people she had no business eavesdropping on.

It was an old trick but a good one. She’d have to remember to pass it on to Thalia. Poor kid.

Folly leaned forward again and adjusted the collar of her dress, then reached for her powder to apply a few careful touches here and there until she was perfection.

The Farrows wouldn’t be so easy to maneuver. Folly knew that and she cursed the impulse that had led her to offer Hoss her room when Little Joe had been brought into the saloon, beaten and bleeding.

Her weakness for those Cartwrights was causing her all sorts of trouble and now she had a summons from the big man himself. Folly just knew it was because of them. She should have stayed well away from the whole thing. Thank goodness they’d moved over to the hotel and given her room back to her.

Folly tweaked a curl carefully into place and studied herself one last time. It was as good as it was going to get. She only hoped it was good enough. She hoped she was good enough. It was going to take all her ingenuity and vaunted acting skills to keep herself out of trouble tonight, she could feel it. Well, she hadn’t gotten as far as she had by being a dummy or letting anyone intimidate her and she wasn’t about to start now.

A light tapping on her door interrupted her thoughts and after another careful scan of herself, she picked up her wrap and went to answer the door.

*****

The room was dim. The dark paneling and heavy brocade curtains reflected little of the light from the oil lamps over the fireplace. Rather they absorbed it leaving most of the room in shadows. But Byron liked it that way. He snipped the end from his cigar, lit it, then settled back deep into the armchair and crossed his legs. He pulled on the cigar, enjoying its flavor. His father had always had excellent taste and he was glad to see it hadn’t changed. He smiled in amusement at the silver-haired man pacing just in front of the massive desk beyond the sitting area.

Ray Farrow stopped his pacing long enough to pull out a gold pocket watch. He glanced at it then closed it in frustration before returning it to his vest pocket.

“Hasn’t changed much, has he?” Byron commented dryly.

Farrow glared at him but didn’t respond, merely began his restless pacing once again.

Byron shrugged. He was used to his father’s lack of response when it came to Dirk. They’d long ago agreed to disagree about Byron’s younger brother. He was also used to Dirk being late. He had never been on time for anything. It was of a piece with his arrogance and lack of respect.

The two men waited together in silence–Byron enjoying the cigar and watching the flames of the fire, Farrow endlessly pacing.

Both men were instantly alert as footsteps approached down the hallway. The door opened and Dirk walked in. He greeted his father with a haphazard smile.

“Sorry I’m late. I was busy with something that couldn’t wait,” Dirk began his explanation, then stopped when he saw Byron sitting quietly beside the fire.

He turned to his father. “What’s he doing here?”

“Hello to you, too, little brother,” Byron said, his voice dripping sarcasm, but Dirk ignored him, focusing instead on Farrow.

“Your brother has some information he thought he should tell us in person,” Farrow explained.

“Not to mention getting your sorry hide out of another mess,” Byron added.

“I don’t need your help.”

Byron raised one eyebrow. “Oh? You certainly could have fooled me.”

“Boys, please,” Farrow broke in. “This is hardly the time.” He leaned back against his desk and crossed his arms. “Dirk, Byron has information we need. Important information. So have a seat and behave yourself for once.”

Dirk began to protest but a look from Farrow silenced him. He glared at Byron again, then sat in the chair opposite him.

“All right, Byron, tell Dirk what you know.”

Byron sat back deeper in the chair and pondered his cigar for a moment. He enjoyed making Dirk wait, knowing how impatient his brother was. It was one of the ways he kept Dirk humble. After waiting a few moments while Dirk squirmed, he started.

“The Virginia City Sheriff’ has gotten jittery. All this animosity you’ve been stirring up against the Cartwrights is making him nervous. Evidently he’s worried that things might get out of hand so he’s called in reinforcements. He sent to the Territorial office for help and they’ve sent a marshal and his deputy to help him keep order.”

“And that’s supposed to be news?” Dirk said. “We knew that two days ago.”

Byron smiled tolerantly at him. “In that case, you must know who they sent?”

“What does it matter? A couple more badges aren’t going to make much difference one way or the other.”

Byron looked up at his father and shrugged.

“Cut the theatrics, Byron, and tell him.”

“Tell me what?” Dirk looked suspiciously between his father and brother.

“They’ve sent Taylor and the Murdoch kid is with him.”

“You know what that means, don’t you, Dirk?” Farrow broke in. “He’s here after us.”

A light tap on the door was followed by the entrance of the butler. “Miss Folly and Mr. Saunders,” he announced and then withdrew.

*****

Folly trotted along behind Pete Saunders, trying to keep up as best she could, though the darkness of the streets made it difficult if she didn’t want to fall on her face. It would have been nice if Saunders had offered her his arm but she had discovered long ago that he wasn’t one to waste social niceties on “his girls”. It didn’t really matter. He paid well, better than a lot of saloons, and he pretty much left them alone to do their job–except for the occasional special request as in the case of the Cartwright men. Folly still wondered about that, but she’d learned early that if one didn’t ask questions and did her job one got along a whole lot better. Folly was a smart gal; she kept her nose out of things and she’d done well by herself because of it.

Until now that is. Now she found herself smack dab in the middle of two warring families and was finding it a very uncomfortable place to be. As she scurried to keep up with Saunders, her mind worked feverishly trying come up with a plan to keep herself from getting in even deeper than she already was.

She’d just have to explain to the Farrows that she’d had enough. She wanted out of whatever it was they were planning. That she didn’t know anything and didn’t want to know anything. It had worked with Sheriff Coffee. Dumb and innocent, it always worked. Dirk liked her, she knew that, a little push in that direction and maybe they would just leave her alone. Maybe…

Saunders suddenly stopped in front of her and she stumbled into him.

“Watch it, girl,” he said as he grabbed her to keep her from falling. Then he turned and strode up a walkway toward a large brick mansion – the Farrow house.

“Sorry.” Folly said to his back as she followed him. Her voice quivered and she silently cursed her weakness.

He turned and stared hard at her. “Don’t worry; they just want to have a little talk.” He rapped on the door and gave her a crooked smile. “Just tell ’em what they want to know, and everything will be fine.”

“Yeah, well. What if I don’t want to talk?” Folly tried to sound tough.

Saunders just laughed. “You’ll talk. If you know what’s good for you.”

The door opened and a butler appeared. “Yes?”

“Mr. Saunders and Miss Folly to see Mr. Farrow.”

“Ah yes, you were expected. This way please.”

Saunders smiled at her again and then led the way behind the butler. Folly stared around her. The Farrow’s lived in a style she hadn’t seen often. And though she felt slightly overwhelmed at the sheer size of the place, it surprised her that there was so little ostentation about it. From her dealings with Dirk, she would have thought his father to be flashy as well, yet the house was simply and elegantly furnished, the man had good taste she had to admit that.

The butler stopped outside ornately carved double doors and asked them to wait a moment. He entered the room and Folly heard her and Saunders announced to those inside, then the door was opened wide for them to enter.

The room was lit by only a few oil lamps and a fire in the fireplace, but Folly could feel the immense size of it as shadows leaped toward high ceilings and far walls. She felt dwarfed by it, small and insignificant, and it added to her nervousness. She stood quietly just inside the door unwilling to draw attention to herself and scanned the room as Saunders stepped forward to take Farrow’s outstretched hand. Dirk was sitting in a chair before the fire, looking as handsome as ever. He saw her glance at him and he gave her a smile and wink. She smiled back, then turned her gaze to the man seated in the chair across from him.

He was studying Saunders with an air of detachment, holding a cigar easily in his right hand. Folly had never seen him before, but she was pretty sure who he was. His resemblance to Dirk would have told her even if she hadn’t already known Dirk had an older brother. An older brother he didn’t care for. He’d told her lots about Byron. The name came easily to her mind and she was sure it was the right one. He lived in San Francisco she knew and took care of the Farrow operations on that end. Dirk considered him a show off and a know it all. Underneath it all, she thought she detected jealousy. From what she gathered Ray Farrow leaned heavily on his eldest son in matters of business and otherwise and Dirk resented that. She could understand it. The man’s calm presence was quite a contrast to Dirk’s habitual moodiness. She could see a lot of his father in him.

As if he felt her studying him, Byron suddenly turned and looked at her. He held her gaze and then smiled a slow intimate smile that had her blushing. Folly didn’t blush easily and it irritated her. Quickly she turned her attention back to Saunders and Farrow, but not before she caught Dirk’s glare at his brother. He’d seen the smile too. Well, Folly couldn’t help it if she was attractive to men, but good grief she sure didn’t need anymore men trouble, not at the moment. She kept her eyes on Saunders back, but she was sure she heard a low chuckle and she felt her face flame again.

“Well, we’ve no time to waste. Let’s get started shall we,” she heard Farrow say and he directed Saunders to a seat and then as if noticing her for the first time, he smiled and stepped forward. “Ah, Folly. What a pleasure to have you in our home. Please won’t you be seated?” he said, taking her arm and gesturing to a chair near Byron.

Byron stood as she approached and flashed her another smile. “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure, Miss,” he said taking her hand and bowing over it.

“No introductions are necessary,” Dirk interrupted, grabbing her arm. “Sit over here, Folly,” he said giving his brother a look that sent a clear message and that Byron accepted with a smirk.

Folly extracted herself from both men, unwilling to get in the middle of another war. “Thank you, but I think I’ll sit over here,” she said and moved swiftly to take a seat next to Saunders.

“Wise girl,” Farrow said, moving to stand by his desk and grinning at his sons. Scowling, Dirk returned to his seat and Byron winked at her before resuming his own. Farrow smiled down on her. “You are a wise girl aren’t you, Folly?” he said, then threw a leg over the edge of his desk and sat down.

“I try to be, Mr. Farrow.”

“Please, call me Ray.” His smile made Folly feel like a mouse about to be pounced on, but she squelched the feeling. She refused to let the man intimidate her.

“Ray,” She smiled.

“We’ve been told you’ve had some important guests recently.”

Folly shot a glance at Saunders, but he was giving her no help. “I’m not sure what you mean,” she said, trying to give herself a little time.

Farrow smiled again. “Oh, come now, Folly. I don’t think we need these games. I think you know exactly who I mean. You’ve had quite a few visitors today. The Cartwrights, Doctor Martin, Sheriff Coffee, and some others too. Am I right?”

“So what of it. I’m paid to be nice to people.”

“Remember where you are girl.” Saunders voice held a warning, but Farrow held up a hand.

“I’ll handle this, Pete.” Farrow returned to Folly. “Yes, you are paid to be nice to people and you did a very good job today, Folly. You helped the Cartwrights and I’m sure they’re very grateful to you.”

Folly narrowed her eyes. The conversation had taken a turn she wasn’t expecting. She had expected to be taken to task for giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

“We want you to keep being nice to them.” Farrow glanced at Saunders and winked. “Get real close to them. Help them. Let them know they have a friend in you.”

Folly suddenly understood and it made her go cold.

“What!” Dirk came out of his chair.

Farrow wheeled on him. “You have a problem, Dirk?” Folly could hear the steel in Farrow’s voice as he glared at this son.

“Folly’s my girl, Dad. You can’t make her play nice to those Cartwrights!”

Farrow turned back to Folly and looked her over carefully, then turned to Dirk. “Can’t, Dirk?” He stood and stepped toward his son until he seemed to tower over him. “I really don’t think you’re in a position to tell me what I can’t do, boy. If it weren’t for you, we wouldn’t even be having this little conversation, would we? If you hadn’t been an idiot and robbed a bank, I wouldn’t have to concern myself with saloon girls, yours or otherwise, would I?” Farrow’s voice had risen steadily, but suddenly it changed and became low and menacing. “And if it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t have Taylor breathing down our necks again, would we? Now sit down and don’t tell me again what I can’t do. As far as I’m concerned, you no longer have any say in this discussion.”

