Thinking About Tomorrow (by BettyHT)

Summary:  Adam is in a bad predicament which is only the beginning of a maze of trouble for the family.  Follows the story “Too Much To Ask” with the same OC female.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  17,181


 

Ruby, Nevada

The pounding on the gallows continued. Here in the walls of the jail yard, they had a crew constructing a three person gallows for the next day. With two strangers, he would die there with no name, for they wouldn’t accept the name he gave them. No one would believe who he said he was, and he had no way to prove it. All the avenues he had hoped to use had sent back the wrong answers. Without verification of his name, they wouldn’t believe the rest of his story either. Why his family would not come to his rescue, he had no idea. But he had one more day to live, so there was still hope, although that candle in the wind was flickering and barely hanging on. His father had always said, where there’s life, there’s hope. It just didn’t seem likely that was going to work for him this time.

Stepping away from the window, he sat down on the bunk and dropped his head into his hands. As he did so, he felt a twinge from his ribs that were finally almost healed. The bruising on his face was still visible as yellow and brown coloration but those too would soon be gone. There were scabs from cuts and abrasions that were nearly healed, although still quite visibly red. Then he had to sigh and wonder at his own thoughts. Neither his ribs nor his bruises and wounds would ever finish healing. He would die with a broken neck the next day, and there would be no healing after that.

That he would leave this life violently would have been an even odds gamble. He had often used his gun to resolve disputes, and had been shot, stabbed, beaten, and tortured. He had scars on every part of his body and the doctor had said he looked as much like an outlaw as he did a soldier because of them. He had never thought of it that way before, but those were two types of men who collected injuries and wounds fairly often. He and his family had done the same kinds of things, defending themselves, their home, and the lives and rights of others.

Two of the men who had found him were in the cells next to him. He had been beaten and stripped of his clothing. Lying unconscious in the shale at the base of a cliff, no one would likely have found him except these outlaws who were riding to escape the law. They had been using an old mining shack near the Ponderosa as a refuge on occasion and were headed there that day. They saw him and decided to show a little humanity. The four men had packed him to the old cabin facedown on one of their horses as two men rode double on another. Once there, they had tended his wounds, covered him with a blanket, and offered him water when he awakened. That was just before the posse arrived surrounding the cabin and ordering the men to surrender. They didn’t and in the ensuing shootout, two of the outlaws were killed, and one member of the posse died of his wounds later. That led to a murder charge being added to the bank robbery charge. He had been seen as one of the gang and had trouble even talking at first to try to explain why he was there. It didn’t help that he had only part of a story to tell them and was missing some vital information. It made it seem as if he was lying. Surly and mean now that they faced the gallows, the two outlaws had refused to tell the truth and had instead said he was part of their gang. That had sealed his fate with the jury.

Gradually lifting his legs to lay back on the bunk, he wondered what his family had thought happened to him. He thought perhaps they were thinking he had left in a fit of pique and done what he had said any number of times that he might. However, they would know, he hoped, that he could never leave without saying goodbye. So their lack of response to his messages for help was even more incomprehensible to him. He stared at the ceiling, unwilling to sleep for even a second of the twenty-four hours he had left.

The sheriff walked in and asked what they wanted for their last dinner.

“Steaks, big juicy steaks, and wine and whisky. Send in a couple of whores to deliver it.”

Looking in to the middle cell where the dark haired man lay quietly on the bunk staring at the ceiling, the sheriff asked him what he wanted.

“I’m not very hungry, sheriff. Anything you bring will be fine.”

The sheriff had wanted to believe this man’s story. He didn’t seem to fit with the two men who had been brought in with him. However, his claim to be Adam Cartwright was outlandish, and when his name proved false, there was no choice except to know he was lying. But what his story really was remained a mystery. He had stuck to his original story beyond all reason. The sheriff had to wonder why. He assumed he would probably never know but wondered at times if they were going to be executing an innocent man.

*****

Ponderosa Ranch, Nevada

Ben Cartwright sat at his desk and stared at the blue chair where his son had spent innumerable hours. He had read, offered comments, listened, and occasionally slept in that chair. Now he would never see him again. He was in the ground, never to offer a word of advice, a pat on the back, or sing one of his songs. Those rare smiles that could light up a room would never be seen again. They had traveled to Placerville and identified the body. There wasn’t a lot to go on but Sport had been in the stable, the gun belt was his, as were the items of black clothing and his black hat. His wallet with papers had been what the sheriff had used to identify him and wire his family that he was being held in jail. His face and body had suffered too much trauma to give them anything else to go on except the black hair, the chest hair, and the long fingers. Accused of a heinous crime, a mob had taken him from the jailhouse and beaten him so severely that he was unrecognizable before hanging him in a tree. By the time the sheriff and his deputies got free of the jail cell they had been locked in, the only thing left to do was arrange for a speedy burial. Three days later, they had exhumed the body at Ben’s insistence, and he and his surviving sons had given the final identification based on what they saw.

As Ben sat and stared, he remembered the last conversation he had with his eldest son. Joe had gone to town the night before and gotten into a poker game that ended with a brawl resulting in several men being carted off to jail, including Joe. One of the hands had brought the news, and Ben had sent Hoss to town to bail him out and pay the damages. On Hoss’ return with Joe, Ben was dismayed to learn that the men Joe had beaten in poker had made significant threats against him. So Ben had little choice except to send Adam to do the fence riding and repair in the far north high pastures that should have been Joe’s responsibility. It was Joe’s turn, as Adam had angrily pointed out, and in fact, Joe was overdue for this task as he had avoided it the previous time by being ‘busy’ helping a neighbor. Ben couldn’t let Joe break the promise to the neighbor so he had sent Adam to do the work. Adam had been furious because he had made plans with friends and would have to cancel. It was grossly unfair and they all knew it, but the work had to be done. Hoss had just returned from stocking the line shacks, so it would not have been fair to expect him to do it. Adam had seethed as he packed up what he needed and headed out. His father and brothers had hoped they would be able to talk it out when he got back. Only now he would never be back.

