The Imp, Some Demons and a Few Short Lists (by DJK)

Summary:   A sequel to “Adam and the Imp of Satan.”
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:   19,082


 

Adam did not like it. He did not like it at all, but he could see no other choice. Pa had sprained his knee, and the contracts had to be signed in San Francisco before the end of the week. Joe was only eighteen, so he could not legally sign a binding contract. Hoss was needed at the ranch. Beside, neither Hoss nor Joe knew enough about the lumber deal to make the final negotiations. Moreover, the thought of either of his younger brothers alone in San Francisco made Adam shudder. He winced and then sighed. Hoss had not seen the men, so Joe would have to go with Roy. Why did this have to happen now? Six months had passed without the slightest sign of the men who had kidnapped them, and now, when Adam could not handle the identification himself, the sheriff had received word that two men had been arrested for attempted robbery in Dursten Wells. The men fit the description of the robbers who had kidnapped Adam, Joe, and Abigail Warner. If a positive identification were made, the men would be returned to Virginia City to face the more serious charges of kidnapping and attempted murder, but one of their victims had to make that identification.

“Roy, I don’t suppose the identification could be delayed until I return from San Francisco,” Adam inquired.

“That wouldn’t be wise, Adam. We only need one of you to come with me, though. Little Joe will do just fine.” Sheriff Roy Coffee assured his young friend.

“I don’t like it. Joe’s barely eighteen, and he’s just now getting over the whole experience. It would be much better…”

“Joe’ll be just fine, Adam. He won’t be alone; he’ll be with Roy,” Hoss interjected reassuringly.

“If he identifies the men, he’ll be helping to bring back two dangerous criminals,” Adam declared and pinched the bridge of his nose.

“If that happens, we’ll have a couple of deputies from Dursten Wells to help. I’ll watch out for the boy, Adam. Ya know I’d never let any harm come to Little Joe.”

“It’s Pa’s decision, I suppose.” Adam shrugged and turned to go upstairs and discuss the matter with his father. He wanted the decision made before Joe returned to the house. It was not really Joe’s physical safety that worried Adam the most. The kid had finally stopped having nightmares only in the last month. Adam did not want Joe to face the return of those nightmares alone. Adam cursed under his breath and knocked on his father’s door.

*****

The trip to San Francisco had taken longer than Adam had anticipated. His family had wired him that Joe had identified the men as two of the kidnappers. The men were being brought to Virginia City. The news had spurred Adam to return as swiftly as possible. When the stage had problems in a little town called Carson, Adam had hired a horse and ridden for the ranch. Arriving late in the night, he had crept into the house and up to his bedroom hoping that no one would be wakened. He should have known better. His father had caught him coming up the stairs. They had exchanged the briefest of greetings before they had both gone to their beds. Now the morning sun was shining through his window. Adam rose and dressed. It was good to be home, at any rate. He could hardly wait for some of Hop Sing’s coffee and one of his bountiful breakfasts.

Adam came down the stairs into the great room. As a figure turned to face him, he stopped dead in his tracks.

“Abigail, what in hhhh…the world are you doing here!” Adam’s tone demanded an explanation.

Abigail Warner looked at Adam and smiled, “Where are your manners, Adam? A polite greeting should precede all interrogations, especially when you haven’t seen a person for months.”

“Excuse me. Hello, Miss Warner, so nice to see you again.” Adam’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “Now, what in blazes are you doing in Virginia City?”

“Testifying at a trial.”

Anger ignited in Adam. Abigail should have been kept out of it. There was no need for her to be brought back into this mess. His testimony alone should have been sufficient – his and Joe’s testimony more than enough – to send the two kidnappers to prison for years.

“Who sent for you?” Adam growled.

“I wired Abigail.”

Adam swung around and looked up at his bigger but younger brother. “Hoss! Why in blazes would you wire Abigail?”

Hoss Cartwright stared directly into the glaring eyes of his elder brother and declared, “Because she had a right to know.”

“I most certainly did, but apparently only Hoss was perceptive enough to realize that.”

Adam turned back to face the girl. “You don’t need to testify, Abigail. There is no reason for you to be put through that.”

“Actually there are several reasons for me to testify, and I intend to do so.”

“Adam’s right. I told you yesterday that there was no need for you to testify. Adam and I can take care of it.” Joe Cartwright added his opinion as he came down the stairs to join his brothers.

For once finding himself in agreement with his youngest brother, Adam stated with finality, “See, even Joe realizes what is best. You’re welcome here anytime, Abigail. You know that, but you won’t be testifying at the trial.”

Abigail crossed her arms. Her fingers began drumming on her forearms. “That’s not your decision, Adam Cartwright.”

“The decision has been made, little girl. I’m sure your father and mine will both concur.”

“I will testify!” Abigail’s anger flared and her foot stamped an exclamation point for her words.

“You will NOT!” Adam thundered.

“Who will not do what?” Ben Cartwright stood on the stair landing looking down at his sons and guest.

“Abigail will not be testifying at the trial, Pa.” Adam informed him as Ben slowly descended the remainder of the steps mindful of the knee that was still not completely healed. Abigail took a deep breath and blew it out through her nose.

“Tell her, Pa,” Joe urged, “She doesn’t need to get involved.”

“Mr. Cartwright, we discussed this when I arrived yesterday. If you would inform your sons that the decision is mine to make, perhaps we can all go into breakfast.”

Ben spoke in a measured tone. “It is far too early in the morning to start this debate. We will all reserve any more comments until we have finished breakfast.”

All four young people recognized the authority in Ben’s tone and held their tongues. They all turned and went to the dining table.

The conversation at breakfast was minimal and stilted. Adam answered polite questions about his trip while sending Abigail glaring looks. Abigail answered polite queries about her father and her activities the past six months while seething about Adam’s and Joe’s attitude. Joe told the others about his identification of the kidnappers and tried to inject comments designed to let Abigail know that this was men’s business. Ben fumed at all of the young people and sent Hoss wrathful looks for sending the wire that brought Abigail back to the Ponderosa and created the problem. For the hundredth time since Abigail’s arrival, Ben rued Abel Warner’s inability to control his daughter.

Ben Cartwright swallowed the last of his coffee and decided the matter needed to be settled before someone exploded. He opened the discussion with a question. “Abigail, does your father approve of you testifying?”

All eyes settled on Abigail. “Well, now…” she began and then hesitated.

“He doesn’t, does he?” Adam interjected forcefully, “I knew he disapproved.”

“I never said he disapproved,” Abigail retorted. “Actually, I don’t know how he feels about it.”

“Abigail, your father knows you’re here, doesn’t he?” Ben’s tone was dangerously calm.

“He must,” Abigail replied dropping her eyes to her plate, “I sent him a telegram.”

“What?” Ben’s exclamation was only slightly louder than that of each of his sons.

Ben slapped his napkin down on the table with a resounding crack. “Explain yourself, Abigail,” Ben ordered.

“Well, as I was going to say, my father was away on business when Hoss’ telegram arrived. I knew I needed to come without delay because justice can be so swift here in the West, so I telegraphed my father that I would be traveling to the Ponderosa on serious business, and that he need not worry as I would be in the excellent care of our friends, the Cartwrights.”

Ben’s anger took away his breath, and he gripped the edge of table so hard that his knuckles turned white. Joe stared at Abigail open-mouthed while Hoss closed his eyes in despair. Adam leaned toward Abigail and spoke softly but distinctly, “You damnable little imp, I should…”

Ben regained his voice and bellowed, “Adam, you will not curse at my table!”

Adam looked at his father, rose, and stated calmly, “Then you must excuse me, Pa. It will be necessary for me to leave your table.” With that, he walked over to the credenza, buckled on his gun, jammed his hat on his head, and slammed his way out the door.

Ben rose, asked Abigail where her father could be reached, and announced that he was going to town to send a telegram. When Joe protested, Ben told him curtly that he was capable of driving the buggy and proceeded out the door.

Joe shook his head at Abigail and declared, “You’ve done it now.”

Abigail just shrugged and watched him make his exit in silence. Then she looked at Hoss pleadingly. “You understand, don’t you, Hoss. I had to come.”

Hoss reached across the table and took Abigail’s hand. “I understand, gal. You need to understand that Adam, well, he just wants to protect ya. Joe and Pa too.”

“I know. That’s why I didn’t wait and tell Papa. He would have wanted to protect me by keeping me home. I’m surprised you sent me that telegram. Don’t you think I need protecting?” Abigail said squeezing Hoss’ hand.

“Guess maybe I wanted you where I could do the protecting,” Hoss replied.

*****

Adam looked at his hand and rubbed the small scar between his thumb and pointer finger. He was furious with the girl. The first time Abigail had come to the Ponderosa five years ago, he had been infuriated with the child because she had behaved like a willful, spoiled brat, and he had failed to control the situation. That is when Abigail had left her mark on his hand and a dislike that bordered on hate in his heart. Then she had returned six months ago, and it had taken the kidnapping and subsequent escape to make Adam realize that Abigail was not the person he had thought her to be. Adam sighed. He and Abigail had become close during the period of recuperation that had followed their ordeal. In fact, all of the Cartwrights had accepted Abigail as more than a friend. Previously, his dislike for the girl had fueled his angernow his concern for her had his anger burning just as brightly. She and Little Joe were little more than children, definitely not mature adults, and both of them had suffered emotionally, as well as physically during their ordeal. Joe had already had to face the past on his trip to identify the kidnappers, and Adam doubted he could prevent his little brother from testifying, but he was not going to allow Abigail to face those demons again. Making a decision, he mounted Sport and headed for town.

*****

Adam saw Hiram Woods, the acting town prosecutor, entering the sheriff’s office. He also saw his own family’s buggy in front of that building. Evidently he would be able to speak to everyone concerned at the same time. Adam closed the door to the office behind him and greeted the room’s three occupants.

“Adam, what are you doing here?” Ben Cartwright asked his eldest son with a furrowing of his forehead.

“Very much the same as what you’re doing here, I expect,” Adam replied. “Hiram, you’re here to discuss the case?”

“Your father sent for me,” the prosecutor stated.

Ben cleared his throat as all eyes in the room settled on him. “I telegraphed Abel Warner with the reason for Abigail’s visit, but as he is not here and might not be able to arrive before the trial, I feel I must take charge where Abigail’s interests are concerned.”

“Hiram,” Adam interjected, “if Joe and I testify, it won’t be necessary for Abigail to take the stand, will it?”

Hiram Woods pulled at his cravat and replied, “No, I don’t suppose it would be absolutely necessary. We should be able to get a guilty verdict with testimony from the two of you. If Miss Warner had been unavailable, we would have proceeded without her, but, Ben, since she is here, I would like for her to testify.”

“No!” Adam was vehement, and Hiram Woods took a step back.

“Adam!” Ben’s tone held a rebuke. “It is not your decision.”

Sheriff Roy Coffee quickly inserted, “Tell us why you think she should testify, Hiram.”

Hiram looked at Adam’s glowering face and Ben’s furrowed brow. Then focused on Roy’s friendlier countenance as he explained, “Well, there were three victims, so the jury’s going to expect three accusing witnesses. If they know she’s in town and not testifying, some of them may wonder why?”

“They should have sense enough to know that a young girl shouldn’t be forced to so much as look at the faces of the men who abused her,” Adam declared.

“Yes, I could interject a statement to the effect that we aren’t calling Miss Warner to the stand to spare her a trying ordeal, but…”

“But what?” Adam demanded.

“Adam, let Hiram speak,” ordered Ben.

“But I’m loathe to not call what would be our most effective witness,” Hiram stated firmly.

“Most effective witness,” Adam sputtered, “What in blazes do you mean, most effective witness?”