Folly watched as Dirk’s eyes narrowed, and his jaw clenched. She had seen those signs before and she prepared for the outburst. It didn’t come. As Farrow held his son’s eyes with his own, Dirk’s fell and sullenly he sat back down in his chair. Folly eyes fell on Byron. There was a smirk on his face almost as if he relished the scene between his father and brother and she couldn’t help contrasting it all with the other family scene she had witnessed earlier. They were as different as night and day.

Farrow turned to her again. “I’m sorry about that, Folly,” he smiled. “Now where were we?”

*****

Adam checked the edge of his razor with his thumb, then leaned in toward the mirror and carefully ran the razor down the length of his chin. Slowly, he began removing the two days growth of beard that had been plaguing him. It felt good. Almost as good as being out of that bed and almost as good as not having his family hovering over him. Finishing the left side he tapped the razor against the porcelain bowl and started on the right.

It had taken a lot of ingenuity, no small amount of persuasion and even a little bullying to get his family to leave him on his own for awhile. But as soon as they were safely away he had used the chair to hobble over to the wash basin. It was a small act, getting up and shaving on his own, but Adam felt as if he’d won a major battle.

And though his leg had throbbed painfully and he’d had to stop more than once to rest even in that small distance, he had persevered until he’d made it to the wash stand and mirror.

It wasn’t easy, shaving while leaning against the stand with most of his weight on one leg, but it was better than nothing and he wasn’t going to quit until he finished the job.

Methodically, he scraped under his neck, and then went carefully around the curves of his mouth and over his upper lip. Tapping the razor once again, he looked at himself in the mirror, turning from side to side, making sure he hadn’t missed anything. He smiled at himself and then used the towel to wipe away the rest of the lather. He ran a hand over the now smooth skin and sighed. Much better.

A sharp twinge in his leg and a wave of dizziness that had him gripping the edge of the washstand reminded him that he didn’t have time to admire himself. He turned and used the chair to hobble back to the bed. Gratefully he laid back down. The dull throbbing pain, the dizziness, and the exhaustion that swept over him as he lay there made him wonder if it had been worth it. Then he ran a hand across his smooth cheek once again and smiled. He’d done what he’d set out to do, he’d been up on his own. He’d had to prove to himself that he could because the trial was coming up day after tomorrow and as hot as everything was getting he couldn’t be lying around — his family was going to need him.

*****

Chapter 13, by Patina

“This is my town and it’s my duty to protect her citizens,” said Roy with some heat in his voice.

“I’m not disputing that fact,” said the marshal with aggravation in his voice. “What I said was that Adam Cartwright should be protected at all times since he has information that can lock away the Farrows for the rest of their lives.”

“Ben and his other two sons can keep an eye on Adam better than anyone else can. Besides, I doubt Adam’s goin’ dancin’ with that leg of his.”

“That’s not the point!” the exasperated marshal replied. “The other Cartwrights can’t babysit Adam at all times. Bentley here can keep Cartwright under protective custody until the trial is over.”

“There’s no reason for Adam to be kept in jail durin’ the trial!”

“I never said he had to be kept in jail, Coffee. I just have to be sure that the Farrows won’t try another way to get him out of the picture so he can’t nail their coffins shut.”

“There’s no proof that one of the Farrows shot Adam — no one saw anythin’. Adam doesn’t even know who pulled the trigger.”

“They probably hired someone,” said Billy snidely. “It’s not their way to do their dirty work themselves.”

Taylor shot Billy a glare to shut the boy’s mouth. The last thing he wanted was for the sheriff to feel he was being backed into a corner or being pushed aside. He wasn’t about to let the Farrows get away with murder yet again by a small technicality. This time, come hell or high water, the Farrows would get what they deserved. And maybe a little extra.

“You’ve got too much personal history with the Farrows, Taylor. How do I know you don’t just want the Cartwrights stowed away somewhere so you can arrange an accident of sort for the Farrows?”

“Just what are you implying? Are you saying I’d go outside the boundaries of the law to pay off a personal vendetta rather than bring criminals to justice?”

Deputy Bentley broke into this heated exchange. “How about this — I’ll serve as Cartwright’s bodyguard. If he’ll be separated from his family for any reason, even if he has to go to the necessary after dark, I’ll make sure that our key witness isn’t a clear target for anyone with itchy fingers. This way, you and the sheriff can keep law and order here in town and keep your eyes on both the Cartwrights and the Farrows.”

Both the sheriff and the marshal squinted in thought. “Who’s goin’ to keep an eye on Folly?” asked Roy. “I don’t like that she was listenin’ in on our conversation over at the Yucca. She might be passin’ information to the Farrows for all we know. Maybe Bentley should keep an eye on her.”

“I’ll keep an eye on her, Sheriff,” offered Billy.

Taylor shot Billy another glare. The young man was cocky and angry at the Farrows; if Folly was on their payroll, Billy would be an easy target for a professional manipulator like her.

*****

Folly didn’t like being ordered to cozy up to the Cartwrights — it was one thing to socialize as part of her job but it was another to do so to advance someone else’s agenda. She couldn’t shake the image of Byron’s cool appraising eyes undressing her slowly during that meeting. The anger radiating from Dirk towards his brother had been hot enough to make bacon sizzle. Not only was she caught between her employer and his boss but she was also trapped square in the middle between the Cartwrights and Farrows. Both were powerful families, so the wrong roll of the dice could leave her jobless and penniless or, even worse, dead.

She had been told to keep a close eye on Adam since he apparently held the key to identifying which Farrow had been behind a killing in Placerville. Mr. Farrow (the father) wanted her to pay Adam a visit and gently pick his brain about his brief stay in that town before leaving for college. If gentle didn’t work, she dreaded to think what the Farrows would do to the eldest of Ben Cartwright’s sons to get the information they wanted.

Adam heard a gentle tapping on the hotel room door. “Who’s there?”

“It’s me, Folly.”

Adam got out of bed and limped over to the door. He opened it and asked, “Did you need something?”

“I just wanted to check on you and make sure you’re all right. Could I come in for a few minutes?”

“I’m really tired.”

Folly heard the exhaustion in Adam’s voice and knew he wasn’t using weariness as an excuse to not speak with her. Maybe she should just come back later. “Where’s your family?”

“Out.” He was wary because of her eavesdropping on the conversation in her room with the sheriff and marshal. She had probably been paid by someone to do that; otherwise she surely would have been downstairs in the saloon earning her keep.

“You can trust me, Adam. I’m on your side.”

“Until the bullets start flying?”

“What is that supposed to mean?” she asked in indignation.

“It’s just an observation.”

“About…?”

“Seems odd that someone seemed to know I was heading over to Roy’s office the night I was shot. What’s even stranger is that they let me talk to Roy and waited until I was heading back for the Yucca. How do you suppose someone might have known where I was going?”

“I was in the room with Hoss and Joe! Ask them if you don’t believe me!”

“Maybe someone was next door with an ear to the wall.”

Folly turned scarlet as she remembered Roy Coffee barging into the girls’ room to confront her about eavesdropping. “I only want to help!” she protested.

“Why don’t you go on back to the Yucca and help some young cowboy part with his money?”

Folly slapped Adam hard across his clean-shaven cheek, leaving a red handprint behind. With a glare, she turned and stormed down the hall. Adam had to admit he wasn’t too surprised by her reaction — he had been goading her to find out whose side held her loyalty. Even with the slap, he wasn’t entirely sure.

*****

Billy was sitting at a table in the Yucca, sipping a warm beer and trying to observe the customers and saloon girls. Some of the girls seemed awful young to be entertaining men in private. This Folly, though, was a mature woman who would soon have to find another way to earn a living. He was thinking that with the right incentive, she’d accept any offer that put nooses around the Farrows’ necks.

Folly came down the stairs in a pale yellow dress. Many of the Yucca’s clientele stopped what they were doing to admire her. Not many women could make a cheap dress look expensive, yet Folly could make a potato sack appear glamorous. Some of the younger girls noted the slow way she descended the stairs, her eyes scanning the room below and her hand barely touching the banister as she seemed to move fluidly. Thalia gave her cowboy’s neckerchief a tug to turn his attention back to her; she needed to earn her money to support her ill mother.

As she progressed down the stairs, she took note of who was in the saloon. Her eye caught a young man she had seen in her room while eavesdropping. A smile tugged at the corner of her mouth — here was chance to make a few dollars and get information she could provide to either side in this conflict.

Reaching the first floor, she greeted regulars with a seductive finger stroke to the chin or a playful tug on a neckerchief. She made her way through the tables to the young man, who seemed to be transfixed by her. Stopping at the table, she asked, “Buy me a drink?”

“Um…Bartender! Bring me a bottle of whiskey. And two glasses.”

Pulling back a chair, she sat close to him and noticed he barely looked old enough to be shaving. A pang of guilt made its way through her heart, but she couldn’t be worried about him. After all, she wanted to be among the living when the trial was over.

“Aren’t you a bit young to be buying ladies drinks in saloons?”

“I’m 19,” he protested.

“Are you passing through Virginia City on your way somewhere….? I didn’t catch your name.”

“It’s Billy.”

The bottle of whiskey arrived and she poured them both a glass. Raising hers, she said “Nice to know you, Billy.” She drank hers in one gulp and noticed that Billy was making a face after his first sip. Too many times she’d seen a young man trying to impress a girl by knocking back a whiskey only to be sick all over the floor minutes later.

She poured herself another glass and let it sit there on the table. There was no point for her to keep drinking if he wasn’t going to be able to keep up. “So, what brings you to Virginia City?”

“The trial.”

“Are you just a spectator?”

“In a way.”

She knew he had arrived with the marshal so he wasn’t here for the trial’s entertainment value. “You plan on staying for the whole trial? Sometimes these things last for weeks.”

Billy took another sip of whiskey and said, “This one will be short.”

“You seem rather sure of that,” she replied with a raised eyebrow.

“I’ll just say there’s going to be a big surprise for the Farrows.”

“I don’t recall if the money that was stolen from the bank was ever found.”

“This has nothing to do with the bank robbery.”

Folly reached for her shot glass and tossed her drink back quickly. He must be talking about Adam being able to identify the Farrows. She was expected to let the Farrows know any new information immediately yet she wanted to pass a warning on to Ben Cartwright.

Pete stopped by the table and asked Billy, “Are you enjoying yourself?”

“I’m just passing the time with one of your fine ladies,” he replied.

Pete’s mouth smiled but his eyes didn’t. “Just keep on enjoying yourself.” He shot Folly a look before continuing his rounds.

She was pouring herself another glass when she felt a hand on her shoulder. “Hello, Miss Folly.” Her spine stiffened at that voice. What on Earth was he doing here? She turned to look and her worst suspicion was confirmed—it was Byron. When had he come in? She hadn’t noticed him when she came down the stairs. Surely he hadn’t been here the whole time.

Billy was taking another sip of his whiskey and glared daggers at the intruder.

Folly couldn’t believe this was happening. There wouldn’t be any way for her to massage the truth to either side now. She wondered if she was as pale as she felt. “I just couldn’t leave without stopping to say hello. I’ll have to come back later so we can catch up on old times.”

She hoped she was flashing him a smile as she said, “You do that, Sugar. I’ll be right here.”

After Byron left, Billy asked, “Who was that?”

“An old friend.”

“You don’t look happy to see him.”

“Like I said, he’s an old friend. How about another drink?”