Hoss and Joe entered the house after seeing to their horses. Joe grabbed their saddlebags and walked slowly up the stairs with them. Hoss moved to stand in front of the big desk where his father sat still and silent. He was in the daze he had been in for several days. As they had ridden to Placerville, they had been expecting to extricate Adam from a mess. Delayed by storms, they had taken three days to get there. It was three days after the man identified as Adam had been killed. Now they were home. Adam had been gone for more than a week. They had gotten telegrams saying a man in Ruby was trying to impersonate him. They couldn’t imagine why someone would do that and had sent word as soon as they arrived home that Adam was dead. They had ridden out the day before to the high pasture to see if the pack animal Adam had used was there and had found it dead, still packed with all the materials that should have been used for fence repair. So he had been to the upper pasture and for some reason had left. They were left with a mystery.

“Pa, maybe we ought to ride over there to Ruby to see this man claiming to be Adam.”

“Hoss, why would we do that? What could an impersonator tell us that we don’t already know?”

“I don’t know. But he had telegrams sent to Roy Coffee, Paul Martin, and to each of us. He has to know something about Adam to know those would be the telegrams to send.”

“He’s desperate. Roy said he’s facing the gallows.”

“I know and that’s why we should head right over there. We don’t have anywhere else to look, and I’d like ta know why he sent those telegrams to us.”

“I would too.” From the stairs, Joe agreed with Hoss. “It’s a puzzle and we’re missing most of the pieces. I’d like to know if this man has any of the answers.”

“Pa, if we leave at first light and ride hard, we can be there by late afternoon or early evening.” Hoss was anxious to do something, anything.

Wanting and needing to do something as well, Ben nodded. His two sons nodded in agreement. They would ride to Ruby to see if they could uncover a piece of the puzzle.

*****

Ruby, Nevada

“Listen, now, if you was to give me a real story to explain how you ended up with these two, I might be able to get the judge to reduce your sentence to prison time. You don’t seem the type to end up robbing banks and running from the law. You seem to be an educated man. Why don’t you tell me the real story.”

“Sheriff, do you believe in heaven?” Adam wanted to make this man understand but knew he was fighting against the odds.

“Well, yes I do, and I believe in hell too.”

“In Salem, Massachusetts, over one hundred and fifty years ago, some women were unjustly accused of witchcraft. If they admitted to being witches, they could save their earthly lives by avoiding the gallows and accepting a lesser punishment. However, that would mean eternal damnation for they would live a lie the rest of their lives. Not one of those Puritan women admitted to being a witch and many died because of it until the governor halted the whole thing.”

“Nice history lesson, but what’s it got to do with you?” The sheriff was intrigued but still heard nothing to help him understand why this man was sitting in this cell.

“I was born in New England. I value truth, honesty, and integrity above all else, save love of family. I can’t lie to you to save my neck, literally, and then end up in prison until the day I go to hell. I don’t even know how I ended up with these men in that cabin. I woke up and they gave me water, and the next thing I knew there was a shootout. Then the posse came in and dragged me from the bed and took me back here.”

“How’d you get so beat up?”

“Some men took me from the Ponderosa up into the wilderness up there, took my clothes and my horse, and beat me senseless before they left.”

“Who were those men and why did they beat you?”

“I don’t have any idea.”

“You have got to know how ridiculous your story is. There’s so many holes in that story it would make a sorry sieve.” The sheriff found he did want to believe him but couldn’t.

“It is interesting how the truth can be so weird that it can sound like a lie, but a well-crafted lie can sound like the truth.”

Shaking his head in frustration, the sheriff left the cell-block area to head to his desk. He would feel badly about seeing this man hang tomorrow, but the stranger was doing nothing to help himself. At least the pounding on the gallows was over. They were testing the trapdoors now and soon there would be quiet at least for a few more hours until the crowd started to gather to witness the executions. The posse member who had been killed had been well-liked and the father of two. His widow would likely be front and center when the trapdoors dropped beneath these three men. Her presence in the courtroom had likely spurred the judge to schedule this hanging so quickly, but as it was inevitable, it was probably the best thing to do. There was no reason to let these men sit and wait for what they knew they faced. The sheriff believed in justice, but torture was something he couldn’t abide. When he returned to his office, he found the judge and the dead man’s widow waiting for him.

“Sheriff, Mrs. McTigh would like to say something to the men in there, and I have given her permission to do so.”

“Now, judge, do you think that’s wise? Two of those men in there are just as likely to say something awful to her. Two of em ain’t got the manners of a polecat.”

“Then you shouldn’t mind what I have to say to them. And what of the third man? Are you saying he’s a decent man? He’s a murderer and a thief. He took the hard-earned money from the people here and took my two babies’ father from them. How can he not be a polecat too?”

The sheriff dropped his head. He knew she was a good woman and this had devastated her. He didn’t think she would look back on this day as one of her finer moments, but he couldn’t deny her either. He and the judge escorted her back to the cells.

She stood for a moment looking at the three men one at a time. “Sheriff, you’re right. It does smell like polecat in here. These men are worthless. They took my husband and the father of my children because of their greed and selfishness. They deserve to hang by the neck, and the sooner, the better that they go to hell where they belong forever.”

“Hey, little lady, you wanna come in here and save me. You could baptize me, or I could baptize you. You’d have to take your clothes off, though.” The two outlaws were getting the last laughs they would have in this lifetime. Both continued with the ribald comments and the sheriff and judge ordered them to stop.

“What you gonna do if we don’t, hang us?” And they laughed more.

In the center cell, Adam stood and approached the bars. “Ma’am, I’m sorry for your loss.”