Hiram decided to use his most placating tone. “We want the jury to understand the full extent of the crime. A young girl was kidnapped and subjected to cruel maltreatment that nearly resulted in her death. Seeing you or even Little Joe on the stand will not have half the impact for the jury as hearing an innocent girl tell her horrifying tale.”

“I’d have to agree with that,” said the sheriff as he placed his hand on Adam’s shoulder.

“Oh, would you now.” Adam’s tone was icy as his eyes shot sparks at his friend.

“Adam, Hiram has a point, and Abigail wants to testify, perhaps…”

“Pa, you’ll be with Joe when his nightmares set him screaming. Just who is going to go to Abigail when the demons come for her?” Adam had seldom spoken to his father in a tone so edged with bitterness. Ben was at a loss for words, and Adam continued,” She had nightmares, night after night of them, just as many as Joe. Did you know that, Pa? She told me she was too terrified in them to scream even. They’ll start again, Pa; they’ll start again for all of us.” Realizing he had revealed more than he ever wanted, Adam spun on his heels and slammed out the door.

The three remaining occupants of the room exchanged uneasy looks. Hiram Woods cleared his throat and said quietly, “If you think it best the girl not testify, well, whatever you decide. Just let me know, Ben.”

“Yes, yes, I’ll let you know. The trial will start on Monday?”

“Unless the judge is delayed.

“It’s Thursday, so will tomorrow be soon enough?”

“That will be fine,” Hiram acknowledged and then departed.

*****

Seeing Sport outside of the Sliver Dollar, Ben entered the saloon. Locating his eldest son seated alone at a back table, Ben joined him. Adam continued to stare at the whiskey he swirled in a shot glass. Ben motioned for a glass, and when it arrived, poured a drink.

“You’ve decided to let her testify, haven’t you, Pa?” Adam still studied the drink in his hand.

“I haven’t made a decision.” Ben replied. Downing his drink, Ben continued, “Adam, have you considered the fact that Abigail might benefit from facing her demons?”

Finally looking at his father, Adam spoke softly, “You don’t know how ugly some of those demons are. There’ll be the gossip too, you know.”

Ben knew there had been a great deal of gossip six months ago, and that they had managed to keep Abigail and Joe away from most of it. “There’ll be gossip whether Abigail testifies or not.”

“We could send her home.”

“Abigail should never have made the trip out here alone; she won’t be making the trip back until Abel can accompany her.”

Adam nodded his agreement with his father’s statement. Ben studied his son’s face. They had discussed few of the details of the ordeal the three young people had survived. Ben had gotten some sense of what had happened, though, during the time he had spent with Joe after his nightmares. Perhaps there was more he needed to know before he made a decision.

“Adam, while those men had the three of you, well, they didn’t…Abigail didn’t… her being a girl, they didn’t,” Ben Cartwright could not seem to find the words to ask what he needed to know.

Adam looked directly into his father’s eyes as he calmly stated, “I would have hunted them until I killed them if they had done that to her.”

“Then…” Ben began.

“Some of the things they said, well, she had to be afraid of that too.” Adam swallowed his whiskey in one gulp, and then poured another before he spoke, “I can’t tell you, Pa, what it was like, not really. We couldn’t even tell each other we were afraid. We even laughed, Pa; in that cave we even laughed, and all the time each of us knew we were going to die.”

“None of you died, son.” Ben reached out and placed his hand over his son’s.

Adam continued talking as if he had not heard his father’s words, “My little brother was going to die in the dark and lie there forever without even a Christian burial. You wouldn’t have been able to bury your baby, Pa, nor visit his grave.”

A shudder ran through Ben at the thought that he would have been unable to give a decent burial to either of his sons, and he then pushed his own demons away.

“It would have been my fault, Pa.” Adam gulped down another shot of whiskey.

“No! Adam, don’t blame yourself.” Ben’s vehemence shook Adam from his reverie. Ben reached out and took his son’s face in his hand. Turning Adam’s eyes to his, Ben spoke firmly, “Five men are to blame, Adam, and five men alone. After Monday two of them will be serving long prison terms.”

“Let’s go home, Pa. We both need to talk to Abigail.”

*****

Seeing one of the hands approaching, Ben and Adam pulled their horses to a halt.

“Mr. Cartwright, there’s a problem at the branding pens.” Tom addressed both of the men at once.

“I’ll see to it, Pa, “Adam announced, “You can speak with Abigail.”

“Fine, Adam, I’ll see you for supper then.” Ben replied, and then watched the two men ride off. Ben sighed. He was concerned about the effect of the trial on all three of the children, even the very adult son that had just ridden off. Truth be told, perhaps he was most worried about his eldest.

*****

Ben rode up to find Abigail sitting on the porch. He tied Buck to the hitching post and took a seat beside the girl.

Abigail glanced sideways at Ben and said softly, “I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright, for making you angry, but…” she bit her lip and then continued, “I’m not sorry I came. I had to come, and I have to testify.”

“Abigail, you don’t have to testify. We spoke with the prosecutor, and he thinks there will be no trouble getting a conviction without your testimony.”

“Adam and Joe can take care of it. Is that the way it’s going to be?” Before Ben could answer, Abigail sprang to her feet and spun to face him. “I know you can keep me from testifying. You’re an important man in Virginia City, and I’m still a minor, and Papa won’t be able to be here before the trial. Not that he would insist that I be allowed to testify; he’d probably tell me that I shouldn’t, but I need to, Mr. Ben. Please understand that I need to.”

“I want to understand, child.” Ben took her hand and drew her back to the bench. “Adam is concerned that having to relive what happened will bring back everything that you fought to put behind you. He doesn’t want you to be haunted by it again. He doesn’t want the nightmares to return.”

“Adam still feels responsible for what happened. That’s why he thinks he has to be the one to fix things without any help.” Abigail sighed deeply. “I tried to make him see that he wasn’t responsible, but I guess he just can’t let go of all the guilt. Truth is neither can I, Mr. Ben. That’s part of why I have to testify. The other part is, well, it’s like the first time you get thrown from a horse; you have to get back on the horse, or you won’t ever ride again. I have to face them, or they will always be there in the shadows.”

“We’ll tell the prosecutor tomorrow that you will be testifying.” Ben had made his decision.

*****

Adam heard the door of the barn open and then close, but he continued to groom Sport without turning to see who had entered.

“Adam, may I speak with you, please?” Abigail spoke calmly and clearly.

Adam turned to face the girl. His anger still simmered, and he paused to study her raising an eyebrow questioningly.

Abigail lifted her chin slightly.” Yes.”

Adam’s posture became more rigid, and his eyes darkened. “Well, you’ve gotten your way, and that’s that.” He made a dismissive gesture with his hands and turned his back to her once more.

Abigail bit her lip and started to leave. Then she stopped and walked over to stand behind the angry man. She placed her hand on his shoulder causing him to shrug it away and turn toward her once again. “Adam, please, I have to testify.”

“Why?” The one word was almost a growl.

“Because they didn’t really go away. Oh, they come into my bed less often, but they’ve never left the room, Adam. Have they left yours?” Abigail watched even more intently than she listened, and she had her answered before Adam spoke.

“You think testifying will make them leave?”

“I have to try.” Abigail dropped her eyes from his face and stepped back.

“What if it just makes them come out of the shadows, girl? Have you considered that?”

“Yes,” Abigail said softly. She lifted her eyes to his and asked, “I won’t have to go through it alone, will I?”

Damn you, child! Adam kept his curse mental and spoke softly in reply, “No, you won’t have to go through it alone.”

“Then you won’t hate me again?” Abigail inquired with just the hint of a wry grin.

“No, I won’t hate you again.” Adams’ own smile was rueful.

“Hoss says you get the angriest with those you care about,” Abigail offered.

“You’ve been talking to Hoss about me again?” Adam’s eyes darkened.

“I told you before, Adam, Hoss is a very perceptive person. You should talk to him more.”

“Hoss and I have always talked.” Adam bit his lip and then rubbed the bridge of this nose before he stated, “People forget Hoss is my little brother too.”

Abigail smiled, “You never do, though. Do you, Adam?”

Adam chose to change the subject, “When do you think your father will arrive? I’m sure he left for the Ponderosa almost as soon as he received your telegram.” Abigail did not answer, but Adam noticed her squirm. “In fact, Pa shouldn’t have been able to reach him unless …” Adam’s thoughts raced ahead of his words, and he let them fade away.

Abigail looked up at him and then stepped back to further the distance between them. “I said I sent him a telegram; I didn’t say when he would have received it.”

“Abigail!” Adam’s bellow caused Abigail to step back yet again. Adam glowered at her and demanded, “What did you do?”

“Papa had several stops to make. I just sent the telegram where I knew he would be in a week or so.” Abigail lifted her chin and prepared to stand her ground.

“You little, I should…,” Adam’s shouts filled the barn. Then he threw up his hands in exasperated submission. His tone terse and icy, he informed her, “Obviously your father never chastised you sufficiently.”

Bowing her head meekly, Abigail glanced at Adam through the veil of her lashes and answered, “Obviously.”

Adam looked down his nose at the girl, “I could set out to remedy that right now, child. Your father might thank me this time.”

Abigail shrugged, “He might at that.” Then she gave him a defiant look and added, “There’s always the sheriff, though.” She watched as Adam clenched and unclenched his fists. Then she giggled and said, “Truce?”

Adam shook his head and held out his hand. “Truce,” he replied.

*****

She had dressed very carefully for church. Only her attire for the trial tomorrow would be more important. Every eye in the church would be on the girl who had been abducted with the Cartwright brothers. Abigail smoothed her skirt, took Ben Cartwright’s arm, and proceeded into the church. They sat in the third pew from the front: Little Joe, Hoss, Abigail, Ben, and Adam. Ben had taught all of his sons at a very young age to sit still and attentive at church services and none of the Cartwrights squirmed, even though they all felt the countless eyes that were fixed upon them. Abigail, also, held her head high and appeared to focus on the sermon. After the last hymn, Ben gave Abigail his arm and escorted her from the church.

“Pa,” Joe began, “the Endicotts have invited me for Sunday dinner.”

“The Endicotts or Melissa Sue?” Adam inquired.

Joe ignored his brother. “May I, Pa?”

Ben glanced at Abigail who nodded slightly. Then he replied, “Of course, Joe, if you like. I want you home before dark, though, young man.”

“Sure, Pa, ” Joe called over his shoulder as he darted off.

“Ben, Ben Cartwright.” Ben turned to acknowledge the man who had walked up to stand beside him. “I know that normally you don’t conduct business on Sunday, but my partners in San Francisco would like those contracts signed as soon as possible and, well, with the trial tomorrow, well, I thought perhaps we could make an exception.”

“Sam. I don’t know…” Ben began.

“Pa, it might be best to have the matter out of the way,” Adam interjected.

“We have a guest. I don’t like abandoning her,” Ben hesitated.

“Mr. Ben, you don’t have to worry about me, “Abigail assured. She took Adam’s left arm and Hoss’ right, “I have two of the finest gentlemen in Nevada to take care of me.”

“Then, Sam, let’s discuss those contracts over coffee at the International House,” Ben said. The two men walked away. Adam and Hoss escorted Abigail to the buggy, and the three began the trip to the ranch.

After several attempts at light chatter that faded away quickly, the trio rode in silence for a time. Then Abigail spoke softly, “Well, what do you suppose the consensus was?”

“What consensus?” Hoss inquired. Abigail looked directly at Adam and raised her eyebrow.

“Abigail is referring to the opinions the gossips have been expressing since we left the church,” Adam stated bluntly.

“Now, gal, you’re not worrying about what people are saying, are ya,” Hoss’ tone was gently placating.

“I’m sure they had quite a bit to say,” Abigail replied.