*****

Byron had been eavesdropping on Folly’s conversation with Billy. So, there was going to be a surprise at the trial that had nothing to do with Dirk’s crime here. He’d just have to do something about that.

On his way out of the saloon, he asked one of the younger girls, “Would you happen to know the Cartwrights?”

She giggled and said, “Everyone knows Little Joe.”

“I’m looking for one named Adam.”

She pouted a bit and said, “He’s so boring.”

“Do you know where I could find him?”

“He’s at the International House, across the street.”

“Thank you,” he said as he slid a dollar into the décolleté of her dress. She turned a bright pink and said, “Thank you, Mister.”

Byron crossed the street and went into the hotel lobby. Stopping at the front desk, he casually inquired about the Cartwrights, saying he was a cattleman who had business with them. The clerk provided their room number and Byron gave him a half-dollar as a reward.

Casually walking to the stairs, he made his way up to the specified room and quietly knocked on the door. There was no response. He tried the knob and it wasn’t locked. He slowly opened the door and looked into the dim room; there was a figure lying on the bed. Byron went in and stealthily crossed the room. Looking down at the man’s face, he recognized Adam Cartwright. He had last seen Adam ten years ago yet there was no mistaking this man for that youth. Suffocating him with a pillow was tempting, but he didn’t want anyone to hear a struggle and interrupt them. He’d just have to find another way.

*****

Joe and Hoss entered the Yucca for a beer and to see if they could gather any information. Pa had told them to meet him back in the hotel room in a half hour, so they didn’t have too much time.

“Little Joe!” Pearl practically squealed.

“How’s my favorite jewel?” he asked with a flirtatious wink.

She toyed with his shirt collar as she said, “A man gave me a dollar for telling him Adam was at the hotel. I’ll tell you something if you’ll give me a dollar.”

Hoss frowned at hearing that. Why would someone be paying for information on Adam’s whereabouts? He quickly scanned the room and saw Folly and Billy together. That boy was playing a dangerous game and would probably come out the loser. He felt an elbow nudge his arm and Joe said, “We have to go.”

“Can’t I finish my beer?”

“Now.”

The two men hurried from the saloon and over to the hotel where Joe took the stairs two at a time. Reaching their room, Joe drew his gun and tried the knob. It was unlocked, so he flung the door open and went in prepared to shoot lead at anyone who shouldn’t be in there.

“Joseph!” His father’s voice startled him and he quickly uncocked his pistol. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Could you keep it down, Pa?” mumbled Adam without opening his eyes.

“Has anyone been in here?” asked Joe.

“No one,” replied Adam. “Now let me sleep.”

Hoss had a very uneasy feeling. Why would someone pay Pearl to find out where Adam was and then not check out that information? He was going to go back to the Yucca and see what he could find out.

“Where are you going?” asked Ben.

Hoss used his best defense at getting what he wanted. “I’m hungry, Pa. I won’t be too long.” With that, he left the room determined to make Folly tell him everything she knew.

*****

Chapter 14 Grimesgirl

Byron sat in the darkened den, deep in thought. The fact that he recognized Adam and the possibility that Adam would recognize him if they came face to face, complicated matters. He frowned. A small incident from the past could ruin everything he and his father had built. If only that no-account Dirk had turned out differently. There would be no upcoming trial, no testimony from Ben Cartwright that could send Dirk to prison. He leaned back in the deep cushions and closed his eyes. He was tired. Tired of cleaning up after his irresponsible brother, tired of seeing that his father’s ‘business’ concerns went smoothly. Although most people looked at Ray Farrow as an honest business man, Byron knew the truth. Oh, most of their dealings were honest and above board. It was the other dealings that he had to see to.

And now he was faced with having to eliminate the man that could ruin everything. Who would ever have thought that an innocent dinner in a small restaurant from so many years ago could bring their world to an abrupt end. No, he couldn’t, wouldn’t allow that to happen. He’d spent his adult life taking care of all the little ‘problems’ that had plagued them. It was too late to change his ways. Adam Cartwright would have to be taken care of and taken care of soon.

Hoss hurried from the hotel and quickly made his way to The Yucca. He stood in the doorway looking for Folly. He saw no sign of her. Making his way to the bar, he ordered a beer. Taking it to a table in the corner, he sat with his back to the wall and watched the staircase. She just had to come down those stairs. Hoss needed to talk to her. He felt that she knew what was going on. He could still remember the smell and knew that she had to have been with the man that shot his brother.

It was a good half hour later and Hoss’ excuse of hunger was quickly coming true. He drank the last of his second beer and was about to give in to his rumbling stomach when Folly appeared and make her usual entrance. Hoss had to admire her poise as she slowly descended the stairs.

Hoss rose and took three quick steps to the bottom of the stairs and, taking Folly’s hand, led her to the table. Folly didn’t come willingly but her better judgment kept her from making a scene. She sat, straight backed and defiant.

“Well, Hoss, it’s good to see you. How is Adam doing? I hope he’s going to be able to head home soon.”

“You otta know, Folly, you had your ear to that wall and heard what was bein’ said. I’m not here to talk about that. You seem to be pretty involved with the Farrows and I wanna know just what is goin’ on.”

“Involved? Why do you say that Hoss. I’m not involved with any of the Farrows.”

“Don’t lie to me, the whole town knows you and Dirk are thick as thieves.”

“I don’t have to sit here and listen to these accusations,” Folly protested and started to rise. Hoss grabbed her arm and the pressure of his hand made her quickly sit down again.

“Folly, someone paid one of the girls to tell them where Adam was. I wanna know who it was and why they were huntin’ for Adam.”

“Why would I know about that, Hoss? Maybe it was an old friend of Adam’s. We have people asking questions all the time. That’s part of our job, to try to help the customers.”

“Folly, listen. Someone shot Adam and I think you know who. Now someone is trying to find out where Adam’s staying. I don’t think it’s a coincidence. There’s somethin’ goin’ on. I’m thinkin’ Adam’s in danger and I’m aimin’ to find out what’s it is. That marshal and his deputy ain’t here on no pleasure trip.”

A chill ran through Folly. Should she take a chance and tell Hoss what little she knew? If Farrow found out her life wouldn’t be worth anything, but could she let something happen to Adam if she could prevent it? Her thoughts seemed to be becoming more and more confused. She rubbed her forehead. She had to think! Had to decide what was the right thing to do or at least the thing that would cause her the least trouble. But wasn’t it true that either way she decided would cause her trouble? She looked at Hoss. He looked almost menacing to her. She knew he usually kept control of his tremendous strength but this time it was his family and she well knew how the Cartwrights reacted when a family member was in danger.

Holly decided to give Hoss a small piece of information. Maybe that would satisfy him.

“Maybe you should check into Byron, Hoss”.

“Byron? Who’s Byron?”

“Byron Farrow. The oldest son.”

“I didn’t even know there was another son. Is he here? Where can I find him?”

Folly laughed, “I have no idea where you can find him. Probably at the house. All I know is that he’s very involved in Farrow’s business. He’s usually in San Francisco. But I understand he’s here. Been here for several days now. Probably for the trial.”

“What do you mean ‘involved’? What exactly does he do?”

“Well, from what I hear, he ‘cleans up’ things. Maybe he’s here to clean up things for Dirk. Heaven knows the boy needs someone to cleanup after him.”

“That’s a funny thing for you to be sayin’, Folly, seein’ as how it is between you an’ Dirk.”

“Well, Hoss, I do like Dirk but I’m not blind, I know what kind of a man he is.”

“Well, if’n that’s true, why won’t you help us. Tell me what Farrow’s plannin’.”

“Hoss, I’ve told you all I can. I don’t know about anyone’s plans. Now, please, I’ve got to get to work. Pete will be firing me and I can’t afford to lose my job.”

Hoss sighed as he watched Folly hurry to the bar and start a conversation with the men there. He felt disappointed. He really hadn’t found out what he wanted to know. But, at least, he had found out something new. Now he needed to find out more about this Bryon. Funny that there was a Farrow that he’d never heard about.

*****

Dirk slammed the door and threw his hat on the table. Ray and Byron were deep in conversation but stopped when they saw Dirk.

“Something wrong, brother? You seem upset.”

“Is none of your business, brother. I don’t need you sticking your nose into my life.”

“Dirk! That’s enough. Your brother asked you a simple question. You don’t have to fly off the handle.”

“Then tell him to mind his own business. He comes here and is trying to take over. I don’t need a nursemaid and I’m sick of him asking me questions.”

Ray stood. His anger was starting to build. “You ungrateful whelp. You get into trouble with the law. I get you out on bail. Your brother comes home to help and you have nothing but backtalk for both of us. If you can’t keep a civil tongue in your head perhaps you best leave and take care of the upcoming trial all by yourself”.

Dirk swallowed. It was rare for his father to lose his temper with him. He usually let his actions slide by with a mild reprimand. Maybe he should back off. He needed his father on his side if he was going to beat this robbery charge.

“I’m sorry, Pa. I’m just upset with something I saw in town this evening.”

“Do you want to tell us what it was? Maybe we can help.”

Dirk walked to the fireplace. Should he tell them what had happened? Would it put Folly in a bad light? In his own shallow way, he did love her but as he thought of what he had seen his anger returned. He turned and blurted out, “It’s Folly. I saw her talking to Hoss Cartwright.”

Farrow smiled. “Well, that was what we instructed her to do wasn’t it? Get close to one of them, be their friend. Sounds like the girl is doing fine.”

Dirk couldn’t control himself. “Folly’s my girl. You shouldn’t have ask her to cozy up to the Cartwrights. I don’t want her anywhere near one of that bunch.”

Farrow’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t care about your ‘girl’, boy. We have to find out exactly what is going on. What the Cartwrights are planning and why that Marshal is in town. If she has to get cozy with a Cartwright, so be it. You’ll keep away from her and let her do what we ordered. Now come sit down. Bryon and I need to go over some things with you.”

Dirk threw his father a dark look, turned, grabbed his hat and leaving the house, slammed the door behind him.

Bryon smiled. “Doesn’t look like little brother’s going to go along with our plans. Do you think I need to do something about him?”

Farrow eyes narrowed as he looked at his eldest. “It may just come to that, son. It may just come to that.”

*****

Chapter 15, by Dogwood

Within minutes of finishing his beer, Hoss thought of his hunger and decided he’d make his way back to the hotel dining room for nourishment and then rejoin Adam and his family. He knew danger wasn’t on the horizon. The danger had arrived.

He was unable to get the thought out of his mind that something wasn’t right and that Folly was involved up to her neck. Byron, he thought. An older brother? Why would he pay for information to know Adam’s whereabouts? As he made his way across the busy street toward the hotel, he was followed by piercing and curious eyes from the young man leaning against a post. Billy had seen Hoss talking with Folly and wanted to know what had been said. He’d find out one way or another.

As he drew closer to the hotel Hoss acknowledged those who knew him and realized the warmth that was usually extended seemed cold. Something was gnawing at him but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. When he and Joe had rushed to Adam’s room earlier they found things fine … just their father sitting with Adam. Ummmm … what was it? 

Billy’s curiosity had gotten the better of him. He tossed the toothpick he was chewing on to the ground and followed the path Hoss had chosen toward the hotel.

As he was catching up to Hoss, he yelled, “Cartwright!”

Hoss turned and saw a determined young man heading toward him. Releasing the handle of the hotel door, Hoss turned and waited. Billy joined him and asked, “What she tell ya?”

The look on Hoss’ face became a question without words for Billy.

“Look, I saw ya talkin’ to Folly. What did she tell ya?”

“Tell me? You need to step back youngin’ and not jump to conclusions. I know ya got some deep anger inside ya, but ya just can’t think because I talked to Folly that she told me anything.”