Mrs. McTigh spit at him, turned on her heel, and walked quickly from the cells. Adam dropped his head. The sheriff looked at him and once again thought that a mistake had been made. He said the same to the judge who reminded him that twelve men on the jury disagreed with him and that was all that mattered.

******

On the road to Ruby, Nevada

Hoss had been doing a lot of thinking. “Pa, you don’t think Adam left on his own, do you? I mean, I know he was mad, but he went all the way up to that pasture and then just left that pack animal to die? That just ain’t like Adam.”

“But he was really mad. Maybe he just got fed up with it all and decided to head out like he’s talking about some times.” Joe was angry and frustrated. Whatever Adam had done, it had hurt their father tremendously, and Joe couldn’t even imagine an excuse for that.

“Joe, now you know that Adam would have said goodbye, no matter how mad he was,” replied Hoss. “He would have come back to the house and said goodbye. This don’t make no sense to me at all.”

“I just don’t know, boys. None of this makes any sense to me either. How could Adam end up in Placerville and get accused of such a terrible crime? To assault a woman and disembowel her of her baby is too awful to even think about, and yet it was done.” Ben was distraught and yet still had to try to make sense of these strange and horrible events. They had not even known that Adam wasn’t in the high pasture when they got the wire from Placerville.

“Why they would have thought Adam had anything to do with that is just crazy.” Joe might have been angry that Adam had left, but no one could ever criticize his brother when he was around. That these people had accused him of an awful crime made him even angrier.

“Now we have a stranger in this direction claiming to be Adam to try to avoid the gallows. Boys, the only reason I agreed to going to Ruby is that we have nowhere else to look, but I fear this is a wild goose chase, and we’ll be just as confused as ever.”

“But we’re doing something, Pa. I gotta believe that doing something is better than nothing ’cause we gotta solve this mystery and clear Adam’s name.” Hoss was as loyal and loving a brother as any man could ever hope to have. He would do this or die trying.

“He’s buried at the lake now. He’ll be with us always, and we know he never did that awful thing, even if we don’t know the rest of the story. Now mount up, boys. It’s almost noon and we’ve got another four or five hours of riding ahead of us.”

*****

Ruby, Nevada

“It’s noon. You boys might want to think about not drinking any more today. Most men who have too much to eat or drink soil themselves pretty thoroughly when they’re hanged. If you want to go out with any kind of dignity, you might keep that in mind.”

It took just a moment for the two outlaws to respond. “Hey, sheriff, how about another big cup of coffee? Keep it coming.”

“Yeah, they wanna kill me, they’re gonna have to take care of my filthy body when they’re done.”

The sheriff watched as the man in the center cell leaned back against the wall looking thoughtful. He knew there would be no requests for food and drink from the center cell.

Adam couldn’t think of a way that hanging had any kind of dignity to it at all, but the thought of hanging there soiled made him recoil even more. He didn’t understand it, but he felt he needed to remain as clean as he could when he died. He would walk there with as much fortitude as he possessed but knew the sweat would be running down his back. It already was, and there were three more hours to wait. His heart was beating faster, and he was finding it difficult to breathe slowly and evenly. He had to concentrate. He would not show his fear to anyone here. He had faced death before but it was in gunfights and battles where the adrenalin was flowing and there was little time to think. To know your death was coming and that there was nothing you could do about it except count off the seconds and minutes of your last hours was tortuous. It would be a strain to any man.

“You think you’re better’n us. You think you’re gonna end up any better’n us? You’re gonna be swinging in the wind just like us. Then they’ll dump your sorry ass in a grave in potter’s field and ain’t nobody even gonna know where you’re buried after the grass grows back.”

The two outlaws lacked the courage they needed and decided to spend the few hours they had left taunting their last victim. It was the only thing they had left to do. One of the two asked the sheriff for paper. He decided he said to write a last will and testament. The sheriff brought him a sheet of paper and a pencil.

“Now nobody gets to read this until I’m dead, right?”

“That’s correct. A last will and testament is read after a person is declared dead.”

“All right then. You got an envelope or something I can put this in when I’m done?”

The sheriff went to his desk and got an envelope and brought it to the cell. He shook his head at the bravado of these men. They should be begging God for forgiveness and all they did instead was taunt and revile those around them. The sheriff went back to his desk closing the door to the cell-block.

“Hey, Gil, you don’t own anything in this world. What you gonna put in a last will?”

“I’m gonna tell them that this yahoo had nothing to do with us. I’m gonna tell them he was telling the truth, and we was lying. Then when they read it, they’ll know we committed one last crime they can’t punish us for. We get the last word at least.”

At two-thirty, the sheriff re-entered the cell-block. He told the men to relieve themselves if they needed to. Adam did, but the other two just snarled and sat on their bunks. The sheriff then had the men put their hands behind their backs and then shove them through the opening in the bars where meals were delivered. He put manacles on each man. He had shackles to chain their ankles together but he would add those last. The judge walked in and asked if they had any last words.

“Your honor, if you look in that man’s last will and testament, you’ll find the truth of what happened. He said he wrote it in there to taunt you with their last crime and that was lying to get me hanged with them.” Adam didn’t expect help from the judge but he had to try.

“You have lied and lied to me and to the court. Why should I believe anything you say? A last will is a sacred thing and should not be tampered with on the word of a liar.”

“Your honor, please?”

The judge turned his back and left. The sheriff had more misgivings now than ever, but there was nothing he could do. He was about to open the cells and chain their ankles together when there was a flash of lightning followed by rolling thunder. He took his keys and went out to his office to see the judge. He wasn’t concerned about the men who would hang and die anyway, but it wasn’t safe for anyone else to be out there either. The judge agreed and ordered the execution to occur as soon as the storm cleared, even if they had to wait until midnight. Storms out here rarely lasted more than an hour or two at most, so the sheriff knew the reprieve would be quite short. He went to the cell block to inform the doomed men that they would be waiting just a bit longer. He left the manacles on because it could be a short wait.