“People will speculate, Abigail. It’s inevitable. They’ll gossip for a time and then move on. Just hold your head high, girl. You’ve done nothing wrong, after all.” Adam hoped he would be able to take his own advice.

“Adam, did I just hear you say that I’ve done nothing wrong,” said Abigail her eyes dancing.

“Well, nothing that they could know about,” Adam threw back.

“Now, Abigail,” Hoss interjected, “the only thing them old biddies at church could possibly be saying about ya is how pretty ya looked this morning.” Hoss smiled at the girl.

Abigail blushed slightly and thought that the gossips might have less to say if she was as homely as a hedge fence.

Adam patted Abigail’s hand, “Now, child, you and Joe did have a chaperone.” His tone was pointedly patronizing.

“Is that what you were busy being, Adam, our chaperone?”

Adam raised is right eyebrow, “Well, surely, you don’t think Joe needed to be ours?”

“Our chaperone? Never! Our referee perhaps,” Abigail answered cheekily. Turning toward Hoss, she smiled, “Joe thinks Adam’s penchant for fighting with females is why you’re not an uncle yet, Hoss”

Hoss’ deep laughter rang out, but then stopped abruptly as the three occupants spotted a horse standing in the middle of the road with a body lying beside it. Approaching slowly, Hoss brought the buggy to a halt, handed the reigns to Abigail, and then followed Adam. Kneeling to check the man lying face down in the dirt, Adam was taken by surprise when the man rolled over, for Adam found himself staring into the barrel of a six-shooter. At the same time, Hoss heard the distinct click of a pistol being cocked beside his right ear. Then they heard Abigail scream.

There were four men. Adam recognized three of them. The one holding Abigail pinned against him was the man who had led the band of robbers who had abducted Adam, Abigail, and Joe six months before. The second held a gun on Hoss. The third trained his gun on Adam. The Cartwright’s guns were soon in the hands of their captors. The unknown man rose from the dirt.

“Now, Cartwright, you’re gonna listen close and do just what I say, or this time I’ll make sure the girl’s dead before I leave. That brother of yours too.”

“I’m listening.” Hoss knew it was ice-cold rage that gave Adam’s voice its freezing tone.

“You are going to return to town, Cartwright. You’re going to testify at that trial tomorrow. Only you’re gonna say as how those two men are not the ones that took you. You’re gonna explain how your little brother got things wrong, wanting to be the big man who helps catch the bad guys. Say the kid was so scared the whole time he hardly looked at those big, bad men at all. You get the brat to say he was wrong. Why, the little lady wouldn’t even bother to attend the trial of those poor, innocent men. You get the judge and the jury to believe ya, boy, or these two are dead. Now if my brothers ride away free and clear, well, then your brother and the gal come home.” The man punctuated his statement by wrenching Abigail’s arm wringing a cry from her lips. Hoss lunged forward and a shot split the air. Adam watched as a crimson line formed on his brother’s arm and dripped into the dirt.

“She’s next, big boy, if you move again.” The kidnapper’s voice was flat and calm. “Frank, bring up the horses.” The man holding a gun on Adam slowly backed away and returned minutes later mounted and leading four horses.

“Now mount up, big boy,” the leader commanded. Reluctantly, Hoss mounted the largest of the horses. Frank then tied his hands to the pommel. The other two men mounted one by one as the leader held a gun to Abigail’s head, and Frank kept his six-shooter leveled at Adam. Then the leader dragged Abigail with him toward the last horse. As he began to mount, Abigail kicked away and started to run. With the reflexes of a snake, the leader reached out and grabbed Abigail’s wrist. With a twisting jerk, he hauled her back, and mounting his horse held her arm above her head. Then, with a kick to her chin, he rendered the girl unconscious. As her knees buckled, he jerked her across his saddle. Luckily, she could not feel her shoulder dislocate.

Adam’s fear for his brother and the girl held him in place. He watched the group ride off. He could unhitch a horse and go after them, but he would be at a disadvantage, and he had no gun. If they saw or heard him, they could kill Hoss or Abigail and still have the other as a hostage. As much as he wanted to hunt them down, Adam knew that was not the smart choice. He returned to the buggy and headed back toward Virginia City.

*****

Hoss knew that many people assumed that since he was as strong as an ox he was dumb as an ox also. Hoss was use to being underestimated. He had been very young when Adam had told him to just let anyone without the sense to know better underrate him. Elder brother had explained how and when he could use being misjudged to his advantage. Hoss knew also that many men underestimated gals. Abigail had told Hoss many of the details about her abduction that neither of his brothers had shared with anyone. Hoss knew Abigail was smart as a whip, and brave as any man. If these men had failed to realize the part Abigail had played in the last escape and if they underestimated both Abigail and himself, Hoss knew the two of them had a chance. There was one person who had never underrated him or Abigail, and Adam would be the one coming after them.

*****

“He’ll kill them, Pa. No matter what Joe and I do; he’ll kill them,” Adam stated in the same terse and controlled tone he had used since the start of his narrative. He had returned to Virginia City, and located his father just as Ben was concluding his business. Smoothly making an excuse for his return, he had whisked Ben off to a private room. There he had informed his father of everything that had occurred on the road home. Ben looked at his eldest son. He knew Adam’s detached demeanor resulted from the extreme control he was exerting over his emotions.

“You’re sure of that, son?” Ben fought to control his own panic. Hoss was wounded and in the hands of killers. Abigail had been dragged back into her nightmare, and his eldest son would be consumed by the rage and guilt he was fighting if Hoss and the girl were not returned to them. Ben said a prayer as he watched Adam nod his head.

“I’m sure, Pa.”

“Then we need some way to gain more time.” Ben was thinking furiously. “You said he doesn’t want those men just released.”

“Pa, he wants them cleared of the charges.”

“If the trial were delayed…” Ben mused.

“The only way the trial would be delayed was if the judge failed to arrive. “ Adam ventured.

“Then the judge will be delayed,” stated Ben.

“How?”

“We’ll send a telegraph to Carson City. The stage will stop there in an hour. We’ll send it to the sheriff, and he can inform the judge. Then Roy can let out the word that the judge was delayed by illness, and the trial has to be postponed. That man will have someone watching things here, don’t you think?”

“Yes, Pa, I’m sure someone in this town is keeping an eye on things for him, which is why neither of us can go near the telegraph office or to the sheriff.”

“There’s people here we can trust Adam. Write the telegram. I’ll go down and order some room service. I’ll tell them to have Kenny Hollister bring it up.” The Hollister boy had two brothers who worked on the Ponderosa. He was a responsible and trustworthy boy who Hoss had befriended years ago.

“Pa, we need to send for Joe,” Adam said softly. He hated the thought of what this would do to his little brother.

Ben looked into the eyes of his son and fought the despair that filled his heart. “I’ll see to it, son.”

******

Hoss knew where they were being taken halfway to the site the kidnapers had chosen. He knew more about the land that constituted the Ponderosa than any man alive. The abandoned mine at Frenchman’s Point was a good choice. From the kidnapers’ point of view, it was long abandoned and forgotten by most people, well concealed, but within an hour’s ride of town, and it afforded a view that made a secret approach impossible. It was good for Abigail and him because Hoss was one of the few people that knew about its back door.

*****

Ben watched the blood drain from his youngest son’s face as Adam told him what had happened to Hoss and Abigail.

“He’ll kill them,” Joe choked out grabbing his brother’s arms.

“Not if we stop them,” Adam locked eyes with his brother and willed him to stay in control.

“How are we going to find them?” Joe’s voice was filled with despair. Hoss was able to track almost anyone anywhere, but now it was Hoss that needed to be tracked.

“We start at the point where they were taken, but whoever’s watching us has to think we’re still here in town.” Adam had been planning what had to be done since he and his pa had decided on a course of action. Concentrating on every detail of the plan enabled Adam to keep the demons at bay. Pa and their friends would act out an elaborate charade while Joe and he searched for Hoss. Adam had decided that if Roy came with them, the absence of the sheriff might arouse suspicion. His deputy, Clem, though, would accompany them. He calmly laid out the plan to his brother, and watched the boy gain focus. A small smile flitted over Adam’s face. Action would keep Joe’s demons at bay.

*****

Abigail had gone in and out of consciousness several times before they reached the mine. Hoss had been aware of each time she was conscious, but willed himself not to react. He had always been the most patient of Ben Cartwright’s sons, and he used that patience. He played the dumb ox, made sure there was a trail, and waited for the right time to act.

They stopped at the entrance to the abandoned mine long enough for one of the kidnappers to dismount and clear the entrance. Then they rode the horse into the mineshaft. The kidnappers dismounted. Two of them began recovering the entrance and lighting lanterns. Two more trained their guns on Abigail and Hoss. The leader dismounted, grabbed Abigail from his horse and tossed her to the ground. As she fell against her injured shoulder, she screamed and then lay moaning, conscious but lost in the searing pain.

Hoss felt her cry like a knife blade. He lurched against his bonds wrenching his already aching arms. The pistol trained on him clicked. He settled back into his saddle and prayed for the strength to do what he had to do.

“Now, big boy, you give us any trouble, and she pays the price. Be a good boy, and we’ll leave ya here alive when we go. Frank, get him down.”

Frank untied Hoss, and Hoss clumsily dismounted. Frank jerked his arms behind him and tied his wrists together. Then he pushed him further into the cave, shoved him to the ground, and tied his ankles. Finished with Hoss, Frank walked over to Abigail. He kneeled in front of her and brought her right arm behind her. Aware that someone was touching her and struggling to stay conscious, Abigail was overcome by a wave of nausea. As Frank lifted her injured left arm, she hurled the remains of her breakfast onto him. Swearing loudly, he sprang back and stood with her vomit dripping down his clothes into the dirt.

“Leave her,” the leader snapped, “Ain’t no need tying up that arm. She ain’t gonna be able to do nothing with it, and if she tries anything, we shoot the big boy. Hear that gal? We shoot the big boy.”

Hoss closed his eyes and prayed; Abigail moaned and did the same.

*****

They had left town carefully and hopefully unnoticed during the night. Waiting for the sun to rise at the spot where Hoss and Abigail had been taken, Adam watched the eastern sky. He kept remembering Hoss: as a baby in his arms, as a toddler clinging to his hand, as a young boy ready to follow his older brother anywhere, as the man he had counted on to always be there. Adam felt tendrils of panic unroll and circle his heart and struggled to pull them away. He remembered a long ago night on the journey west when he had dreamed that something evil- he would call them demons now- had come and taken his baby brother away. He had awakened in panic to find that Hoss was not sleeping on the pallet with him. His screams had brought half the wagon train running. Despite his pa’s best efforts to calm his fears, it was hours before he fell asleep clutching the folds of his brother’s nightshirt in his hand. He had vowed nothing would ever take his brother away from him, and he meant to keep that vow no matter what Satan might send against them.

Joe Cartwright watched his older brother. Adam would never lie under oath. Joe knew that as well as he knew that to save Hoss he would lie to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

Adam’s plan had to work. They could not lose Hoss. Joe knew if they did, part of him would never forgive Adam. Joe walked over and sat down beside his eldest brother.

“You’re sure that we’ll be able to track them?” Joe’s tone demanded assurance.

“Joe, do you remember that book we have with all the fairy tales and pictures?” Adam spoke in a soft, measured tones still watching the sky.

“Sure. You read it to me when I was little.” Joe knew his brother had a point to make, so he simply answered and then waited.

“I read it to Hoss when he was little too. The first time I read to him about Hansel and Gretel he stopped me and told me that the two of them were just plain dumb. He said trying to leave a trail with breadcrumbs was plum foolish, and started telling me about how they should have left a trail. You should have heard him, Joe. He must have been about six, and he had it all figured out. When he finished, he looked up at me and said, ‘then even if I couldn’t get back, you and Pa could come get me.’ We’ll find a trail, Joe. Hoss knows we’ll be coming to get him.”