Not liking what he heard from Hoss, Billy quickly responded. “I don’t want to play games with ya. If’n the truth be told, we both got something to settle. My pa was killed and your brother’s hurt, and whether you want to accept it, Farrow is behind all of this. He ain’t gonna git away with it. Until he’s brought down, ain’t none of you Cartwright’s safe. Right now, I’d be worryin’ about your older brother and your pa.”

Billy’s words hit their target. Hoss grabbed the front of his shirt and pushed him against the front of the building. “You don’t have to tell me what I already know. Now if you take my advice, you let the law work through this and keep a cool head. We’ll get this all sorted out, but you getting hot headed and going off ain’t gonna do any good.”

Billy forced Hoss’ hands away from his shirt. “Don’t talk to me about keeping a cool head. It’s been a long time coming but I’m going to see to it that it’s over… and it’s over quick. Now get out of my way.” With that Billy pushed past Hoss and strode off.

Hoss sighed as he entered the hotel. He’d forgotten about the hunger he’d felt and thought of his family upstairs. As he walked toward the stairs, the desk clerk said, ”Howdy Hoss. Glad to see that with everything happening you Cartwright’s are still doing business.”

Quizzically Hoss asked, “Business?”

“Yes,” replied the desk clerk. “A man stopped by earlier asking for Adam’s room because he said he had some business arranged with him. I gave him the room number and he went up the stairs.”

Hoss now knew what had to be done –- and done quickly. “I guess I forgot about that with everything going on. What did he look like?” The description given was not someone Hoss knew.

He entered the room and saw both his father and Adam resting. Looking up Joe saw Hoss motioning him to come out into the hall. Quietly closing the door behind him Joe asked. “What is it?”

Nervously Hoss explained. “Joe, we gotta get Adam out of town and Pa. People are lookin’ for him and I don’t think it’s to say hello.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Joe, your hunch about somebody being after Adam is right. He ain’t safe here ’cause he must be the source to put the Farrows in jail or on the gallows. The desk clerk just told me that someone lied by saying they had business with Adam and gave him the room number. He said the man came up these stairs.”

“But Adam’s okay,” replied Joe.

“Maybe he is fer now, but it plum don’t sound that is gonna stay like that. We need to get him moved and pa as well.”

*****

The voices coming from Roy Coffee’s office were loud and each was overpowering the other. Marshal Taylor was in disagreement over the manner Roy had planned to guard Adam and Ben while bringing the town to a calmer state. He made no bones about Roy’s plans, acknowledged he knew Roy wasn’t pleased he was there, and felt not only did the Cartwright’s bear watching but the Farrows as well – starting with Dirk.

Roy knew Taylor had a personal as well as professional interest in the situation feverishly brewing in Virginia City. He struck out at Taylor indicating it was his town, his problem, and his request for assistance was one that he would be in charge of. He further ordered that Taylor and his deputy would take orders from him. There would be no debate.

Marshal Taylor took a deep breath, looked at his deputy Zak Bentley and asked him, “Have you seen Billy?”

Zak’s reply was, “No.”

Sighing once again Taylor said, “We need to find him and keep him in sight.” He then turned to Roy and said snidely, “Do you agree?”

“That’s one thing we can agree on. But what I said goes. One guard on Adam is not going to work. Farrow has too many men working for him and some are people I’d least expect. It’s a short time before the trial begins and if you’re gonna stay here make sure it’s to help. I ain’t about to have this grow into any kind of war.”

Before Marshal Taylor could speak his next words, the door to the sheriff’s office burst open. “Sheriff, you better come quick. There’s been a shooting behind the Yucca.

*****

Hoss and Joe re-entered Adam’s room. Adam was still sleeping but Ben heard their quiet rustling.

“Ummm. What are you two up to?” quizzed Ben.

Rising to join his two sons by the door, Joe spoke. “Pa, we need to get you and Adam out of here and to safety.”

“What are you talking about Joe?”

Hoss chimed in. “The beating Joe took was no accident. The shooting of Adam was no accident either. From what we know now from Marshal Taylor, it appears the shooting of Adam was related to something other than you witnessing Dirk robbing the bank.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying this is bigger and more dangerous than we thought. With the possibility of Adam being able to identify actions that lead to the murders of three people ten years ago is all the more reason for Farrow to want him out of the picture.”

“Farrow wouldn’t dare move in that direction.”

Joe chimed in, “Then why do you think Adam was shot?”

Ben turned to look at his eldest son. He was trying to digest what his sons were saying.

“Pa listen to me,” continued Hoss. “We know fer sure a man asked Pearl at the Yucca where he could find Adam. He also passed himself off at the front desk stating he had some cattle business to conduct with Adam and the desk clerk gave him Adam’s room. That makes him a sitting target.”

“So that explains your rushing in here with you gun drawn, Joe?”

“Yeah pa. But now it’s time to move outta here.”

“Where are our men?” Ben asked concerned.

“Most of ‘em are milling around town and the others are probably in the Bucket of Blood or the Yucca.”

“What’s going on?” asked a groggy voice. Adam could see the concern on his father and brother’s faces.

Approaching Adam Ben sat down on the bed and explained the scenario that was playing out while he slept. Adam looked from one brother to another.

“Maybe it’s the medicine the doc gave me, but from the looks on your faces and what happened ten years ago it could be that you’re right. I’m just a little confused and that was a long time ago.”

“Son, we’re going to get you out of here. We’re heading back to the Ponderosa and now.”

*****

The Farrow household was quiet. Dirk had not returned. Byron was fuming over this fact when his father entered.

“Where are we on this problem?”

Byron stood up and walked over to the window. “Cartwright is in the hotel. I spoke with Folly very briefly but she knows we mean business and I will be talking with her again. Last I saw her she was talking to a young boy and the man we put on Hoss Cartwright tells me Folly was being friendly with him in the Yucca.”

“Sounds like we’re making some headway. What about the money?”

Turning toward his father Byron continued, “It will be here this afternoon. Had it removed from the private account in San Francisco.”

“Good. I’ve received word the judge assigned to Dirk’s case has been recalled for another case. We’ll get the judge we want.”

Byron looked at his father with disgust. “I’m tired of being the person to clean up this family’s problems. We’re treading in dangerous territory now. I just want this over and I want you to do something with your son.”

Ray Farrow narrowed his eyes and faced Byron straight on. “You’ll do what you’re told and like it. As for Dirk, when this is over, I’ll take care of him.”

Byron didn’t believe his father would ever be able to control his brother. He just wanted to return to San Francisco.

*****

Roy Coffee, Marshal Taylor and Deputy Bentley were busy behind the Yucca when it appeared the Cartwrights were leaving town for the Ponderosa. A wagon had been retrieved from the livery and pulled up to the rear of the hotel. The Ponderosa hands assisted in placing a man wearing a black hat into the wagon who was joined by Ben. Joe and Hoss were saddled and rode quietly out of town surrounded by the Ponderosa hands.

The town was more concerned over the recent shooting that took place to notice this quiet exit with the exception of one person, a Farrow hand. He quickly departed to inform his employer the Cartwrights had left town.

Within a few minutes, another wagon was being loaded with boxes and light supplies. This seemed a normal daily occurrence. The difference was that under the supplies was the actual Adam Cartwright. Plans had been made to secretly take a longer route to the Ponderosa.

As Adam felt each bump in the road, his heart raced in hopes that his father and brothers would make it home safely. For reasons he could not understand, his thoughts turned to Folly.

*****

Chapter 16, by KEM

Dirk Farrow paced the room all the while imagining in his mind the Cartwrights as they had taken refuge in this room, Folly’s room, his girl’s room. It was bad enough that Folly had felt the need to help them after Little Joe had been beaten up and Adam shot. But then, his father too? How could he just dismiss his feelings for Folly and force her to remain friendly with their enemies? Then there was Byron. He always knew his father liked him best, Byron could do no wrong. And the way he eyed his girl… He’d be damned if he’d lose Folly to big brother. Nope. Byron wasn’t going to come out on top this time. Not if he could help it. And he had just the plan.

Dirk returned to his watch by the window. Many times Dirk had used Folly’s room as a refuge from his father’s constant badgering. Their situation had originally started out as the typical saloon patron and hostess relationship. But over time things grew more friendly, then eventually more intimate. Yes, he knew he wasn’t the only customer she kept company with. But, there was something special about Folly, she seemed to understand him. And when he needed an escape, she was often there for him having told him he could use her room whenever needed. However, he wasn’t sure he felt love for her. But, she was fun to be with, and he did care for her.

Suddenly, Dirk’s attention was drawn back to the window when a shot rang out.

“Who is it?” Dirk asked when there came a hesitant knock at Folly’s room door.

“It’s Sy, Mr. Farrow.”

Dirk took two long strides away from the window towards the door and yanked it open. “Get in here before someone sees you!”

Sy stepped in and Dirk shut the door quickly but quietly to make sure no attention was drawn to their whereabouts. “What’s going on out there?!”

“I don’t rightly know, Mr. Farrow, but the Cartwrights are leaving town now and things are setup perfect like. The Cartwrights hid the oldest son in a wagon alone takin’ the long way home that cuts past the old Porter place while his Pa and brothers are in another takin’ the short way so’s to throw anyone off who may be followin’.”

“But, what about that shooting I just heard?” Dirk asked again.

“All I knows is I saw the Sheriff headin’ that way, so all’s clear.”

“Good, Sy, good,” Dirk said feeling a little nervous, yet giddy at the same time. Then suddenly grabbing Sy by the arm, he asked, “No one saw you leave did they? No one saw you come this way?”

“No, Mr. Farrow. With so much fuss behind the Yucca and the Cs wantin’ to sneak outta town, ain’t no one paid me no mind. It was easy.”

Dirk bid a sigh of relief. “See? Byron’s not the only smart son in this family,” Dirk said remembering how he had Sy get hired on at The Ponderosa so that he could know at all times what the Cs were up to. Now he knew that the Cs were sneakin’ out of town and Adam Cartwright was alone, give or take a hand or two. This was the time to set his plan into motion, and it was going to work out perfectly.

“Sy, you go catch up with Adam Cartwright’s wagon. If they ask, just tell them Mr. Cartwright sent you as extra help to protect his son. There’s a shortcut off the main path to The Ponderosa that will take me to the Porter Place. I’ll meet you and the wagon there.

“Will do, Mr. Farrow.” Sy slipped out the room and went back down the back stairway to the alley to his awaiting horse and immediately rode off.

Meanwhile, Dirk exited via the front stairs down to the now mostly empty saloon. He had a man waiting for him there and he would need all the help he could get for his plan to truly work. Adam Cartwright was destined for a not so pleasant surprise.

After gathering his man, Dirk left the saloon and they headed for the livery to retrieve their horses. However, not before having been spotted by Folly who had just returned to the saloon after having gone out with all the other patrons to see what the commotion had been behind the Yucca. The man with Dirk piqued her interest greatly for she knew him to be a hired gun. Dirk had talked of him to her a time or two before when he would sometimes share of his family’s dealings. Seeing Dirk with him now worried her and she felt she needed to find out why. But before Folly could catch them at the livery, two figures on horseback exited the stables and raced out into the night after their prey.

*****

“Looks like there’s no need in gettin’ Doc Martin. That time’s sure past due. I’ll send someone to get the undertaker,” Roy said as he stood up from the prone body lying on the ground. Then looking around at the lingering crowd, “Anyone see what happened?”

“I did,” came a voice from the crowd.

“Best come forward and tell us about it,” Roy said trying to catch a glimpse of the speaker among the many.

It turned out the dead man had cheated at cards in the Yucca earlier that evening and the one he cheated hadn’t taken it lightly. This wasn’t the first of this kind of incident and it wouldn’t be the last.