In just over an hour, the sheriff was back. He unlocked the cells and had the men line up outside the cell doors, locking a shackle around each left ankle connecting all three men. Then he and the two deputies hired for the day walked the three men out to the gallows. At the foot of the gallows, the first man was unshackled and forced to walk up the steps to the platform. His bravado had failed him and he was shaking while the unmistakable odor of urine assaulted all their noses. Taunts from the crowd rose as the man stood with his wet pants under a noose. Then Adam was unshackled and he walked up the steps to the platform. The crowd quieted with nothing in particular to taunt him with. The third man fell to his knees and begged them not to kill him. The two deputies had to carry him up the steps. The crowd roared with laughter at his performance. Adam stood and kept his eyes on the distant range of mountains. He didn’t want to think about what was happening. The sheriff came and stood beside him and lowered the noose over his head, tightening it and setting the knot at an angle well suited to snap his neck when the trapdoor opened and he fell. The deputies did the same with the other two men. Ropes were secured around their chests to hold their arms still and then around their thighs, calves, and ankles.

The sheriff put his hand on Adam’s shoulder.“ Can you tell me your name now? I’d like to notify your next of kin.”

“The name my mother and father gave me at birth?” The sheriff nodded. “Adam Cartwright.”

Three riders appeared in the street down about one hundred yards from the gallows. Adam had his eyes turned to the mountains again and did not see them. They had ridden hard even through the lightning and the storm. Hoss had said he had a feeling they had to hurry. As they neared the gallows, Ben was first upset that they might never get to talk with this would be imposter, and then he gasped before yelling out, “Adam!” The crowd heard that cry just before the trapdoor levers were sprung at the judge’s order. There was a collective gasp from the crowd and then the only sound was the creak of new rope bearing hundreds of pounds of weight and the squeak of the hinges of three trapdoors as they swung back and forth.

*****

Virginia City, Nevada

“You got the wrong Cartwright! How could you make a mistake like that?” Jason Brent was furious.

“Well when Hoss got him out of jail, he said their pa was gonna make him make repairs to the fence line in the far north pasture. That’s what Frankie’s friends told us, and we had no reason to think that wasn’t true. So we hired a few men to go up there and take care of him, like you said. They took him to the middle of nowhere so he’d never be found, well, at least by people. His bones probably been picked clean by the varmints up there. They took his clothes and everything else and beat him before leaving him lying there. Then they went to Placerville, using his clothes to follow your orders there and eliminate that woman.”

“So Joe Cartwright is walking around perfectly healthy after what he did to my son. My son is never going to look the same again. Those missing teeth and that broken nose have ruined his looks.”

“But Mr. Brent, we don’t know it was Joe who threw him up against the bar face first. There were lots of men fighting. It coulda been any one of em.”

“My son says Joe was cheating and when he challenged him on it, Joe started a fight. Doesn’t matter who threw him against the bar. It is Joe Cartwright’s fault, and he’s going to pay for it. Something still has to be done about that. He’s not going to get away with it. Losing his brother and having him blamed for that crime in Placerville isn’t enough, although this mistake still did get rid of that little problem in Placerville. We won’t have to worry about her claiming my son fathered her baby. That Nick got killed just removes another loose end. I wish he hadn’t chosen such a gruesome method to eliminate that threat, but as long as he’s dead, there’s no way to tie it to us. Wait, who hired the men who went with Nick?”

“Nick hired them. He said he knew some guys would do it.”

“Where are those men now?” Brent was going to start planning his next steps.

“Far as I know, they was in Placerville. They’ll likely still be there a while spending the money they made on this job.”

“Send someone there to find out if you can. Eliminate them one way or another as soon as you find them. Now where is Joe Cartwright?”

“As far as we can find out, Joe ain’t in town or on the Ponderosa. Word is that he and his pa and brother rode over to Ruby to see about some man claiming to be Adam Cartwright.”

“Are your sources reliable?”

“Paid the runner at the telegraph office to copy down anything in a message for the Cartwrights. Bought some whiskey at the Silver Dollar and got that other information from hands who work the Ponderosa.”

“All right, I want you to come up with a plan to get Joe Cartwright, and no mistakes this time. My son will want to be there for the end this time. He’s feeling better.”

“Yes sir, Mr. Brent.”

*****

Ruby, Nevada

“Sheriff, you let that man drop or I’ll have you in my courtroom for obstructing justice. Deputies, take the sheriff away from that man and let him drop.”

“No sirree, that ain’t gonna happen or I’m gonna shoot someone.” Hoss sat on his horse with his pistol drawn. With his gun drawn as well, Joe sat next to him on Cochise. Their intent as far as the deputies were concerned was quite obvious. The deputies stayed where they were.

“Let me by. That’s my son.” Ben moved to get past the judge and climb the stairs.

But the judge intended to stop him. “You could go to prison for this. Who are you to interfere with a legal hanging?”

“My name is Ben Cartwright and that is my son. Now let me by.”

The judge stepped back in shock. If the man up there was telling the truth about his identity, then perhaps his whole story was truthful. The sheriff may have avoided a huge miscarriage of justice. “You, deputies, assist the sheriff there.”

When the sheriff had asked Adam his name and he replied, the sheriff knew then that he was telling the truth. He knew this man would never want to die with a lie on his lips. He was thinking of what he knew he ought to do when he heard the order for the levers to be pulled. Immediately he reached out to grab Adam before he could fall. He threw his arms around him in a bear hug. He had almost failed because catching a man who was starting to fall was difficult and Adam was bound and couldn’t help him. The sheriff stood trembling for a time teetering on the brink of the opening until he pulled Adam back enough that Adam could get his feet on the platform. The sheriff was able then to push him upright, which was lucky because his arms were beginning to shake with the effort and his back was going to take a month to heal he thought as he stood there. They both had heard Hoss, Ben, and the judge, but they had to concentrate first on making sure Adam didn’t fall. As Ben climbed the stairs, the sheriff loosened the noose and removed it.