*****

Hoss watched his captors closely. They had set up quite a neat little camp inside the main mineshaft. They were carefully guarding the entrance and watching for any approach by would-be rescuers. He and Abigail were deeper in the mine with everything and everyone between them and freedom, or at least that is what the men holding them thought. That is why no one had been set to simply watch them, for even if they managed to free Hoss of his bonds, there was no hope of them making their way undetected out of the entrance to the mine. Hoss realized that none of these men had considered that their captives might head deeper into the mine, so he knew that they had not explored their hideaway well enough to find the backdoor. Slowly, inch by inch, Hoss shifted his position closer to Abigail. She lay face down with her right arm stretched out and her fingers curled into the dirt. She was so still that all but one of the men around her thought she had once again drifted into unconsciousness; Hoss, though, knew that she was clinging to awareness. Finally his ankles were within reach of her fingers. He moaned and saw her head move slightly and her eyes flick open. He barely nodded his head toward his feet, and could have sworn he saw a smile flit across Abigail’s face. Then he focused on watching the men around them. At first he was not even positive that Abigail was working to unknot the rope around his ankles, but he assumed she was. Each time he saw one of their captors turn in their direction, he curled his feet away from her hand only to return them when the man would turn back toward the entrance. He was not sure how many hours had passed in this manner before he felt the rope loosen. A thrill went through his body, but still he waited. As the light from the entrance faded, and night deepened the darkness around them, two men remained guarding the entrance while the rest lay down and went to sleep.

Hoss started to move inch by inch deeper into the mineshaft, and Abigail matched him move for move. When the darkness shrouded them completely, Abigail pulled herself into a seated position, and Hoss turned his back to her. Slowly but deliberately Abigail loosened the ropes binding Hoss’ wrists. Praying silently, Hoss placed his arm around Abigail’s waist and led her deeper into the darkness.

Hoss had no idea how long their captors would remain unaware of their escape, but prayed that it would be long enough for him to get Abigail to safety. Feeling his way in the dark, he turned down several side shafts. Stopping abruptly, he eased Abigail to the ground and seated himself beside her. Reaching into his pocket he withdrew a Lucifer and lit it. In the soft glow, he saw Abigail’s face awash with pain.

“Your shoulder’s dislocated, gal,” he whispered softly.

“I’ll be fine, Hoss,” she replied weakly.

“You’d be sight better if we put that shoulder back into place,” he ventured.

“Can you do it?”

“I’ve done it once before.” He took her hand in his. “It would hurt ya a powerful lot, gal, and we can’t afford to let them hear a scream.”

“Does it hurt long?”

He shook his head, “Not long, and afterwards, it would hurt less than now.”

“Then you have to do it, Hoss, and I have to keep from screaming.”

Hoss knew she was right, for he was aware of what faced her if they reached the backdoor. “All right then, gal.” He moved her, so she was lying flat on her back. Then he reached into his pocket and took out his kerchief. Folding the cloth into a thick pad, he placed it between her teeth. “Now, ya bite down on that.” She motioned for him to wait and then gathered her skirt and petticoats to her face holding them there to muffle any sound she might make. Hoss thanked God he had the strength to do the job with one arm, positioned his wounded arm as a brace and grasped her wrist in his other hand. He closed his eyes so that he could not see the pain he would cause her, took a deep breath, and jerked. He felt the joint move back into place and opened his eyes. He gently removed the material covering Abigail’s face and took the kerchief from her lips. She had fainted, and he cradled her in his arms as he waited for her to return to consciousness.

*****

Adam reined in Sport. As he had told Joe, Hoss had left them a trail. The signs had been subtle but as clear to his brothers as arrows painted on the trees. Adam had taken comfort in the fact that Hoss’ ability to remain in control showed that he was not suffering pronounced effects from his wound. Now, suddenly, the signs had stopped. Adam pulled at his ear. Had Hoss succumbed to the affects of his wound after all? No, that would have produced an unraveling not a quick break. Had his efforts been detected?

“Adam,” Joe’s voice broke into his thoughts. “Why can’t we find anymore signs?”

Adam squeezed the bridge of his nose and stated the obvious, “Hoss, stopped leaving them.”

“Why?” The insistence in Joe’s voice scraped Adam’s nerves. He bit off the curse that formed in his mouth and shook his head. Taking a deep breath, he steadied his panic and looked around again. He knew Hoss better than anyone on earth even his father or Joe. Hoss and Joe were closer, maybe, but he and Hoss had shared more. In his mind, he followed the land in each direction like he followed the possible paths of each piece when he played chess. Then he knew as certainly as if his brother had whispered in his ear.

“I know where they are.”

Joe, responding to the assurance in his brother’s voice exclaimed, “Where?” while Clem inquired, “How?”

Adam chose to answer Joe. “The abandoned mine at Frenchman’s Point. That’s why he stopped. If we follow them, they’ll see us coming.”

“What do we do?” Joe demanded. Adam held up his hand in a command for Joe to stop talking.

“We’ll rest the horses while we think,” Adam said as he dismounted.

“Adam,” his little brother’s voice was insistent, and Adam stopped to look at the six-year-old.

“What, Hoss?”

“Pa ain’t gonna like it.”

“Pa isn’t going to know if we don’t tell him.”

“If’n he finds out,”

“He won’t,” Adam’s reply was curt and firm, but his stomach flipped inside him. If his pa found out that he had taken his little brother inside an abandoned mine, what life he had left would not be worth living.

“Pa spanks awful hard, Adam.” Adam stopped to look at the little boy trailing behind him. Hoss was big for his age and Adam sometimes forgot how really young he was. He knew it was wrong for him to take Hoss with him. Pa would punish Hoss as well as Adam if he found out, even though Hoss didn’t have a real choice in the matter. Well, he really didn’t have a choice either. He couldn’t leave a six-year-old alone at the ranch, so Hoss would have to come with him.

“Adam,” Joe handed his brother a canteen. “Do you really think they’re in that mine?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Do you think Abigail can stand it a second time?” Joe’s tone indicated his fear that the answer was no.

“She has Hoss.” Adam saw Joe relax slightly. How many times had having Hoss been enough to keep Joe from losing control? “Joe, Hoss knows that mine.”

Clem turned his head at that statement and moved closer to the brothers.

“What are ya talking about, Adam?” Joe demanded.

“The mine had only been abandoned for a few months. I was almost twelve, I guess. I needed some money. Never mind why. I got this idea. There might not be enough gold in that mine for men to make a living, but I didn’t need to make a living. There should be enough there if I looked hard for what I needed. We spent two days in that mine.”

“Pa let you go digging in a mine!”

“Little Brother,” Adam said with a rueful smile, “that’s our pa you’re asking about. No, Pa was busy working, and Hoss and I were back at the cabin on time every night. Well, until the third day when the men came and blocked the way. Anyway, we worked our way deeper into the mine until we found another way out.”

“Another way out!” Clem exclaimed.

“We called it our backdoor. We got out and never went back. Pa never did find out.”

“There’s a back way in. What are we doing standing here?” Joe started to mount Cochise.

“Wait,” Adam commanded. “We were kids, Joe, and it was close then. No way I could make it through now. Not Clem either.”

“What about Joe?” the deputy interjected.

Adam looked at his kid brother and bit his lip. Joe had always had a slight build and his narrow hips might make it through the passage, but years of ranch work had developed and broadened his shoulders. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Maybe is better than no. Let’s go,” Joe demanded.

Clem spoke again, “You said Hoss knows the mine, but he was what, five or so?”

“Just turned six.”

“Well, then, he probably doesn’t even remember what happened.” Clem chewed his tobacco and then spit.

“He remembers,” Joe stated flatly.

“How do you know, Joe,” his brother asked.

“Hoss heard me and some friends talking about going into a mine one time. He grabbed me up and told me if I ever went into one of them mines, he’d pound me good himself before he turned me over to Pa.”

“Hoss is always telling you that he’ll pound you good,” Clem said dismissively.

“This time was different. I could tell he meant it. When I asked him about it later, he said he was in one of them once and barely made it out.”

“That doesn’t mean he would remember how to get around the mine,” Clem retorted.

“Clem, people are good at remembering different things. I can remember almost anything I read. Pa remembers the name and face of every man he sailed with or met on the trail. Joe never forgets a pretty girl. Well, Hoss remembers where he’s been, how to get there and how to get back. He’ll remember the mine.”

Clem shrugged, “Remember or not, it makes no difference if he has a gun held on him.”

“True, but if they are hold up in that mine, Hoss will try to get to that back door.”

“You said it was too small for you, Adam, why would Hoss head there?” Clem said spitting again.

“Abigail is small enough to make it through.” Adam sighed. They would head for the backdoor.

*****

Abigail looked up at the thin light filtering down on them. Suddenly the present tilted into the past and whirled around her. Hoss caught her and lowered her to the ground.

“I’m all right, Hoss. I just, well for a minute I was back… anyway, I’m fine.”

“You remembering the last time? Is that it, Abigail?’

Abigail laughed softly, “There’s not a gambler in the territory that would have taken the odds on me being taken captive, ending up in an abandoned mine with a son of Ben Cartwright, and having to climb to freedom again.”

“Well, you do seem to be one for beating the odds.” Hoss smiled back.

“At least this time it’s not a sheer drop we have to climb up, and you’ll know where we are when we get out.”

“Abigail,” Hoss’ voice was gentle but firm, “Take a good look, gal.”

Abigail studied the rocky, sloping rise that became a narrow tunnel leading toward the light, but she refused to see the obvious until Hoss spoke. “Now you’re gonna do just what I say. You’re gonna crawl out and hide yourself. I’m thinking that Adam will be along directly, but if he ain’t, you stay hid until dark. Then you work your way slow and careful downhill. Just go in as straight a line as ya can. When ya come to a stream, just follow it downstream to a road. Wait there out of sight until somebody comes by. If need be, walk toward the rising sun.”

“And you, Hoss?”

“I’ll be just fine. Don’t ya worry your head about me!”

“I won’t go without you,” said Abigail shaking her head to emphasize her refusal.

“Yes, ya will, gal,” Hoss said in a tone Abigail had never heard him use before.

“No!”

“Now, Abigail Warner, you’re gonna do as I say, and that’s that. Ya may get around your pa, but I ain’t having none of it.” Hoss brought his hand under her chin and locked her eyes on his. “I need ya safe out of here, and out of here you’re going.”

“Maybe you could make it out,” she said softly with capitulation in her voice.

“You’re gonna have a time making it through, little gal.”

“I won’t wait. I’ll go for help.” Abigail said resolutely.

“You’ll wait!” For the first time ever, Abigail saw Hoss’ eyes spark fire. “You’ll wait and watch for Adam. Promise me, Abigail.”

“How can you be so sure Adam will come?”

“I left a trail, and I know my big brother. Adam will be coming. Leading Joe and Pa and who knows who else.”

“But they told him…”

“Adam and Pa will figure a way. Now promise me.”

Abigail sighed, “I promise.”

“Good girl. Now let’s get ya out of here.”

“Wait a minute. Might as well do all I can to make it easier. Why should you be the only Cartwright brother never to see me in just my drawers?” As Abigail spoke she reached behind her and unfastened her skirt. It dropped to the ground followed by her voluminous petticoats. Hoss’ eyes widen, and blush crept into his cheeks. With a rueful smile, Abigail muttered, “Where’s Joe and his pants when you need them.”

Hoss reached down, grabbed her petticoat, and ripped a large piece from it. “Ya can’t use your left arm, gal, or that shoulder’s liable to come right back out.” He proceeded to use the piece of petticoat to tie Abigail’s left arm against her body. “Now take your time and be careful.”