“Did you see where the man who shot him went?”

“Looked like he headed back into the Yucca, just like nothin’ happened. Tall mean lookin’ fella wearin’ a kinda long black coat with a black hat that hung so low all you could see was his ‘stache, never seen him before.”

Roy took note of the description though he hadn’t recognized it. He would have his work cut out for him with this situation on top of everything else he was having to deal with of late, including the Farrow trial. Sighing in resignation, “All right everyone. Time to clear out. There’s nothin’ more to see here.”

“Seeing as how you have all this under control, me and Deputy Bentley here will head on back to the office. We’ll wait for you there,” Marshal Taylor said as they began to leave the scene. But before he and Deputy Bentley could make any good distance, Deputy Bentley suddenly noticed a man fitting the description on horseback in the distance.

“”There he is!” Bentley called out pointing in the direction of the quick moving form drawing Roy’s attention away from the dispersing crowd.

“And that looks like Dirk Farrow with him,” Marshal Taylor added a bit perplexed, identifying the other man on horseback with him. “I wonder where they’re heading off to in such a hurry.”

“Whatever it is it cain’t be good, ‘specially when it comes to a Farrow,” Roy said with a sudden feeling of dread, as he hoped his day wouldn’t get any worse. “Let’s get this body taken care of and then we’ll see where they’re headed.”

“Sorry, Roy. Like you said, this is your town, and that body’s your responsibility. We’re going after Farrow now,” Marshal Taylor proclaimed before he and Deputy Bentley left Roy alone speechless, and eating his own words.

But Roy didn’t have time to dwell on this turn of events for he became even more alarmed when not long after Marshal Taylor and Deputy Bentley left did he see Folly riding in the same direction that Farrow and the mystery gunman had just taken.

*****

Adam continued to endure the many rivets and ruts that plagued the path his wagon was taking. He longed for when the wagon would finally deliver him to the ranch so he could rest his weary and pained body in the comfort of his own bed surrounded by his family. But he knew that would be some time yet to come. Or…would it? The wagon stopped. Why had it stopped? According to his calculations, they wouldn’t be at the ranch for another half hour. With that realization, Adam felt that something was definitely wrong. Maybe there was a problem with the wagon. The Porter place would be close by for them to stop for a quick fix. But Adam knew the wagons were in good shape since he personally made sure of their upkeep. So again, why were they stopping? The men were told not to stop until they had arrived at the ranch. Yet, they were stopped now.

Adam strained to see if he could hear anything from where he was situated under the supplies in the back of the wagon. At first he heard some muffled sounds that he presumed to be voices. But then suddenly there was frantic commotion, and then shots rang out. Adam instinctively reached for his gun and positioned it to where he could get off a decent shot if needed. The tarp was jarringly pulled back. But before the attacker could get Adam’s exact position in the wagon, he felt a piercing heat enter and exit through his shoulder knocking him off the wagon.

“You all right?” a voice called out.

“Ow, damn! He shot me!” replied a second voice in obvious pain.

“Where did he get you?” asked the voice again.

“In the shoulder! My gun arm!” the second voice answered again.

“Aw, quit acting like a baby. You’ll live,” replied the voice. Then the voice continued, “Now that we know you have a gun, Adam Cartwright, I advise you put it away before anyone else gets hurt. We already have your men disarmed. So, you won’t be getting any help from them. What do you say?”

“Let me see your face!” Adam replied bitterly still positioned low in the wagon.

“Not until you throw out your weapon.”

Adam knew that even if he was to get a shot off at the person behind the offending voice, he still would be a goner. And all he could think of was his family and how they would have to cope with his possible death. If he had a chance to survive this, he would need to do what he could to make it possible. Besides, since they hadn’t already killed his hired hands, it was possible they weren’t intending to kill him either. So, why give them a reason to?

After having thought it through carefully, Adam uncocked his gun and tossed it out the side of the wagon.

“Now, that’s more like it.”

“A deal is a deal. Now, let me see your face!” Adam called out again.

In answer to his request, Adam was soon peering into the face of. . . Byron Farrow. “Fancy meeting you here. Though not always the brightest, my brother can do good work when he sets his mind to it. Don’t you think?”

*****

Chapter 17, by Krystyna

Dirk Farrow felt a stabbing pain trickle mercilessly around the base of his skull until it seemed to tighten into a remorseless pain around his temples. He moved slightly and felt the rustle of straw beneath him. Impotent frustration welled up within him as he realized that someone had somehow prevented him from riding out of town.

For some seconds he couldn’t move but remained so still that the man looking down at him thought he was dead but was too scared to touch Dirk to convince himself otherwise. Finally he nudged Dirk with the toe of his booted foot,

“Get up.”

Dirk swallowed bile. He squeezed his eyelids as tight as possible to prevent any sign of tears there that could give this man a false impression, make him think that he, Dirk Farrow, was a coward, anything like that at all. Slowly he clambered to his feet having to reach out to the bars of the stall for support, hand over hand he slowly stood upright, and faced the man .

“Who are you?” he muttered, raising a hand to touch the area that seemed to be the cause of the explosions going on inside his head.

The young man holding the lantern aloft in his right hand, and a gun in his left, stared at Dirk for some seconds before he seemed to make the decision to answer.

“You wouldn’t know me, but I know you. You’re Dirk Farrow, aren’t you?”

“So? What if I am?” Dirk glowered, the blue eyes seemed to lose their color so that they looked like blue ice. Even in the dim light of the lantern there was a strong enough resemblance to Ray for the other man to catch his breath and step back. “It means you’re Ray Farrow’s son, and that means that if I killed you right here and now …”

“You wouldn’t dare.” Dirk hissed and stood upright, anger now replacing the frustration, fear emboldening him to retaliate, “My father…”

“I know all about your father, Dirk Farrow. Your father’s a murderer. And he’s a fool.”

Dirk looked puzzled; a murderer was something he had heard tied in with his father, but a fool? No one had ever accused Ray Farrow of being a fool before now.

“Look, just put the gun down and let’s talk this over.” Dirk extended his hand in a gesture intended to placate, “Just tell me why you knocked me out here?”

“I didn’t knock you out, I just found you here. I was following someone else…” the young man paused and licked his lips, “I didn’t knock you out, she did.”

“She did?” Dirk could not suppress the surprise in his voice, “She did?” he repeated in a lower tone of voice as though he knew exactly who the ‘she’ was, but couldn’t, wouldn’t accept the truth of the statement. “I don’t understand what’s going on here? Why’d you say my father was a fool? Who are you?”

“Your father killed my father, which makes him a murderer. He’s a fool because he only looked to the short term solution; he should have remembered that Deputy Murdoch had a son, and that children grow up. When they get old enough they come looking for vengeance.” Billy Murdoch stepped back a pace or two, “He killed Marshal Taylor’s two sons as well, but I’ll leave it to the old man to handle that matter. I just got to thinking when I saw you here that there’s a saying from the bible says: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth and a life for a life. I got to thinking – just for a little while – why shouldn’t your father feel the misery he subjected my Ma to for all these years. Ten years is a long time. Your Pa won’t live long enough to suffer ten years, but even if he suffers for just ten minutes …”

“Stop right there…”

The voice behind him made Billy Murdoch’s mouth tighten; he turned his head and saw the flash of a tin badge against the light of his lantern. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Dirk move, just slightly, just enough to send the adrenalin flooding through him and any intelligent thought fled from his brain. He squeezed the trigger of his gun and the shot exploded in the confined space of the livery stable.

Roy Coffee shook his head and stepped back as though the noise of the gun shot had physically struck him. He looked at the man swaying on his feet in front of him and then at the youth who was staring with horror at the effect of what he had done. As Billy Murdoch threw down his gun into the straw so Dirk crumpled from the knees and fell face down into the straw.

The man behind Roy turned and whispered the name Dirk Farrow to those crowding in behind him. One man peeled away from the crowd and hurried to the Farrow house, while another took flight to The Yucca.

Roy didn’t move for some seconds. Then he sighed, a long deep sigh that reached down to his gut. Two deaths in one evening. And, if this was Dirk Farrow, who was the rider on the horse whom he had thought to have been Dirk? He looked at Billy who was ashen faced.

“I’m sorry, son, you’re going to have to come along with me, you know that, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir.” Billy replied, the words thrust from his throat with an effort. He glanced at Roy and then at the dead man at their feet, “I said I would kill him, but I didn’t mean it. I’m not a killer, I didn’t mean it.”

Roy nodded. How many times had he heard those words? In some cases he believed them to be true. Perhaps had he not stepped in and spoken just at the time he had, perhaps things would have been resolved in some other way. He ushered the lad through the crowd that parted before them. This was going to be a long night, that was for sure.

Someone was pushing through the crowd now, and Roy instinctively put out a hand to grab at Billy’s arm in case whoever it was had intentions to shoot the lad. He could feel Billy’s arm trembling and felt a twinge of pity and self reproach. He put his other hand on his gun handle, before stopping as Folly seemed to burst out of the crowd

“Sheriff, is it true? Was it Dirk?”

There were tears in her eyes ready to fall. The very thing she had wanted to prevent had happened after all. Dirk, poor wretched Dirk, was dead. She could read the affirmation in Roy’s eyes and put here hands to her mouth to suppress the sob that seemed to be stifling her.

“She did it.” Billy cried now, pointing to Folly, “It was her I was following here. She hit Dirk…”

“No, no, stop it, don’t say it…” Folly groaned, “Don’t say it.”

“Miss Folly,” Roy sighed (yep, it was going to be a really long night), “I think you had best come along with me. You’ve some explaining to do.”

*****

Ray Farrow was turning the combination lock to the safe as the hasty thud came to the door which was pushed open before he could say a word. He stood and turned,

“What’s wrong?”

The man had pulled off his hat and bunched it tightly against his chest. There was no disguising the fact that he was the bearer of bad news. The protruding eyeballs, the ashen face and slack mouth, the shaking hands – no portender of good news could ever look like this object of a man.

“It’s – it’s Dirk.”

“What about him?” Ray’s mouth twisted in cold contempt. Dirk was beginning to irritate him more than ever. Took after his mother’s side too much that was the trouble. Always had been a cry baby. No guts, not like Byron. How could a man have one son of whom one could be so proud, and another who – he shook his head, “Out with it, man? What’s happened?”

“He’s dead. A guy went and shot him.”

“Who shot him?” he leaned forwards and grabbed the man by the arm, “Who shot him?” he hissed.

It said a lot for the fatherly affection he felt for his son that the immediate response was to know the name of the killer and not to give the anguished cry of the broken hearted parent. The other man nearly choked on his spittle. “A kid called Billy Murdoch. Some stranger to town. Don’t know who he is but…”

“I know who he is…” Farrow growled and he returned to the desk. For a moment he stood there, as though frozen to the spot.

Why couldn’t he feel grief for the loss of this son? Had it been Byron – then he would be cut to the heart, but Dirk, his youngest son, dead – yes, dead. He looked down at the papers on his desk. There would be no trial now, no need to bribe the judge or pay off false witnesses. Ben Cartwright had won after all.

*****

“I watched Dirk go, with one of his men. I knew he was going to do something stupid, something that would only get him into more trouble,” Folly’s voice was very low and Roy had to crane his head closer to catch the words. She twisted her handkerchief round and round in between her fingers, “I saw Byron…”

“Byron?”

“Dirk’s brother. He rode pass me with another man, I think his name was Sy. I wondered where Dirk was and went inside. I heard him talking to that man of his, the man I’d seen leaving the Yucca with him.”

“Go on, Miss Folly” Roy glanced over at the door, waiting for Farrow to explode through the entrance, so far there had been no sign of the man.