“Sheriff, bring that man into your office. He is still officially your prisoner. We have to discuss this.” The judge turned and moved through the nearly silent crowd that parted to let him pass.

Up on the gallows platform, Ben had reached Adam and wrapped his arms around him in relief. Adam’s hands were still secured behind him and his legs were tied together so there was little he could do. He just lowered his head to his father’s shoulder for comfort. One of the deputies pulled a small penknife from his pocket as he stepped toward Adam and sliced through the ropes around his legs and around his chest. Then the sheriff told Adam and Ben to head to his office. Ben kept an arm under Adam’s elbow, helping him down the steps. Once Adam reached the bottom of the stairs, Hoss and Joe were there. There were quick hugs for Adam from both of them before all of them moved through the crowd to the sheriff’s office. The crowd that normally would have dissipated once the hanging was over stayed to find the outcome of this drama as the undertaker moved his wagon under the gallows to remove the bodies of the two outlaws swaying there.

In the sheriff’s office, Adam repeated his story but now answered questions put to him by men who believed his story. When they asked if the men who kidnapped him, robbed him, and then beat him said anything, he replied that they said it was ‘for Frankie’. “But I don’t know any Frankie. I never saw those men before.”

Finally, the story made some sense, especially after Joe added in some pertinent information. Joe had gone a bit pale when he heard ‘Frankie’, for he suddenly understood what had happened. “Pa, Hoss, Adam, the man that accused me of cheating because I won at poker was Frankie. He’s the one who threw the first punch and started the brawl. I saw him in jail, and he had a mashed nose and was missing his front teeth. His father was there to bail him out almost immediately. Later, as Hoss bailed me out, there were some threats yelled to me as we left town. They said they were going to make me pay. It wasn’t hard to figure out who was behind those threats. I’m so sorry, Adam. All of this happened to you because of me.”

“No, Joe, all of this happened to me because there are men who have no respect for law and life.”

The sheriff brought out Gil’s last will and testament and the judge authorized him to open it and read it. When the note revealed that the two men had lied about Adam being with them and doing it to snub their noses at the legal system one last time, it confirmed what everyone was already thinking. Adam had been caught in a set of mistaken identities and the cruelty of two sets of criminals.

The sheriff looked at the judge who nodded. The sheriff moved behind Adam and removed the manacles.

“I’m sorry this happened. I hope you can understand how this looked to us. The verdict in your trial is set aside, and the new verdict is innocent on all counts. I would offer you compensation but I’m afraid the twenty-five dollars I’m authorized to pay would be relatively meaningless to you and your family. All I can really offer is a heartfelt apology. I am sorry.” The judge walked outside to explain the situation to the crowd. The only sound they heard from the crowd was Mrs. McTigh, sobbing for she had wanted another man to die for her husband’s death. In her deep sorrow, she just didn’t understand yet that nothing was going to make her feel better. The sheriff told the two deputies their last duty of the day was to get the grief-stricken woman home.

Joe wanted to say something to the sheriff for arresting his brother when he was found beaten and naked, laying in a bed and unable to hardly talk, but Ben reminded him that it was their telegrams stating that Adam had died in Placerville that had truly sealed his fate. Then they had to explain to Adam and the sheriff what had happened in Placerville.

“Seems to me, that those two things are related somehow. Adam gets stripped of his clothing and possessions and then someone with those items assaults and murders a pregnant woman in Placerville. Those are just too convenient to be coincidence. You find the connection between Frankie and that woman, and you’ll solve the rest of this puzzle.”

The sheriff had stated what Adam was thinking, and he was highly motivated at this point to find out who had orchestrated this whole mess. Hoss saw the look on Adam’s face and put his hand on Adam’s shoulder, letting him know he had an ally in this quest. Joe and Ben looked at the two brothers and nodded. The family would find the schemer.

As Adam stood though, he flinched. The sheriff’s bear hug had saved his life but aggravated the cracked ribs on his left side. He would need some time to recuperate. The four Cartwrights headed to the hotel for some rest. In the morning, they found their hotel and restaurant bills had been taken care of by the sheriff and the judge. They purchased a horse and saddle for Adam and began a slow ride home.

*****

Ponderosa Ranch, Nevada

Ben and his sons reached the Ponderosa ranch borders after two days of riding. If they pushed it, they could be in their beds that night, but one look at Adam and all of them knew they needed to camp out one more night. The whole thing had come crashing down on him this second day. He was exhausted emotionally, mentally, and physically but had pushed on this day on sheer determination.

“Well, boys, how about one more night under the stars with just the four of us? The sky is clear and the air is fresh. We still have some of that deer that Adam shot, so there’s plenty for dinner.”

“Sounds good to me, Pa.” was the immediate answer from Hoss and Joe. Adam looked over at the three of them and simply nodded and said ‘Thank you’, for he had no more energy even to argue that they shouldn’t slow down because of him.

Leaning back on a large log, Hoss and Adam ate roasted venison and talked. Ben and Joe listened as they settled the horses for the night because they were all thinking about the same thing.

“So you’re saying that you think Frankie got that gal with child and wanted to get rid of her. He was planning to blame it on Joe, and ’cause he thought Joe would never be found, there would never be any suspicion of him, Frankie, that is?”

“Yeah, but somehow, they got me instead and got me blamed for the murder. That would mean they might still want to go after Joe, because part of this at least was revenge. And you think there’s no possible way for us to determine who that man was in Placerville who was pretending to be me?”

“Nah, sorry, Adam, but we thought it was you. All we can say is he was about your height, about your weight, and had black hair. The rest of him was so messed up, no one would know him. They thought it was you there because of the wallet, and we saw all the rest of your stuff and the general resemblance, and thought it was you.”