Abigail reached up and touched his cheek, “You be careful, Eric Cartwright.”

He picked her up with his good arm and started her on her way.

*****

It was morning before anyone noticed that the captives were no longer lying in the shadows. The leader kicked and cursed but was assured that they had not left the mine. After searching for signs, he accepted the fact that his hostages had gone deeper into the shaft. Of course, the Cartwrights in town did not know that he did not still have a gun trained on those two, so it really did not matter if the idiots chose to stumble about in the dark. He set a guard to watch for any return of the big man in some stupid attempt to overthrow them and then positioned himself at the entrance to the mine.

*****

Adam scanned the area again and then motioned Joe and Clem forward. He had located the opening that was the backdoor to the mine. Starting to move cautiously toward it, he stopped abruptly. A figure emerged from hiding and hurtled toward him. Seconds later Abigail was clinging to him.

“Hoss said you would come. He said to wait. He knew you’d come.”

Adam gently set Abigail on the ground in front of him and sat on his heels to stare into her face. “Are you okay? Is Hoss okay?”

“He’s still in there, Adam. We have to do something. He’s still in there.”

Joe and Clem were hovering over them asking a dozen questions at once. Adam cut them off and spoke firmly, “Abigail, I need you to tell me everything as calmly as you can, so we can make a plan.”

Abigail took a deep breath and began telling them everything that she could remember.

“I’m going in,” Joe declared. Adam desperately tried to think of a plan that would keep his baby brother out of that mine, but the best chance for Hoss included Joe entering the shaft, taking Hoss a gun, and helping him in attacking the abductors’ flank.

“I don’t…” Adam began.

“I’m going to Hoss, Adam.” Adam had never heard such determination in his youngest brother’s voice.

“Let me think, Joe,” Adam snapped.

“Think all you want. I’m going.”

“You may not even be able to get through.”

“I think he can,” Abigail’s voice entered the conversation.

“It’s the best way, Adam,” Clem interjected, “The kid is young but…”

“I’m not a kid, and I’m going,” Joe declared heatedly.

“Okay. Wait,” Adam ordered. “We need to plan.”

The plan made, Joe stood at the opening ready to push through. He had removed his jacket and his holster. His pistol was now stuffed into his left boot, and another pistol was stuffed into his right boot. Adam’s watch was in his pocket. He held a canteen in his left hand. Taking a deep breath, he began his journey into the mine.

Hoss heard him throw the canteen down and smiled. When Joe came within reach, Hoss swung him to the floor of the mineshaft.

“Good going, Short Shanks. Is Abigail okay? Did ya bring me a gun?”

Reaching into his boot, Joe took the pistol and handed it to his big brother. “Of course, ya big lug. Abigail’s with Adam and Clem. There’s a canteen around here somewhere.”

“Got that already, youngun. Ya need a drink ‘fore ya head back out?”

Joe shook his head, “I ain’t going back out that way.”

“Oh, yes, ya are, boy.” Hoss declared.

“That ain’t part of the plan, Hoss.”

“Then we got a new plan.”

“Just listen. It’s Adam’s plan, and it’s a good one.” Joe hoped evoking their eldest brother’s name would sway Hoss. He proceeded to tell Hoss the entire plan hardly stopping to take a breath.

“Joe, I don’t want…” Hoss began.

“You don’t ever want to let me grow up, Hoss. You’re as bad as Adam!”

Hoss sighed. “Okay, but ya stay behind me.”

Joe rolled his eyes and nodded his head. Hoss started back toward the mine entrance.

******

“Now, you’ll stay hidden here until we come for you,” Adam stated. He, Clem, and Abigail had worked themselves around toward the entrance to the mine as close as they could approach without being seen. Adam knew that Joe and Hoss had been making their way back through the mine tunnels. The time set for the attack was nearing, and Adam wanted the girl tucked away safely.

Abigail threw back her head, looked Adam directly in his eyes, and said, “No.”

“Yes.”

“Surely I can be of more use than that.”

Adam pinched the bridge of his nose. He had two little brothers at risk, and the tension was taking his breath away. He had lost the battle to keep Joe out of that mine; there was no way he was going to allow this girl to involve herself in the upcoming fight. “You will do as you’re told,” he snapped.

Abigail’s lips curled into an insolent grin. “Since when?”

Adam grabbed Abigail by the right arm and drew her toward him. “You will stay here, you will stay hidden, or I will see that it is the one thing in life you regret, little girl,” he hissed.

Abigail pulled away, and turned her back to him. Clem had stepped forward when Adam took Abigail by the arm. Now he stated in a placating manner, “It’s best you listen to Adam there, miss. We’ll get things settled and then come back for ya.”

Abigail snorted but said nothing. Viewing the matter as settled, Adam and Clem prepared for the fight.

Inside the mine, Hoss and Joe crouched in the darkness with their eyes focused on the glow from the abductors’ fire. They could make out the silhouette of the man guarding the approach. Both of them prayed silently that Adam’s plan would work.

Simple but effective, the plan did work. Adam and Clem’s deliberated approach served as the frontal distraction for Joe and Hoss’ rear attack. Then Adam and Clem advanced catching their foe in a blistering crossfire. A short time later, two men lay dead, and two others stood handcuffed in Clem’s custody.

Adam looked at his brothers weak with relief. Hoss walked over. Standing before Adam with a grin spreading across his face, he stated,” Good to see ya, Big Brother! Took a mite longer than I expected, but I knew ya’d get here.”

Adam grinned back, “Good to see you too, Little Brother. Next time, if you want me here faster, leave a better trail.”

Coming up behind his brothers, Joe cackled, “Yeah, Hoss, ya know Adam ain’t the tracker you are.”

Adam snorted. Hoss laughed and caught his elder brother in a one-armed hug. Joe grabbed Hoss and hugged him from behind. Then Adam walked over to Clem’s side and studied the faces of the men sitting in the dirt. Turning on his heel, Adam walked to each of the bodies and studied the faces of the dead men. Stiffening, he said, “He’s not here!”

Clem exclaimed, “Who?” Little Joe and Hoss turned and headed toward Adam.

“The leader. He’s not here. Abigail!” Adam started moving. Hoss and Joe began to follow. “Stay here! I’ll get her!” Adam commanded. Moving quickly gun in hand, Adam prayed that the girl for once had done what she had been told. Hearing a sound behind him, Adam swung around. The leader of the gang stood there protecting himself with Abigail’s body.

God, help us. Just once… If we live through this, I’m going to kill her.” Adam’s mind raced to find a plan.

“Well, Cartwright, it seems that you forgot to make sure that all the foxes were in the den.”

“It would have been simpler if all the rats had been in the hole, but sometimes you just have to tie up a few loose ends,” Adam replied coolly. He studied the pair before him. The man held Abigail with one hand at her throat while his other hand held his gun. Abigail looked pale, and by the way her left arm hung, Adam could tell that her shoulder was once again dislocated.

“Call it what you will, Cartwright. I still hold an ace.” The man tightened his grip on Abigail. “This little gal is gonna get me and my brothers out of the territory.”

“Are you sure you can handle her? You haven’t done to well in the past.” Adam fastened his eyes on Abigail’s. He flexed his left hand, and shifted his eyes to the man’s hand with a slight nod. Her captor could not see her face, so Abigail grinned at Adam barring her teeth. Out of the corner of his eye, Adam saw Hoss approaching from the left. He mouthed now and focused completely on the spot where he wanted his bullet to go.

Abigail dipped her head and bit the fleshy part of the man’s hand between his thumb and pointer finger. Startled, he cursed and loosened his hold. Going limp, Abigail dropped to the ground, and Adam fired. Reaching out with his good arm, Hoss snatched Abigail out of the way as her abductor fell forward. Adam’s bullet had found its mark.

Adam darted toward Hoss and Abigail. Then stopped, staring at the two of them trying to unravel the mixing exclamations of both.

“You okay, gal? Now, I told ya to be careful of that shoulder.”

“Hoss! You’re okay! No, your arm’s bleeding again.”

“I told ya that ain’t nothing but a scratch. Ya just calm down now.”

“You were right, Hoss. I did what you said, and Adam came.”

“Told ya he would.”

“What happened?” Joe burst onto the scene having broken his promise to stay with Clem as soon has he heard the gunshots.

“He had Abigail, but he didn’t know the imp would bite.” Adam glared at the girl.

“He’s dead?” Joe inquired staring down at the body. “Then it’s really over.”

“For him it’s over,” Adam’s tone was terse, and he was still glaring at Abigail.

Abigail ignored the glare. “Hoss needs his arm bandaged,” she said her tone filled with concern.

“It’ll be fine,” Hoss interjected dismissively,” but Abigail’s shoulder needs seeing to.”

Adam reached into a pocket and brought out a kerchief. Folding it into a pad, he pressed it against his brother’s arm. “Hold this there until we get to the horses. I have bandages in my saddlebags. I think it may be best to just immobilize Abigail’s arm until we get her to Doc Martin.”

*****

Abigail had demanded her skirt, and Adam had retrieved it, so she was able to ride into town decently attired. Actually, Adam was thankful he had made the effort, for they had been eyed by every person on the streets of Virginia City and had gathered a following of nearly fifty people before they arrived at the jail. There the two remaining captors had been turned over to Roy Coffee and the bodies of the dead turned over to the undertaker. Roy and Ben had received a very brief recounting of the rescue, and then Ben had hustled Hoss and Abigail to the doctor. Waiting at Doc Martin’s, Adam could almost hear the gossips creating an audible hum. Looking across the room at his brother, Adam thanked God once again that Hoss was safe.

“Tell me something, Younger Brother,” Adam arched his eyebrow, “just how did you do it?”

“Do what?” Hoss gazed questioningly at Adam.

“How did you get Abigail Warner to do what you asked?”

Hoss grinned, “Now, Adam, I just told her how things had to be. That gal ain’t nearly as unreasonable as ya think.”

Adam rolled his eyes, “You just told her how things had to be, did you? Well, I told her how things were going to be, she didn’t listen, and it could have gotten someone killed.”

Hoss watched his brother’s eyes darken. Now that everyone was safe, Hoss knew some of Adam’s concern would turn to anger. “But it didn’t, brother, and you ain’t heard her side of the story yet.”

“If there’s a version that doesn’t include her disobeying my orders, I’d like to hear it.”

“I’m under no obligation to obey orders from you, Adam Cartwright.” The heads of all the Cartwrights swung toward the door to the examination room where Abigail Warner stood. Her arm was in a sling. She was pale and drawn, but her voice carried fire.

Adam sprang to his feet and reached her in three long strides. He glared down at her with his hands clenched at his sides. Abigail tossed back her head and stared into his eyes defiantly.

“I told you to stay hidden, or you’d regret it.” His words were spoken so softly that only Abigail could make them out, but his father and brothers could read Adam’s stance and sprang toward them.

“I do regret it,” Abigail said simply without any trace of capitulation.

Adam slowly let out a deep breath and relaxed as if the wind had gone out of his sails. He shook his head and muttered to himself.

Doctor Paul Martin walked up behind Abigail and took charge. “These two will be just fine, but they need some good food, a little care, and lots of rest. Ben, it’s time you got this lot headed home.” The doctor then began dispensing instructions to Abigail, Hoss, and Ben as Ben herded his family out the door.

*****

Judge Clement arrived on Tuesday, and the trial of the original two abductors was held on Wednesday. The defendants had obtained the services of a lawyer named Dennison that Hoss described as a weasel, but, as Adam pointed out, every one had the right to a spirited defense. Dennison had insisted that the three main witnesses not be in the courtroom listening to testimony before they gave their own. So while Adam testified, Joe and Abigail waited in separate rooms in the courthouse.