“Dirk was saying that he was going to beat Byron to the wagon … he wasn’t going to let Byron get the better of him on this. I don’t know why I did it, I mean I didn’t even know what the wagon was or why it was so important, I but I just ran out, threw myself at Dirk, held his arms to stop him from bridling his horse, “Don’t go, you’ll get yourself killed, you’ll get into more trouble.” and he just pushed me away.” she looked at Roy in amazement “he just pushed me away.”

“The man that was with Dirk, where did he go?”

“He left. I don’t know.” she shook her head, bewildered and confused now. “Dirk turned to see to his horse and I hit him on the head. I just wanted to keep him safe. He was in enough trouble as it was…”

“Miss Folly…” Roy shook his head, “Something doesn’t add up here. I saw you riding off not long after this other Farrow, and sidekick had left town. You rode out of town like a bat out of a pit, so what made you come back?”

“Dirks horse was almost ready so I bridled her and rode out after Byron. I wanted to stop him from doing whatever he had planned for Dirk’s sake but then I got to the outskirts of town and – and I remembered that – that I didn’t know if Dirk was alright. I’d hit him hard and – and I was afraid that -” she put the damp handkerchief to her face and blew her nose, “I didn’t love Dirk, but I cared about him, and I didn’t want to be charged for his murder. I – I acted on some crazy impulse -”

That was when the door of the sheriff’s office burst open and Ray Farrow stood before them looking ten feet tall and about ten feet wide. Roy pursed his lips and took off his spectacles which he set down slowly beside the statement that Folly had just made and which he had carefully written down, every single word of it.

*****

Chapter 18, by Tiggeroo

Meanwhile, back at the ranch . . .

Ben, Hoss and Joe had an uneventful ride back to the Ponderosa. They were grateful to the ranch hands who had volunteered to cover their journey. All the hands were keen to support Ben and his boys as they were a good outfit to work for. Everyone for miles around knew the name Ben Cartwright and the Ponderosa and what a good boss Ben was. People also knew not to get between any of the four Cartwrights either. If Ben ever had to choose between the Ponderosa and the lives of one of his boys he wouldn’t hesitate to give the ranch up as he had already proven in the past. Right now Ben would give anything to be in that position but right now they didn’t even know if Adam was alive. Ben was sitting in the blue chair staring into the cold fireplace as if the answer lay in there. “If only I knew he was safe,” Ben thought.

Hoss was sitting in the armchair opposite Ben; Joe was sitting on the settee, the end nearest Ben. They sat in silence. After what seemed like a very long time but in reality was only five minutes Hoss and Joe passed a brotherly glance at one another that said “Yeah, I can see Pa’s worried. We might have made it home safe but Adam is definitely overdue.” Joe nodded his head towards their father encouraging Hoss to go and say something to comfort him.

Hoss screwed his face up in quiet resignation to the task ahead. He knew one of them had to speak to Ben and if Adam was here right now he would approach Ben . . . but that was the problem wasn’t it? He thought, “Adam ain’t here right now and that makes me the oldest. God, please let this not become a permanent arrangement. Please let Adam be alive and safe. Dadburnit Joe, it ain’t easy being the oldest. Here goes . . .”  Hoss pushed himself up from the chair very very slowly. He wasn’t sure why. Was it so that he didn’t disturb his father; although it didn’t look like the loudest storm would be able to break into Ben’s world at this moment in time? No, it was probably because it gave him time to think of what to say to alleviate his Pa’s concerns as well as his own. Hoss moved slowly and quietly and sat on the low table facing his father.

Hoss spoke very quietly as he tried to get Ben’s attention. “Pa. Pa.” When he was sure he had Ben’s attention, he continued. “We know Adam’s overdue but you know ol’ Adam as well as we do and . . . well you know he can look after himself and, and, well there’s bound to be a simple explanation like a . . . well, like a broken axle on the wagon or maybe one of the horses took a tumble. Maybe they had a rest ‘cos the journey was gonna be a bit rough on Adam with his leg an’ all.”

As Ben started to turn his gaze away from the cold fireplace to Hoss’ face Joe added eagerly “Yeah Pa, Hoss is right. Anything could have happened and you can bet ole’ Adam will come through that door any moment now wondering why we are all looking so glum. You know he can look after himself. It’s bound to be some stupid little problem with the wagon.”

The brothers looked deeply into the face of their father, the man they respected and admired, but most of all the man they loved. They were hoping for any change in his expression that told them he was moving from despair to hope. Deep down they knew Adam could be dead and lying out there somewhere but they didn’t want to think about that as a possibility, because they both needed their big brother to be alive. They would face death only when it walks into their lives; they would not face it until then. Until then they would live in hope and act accordingly. But that was the problem; how were they to act? What could they do? They too hated being so helpless. Hoss and Joe look deep into their father’s face in hope of the answer to their unspoken questions.

Ben turned to look at both of the faces staring at him, looking to him for reassurance but no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t find the words they were looking for. But try as he might he had been here before and every time one of his boys was in trouble he knew. Was it father’s instinct? Ben didn’t know. What Ben did know without a shadow of a doubt was “Adam is most definitely in trouble and I feel completely useless. I can’t say that to Hoss or Joe,” thought Ben.

*****

Meanwhile, somewhere between the Ponderosa and the Porter place . . .

Marshal Taylor and Deputy Bentley had kept a safe distance while following the two riders that left Virginia City following a shooting. Bentley recognized one of the riders as fitting the description of the man who had done the shooting and Taylor thought Dirk Farrow was riding with him. Taylor was trying to work out what Dirk Farrow would be doing riding with a gunman when he saw where the two riders were headed . . . to a wagon that was accompanied by three riders. “Oh no,” he thought “That looks just like the wagon Adam Cartwright is in.” He quickly signaled to Bentley to dismount and they would get nearer on foot so that they wouldn’t be seen. As they edged closer they saw the two riders they were following talking to one of the riders escorting the wagon. All of a sudden the wagon stopped. Raised voices were heard followed by gun shots. Taylor and Bentley instinctively put their hands on their guns as they prepared themselves to get involved in the action if they needed to. “We need to keep Adam alive . . . for me as well as for his father and brothers,”  thought Taylor.

Taylor strained to hear the conversation between Adam and the man he’d thought was Dirk Farrow but now he could see he wasn’t. However, he couldn’t hear enough words to make any sense or who this man was but Taylor was convinced he had something to do with Ray Farrow and the killings ten years ago. Two men who had escorted the wagon were tied up while the mysterious man was having his conversation with Adam. When the conversation was obviously over, the mysterious man and the third man who escorted the wagon rode off in the direction of Virginia City leaving Adam with the man Bentley recognized as fitting the description of the one who did the shooting in Virginia City. Taylor decided to move farther forward, but remained unseen.

The gunman was tying Adam to the wheel of the wagon. As the gunman walked away he kicked Adam in his injured leg so hard that he almost loss consciousness. As Adam battled to stay conscious he was hardly aware that his leg had started to bleed again as he tried to focus on what the gunman was saying to him.

Leaning closely into Adam’s face the gun man hissed, “Well now I hope that hurts real bad! You shouldn’t have shot me. That was a foolish thing to do ‘cos your life is in my hands right now.” Standing upright above Adam he told him “Yeah, I know Mister high an’ mighty Byron Farrow said to kill you once he would be safely back in town where there would be plenty of witnesses to seeing him, but you see, I don’t feel like waiting that long. I am also going to enjoy watching you suffer. You shouldn’t have shot me and certainly not my gun arm. I will have to shoot you with my other arm now and my aim ain’t so good so it might take a few bullets and then you will have to die slowly and in pain. Get it. I told you . . . you shouldn’t have shot me!” He shouted.

The next thing Adam was aware of was a man leaning over him encouraging him to wake up.

“Adam, Adam can you hear me? C’mon Adam, that’s it. Time to come back to us, son.”

Looking through blurred eyes Adam asked “Pa?”

“No son, it’s Marshal Taylor. You’re okay. I’ve sent one of your hands to get your father. I am sure he will be here soon. I’ve also sent the other hand to fetch the Doc as your leg needs looking at again, thanks to ‘our friend’ over there.” Adam lifted his head only very slightly as he glanced over to where Taylor was pointing, to where Bentley had the gunman tied up.

The slight movement unfortunately caused Adam’s leg to let him know how much it was hurting and he let out a pained cry. He tried to sit up and grab his leg, but Taylor pushed him back down again and started to rebind the wound immediately.

“It’s okay, Adam. As soon as I’ve finished bandaging you up we will get you in the wagon and help you finish the journey you started. Just lie back and let us look after you.”

Taylor and Bentley had hardly started their journey after getting Adam back in the wagon when in the distance ahead he saw four riders approaching them at a fair pace. Taylor called to Bentley to be on guard.

“Well, I’ll be,” Taylor exclaimed as he recognized the men approaching them.

Taylor called to Adam who was in the wagon trying to cope with the pain in his leg not only from the reopening of the wound but also the jarring he was receiving as the wagon bounced in the rivets and ruts on the trail.

“Hey Adam, your father sure didn’t waste no time in coming to you. Don’t know how he made it here so quick.” “Or maybe I do.”  Taylor thought to himself

Taylor pulled the wagon to a halt. Adam breathed a sigh of relief as at least the pain the wagon was causing would cease for a few moments while his father convinced himself Adam would be okay. As much as Adam was a grown man just occasionally at times like these it was nice to know his father loved him so much and so he resigned himself to the ‘fussing’ he was now going to receive.

Ben jumped straight into the wagon to see Adam and Adam accepted the ‘fatherly fussing’ without complaint. When everyone was ready, Hoss moved onto the wagon to drive it back to the ranch while Ben sat in the wagon with Adam’s head resting on his lap. Joe rode out in front of the wagon with Bentley whilst Taylor and the ranch hand rode behind. The prisoner was tied on his horse and rode up front in between Joe and Bentley so that if he tried anything everyone would be watching him.

Once they had been travelling a few minutes, Taylor, who was riding on the side of the wagon nearest Ben, asked him, “Hey, Ben. How did you get to us so quickly? I know for sure even if you rode flat out you still wouldn’t have been with us for another thirty minutes at the least?

“Ah well, there is a reason but I’m not sure it’s an explanation. You see I was at home and Hoss and Joe were doing their utmost to ‘cheer’ me up. They knew their brother was in trouble and they were looking to me to tell them what to do. Each of them hates it when one of them is in trouble and they can’t do anything to help.” Ben paused for a moment as Adam groaned as the wagon hit a rather deep rut.

“Sorry Adam. Won’t be for much longer and I’m tryin’ to be as careful as I can, but we have to get you home and let the Doc see to your leg,” shouted Hoss.

“Yeah, it won’t be for much longer Adam. Just hang in there,” Joe joined in.

Ben smiled as the boys words reflected what he was saying to Taylor. Taylor saw the gesture and he too found himself smiling . . . smiling. “I’m smiling,”  he thought. “I haven’t felt like smiling in a very long time. In fact it was . . . yeah. I haven’t smiled since my boys were killed”. 