“Well I think he was hired to kill that woman, but I have to wonder if the diabolical method was his idea or was he ordered to do it that way. Seems like whoever orchestrated this went out of his way to avoid being detected, so why would he choose something likely to draw so much attention? Doesn’t make sense unless he hired this sick bastard not knowing how he would choose to murder that poor woman and her baby.”

“Well, the vigilante mob got it right this time. He got exactly what he deserved.” Joe was still upset knowing how that woman and baby had died.

“Oh no!” Ben looked pale and distressed.

“What is it, Pa?” Joe was at his side in a moment.

“We buried that ‘sick bastard’ on the Ponderosa. Well, the first thing we’re going to do is dig up that body and put it in potter’s field.”

“Pa, maybe we shouldn’t do that right away.” Hoss got a scowl from his father then and had to continue. “Adam and I been talking, and we think we oughta keep it a secret that he’s alive and back home. We’ll call Roy out to the ranch to talk and let him know.”

“Why would we do that?” Ben was confused.

“Pa, those men think that their plan was at least partially successful, and that there are no witnesses to their crimes and no links to them. Maybe we ought to keep them in the dark about that until we can come up with a plan.” Adam was already thinking of several scenarios they might think about using to trap the conspirators in their own machinations.

“Well, have the two of you come up with any explanation as to why they took Adam if they were after Joe?” Ben’s question left them all quietly pondering because no one had an answer yet.

Hoss set some venison in a pot by the fire to stew overnight as the men laid out their bedrolls. Hoss put his right next to Adam’s which was exactly as Ben had expected, and he smiled when he saw it. Joe was going to put his on the other side of Adam and then looked at their father and moved a yard away, smiling at him. Ben nodded and laid his bedroll down next to his oldest son. He was so glad to have him back and couldn’t find enough words to tell him that. Adam rolled onto his right side to sleep and all four men relaxed for a good night’s sleep. They didn’t get it right away. About ten minutes after they were relaxing into a good sleep, Joe’s shout roused them all.

“Hoss, Hoss!”

Hoss was grabbing for the rifle he had laid beside him and Adam already had a pistol in hand, looking for a threat. All they saw was Joe up on his knees, looking excited. “This better be good, little brother, or I’m going to have Hoss shoot you with that rifle.”

“Hoss, when you were bailing me out of jail, what’d you say to me?”

“I said Pa oughta tan your sorry hide for what ya done.”

“No, no, what did you say when I said I was too old for that?”

Frowning in concentration, Hoss suddenly smiled. “I said there was no way Pa was letting you out of riding fence line in that far north pasture.”

With a smug look, Joe looked at Adam and their father. Ben had a question. “But you said Frankie was bailed out right away by his father. How could he have known that if he was already gone?”

“Pa, all his friends were in that jail too. Any one of them could have told him later where I was supposed to be the next day. If they hadn’t yelled out those threats, you would’ve sent me up to that far north pasture.”

There was quiet as they all thought until Adam spoke. “So whoever sent them out there told them to get Cartwright in the far north pasture of the Ponderosa. They didn’t know which one they were supposed to get, but they were familiar enough with the area to know where that pasture was and who the Cartwrights are. One or more of them may even have worked for us at some time, probably in a spring roundup when we hire on a few extra hands.”

The others nodded at Adam’s theory for it made a great deal of sense. Hoss had one more thing to say. “So tomorrow we can ask Roy to find out which tall, dark- haired man who might hang around with Frankie Brent isn’t around any more.”

“And when Roy gets us that name, we ask who his friends are because it’s likely that they were the ones with him when they took me. The men with him didn’t look too hard, even behind those masks they wore.”

Joe was curious. “Hey, Adam, why didn’t you run when those men tried to take you?”

“They set me up well. I came through that little draw that’s just before the trail that leads up the slope to the line shack, and they were on both sides of the draw with guns drawn when I rode out. I thought it was a robbery until they told me to ride with them. Then I thought it was a kidnapping. I had no reason to think they were sent there to kill me. I knew something was wrong when they told me to undress, but I was still thinking they were going to strand me with nothing until the first blow to my back. Then it was punches and kicks until I don’t remember much for a while.”

This was the most that Adam had talked about that part of his ordeal. It was sobering to realize that if a gang of outlaws had not taken pity on him, he would likely be no more than bones scattered by scavengers in the wilderness just beyond the borders of their ranch. Hoss reached over to touch Adam on the shoulder. Adam nodded, took a deep breath, and lay down to sleep.

Later Ben had to get up to take care of business and saw that Adam was sleeping on his right side with his left hand on Hoss’ shoulder. He remembered suddenly a scene from the time immediately after Inger’s death. He had walked into their camp to see Adam slumped next to Hoss who was sleeping. Adam had his hand on the toddler’s shoulder, giving him comfort even as he had none. Ben had wanted to go over there and gather Adam into his arms and tell him everything would be all right. But it wouldn’t be and he didn’t. He regretted to this day that he had not given his son more comfort for his loss, but at the same time, a bond had formed between Adam and Hoss that was unbreakable. So many times as youngsters they had slept just this way, getting and giving comfort with that simple touch. The night before, the three sons had slept as they usually did on the trail with Hoss and Adam to each side of Joe. Ben had smiled at seeing that as well. The two older brothers had been in their role as protectors of the youngest out of habit. Ben vowed to himself that he would do everything possible to find the man responsible for almost losing those connections among his sons.

In the morning, Ben and his sons decided to wait until they got to the ranch house to shave and clean up. Adam didn’t have any clean clothes anyway, as he was wearing clothing that had been in the mine shack the bank robbing gang had been using. He would have to buy new boots and get another hat. He wouldn’t wear the things the murderer who impersonated him had worn. It just wouldn’t feel right and his family agreed with him on that point. Adam especially was looking forward to a bath, as he hadn’t had one in over two weeks.

Adam stood and looked out over the Ponderosa glowing in the early morning sunshine. Hoss walked up behind him. “What you thinking about?”