Dressed in his black Sunday suit with a white cotton shirt and silk waistcoat, Adam looked rich, powerful, and in control. To the females in the room, he also looked dashingly handsome, and Hiram Woods considered the fact that with witnesses like the Cartwright brothers, he would have had a certain advantage if women were allowed to serve on juries.

Hiram led Adam through his testimony with only a few simple questions. Adam spoke in a clear baritone that carried to every corner of the room. His answers were concise, and in some cases carefully worded. The gossips in the room gained little grist for their mill and were disappointed by his lack of juicy details. The cross-examination by Dennison was futile, as Adam remained sure and definite. After being released from the stand, Adam took a seat next to his father and Hoss thinking that the testimony should have been able to end right then.

Every eye in the room then watched Joe Cartwright enter and take the oath. Joe’s suit was a deep blue and cut to fit. He managed to look both devastatingly male and incredibly young as he took the witness seat. Joe’s nervous tension was more obvious than his older brother’s, but his testimony was delivered with no less certainty. Still, Dennison had heard of Joe’s volatile temper and had hopes of goading the boy into an explosion on the stand.

Walking over to stand before Joe, he began, “You escorted Miss Warner to the dance. Then you escorted her outside.” The statement was delivered with a leer.

“No!’ Joe’s denial was spontaneous and unexpected, and Dennison latched onto to it.

“You didn’t. Well, then who did?”

“Adam.” The volume of Joe’s voice had dropped greatly.

“Excuse me. Did I hear you say that Adam, your brother Adam, escorted your companion out into the night? Why was that?”

“I … You should have asked Adam that.” Joe’s tone took on an insolent quality.

“Perhaps I should have. I’ll have to remedy that when Miss Warner comes to the stand. So you went outside and found your brother with the girl you had brought to the dance. Let’s see, your brother said there was a – how did he word it – a family disagreement, and the three of you left the dance. Please enlighten us as to what that disagreement was about.”

“Objection! The topic of disagreement has nothing to do with the substance of this trial,” Hiram Woods declared.

“How can we know that if we’re not told what the disagreement was?” Dennison inquired quickly.

“How can it unless you think they were fighting about joining the defendants in a bank robbery?” Hiram said sarcastically. The judge pounded his gavel and told Dennison to forget the disagreement for now.

Dennison shrugged and turned once again to question Joe. “The three of you left the dance in the dark on foot. Is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“Where were you going?”

Joe shifted in his seat. “Where were we going?”

“Yes, Mr. Cartwright, that is my question. Where were the three of you going?”

“Well, my brother and I were following Abigail.”

“And where was Miss Warner going?”

“She never said.”

Dennison gave the jury a puzzled look. “Oh, she never said. Well, I guess I’ll have to save that question for her also.”

Joe’s expression had turned into a glare. Adam wanted to tell his brother to just calm down but simply leaned closer.

“So in the dark while following a girl going you know not where, you came upon some men. You could see them clearly?”

“No.”

“So you never saw the men you encountered clearly?”

“I didn’t say that!” Joe snapped. “I saw them clear enough later.”

“That would have been after you had been knocked unconscious. Didn’t you say that you were knocked unconscious, Joe? May I call you Joe, so as not to confuse you with your grown brother?”

Joe’s eye’s flashed and his jaw clenched. “You will address the witness as Mr. Cartwright,” the judge intoned.

“Mr. Cartwright, then, your testimony is that you were knocked unconscious as was the other Mr. Cartwright, your grown brother.”

“Yes,” Joe hissed the word.

“How long were you unconscious?”

“I don’t know for sure.”

“You are unsure about that part of your testimony.”

“No! I’m sure about what happened and who did it,” Joe half rose from his chair before the judge ordered him to remain seated.

“So you did not actually see an attempt to rob the bank. No forcing of the door, no bags full of money in the defendant’s hands. Did you see anything like that while you were conscious?”

“No.”

“When you regained consciousness, you were on a horse?”

“Yes.”

“In what position?”

Joe gritted his teeth and then answered, “Face down with my wrists and ankles tied.”

“What was within your line of vision?”

“The ground.” Joe’s answers were becoming more growled than stated.

“So it would be fair to say that you spent more of that time studying the dirt than studying faces, would it not?”

“Yes.”

Dennison stepped back and then continued, “When you were taken from the horse, it was what time of day?”

“Early evening.”

“You saw your captors in poor light and then darkness. Correct?”

“There was a fire.”

“Ah, yes, a fire,” Dennison said dismissively. “Your captors spent the next hours interacting with you, I expect. Talking with you, feeding you, caring for your needs.”

“No.” The tension in Joe’s body and voice was clear to all. Adam moved to the edge of his chair. Ben placed his hand on Adam’s arm, and they exchanged glances.

“In fact, while you lay there suffering from a head injury, the men who held you captive stayed far enough away from the three of you for you to break free of your ropes unnoticed and make an escape, yet you say you saw them clearly.”

“I saw them!”

“When was it exactly that you got a good look at their faces? Was it perhaps when they brought you food?”

“They didn’t feed us.”

“Water then? Was it when they brought you water?”

“They didn’t give us water,” Joe answered flatly.

“No food, no water, and suffering from a head injury, yet remarkably you managed to memorize the faces of your captors by firelight. Most scared boys would have found that most difficult,” Dennison observed in a condescending tone.

Little Joe sprang to his feet his fists clenched. He cursed Dennison and shouted at the jury that the defendants were the men responsible, using an expletive for them that had gotten his mouth washed out with soap the only other time he had used it in front of his father. Ben and Adam were both on their feet, as the Judge banged his gavel and demanded order. Joe sat down, and the judge fined him for using reprehensible language in the courtroom and in front of the ladies present. Feeling like a ten-year-old, Joe muttered an apology. Judge Clement then asked Dennison if he had any further questions of the witness.

“Since any more reliable testimony from this witness is unlikely, I have no more questions for the boy,” Dennison answered giving Joe a dismissive look and shaking his head sorrowfully.

Hiram asked only one question in rebuttal. “Are you sure that those two men were part of the gang that abducted you, your brother, and an innocent girl.”

“Yes, I’m sure!” Joe declared loudly, and the judge dismissed him from the stand.

Little Joe took the seat next to Hoss that his family had saved for him. Slumping down in the chair, Joe muttered, “Sorry, Pa.” He sat there wishing that he were a kid again, so that the only result of his tantrum to worry about would be a tanning from his pa.

Several men in the crowd who had been planted by Dennison made overly loud observations to their neighbors about unreliable boys and the brothers that would back anything they said.

Hiram Woods then called Abigail Warner to the stand. Abigail’s entrance quieted the crowd of watchers, and she walked slowly to the front of the room. She was dressed modestly in a simple pink dress with a white collar and cuffs and a rose-bedecked straw hat. Her curls were caught up in a satin bow, and the only jewelry she wore was a gold cross at her throat. She could have been the minister’s daughter at a church picnic except for her pale cheeks and the black sling on her left arm.

Hiram wished that he could tell the jury why Abigail was wearing a sling, but Dennison had succeeded in having the judge rule that anything that had happened in the past few days could not be introduced in a trial against two men who had been in jail the entire time. Hiram Woods looked at the jury and reconsidered his approach. Walking up to Abigail, he spoke softly but clearly.

“Miss Warner, were you, Adam Cartwright, and Joseph Cartwright on the night in question knocked unconscious and taken forcibly from this city by five armed men?”

“Yes.” Abigail’s tone was clear, and her voice carried to the far corners of the courtroom.

“After escaping from your bonds, were you hunted by those men until you sought refuge in an abandoned mine?”

“Yes.”

“Did those men then dynamite the entrance to that mine in an attempt to silence the three of you forever?”

“Yes.”

Hiram reached out and patted the gloved hand Abigail had resting on the rail in front of her.

“I have only one more question for you then. Are any of those men in this courtroom now?”

“Yes, both of the defendants.” Abigail stared directly at the men sitting behind the defense table.

“The other witnesses have supplied us with all the necessary details, my dear, so that is all I need ask of you.” Hiram gave Abigail’s hand another fatherly pat and took his seat.

Dennison debated the best way to rattle the girl and impeach her testimony. Well, if Woods had managed to put an angel on the stand, he would just have to make her a fallen angel.

“Miss Warner, Mr. Woods may have all the details he needs, but I’m sure the rest of the people in this courtroom have questions that they would like answered.”

Adam rolled his eyes. Every gossip in town had questions they wanted answered, and none of them had anything to do with the actions of the men on trial.

“Now,” Dennison continued, “you accompanied Joseph Cartwright to the dance that night, is that correct?’

“Yes.”

“I’ve heard you looked quite,” Dennison paused as if considering how to phrase what he would say next, “quite alluring that night. Yes, quite the silken belle, shall we say?”

Hiram Woods objected, “Miss Warner’s appearance on that night is irrelevant.”

“Perhaps it wasn’t to some of the people involved,” Dennison observed with a leer.

“Objection sustained. Move on, Mr. Dennison.”

“Of course, Your Honor. You later went into the moonlight with Adam Cartwright, is that correct?”

“Adam and I went outside.”

“Joseph Cartwright found the two of you together, and the brothers argued. I won’t distress you by asking what the brothers fought about.” Dennison shared a look with the jury that expressed the opinion that everyone already knew what the brothers had had to fight over.

Abigail looked out into the courtroom and exchanged a look with Adam Cartwright.

“Adam and I were discussing his animosity towards me because of something that happened when I was a child. It became an argument, and then Joe became involved. The entire thing was quite childish, and so was my reaction. I ran off down the street. Adam and Joe came after me.”

“I’m sure both of them were in hot pursuit,” Dennison observed with a sneer. Then he continued, “All of you were knocked unconscious, correct?”

“Correct.”

“But you regained consciousness and were later able to escape from your captors in the company of the two Cartwright brothers?” Rubbing his chin, Dennison paused, “Now just how did you manage that?”

“I chewed through the rope tying Adam’s wrists.”

“None of your captors noticed you leaning over to bit the ropes at his wrist?”

“I didn’t have to be that obvious.”

“How is that, Miss Warner? Please explain.”

Abigail raised her chin and looked Dennison in the eye. “We were on the ground in a reclining position, and my hair was free to fall over my face.”

“Oh, you chewed the ropes at Adam Cartwright’s wrists while the two of you lay together that night.” Dennison smiled as he heard the gasps of some of the ladies in the room. “Then you and the two young men traveled through the night to the abandoned mine. How long were the three of you alone there?”

“I cannot be precise as I had no watch with me.” Two spots of color had started to burn on Abigail’s cheeks.

“I don’t suppose either of the men were much interested in checking the time either.” Dennison delivered his observation with as much salaciousness as possible. “Of course, checking a watch in the dark can be difficult.”

“Does Mr. Dennison have another question?” Hiram Woods intervened.

“Certainly, I do. Several in fact…”

Suddenly, Abigail turned to look at the judge and said, “Your Honor?”

“Yes, Miss Warner, is something wrong?”

“No, sir. It’s just I think I can save the court some time.” Puzzlement showed on most of the faces in the room.

“How is that, young lady?” The judge said giving in to his own curiosity.

“Well, what really matters is whether or not everyone can be sure that I can identify these men as two of the men who took us, isn’t that right?”

“Actually, that is precisely right.”

“I can prove they are the men,” Abigail stated firmly.

Everyone in the courtroom sat up straight and focused on the girl in the witness stand.

“How is that, Miss Warner?” Judge Clement urged.

“Well, the sheriff can tell you that I haven’t been to the jail or near those two men until I walked into the courtroom today.” All eyes quickly settled on Roy Coffee who nodded his head in agreement. “Judge, sir, I was face down on a horse in front of one of the captors,” Abigail pointed to the blond defendant, ” That man has a scar on his left shin where his boot meets his pants. The other one talks with a lisp.”