Ben continued, “The problem was I couldn’t open my mouth to utter the words that were in my heart. I would have had to have said that their brother was in trouble. How did I know? I don’t know, it’s just a ‘knowing.’ Without a shadow of a doubt, I knew Adam was most definitely in trouble and I felt completely useless. I couldn’t say that to Hoss or Joe. What happened then I still can’t explain but I’ll try. You see, all of a sudden I knew Adam was okay and I jumped up and realized what we should be doing. I told Hoss and Joe to get their hats, we were going to meet Adam. Charlie, our ranch hand you’d sent back to us didn’t have to come all the way back to the ranch as we were already on our way. Could it be that my ‘knowing’ changed at the same time as you released Adam from his potential killer?” asked Ben

When Ben received no response he looked up at Taylor, who was staring intently at father and son in the wagon. As their eyes connected it was as if Taylor was letting Ben into his deepest thoughts–thoughts and emotions that had been locked away since the death of his boys. For the first time since then Taylor had met a man who appreciated the fact that he had sons who are living; he loved them, cared for them and had such a bond with them that he instinctively knew when they were in trouble and would do anything to help them. As Taylor looked deeply into Ben’s eyes he hoped Ben could read his thoughts. “I once was a man . . . no, a father like you. I loved and cared for my sons the way you do. So many fathers have sons living but don’t care or love them and that hurts me to see. I feel like getting hold of them and shaking them . . . don’t they see what they have? But you, Ben Cartwright, you’re a man after my own heart. I thought bringing Ray Farrow to justice would bring me peace about my boys. I have just realized I was so wrong. I am so glad I was there to help your son today. I thought I was saving him for you and his brothers. While that is true, what I didn’t realize was that in saving him I have also saved myself. The anger has gone. I have lost the guilt I felt about my boys as I have helped you. I am so delighted to see Adam safe with you again. Ray Farrow still has to come to justice for civilization not me. Part of me is at peace now. Thank you, Ben. Thank you, Adam.” 

Ben was aware of the peace he could see in Taylor’s eyes. A peace he had not seen before. “I see a reflection of myself as I look at you. The only difference is my sons are living and yours are not. I am so sorry you were not able to save your sons but I thank you from the bottom of my heart for being there to save mine.” 

As they continued on their way back to the Ponderosa no one spoke a word. Ben and Taylor continued deep in their own thoughts. As Ben looked into his injured, but alive son’s face he remembered reading a poem that Adam had found when one of Joe’s young friends had died called God’s Lent Child.

I’ll lend you for a little while a child of mine,” God said
“for you to love the while he lives, and mourn for when he’s dead.
It may be six or seven years or forty two or three.
But will you, till I call him back, take care of him for me? 

He’ll bring his charms to gladden you and – (should his stay be brief) –
You’ll have his lovely memories as a solace for your grief.

I cannot promise he will stay, since all from earth returns;
But there are lessons taught below I want this child to learn.
I’ve looked the whole world over in my search for teachers true
And from the things that crowd life’s lane I have chosen you.

Now will you give him all your love? Not think the labor vain?
Nor hate me when I come to take this Lent Child back again?”

I fancied that I heard them say –“Dear Lord, Thy will be done
For all the joys Thy child will bring the risk of grief we’ll run.
We will shelter him with tenderness, we’ll love him while we may
And for the happiness we’ve known forever grateful stay.

But should Thy angel call for him, much sooner than we’ve planned,
We’ll brave the bitter grief that comes and try to understand.”

– Author Unknown

“I think you have started to understand Taylor. When we get back I will slip it into Taylor’s jacket pocket,” Ben decided.

*****

Chapter 19, by Julee

Folly shrank away from the desk as Farrow strode toward the sheriff, his already furious expression growing more furious by the lawman’s deliberately slow response. “I want to see the man who killed my son!” he demanded, his eyes searching the room. Spotting Folly, he paused to shoot her a dire look.

Folly shivered and protectively pulled her wrap tighter. She sure hoped the sheriff knew what he was doing.

Irked but not surprised by his overbearing attitude, Roy addressed him, his voice unhurried and full of authority. “Look, Farrow, the boy’s locked up, so why don’t you just go on home. As soon as I get things sorted out, I’ll let you know.”

Farrow glared at him, predictably outraged at being dismissed by the local tin badge. “The only thing we need to sort out is the length of the rope,” he hissed. “Now, open that door and let me see the face of the man who killed my son!”

Roy leaned back in his chair, seemingly unruffled by his outburst as he stealthily maneuvered his gun hand into position. “I’m gonna ignore that remark because I know you’re grievin’ your boy, but I’m warnin’ you, I won’t put up with any interference. Now do like I said and go home.”

“Sheriff, wait! I want to see him,” cried Billy from behind the heavy wooden door that housed his cell.

Roy scowled and shook his head. “That ain’t a good idea, son.”

“Maybe not, but it’s what I want,” the boy insisted.

Keeping an eye on Farrow, Roy got up from his chair and opened the door so he could talk to Billy without shouting. “Now look, son, there ain’t nothin’ in the law that says you gotta face him, so why put yourself through it?”

“Nothing but my conscience, sheriff.”

Roy sighed and nodded. “All right, if that’s really what you want.” He looked at Farrow and jerked his head toward the open door. “Go on.”

Unmoved by the sentimentality he’d just witnessed, Farrow approached the door where Roy unceremoniously relieved him of his sidearm. “You’ll get it back when you leave.”

Farrow smiled, amused by the sheriff’s precaution. “I don’t need to kill him, sheriff; the hangman will take care of that.”

Feeling nothing but contempt for the man, Roy looked past him to Billy. “Give me a holler when you’ve had enough,” he instructed, pulling the door shut.

Clutching the bars of his cell, the boy nodded and then shifted his gaze to Farrow as he came in, looming larger than life in the tiny area. He’d imagined this moment many times, imagined looking him in the eye and unleashing his hatred and anger, but everything was different now. He’d killed his son and there was no hate left, only guilt and regret. So rather than staring him down, he could only manage a furtive glance.

Farrow looked at him with derision. He was nothing more than a wide-eyed lanky kid, still wet behind the ears. How the hell did Dirk let him get the drop on him? “I suppose you think you were justified in killing my son…an eye for an eye or some other such nonsense.”

Billy’s brows knit together in remorse as he replayed the incident in his head. “I didn’t plan to kill him,” he began quietly. “I didn’t even know he was there, but once I saw him, all I could think about was hurting you.” He looked Farrow in the eye now. “You caused my Ma and me a whole lot of misery.”

Farrow’s mouth twisted into a heartless smile. “And how much misery is it going to cause her when you hang, Billy boy? Hmmm?” He shook his head and chuckled at the irony. “I’m willing to bet it’s more than Dirk’s death will ever cause me.” It was a blunt admission, but he didn’t see the need to pretend, not with Murdoch’s brat anyway. He’d save that for his business associates, the people at church on Sunday, and most importantly the judge.

Billy hung his head. It pained him to think of his Ma, but he was also stunned by Farrow’s callousness. Could a father really have so little feeling for his own son?

“That’s right, Murdoch, you made my life easier. Not that I wished my son dead, you understand, but now that it’s done….” He shrugged.

“But…but…he was your son….”

Farrow’s eyes narrowed. “He carried my name, but it never meant anything to him. He got into one mess after another and because of it I spent a helluva lot of time and money cleaning up after him.”

Realizing what kind of cleaning up Farrow was referring to, Billy swallowed the lump in his throat and jumped to question him just like the sheriff wanted. “Like you did in Placerville ten years ago…when you killed my father and Marshal Taylor’s sons?”

Farrow frowned, troubled not by the killings but because it had marked the beginning of the end for him and Dirk. He thought back. Had he done wrong by him? Had he ignored him in favor of Byron? He shook his head, annoyed that Dirk still had the ability to anger him. “Dirk should have been learning the business, the same as his older brother, but he had no interest. He just wanted to play cards and have fun, so I gave him money for whiskey and women. I figured it’d keep him happy and out of any real trouble. But then he went and killed that old miner and drew unwanted attention to my entire operation.”

Billy drew a deep breath. “So he did  kill that miner.”

Startled by his own carelessness, Farrow gave Billy a cold look as if the boy had somehow tricked him into letting his guard down. “Yes, well, I suppose it doesn’t matter now, does it?”

“It matters,” Billy said, his faced flushed. “It matters because you tried to bribe my father and the marshal so they’d forget the whole thing and when they refused you kidnapped the marshal’s sons and ended up killing them and my father!”

Farrow gave him a detached look. “What can I say? They let their sense of duty get in the way of their thinking.”

Outraged by his cavalier attitude, Billy’s voice raised a decibel. “The devil you say, you no-good murderous…! One day you’ll hang for what you done! The marshal and the Cartwrights will see to it!”

Farrow sneered at him. “You’re the one who’s going to swing, Murdoch!”

“Maybe, but at least I regret what I done, but you….” He shook his head, disgusted. “No wonder Dirk turned out the way he did.”

Farrow’s eyes blazed, the look of contempt on the boy’s face angering him beyond his own comprehension. Maybe he was more rattled by Dirk’s wasted life than he thought. “Why you impudent whelp! Who are you to judge me? I gave that boy everything!” In a rage now, he began to pace. “But he was soft…like his Ma! He didn’t have the stomach for business…wasn’t tough enough to succeed…he just bungled one job after another…but I never once let him down! I rescued him over and over again…why I even hired that gunman back in Placerville!” Breathing hard, he stopped pacing and gave Murdoch a triumphant look. “But then, you already know that, don’t you boy?”

“And now I do too,” Roy said, bursting in with his gun drawn.

Surprised, Farrow whirled around and stared at him, speechless for a moment before he let loose with a string of oaths.

“You can swear all ya want, but it ain’t gonna change a thing. I got three witnesses that heard you say you’re responsible for those killings in Placerville. Now move,” he ordered, gesturing to an empty cell.

Incensed, Farrow moved towards him prompting Roy to cock the hammer of his gun and take aim. “One more step and you’re a dead man, Farrow!”

Eyes glaring and chest heaving, Farrow begrudgingly heeded the warning.

“Now go on, get in that cell!”

Having no other choice, Farrow silently did as instructed, his mind racing. How could he have been so stupid? “Get me my lawyer, Coffee!”

Ignoring him, Roy yelled through the open door to his office. “Folly, bring me them keys.”

Rushing to comply, Folly found the key ring on the desk and hurriedly took it to the sheriff. She avoided eye contact with Farrow, but that didn’t stop him from haranguing her. “You just keep your mouth shut, Folly! You hear me? Don’t say a word!”

Gathering her courage, Folly gave a little shake of her head. “Too late, Mr. Farrow. I only wanted to help you because of Dirk and now that he’s gone…well…there’s no reason now, is there?”

“Why you cheap little…!”

“You just pipe down!” Roy interjected.

Maddened by his lack of power, Farrow angrily sat on the bunk, the veins on his neck bulging.

Satisfied he’d succeeded in shutting him up, at least for the time being, Roy looked at Folly and gestured for her to leave. She nodded and with a sad smile to Billy, attempted to exit. She was prevented, however, by the sudden appearance of Marshal Taylor in the doorway. “What in the blue blazes is going on around here?” he roared, confused by the picture before him.

Billy made eye contact and then dropped his head, unable to maintain it. “I killed Dirk Farrow,” he admitted, his voice barely above a whisper.

Shocked and angry, Taylor stared at the boy for a long moment before he finally found his voice. “You did what?” he exclaimed.

Farrow chuckled. “That’s right,” he taunted, “the kid’s a killer and it’s gonna be your job to see he hangs.”

“Shut up,” Taylor spat out.

Billy looked down at the floor. “I’m sorry, Marshal, about everything, but I reckon he’s right.”

Taylor shook his head, his eyes full of disappointment and sadness. “Oh, Billy, it’s my fault. I blame myself.”

Billy’s head flew up. “No! You told me over and over again, not to go off half-cocked…to abide by the law…but…well…I got impatient. I thought I knew better.”

Taylor shook his head. “No, for years I filled your head with hate and now….” His eyes welled.

“And now we’ve got some talkin’ to do,” Roy said, stepping in and unlocking Billy’s cell. “In my office.”