“It’s really very beautiful. When I was in that jail in what I thought was my last day on earth, I couldn’t think about tomorrow. I didn’t think I had any tomorrows left. Now I can’t help thinking about tomorrow and every day after that. It’s a great feeling.”

Hoss threw his arm around Adam’s shoulders. “Hey, older brother, have you thought about how we’re gonna get you home without anyone noticing that you’re alive?”

“Hoss, you think anyone will recognize me wearing these clothes?”

“With the way you ride, they might. When you get down and walk, the regular hands will know it’s you.” Hoss had no idea on how to sneak him in during daylight. Ben and Joe had heard their conversation and began to think.

“Hey, how about if you ride in like you’re sick. You can slouch over in the saddle. The horse and saddle are new so that won’t give it away. When you get to the house, slide down outta that saddle like you’re practically dying and Hoss can help me carry you into the house.” Joe was proud of his idea.

“I’m not letting you carry me into the house.”

“All right, all right, you can lean on both of us and walk in. Just keep your head down and that hat pulled all the way down.”

“Adam, I think your youngest brother has come up with a good plan. We can make this work. Once you’re in the house, we’ll tell the hands we found a stranger and that you’re very ill. We can call Paul to come. I’m sure he won’t mind helping. Roy can come along and that will be a good time to let him in on what’s going on.” Ben had thought along similar lines and was proud, though, that Joe had come up with the complete idea first.

Adam thought for a bit and nodded. Then he thanked Joe, who was beaming with pride. “Don’t let it go to your head. Just once you had a good scheme. That doesn’t equal all the other schemes you’ve had that were disasters.”

“Hey, that’s not nice!”

Hoss and Ben chuckled, and even Joe had to join in.

“All right, maybe one or two of my ideas have what, shall we say, unintended consequences.”

“Oh yeah, like the bull fight, the flapjack contest, Sheba, …”

“Enough, enough, I yield. For now. But you gotta admit, this is a good one.”

The four were still chuckling as they mounted up to ride home. As soon as they saw some of their hands in the distance, Adam slouched down in the saddle and leaned forward. After a short time, there was a lot of discomfort from his injured ribs riding that way, so the moans were almost real. At the ranch house, Adam slid down almost head first into Hoss’ grasp and Joe rushed in to help. Staggering, Adam was guided into the house by his brothers. Hop Sing met them near the door and Hoss had to slam the door quickly before Hop Sing said anything that could be overheard. Cautioning Hop Sing to be quiet, the brothers filled him in on what had happened. There could be no light or activity seen in Adam’s room so he took up residence in the guest room downstairs. It was the room the hands would expect an ill stranger to occupy. It would be a place Adam could quickly retreat to as well if someone came to the door. Hoss and Joe brought down clothing, shaving kit, and books for him. Hop Sing told him he was heating water for a bath and that he had towels ready for him.

Outside, Candy walked up to Ben to ask what had happened and Ben called over a couple of hands to tend to the horses. Ben told Candy the cover story about the sick stranger, and then asked him to ride into town to get the doctor. He asked him to tell Roy too, so he could come out here and get the ‘stranger’s’ story. It all seemed a little unusual to Candy, but he couldn’t exactly figure out why. He did as he was asked, and Paul and Roy would arrive in the afternoon.

*****

Ponderosa Ranch, Nevada

Adam had a long bath, which caused his brothers to grumble a bit. He always seemed to take long baths, and they usually grumbled about it, but this time Hoss was perturbed because Hop Sing was waiting to serve lunch until his older brother came to the table. Hop Sing finally came in the dining room, and Hoss expected lunch to be served, but instead was asked to go assist his older brother.

When Hoss got to the washroom, Adam was sitting on a stool by the table Hop Sing used to sort laundry. “Sorry, Hoss, but it felt really good to soak. Then when I got out, I tried to wrap these ribs and found I couldn’t do it.”

“Never you mind at all, older brother; just put your hands on that table and let me take care of this for you.” Hoss could see all the bruising on the left side, mostly old bruises but a few fresh ones and knew it was likely from the sheriff grabbing him in a bear hug up on the gallows and then holding all of his weight with that grasp. “You oughta let doc look at this when he’s here.” Adam shrugged and winced. “And that’s exactly why doc needs to see you.” After wrapping bandage around Adam, Hoss helped him with his shirt, and Adam was still buttoning up when they got to the table where Hop Sing was busy placing dishes of food.

“Wow, Hop Sing musta thought you was starved in that jail cause there’s enough here for two meals,” Hoss commented.

“Four meals, if all of us had normal appetites.” Which caused Hoss to throw a biscuit at Adam.

Ben snapped at them about their manners, but inwardly, he was rejoicing. Just a few days earlier, he thought he would never see this teasing and camaraderie again.

As they were finishing their lunch, Paul arrived and was shocked when Adam stepped out of the guest bedroom. Roy was standing behind Paul and had to steady him.

“Now, I ain’t gonna say I ain’t happy to see you, boy, but what in tarnation is going on around here?” asked Roy.

Ben stepped forward. “Roy, Paul, it’s a long story. Hop Sing is about to serve dessert and coffee if you would like to join us, and we’ll tell the whole story to you.”

After Ben and Adam finished telling the story, Roy already had one possible answer for them.

“Nick Collins might be the one who got himself killed over to Placerville. I never thought about it before, but he was about Adam’s height and build and he had black hair. I ain’t seen him for a while now. I been watching that Brent bunch ever since they come to town. Mostly, they hang out in the saloons and run poker games, but I jest get this bad feeling about that bunch every time I see em.”

“Did you notice anyone else hanging with Collins?”

“Well there was some no-account cowhands that he was drinking with a lot. Never saw those three with the Brent bunch, though.”

Adam looked at Hoss and Joe. “I think we ought to head over to Placerville to see if we can locate these three.”