All eyes now moved to the defendants. At the judge’s instructions, the blond defendant was brought before the bar and his left pant leg was lifted. A jagged red scar ran down the leg disappearing into his boot. Dennison declined to question Abigail further, and she was dismissed from the witness stand.

Abigail joined the Cartwrights taking a seat next to Hoss. She could feel the spectators’ eyes on her as the trial continued. Dennison presented a weak defense of mistaken identity. After closing statements from the lawyers, the jury took fifteen minutes to bring in a verdict of guilty, and the judge sentenced each of the men to thirty years in jail. As they left the courtroom the Cartwright men surrounded Abigail with Hoss clearing a path through the crowd.

*****

Adam walked into the house and unbuckled his gun belt. After setting it on the credenza and placing his hat on its proper peg, he walked to the fireplace and stood watching the flames.

“Adam.” He turned at the sound of his father’s voice.

“I spoke with Judge Clement and Hiram Woods. The last two decided to plead guilty. We won’t even need to be in the courtroom. So that, Pa, is the end of that.”

“Is it, son?” Ben Cartwright had hoped the end of the trial would bring an end to his worry about Adam, Joe, and Abigail, but in some ways he was more concerned about them then he had been the day before, and now there was Hoss to worry about too.

Instead of answering his father directly, Adam reached into his pocket and withdrew a piece of paper. Handing it to his father, he stated, “There was a telegram for you, Pa.”

Ben unfolded the paper and read the message. “Abel Warner will be arriving tomorrow on the morning stage.”

An odd smile played across Adam’s face. “Will he now?”

 “Papa will be here tomorrow?” Both men looked to see Abigail standing at the foot of the stairs. She flashed a wry grin at Adam as she walked toward them, “And you think I’ll have to face the music, don’t you, Adam?”

“Oh, you’ll have to face the music, girl. I was just wondering what tune will be playing.” Adam said returning the grin.

“Oh, a very sad one, I imagine.” Abigail subtly changed her stance and somehow managed to emphasize the sling on her arm. She placed a woeful expression on her face, and her eyes filled with tears.

Adam brought his hand up under her chin and tipped her head so she could look directly into his eyes. Very softly he said, “You deceitful little imp.” Then, dropping his hand he smiled and added, “You’ll probably get away with it.”

“Well, we all get away with things from time to time.”

Adam missed the gleam in her eye. “Some of us more than others.”

“And some of us for longer that others,” was Abigail’s rejoinder. This time Adam recognized the look in Abigail’s eyes. “Has he asked about it yet?” she inquired sweetly.

Adam glanced at his father from the side of his eyes.

“If you’re referring to how my sons had intimate knowledge of an abandoned mine, Abigail, I was waiting for a private moment with my eldest.” Ben’s voice had taken on its most paternal edge.

Adam swallowed deeply and wondered if the statute of limitations on his crime exceeded eighteen years.

*****

After dinner Little Joe declined a checkers game, and excused himself to the barn with a mumbled excuse about Cochise and a stone bruise. Abigail watched the remaining Cartwrights exchange concerned looks.

“He’s thinks you’re disappointed in him,” she observed softly.

“I most certainly am not…”

“We aren’t…”

“Now, that boy should know better…”

Abigail held up her hand as if in surrender. “I didn’t say I thought you were; I said that Joe thinks so.”

“Well then somebody’s gonna have to correct his thinking,” Hoss declared.

Ben Cartwright started to rise, but Adam said, “Pa, let me talk to him.” Ben nodded his head, and Adam followed his brother to the barn.

Adam walked into the barn and found Joe standing with his head buried in Cochise’s side. He walked over and put his hand on his little brother’s shoulder. “Joe.”

Little Joe spun around to face his brother. “What do you want, Adam?”

“It’s time we talked, Joe.”

“Nothing to talk about.” Joe stated dismissively.

“Really. Why are you out here hiding in the barn?”

“I ain’t hiding!” Joe turned and walked away from Adam, but then stopped abruptly. His shoulders slumped, and he muttered softly, “If Abigail hadn’t known about that scar, they would have gotten off, and it would have been my fault.”

“Only partly,” Adam commented knowing that Joe would simply dismiss a complete denial as brotherly patronizing.

It was not what Joe had expected Adam to say, and surprise turned him around. Adam walked over and looked his brother in the face. “It’s true that Dennison might have confused the issue so much that the jury would have let them off, but, even so, it would have been only partly your fault.”

“I was the one who lost his temper and looked like a no-account kid.”

“I left out details because I was worried about gossip, and the jury could have seen that as being evasive, so part of the fault would have been mine,” Adam declared, and then continued, “Like Hoss said, Dennison is a weasel, and his twisting of the facts would have made the blame partly his, though I suppose he would have been glad to take the credit.” Adam smiled at Joe, “Hell, Joseph, I did everything I could to keep Abigail off the stand. None of us bothered to ask her about what she might know that would help convict those two.”

“Well, yeah.” Joe leaned back against the half-wall of a stall. “Pa’s always telling me, though, that I’ve got to learn to control my temper, and you’re the one who told me it would make a fool of me one day.”

“And we’re both right, little brother. You let Dennison use your temper to control you, but that’s nothing to brood over. Learn from it and move on.”

“I try, Adam, I really do try to control my temper, but it just seems I can’t, not like you and Pa do.”

“We’ve had more practice and more reason.”

A puzzled look came to Joe’s face, “More reason?”

“Yea, Pa had three sons he had to set an example for, and he never let me get away with throwing tantrums.”

Joe grinned, “Are we back to ‘Pa let’s you get away with more than he let me’, huh, Adam?”

“Truth is keeping your temper is the one thing Pa was harder on Hoss about than on either you or me.”

“Hoss! Hoss hardly even has a temper.” Joe sputtered.

“Hoss is a Cartwright, Joe; he has a temper. Sure he has the longest fuse of us all, but the reason you hardly ever see him lose his temper is because Pa made sure he knew he couldn’t afford to.”

Joe considered his brother’s statement. “Good thing for us that he did, don’t ya think?” Joe grinned for the first time since the trial.

“A very good thing, brother, a very good thing.”

*****

Ben watched Abel Warner exit the stage and walked over to greet him. “Hello, Abel.”

Abel scanned the area and then turned toward Ben, “Where’s Abigail? Is she okay?”

“She’s fine, Abel, well, except for her shoulder, and the doctor says that will heal shortly,” Ben said in his most reassuring voice.

“Her shoulder? What happened to her shoulder?”

“Now, Abel, it’s a long story.” Ben winced at the thought of all the times he had lamented his sons saying just that. “We’ll get your bags, and I’ll tell you everything on the way back to the ranch. Don’t worry; everything turned out just fine.”

On the trip to the ranch, Ben managed to recount everything that had happened since Abigail arrived in Virginia City in a calm and efficient manner while Abel Warner exclaimed, sighed, and raged.

“It’s over now, Abel, and they are all safe.”

“Thank God! Ben, what am I going to do with that girl?”

“Keep on loving her, Abel, just keep on loving her, and see that she marries a strong-minded man!”

*****

Hoss found Abigail leaning against the rails of the lower corral watching a large bay stallion Joe had named Wind Dancer.

“Your pa’s here, little gal. He’s waiting for ya up at the house.”

Abigail turned to face Hoss. She bit her lip and looked at him through her lashes. “I suppose your father told him the whole story.”

“Well now, Pa, had to tell him pa to pa; ya knew he would.”

“How angry did he seem?”

“He weren’t blowing smoke, if that’s what you’re fretting about, gal.” Hoss smiled, but then put on a sterner face,” Seems ya should have worried about what ya pa would do before ya came sashaying down here without his permission.”

“I’m not worried about what Papa will do, not really.” Abigail dropped her eyes to the ground. “Actually, well, Papa will be hurt, Hoss, and I regret that I had to hurt him.”

“Now, ya did what ya thought ya had to do, and your pa’s gonna be proud of how ya stood up to them men and to that weasel when ya was on the witness stand. About the rest, well, you just tell him how sorry ya are, and I bet he forgives ya quick as a wink,” Hoss said reassuringly.

Abigail smiled up at him, “Are you sure about that?”

“He loves ya, gal, so I’m sure. ‘Sides, one look at his hurt baby, and your pa ain’t gonna be thinking about nothing but coddling ya ’til ya get well.”

Abigail put on a sorrowful face and said, “Then I guess I best take my time healing.”

Knowing that Abigail and her father would be staying at the Ponderosa until she was totally healed, Hoss encouraged, “That’s right, little gal, ya just take all the time ya need.”

******

The doctor had finally given permission for Abigail to remove the sling she had worn since the rescue. Adam watched her as they ate dinner. Obliviously she had recovered physically from the ordeal as had Hoss. In fact, she seemed to glow with wellbeing. Adam raised his eyes to find his father studying him. He inclined his head toward Abigail, and the two men exchanged a look.

“With Abigail fully recovered, I suppose you’ll soon be taking her away from us, Abel.” Ben commented.

A slightly flustered, slightly pleased look came to Abel Warner’s face, and he glanced inquiringly at his daughter. “Well, Ben…” he began.

“Truth is, Mr. Ben, I’m planning to stay here,” Abigail intervened.

“Here in Virginia City?” Adam interjected.

“Here on the Ponderosa,” she stated softly. Adam glanced at Joe only to find Joe staring at him with the same questioning look. Then every eye at the table became fixed on Hoss at the sound of his booming, “Pa!”

“Yes, Hoss?”

“I’ve asked Abigail to be Mrs. Eric Cartwright, Pa.” A broad smile beautifying his face, Hoss finished, “And she said yes, Pa. She said yes.”

A stunned silence reigned for a full minute before everyone was suddenly standing.

“Hoss, you and Abigail!” Ben exclaimed, “Married? Why I…” He turned to Abel. “And you knew, didn’t you?” His tone was gently accusing.

“It’s your own fault, Ben. You raised the boy to do the right thing. He came to me first to ask for my daughter’s hand. It was only proper, Ben.”

“Yes, yes, only right,” Ben replied busy hugging first his son and then his future daughter-in-law. “Abigail, I’m… I’m…”

“Pleased, I hope,” The girl muttered into his shoulder.

“Pleased! Pleased, I’m much more than pleased, girl.” Ben looked at Hoss and managed to draw him into another embrace while still hugging Abigail. “Hoss you never said…” thinking of the elation he could still see in his son’s face he said simply, “Congratulations, Son, I couldn’t be happier for you or this family.”

As joy for his brother filled Joe like wind filling sails, he began dancing around slapping his brother and father on the back, “Dadburnit, Hoss! Talk about Adam not saying a word. Why I should be mad as hel…heck you never told even me. Abigail, you sure you want this big, old lug of a brother of mine?” Joe’s cackle filled the room.

“I’m sure, “Abigail stated softly.

“Now, Joe, it’s just I weren’t even sure myself about things. I just knew I couldn’t bear thinking about this gal leaving, and then I knew what I wanted, but I couldn’t believe she could want a big lug like me, but when I asked her, Joe, she said yes. She said yes, Joe!” Hoss delivered a slap to his little brother’s back that sent him stumbling.

Adam caught his youngest brother and settled him back on his feet. Looking from Hoss to Abigail, he simply said, “Abigail, who would have thought Hoss would make you the first on the short list of women to marry Ben Cartwright’s sons? Congratulations to the both of you.” He walked over and kissed Abigail on the cheek as he took his brother’s hand to shake it and was pulled into a bear hug.

Exclamations in Chinese turned everyone’s attention to Hop Sing as he entered the room carrying a silver tray. On it was a bottle of champagne and seven glasses. “Mistel Ben, you say this bottle for when numbel two son announces malliage. Evelybody dlink toast.”