The marshal and Billy traded confused glances while Farrow jumped to his feet. “You’re not releasing him!”

“Course not,” Roy said with a small smile, “that’ll be for the judge to decide, but after I get through talkin’ to him, I wouldn’t be surprised if he goes easy.”

Farrow eyed him angrily. Coffee was well-respected and it was entirely possible he had some pull with a number of judges on the circuit. “Just get Byron and my lawyer!”

Roy rubbed his chin. “Well, now, it’s kind of late to be gettin’ your lawyer tonight, but I expect you’ll be seeing Byron real soon.” And with that, he shut the door, leaving Farrow to steam.

In the outer office now, Marshal Taylor temporarily put the conversation about Billy on hold. As much as he wanted to talk about it, the mention of Byron’s name reminded him of some other pressing business. “It was Byron and his flunky that rode out after Adam, Sheriff Coffee. They stopped the wagon a few miles out. Turns out, one of the Cartwright’s hired hands was in on it. Bentley’s waiting outside with him, him and a body for the undertaker.”

Roy frowned in alarm, prompting Taylor to quickly reassure him. “Adam’s fine, he’s at home with his family, but Byron doesn’t know that yet. Apparently, he just wanted to exchange a few words with Adam and after that, he high-tailed it back to town, leaving his hired gun to do the dirty work. Adam recognized him as the man who paid off Sebring all those years ago.”

Roy lifted his eyebrows, digesting the information. “Good, the more we can charge him with, the better!”

“Uh, Sheriff,” Folly said, feeling as though she were intruding, “if you’re done with me, I’ll just be going.”

Roy nodded. “All right, Folly, but I’ll be talkin’ to ya.”

She smiled and pulled her wrap tighter. “Sure, Sheriff,” she replied as she went out the door. Once outside she took a deep breath and headed for the saloon. As she walked by the mercantile, she saw Tom bringing in his displays for the night. She watched him a moment and thought about what a fine man he was, maybe not in looks, but deep down, where it counted. Making a decision, she walked over to him.

He looked up, startled. “Why, Miss Folly, what brings you here?”

“Evening, Tom. I was just wondering if I could buy you a drink, over at the saloon.”

Eyes wide, Tom’s mouth fell open. “I…I’d…love to have a drink with you,” he said, recovering his wits, “but…but…only if you’ll allow me to do the buying.”

Folly nodded. “If you like.”

Tom bobbed his head. “Oh, yes, I’d like that fine,” he exclaimed as he hurriedly shoved the rest of his merchandise in the door and locked it. That done, he quickly ran a hand through his hair and then shyly offered her his arm. She gladly took it, feeling freer than she had in a long time. Dirk was dead and no longer had a hold on her, romantically or otherwise; Adam was safe; the sheriff had a solid case against the Farrows; and it sounded as if Billy might not hang, after all. Thank goodness! She looked up and smiled at Tom.

*****

Epilogue, by Kaatje

The sky was a perfect shade of September blue that could even make Virginia City look good. Hot and dry as it already was, he was enjoying a mid morning stroll. The beds at the International House left something to be desired, and this was one way to work out the kinks. Besides, it provided him an excuse to skip some conversation. He answered the occasional greeting or nod in kind. If the townsfolk found it strange to see him wearing a suit, or with a shine on his boots, they didn’t show it.

Elijah!

If the woman’s shout hadn’t gotten Adam’s attention, the pink blur would have. The sound of a clattering buggy approaching made him hurry. Ranch-trained reflexes served him well. Scooping up the slippery creature before it escaped into the street was but the work of a moment. His back didn’t even twinge, much. It would take a little longer to slow a quickly beating heart. Dampness seeped through two layers of clothing as the giggling bundle settled more comfortably in his arms. Adam looked down into laughing brown eyes that shone with appreciation for his joining in the game. One boy to another, having fun. Only after the chase did he notice the wet splotches from small bare feet on the boards of the sidewalk.

“Not so funny, young man.” He could see his words had little effect, and fought the urge to smile, despite the scare. The two year old was never easy to scold.

“You naughty boy!” The woman was breathless as she reached them, towel in hand. Her arms opened and soon the fair haired angel was decently wrapped and nestled against his mother. Motherly chiding was negated by kisses and rocking. She finally pressed her face against her son’s strawberry blonde curls in silent thankfulness. The toddler smirked at Adam. It had been a grand race, after all.

Adam shook his head at the boy. “He’s as big a handful as Thomas.”

The petite blonde sighed. “I’m afraid they both take after me.”

He chuckled. “Really? Most women would blame the father.”

“Tom?” Folly relaxed and smiled at him. “If that were so, they’d be little angels, instead of — well, instead of the rascals they are. Thank you, Adam.”

“Oh, it was no harder than catching a greased pig.” He winked at the giggling child. He really was a lot like his older sibling, though his eyes were the same warm brown as Tom’s. No spectacles for either child yet, though. “Where is big brother today?”

Her attention was on her little one again. “Thomas is inside with his Pa, counting thimbles and other notions. Ever since Tom taught him, counting is his favorite game. Now we’re trying to convince him tidying up afterward is part of the fun.”

“Good luck. Tidying isn’t fun to most four year olds. Well, I’ll be on my way.” Adam was stopped by fingers on his arm.

“Is it true? Billy Murdoch’s getting out?”

He hesitated, but it seemed word was out anyway. “Yes, he’s out. Due in on the ten o’clock stage, in fact. Marshal Taylor, too.” At her dubious expression, he added. “They won’t be staying long. Folly — you know your testimony helped him. If not for you, Roy and Taylor, Billy would have been sentenced to hang.”

“It didn’t seem right.” She shifted the child in her arms, letting his weight rest more on her hip. “Dirk was gone, and Billy was just a boy. After Ray’s heart gave out on him, that was two…”

Adam refrained from speaking and let her go on. Ray Farrow had died of his own venom, according to Paul. The man knew he had a weak heart and needed to contain his fury, but he couldn’t. The eldest Farrow hadn’t lived long enough to go before the judge. As for Byron, he’d turned himself in when he learned his father was behind bars. The expensive attorney he’d retained hadn’t helped much. He was probably going to serve his full term. Assuming he lived through that, he could go back to enjoying what little Farrow wealth survived. Folly’s testimony had been surprising and he’d had some doubts as to the truth of it. She’d claimed Dirk had boasted he was going to kill Billy Murdoch, and that had been a mitigating circumstance, in the eyes of the jury. A life sentence had been given, instead of death. Miraculously, Amos Taylor’s pull had eventually secured the young man’s release. A United States marshal had influence, and Taylor seemed to have more connections than most. Roy Coffee’s good word hadn’t hurt either. Still, nearly five years at hard labor was no easy thing. He wasn’t sure this would be the fresh start Roy and Pa seemed to believe in. Even under the current terms, living under the marshal’s protective custody for the next year, there was no assurance Murdoch would make it.

“What?”

Folly asked again. “I said I was surprised you’d wear a suit for him. You didn’t really approve of it all, did you?”

He grimaced briefly, and straightened a damp right lapel. “I’m not wearing this for him. He’s coming into town and I’m leaving. I have a little business to take care of. As for Billy — he’ll have his second chance, with Taylor. That’s more than Dirk got.”

Her eyes moistened. “Yes, I know.”

Before he could leave, he felt a light touch on his arm again.

“I do thank you for catching Elijah. You’ve been a good friend to us, and the boys. If not for you and your family, some folks wouldn’t have accepted a — well, not everyone was ready to see us as a family. As a matter of fact, Tom and I almost named this one Adam.”

Her earnestness made him laugh. “Well, you could say he was dressed as the first Adam, today.”

Long lashed green eyes looked him up and down with disarming directness, before Folly turned away, her cheeks a deeper pink than before.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—” He hadn’t meant to what? Embarrass a former saloon madam? Not that Folly wasn’t devoted to Tom, but her reaction was a little surprising.

“It’s my own fault.” She closed her eyes. “Adam, you don’t need to apologize. You have…” Her lips pressed together, and she started again, even as she unexpectedly blushed more. “You have nothing at all to be ashamed about.”

“Adam, good morning! Are my wife and son keeping you?” Tom’s cheery voice rang out from the doorway of the Mercantile. Always busy, the man had a broom in hand, and four year old Thomas stood at his father’s side, waving.

He waved back. It was fortunate for Tom’s peace of mind that he wasn’t a jealous man. Folly’s blush might have stirred suspicions in a less contented husband. “No, not at all, but I should be going.”

*****

“I’m glad you made it back, son.” Ben’s voice was warm. “Not that I’d mind you missing this particular stage.”

“Now, Pa.” He cleared his throat, seeing his brothers’ grins, and their own suits and polished boots. Even Roy had gone all out today. “It’s just a vacation.”

“Reckon we’d be glad to go along.” Hoss beamed, but his blue eyes sparkled. “I ain’t never seen those pyramids, neither.”

Joe’s smile was a little wobbly. “Yeah, me neither.”

“If you meant that, you’d have packed. Think of all the chores you’d miss.” He was surprised by a rush of sentiment, even though he’d been preparing for weeks. Maybe it would have been safer to slip off first, and send them a letter of explanation.

“Here it comes.” Roy shaded his eyes and then checked his pocket watch. “Danged if it ain’t right on time, too.”

Adam watched the approach as if he’d never seen a stagecoach before. He gave himself an internal shake. After all, he’d be back.

Stagecoach passengers didn’t waste a lot of time disembarking. Harness jingled as the men hastened with the team change. Amos Taylor hadn’t changed much. He was the same solid older man who’d performed a rescue, years before. Billy Murdoch was another story. It wasn’t that he looked so much older than his twenty-four years, but there was something broken about him. The way he held himself—the way he couldn’t meet any eyes, and his nervous swallowing. Gaunt would be an apt description, too, but that had been expected.

Hearty handshakes were exchanged with Taylor, and more hesitant ones with young Murdoch. The marshal’s touch on the younger man’s arm seemed to calm him. He even looked up at Roy, tentatively.

“Good to see you, Billy.” Roy was as casual as could be about it.

A smile touched Murdoch’s face. “Just Bill, now.”

“Good to see you, just Bill.” Hoss welcomed. “You can go ahead an’ put your bag and yourself in the wagon. The sooner we get you out to the Ponderosa, the sooner we can start gettin’ you some good food.”

The young man smiled a little more as Joe and Ben agreed. He hurried to the boot of the coach and gathered two carpet bags, showing he was ready to get on with it. Amos Taylor followed, clearly pleased to see his charge showing some signs of life.

“Shame the man’s sons died,” Roy said quietly.

Ben clapped him on the shoulder. “I think he has one left.”

“Yeah, I see what you mean. All kinds of ways for a man to have family.” Roy suddenly turned and thrust out a hand. “Son, I wish you all the best. I’ll hope to be hearin’ about all them sights.”

Adam returned the clasp warmly. “Thanks, Roy. I’m sure Pa will share the news, and I’ll write, too. I know you don’t have much time for reading, though.”

“Ain’t that the truth.” Roy grinned, released his hand and walked away.

Adam smiled as he felt Ben’s hand on his shoulder. “He kept it nice and simple. I’ll be writing to you all, of course.”

“No doubt of that, older brother.” Joe almost winked. “You be careful.”

“I’ll be as careful as you will, younger brother.” They hadn’t used those terms for some time, but it seemed fitting to tease.

Hoss stepped in close. “You do better than that.”

“I will.” It was time to leave now. Grown men couldn’t embrace in public, it wasn’t dignified. He soon discovered his family had other ideas. A thoroughly hugged, back-slapped and rumpled Cartwright boarded the stage.

 ***The End***

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