Ben grinned. Adam had been only seventeen when he had brought a case of French champagne from San Francisco and laid aside three bottles for his sons’ engagements, three for their weddings, and three for the birth of each son’s first child. He wiped the moisture from his eyes and began the toasts.

*****

Abigail heard the soft knock at her bedroom door. The sun had not yet risen, and she had been lying in the dark waiting for a proper hour to leave her bed. Hearing a second gentle tap, she darted to the door and opened it. Leaning against the doorframe was Adam Cartwright, fully dressed and with arms crossed. Startled, Abigail took a step back and exclaimed, “What?”

Leaning toward her conspiratorially, he whispered, “I’m going riding. Want to come with?” A mocking smile played with his lips as he waited for the girl to answer.

Abigail’s eyes danced as she uttered, “Wind Dancer?”

Adam placed his right hand at his chin appearing to give the question of Abigail’s riding the newly broken bay stallion deep consideration while privately thinking he would allow the girl to ride any horse on the ranch at this moment.

“Wind Dancer it is,” he finally announced. “I’ll saddle the horses.” He turned, and Abigail closed the door.

Ten minutes later Abigail emerged from the house dressed in a pair of dark pants and a white line shirt. Walking over to where Adam waited with Sport and Wind Dancer, she announced, “I got a pair of my own. I figured I shouldn’t keep borrowing Joe’s.”

Adam cocked his eyebrow, “Especially when he didn’t know you borrowed them?”

“Exactly.”

Adam reached out, placed his hands on Abigail’s waist, and swung her onto Wind Dancer’s back. Mounting Sport, he turned to the girl. “No racing until I give the word.”

Abigail nodded, “I’ll be good.”

They rode to the high meadows. Coming to a stop at the top of a rise, they watched the final traces of pink sunrise leave the sky. Abigail turned to Adam.

“Now is as good a time as any. The horses would appreciate the rest.”

Adam did not ask what she thought it was time to do. He dismounted and reached to help Abigail from the saddle. They walked over to a rock out cropping, and Abigail seated herself on a large boulder. Adam settled himself on the ground in front of her.

“What do we need to talk about, Adam?” Abigail’s tone had grown quite serious.

Adam had been considering that since moments after Hoss and Abigail had announced their engagement, and Adam was still not sure he could ask what he needed to know. “Are you sure, Abigail?” he asked simply.

Abigail quickly answered, “Of course.” Then she considered a possible reason for the extreme seriousness of Adam’s tone. Her face filled with consternation. A single moment from their last morning ride fluttered in her memory. “Adam, I…I…” She took a deep breath. “Hoss asked me if, well if…I told him you didn’t, that you never…”

Adam jerked upright. “That’s not… that’s not why I asked!” he spit out violently.

Abigail’s features relaxed. “I didn’t think I was wrong. You never, but there was that one time.”

“When?” His inquiry was curt and demanding.

“When we were talking that morning by the lake, you touched my hair. When I said don’t do that, you jerked your hand away. I told you then, you knew then, didn’t you, that I meant don’t feel responsible not don’t touch me?”

“That’s not why I touched your hair.” There was still tension in his voice.

“I didn’t think it was.” Abigail shook her head as if to reinforce the negative, “I never would have thought of it except, well, I know Hoss wondered at first if you or Joe even … he only wondered because he would never …I could never …”

“That is not a problem,” he said with finality. Then so softly she barely made out the words, “If I had a sister, I would play with her curls.”

“Then what is bothering you, Adam?”

Adam spoke hesitantly, “You and Hoss are very different, Abigail.”

Abigail processed his words and the look in his eyes. Indignation launched her to her feet. “How dare you!”

In a single second Adam was on his feet facing her. He knew she had correctly assessed his concern this time. “I love my brother, Abigail. It’s just…”

Abigail cut him off with an expletive Adam was amazed she had ever even heard. “Adam Stoddard Cartwright, you’re nothing but an unmitigated snob. A great, reeking, intellectual snob!” Catching Adam by surprise, Abigail finally placed herself on the short list of females who had managed to slap Adam Cartwright’s face.

Abigail turned into a wildcat. Adam, surprised by the physical attack, struggled to keep her from hurting him or herself. Suddenly she jerked and managed to unbalance them both. Like the characters in a nursery rhyme, he rolled down the rise, and she came tumbling after. For a minute they both lay panting on the grass. Then, Adam scrambled to Abigail’s side as she sat up.

“Are you okay? Abigail, are you hurt?” Adam’s voice had a frantic edge, as he ran his hands lightly over her arms trying to check for any injury.

Taking a deep breath, Abigail managed to answer, “I’m fine, Adam. I’m fine.”

Adam relaxed. “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” she said with finality. “Damn you, Adam Cartwright.” Then very softly she asked, “You’re not hurt, are you?”

“No.” Then he gave her a wry grin, “We’ll both have a few bruises by lunch.”

“We’ll both have to change before breakfast.” Abigail’s eyes scanned his tattered clothes and then her own.

Adam decided to finish what he had started. “I’m not saying you don’t love him, but, well, are you sure?”

“You think I’m some little girl with a crush on the white knight?”

“You and Hoss went through…”

“Adam, if adventure gave me romantic notions, I wouldn’t have left the Ponderosa the last time,” she inserted flatly.

“Will it last every day for a lifetime here on this ranch? Abigail, Hoss wouldn’t be happy…”

“I would never ask him to leave the Ponderosa!” Abigail took in another slow breath trying to quell the anger rising inside her. She needed for Adam to understand. “Adam, I want us to make our home here. I want Hoss to see his family everyday. I want our children to be able to run to Grandpa’s house.”

“You haven’t been here in the winter for month after month. There are things you will miss.” Adam did not say he knew because there were things that he missed living here, but she read that thought in his eyes.

Reaching out, she placed her hand on his arm. “Adam, no place is perfect, but everything I want is here. Hoss is here. I want to give him children. I want to raise them with him. I want them to have Ben for their grandfather and you and Joe for uncles. I want you to teach them to build a tree house, read poetry, and listen to music. I want Joe to teach them to ride and play harmless pranks. I want your father to teach them to follow a dream. Hoss will teach them a man is strongest when he’s gentle and that everything alive deserves to be loved. Even Hop Sing will teach them that family is more than blood. We’ll have everything that really matters, won’t we?”

“You’ll have a family that loves you and yours, Abigail, if that is what you’re asking.” The but he did not say echoed in the silence.

“Adam, if I want to discuss plays and poetry, literature and art, I’ll invite my oldest brother-in-law to supper. If I want to do something stupidly daring or a wee bit dangerous, I’ll send for Joe. I hope your father has dozens of handkerchiefs for when his daughter-in-law comes to him because her father is hundreds of miles away, and she needs a daddy. I expect Hop Sing to teach me to cook all my husband’s favorites and feed us Sunday dinner every week.” Pausing for breath, she looked directly into Adams eyes, “But the man I want with me when we lock the door at night is Eric Gunner Cartwright.”

Adam stared back at her with an intensity that burned. “Is that because he makes you feel safe?”

“He makes me feel much more than safe, Adam.” Then a blush colored her cheeks as she stated, “Adam, Hoss is the man I want in my bed each night and not just to hold me when the nightmares come.”

Adam blushed and dropped his eyes. “I had to ask,” he muttered.

“I told you once before that you’re a mother hen.”

“He’s my little brother. His heart hurts so easy, Abigail. I had to be sure.”

“Are you sure now?”

Adam smiled completely and with great charm, “Yes.”

He stood and pulled Abigail to her feet. She reached up and lightly brushed the red print of her hand that had yet to fade from his cheek. Softly she said, “I’m ready to fight anyone who might hurt his heart, Adam, even you.” She turned to walk back to the horses. Behind her she heard Adam chuckle. Spinning around, she inquired, “Just what do you find so funny?”

Adam crossed his arms on his chest, cocked an eyebrow, and said, “You’ve a tear in the seat of your pants. In fact, there’s very little left to the seat of your pants.”

Abigail twisted her head trying to look over her shoulder and assess the damage. Then she shrugged, “It’s not like you haven’t seen the seat of my drawers before, future older brother.”

“So true, future little sister, so true.”

*****

Adam and Abigail rode into the yard far too fast. Abigail reined her horse to a halt, and Hoss stepped off the porch. As he walked up to her, she launched herself into his arms. Catching her easily, Hoss lifted Abigail above his head and twirled her through the air. Adam watched as his brother set Abigail gently on her feet.

“Been riding, I see. Were ya chasing Adam, or was my brother chasing you?” Hoss inquired jokingly. Then he noticed the state of her clothes. “You all right, gal?”

“Perfectly all right, well, except for my new pants. My future big brother took very good care of everything.” Abigail gazed up into her fiancée’s eyes.

Hoss smiled and stated, “Big Brother’s kinda good at that.”

Abigail stepped back. “An inherited Cartwright trait, no doubt.”

“A result of constant practice,” declared Adam as he dismounted.

Abigail and Hoss exchanged a look, and then Abigail giggled. “I better hurry. I don’t want to upset Hop Sing by being late to breakfast, and I still need to change.”

“I’ll see to Wind Dancer. You go on and change,” Hoss ordered. Then he grinned appreciatively and remarked,” Though I think ya look just fine!”

Abigail rolled her eyes, blew Hoss a kiss, and turned to leave placing her hands discreetly over the tears in the seat of her pants. The brothers stood watching her enter the house.

“I’m a lucky man, Adam.”

Adam turned, and the brothers locked eyes. “She truly loves you, Eric Cartwright. That makes you a very lucky man.”

A serious look settled on Hoss’ face. “You’ll keep right on doing it, won’t ya, Adam.”

“Keep doing what, Hoss?”

“Helping me keep her safe and happy. You and Joe and Pa will help me, won’t ya, big brother?”

“Always, Hoss. You know that. Why she’s going to be a Cartwright, isn’t she?”

Adam watched the joy on his brother’s face and felt his feet leave the ground as he was lifted in a bear hug. “I’m on a short list of my own,” he thought ruefully, “The list of men who can be carried around by their little brothers.”

*****

Adam walked out onto the porch and stood beside his father in companionable silence. Joe walked up behind them.

“I don’t think there could be anyone happier than Hoss is right now,” Adam said softly.

“Don’t know about that, older brother. Pa was looking pretty pleased with himself watching Hoss and Abigail at dinner. I think he might beat even Hoss in happiness the day Abigail presents him with a grandchild,” Joe responded cheekily.

“Well, now, it has crossed my mind what a fine day that will be,” Ben stated with a beaming smile.

“Crossed your mind! Pa, you were gazing at Abigail like a man who just paid top dollar for a fine brood mare,” Adam admonished in a tone that had gotten him more than one reprimand for sassiness when he was younger.

“Well, it is about time one of my sons gave me the pleasure of at least hoping for a grandchild,” Ben answered with a significant look at his eldest.

Quickly changing the direction of the conversation, Adam asked, “What kind of grandchild are you dreaming of dangling on your knee, Pa, a boy or a girl?”

“Well, I was thinking that a granddaughter might be real nice.”

“Yea,” Joe interjected, “A little girl with Abigail’s curls.”

“And Hoss’ eyes, ” Adam continued.

“Abigail’s build,” Joe laughed.

“That will happen only if she doesn’t have Hoss’ appetite,” came Adam’s rejoinder.

“She’s got to have Hoss’ temperament,” Joe stated emphatically.

“And Abigail’s intellect,” Adam declared.

“With Hoss’ heart,” Ben proclaimed with finality.

All three Cartwrights smiled. Then Adam mused, “What if you get a grandson with Hoss’ build and Abigail’s temper? What then, Pa?”

“Well,” Ben declared with twinkle in his eye, “we’ll just leave that one to his pa!”

Their laughter mixed and floated up to the stars.

***The End***

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