“But you shouldn’t be seen. If you are and they know you’re on to them, they could cut and run.” Roy hoped to watch and learn. He thought a patient approach would work best.

Hoss brought up another point. “Roy, they made threats against Joe and it was probably Joe they was after when they got Adam instead. If we just sit and wait, they might get luckier with the next plan. I think we gotta stop em before they get another try.”

“Well you and Joe could go and leave Adam here. Oh, damnation, that won’t work. Sorry, I spoke before I thought. You need him to try to identify those men.”

The final plan was the result of a lot of talking. They were bringing Candy in on the plan because, as foreman, he knew all the men who had worked there for the last several years. He could be invaluable. They would travel overland to Placerville. Joe, Hoss, and Candy would go to the town to see if they could recognize any men who fit the vague description they had. Then they would get those men to the outskirts of town somehow for Adam to see if he could identify whether they were the men who had attacked him. If they found the right men, they would bring a letter from Roy to the sheriff there explaining that it was Nick Collins who had committed that horrible crime and the men they had would have to testify to that. They weren’t sure yet how they would make them talk but knew they had to find a way. Mr. Brent inadvertently ended up helping them with that.

Candy was happy to help. Not only was he glad to find that Adam was alive, he was very close to figuring that out when they told him. He had reasoned out that the odd thing was that the family came home from Ruby without the sad demeanors and sorrowful expressions that he had seen before they left. Then they almost cheerfully assisted a ‘stranger’ into the house, moving with an amazing amount of speed considering the man they were helping was supposed to be so sick. Asking for Roy Coffee to come out had only made Candy more suspicious. He was already wondering who the ‘stranger’ was when they called him into the house and he saw that Adam was alive.

*****

Placerville, California

“Bill’s dead, I tell you. Those men who was following us just up and shot him when he turned around to ask what they wanted. Then they ran. If I hadn’t of ducked into that store, I’d be dead too.”

“Just calm down. We gotta think this through. Who would want to kill us? Well, other than that Cartwright but he’s dead and there’s no way anybody knows we done that. Nick’s dead so he didn’t tell. Who else would know.”

The two men thought and looked up at each other at almost the same moment and said “Brent”, for he and his men were the only ones who knew what they had done.

“He must be tying up some loose ends in his plan, and we’re the loose ends.”

“What we gonna do?”

“We spent a lot of money with BetsyLynn. She owes us. Let’s get some stuff and head over there to lay low.”

After three days, Brent’s men gave up, assuming the remaining two men had hightailed it out of there. Not sure if it was safe yet, the two men stayed indoors when there was any light, venturing outside even to take care of the necessities only after it was dark. It was on one of those dark nights that they saw Hoss, Joe, and Candy knocking on doors and asking after cowhands who might have worked on the Ponderosa. They knocked on BetsyLynn’s door and the two men waited out back to see if she had turned on them. Apparently she didn’t, because Hoss walked away and stood talking with Candy and Joe in the street looking like they were very frustrated.

“Don’t look, but I think that the gal in that house knows where they are. She hinted that a little money could get the information. I think if we just watch this house, we’ll see them soon enough.” Hoss had picked up enough on BetsyLynn’s nervous tics to know she wasn’t telling the truth.

The three men split up to look for inconspicuous places to watch the house from different angles. It wasn’t long until they saw two men climb over the back fence and head in the direction of the stable. Hoss gave the signal to Adam to move into town by lighting a match and holding it over his head as high as he could reach. Then slowly they followed the two men, realizing soon that, in fact, their destination was the livery stable. Candy verified that he recognized them as men who had worked on the Ponderosa in the spring roundup. The men they were pursuing pulled the stable doors open and walked inside to get their horses. As they saddled them up, Hoss, Joe, and Candy walked to the door and told the two men to come out. They immediately took cover behind a stall wall. They had their guns out ready to do battle when they heard a deep baritone voice directly behind them. Both men spun around in shock with their guns drawn. Hoss, Joe, and Candy heard Adam and headed into the stable. The two men stood between Adam’s pistol and three pistols at their backs.

“You can’t be here. You’re supposed to be dead!”

“Well, obviously you didn’t do the job your employer sent you to do. Now, I’m alive so you won’t hang for killing me. But I do think we can take that statement as a confession. Put down your guns. There’s no reason for you boys to die tonight.” Adam was mostly behind a stall wall and had cover, and the two men did not.

“Oh yeah, well, Brent’s men are here. They already killed Bill.”

Hoss walked up behind the two men as they lowered their weapons. “We’ll do our best to keep you alive. Now you can saddle up them horses and ride out of here with us voluntarily or we can go to the sheriff with what we know and have you in jail here. Which is it gonna be?”

The shorter of the two men scratched his head and looked at his partner. “Cletus, we should just go with ’em. Few years in prison is better than six feet under.” Cletus agreed with Abe, and within minutes they had mounted up to ride back to Virginia City. Joe had their weapons in his saddlebags so there was little to fear from the two men.

However, as they rode, Adam and the others discussed how best to keep their two witnesses alive. They decided that the line shack closest to town would work better than riding into town with them and alerting Brent. That line shack was seldom used except as a refuge from bad weather, so it wasn’t stocked or in as good a repair as the others, but they didn’t expect to use it for very long. Roy could come and take statements from Cletus and Abe. The two didn’t seem very bright. Adam’s bluff stating that they wouldn’t face a murder charge worked well. Apparently the two had no idea that as accessories to Nick Collins, they could be charged with the same crimes he committed. They would find that out soon enough. First they needed them as witnesses against Brent, and then they could be extradited to Placerville to face the more serious charges there.

*****

Ponderosa Ranch, Nevada

Tired and sore after four days of riding, including some night riding, the men reached the boundaries of the Ponderosa. It was nearly dark when Adam broke off to ride to the house to get supplies and let their father know what had happened. He wanted to change back into his nondescript clothing as well. Hoss, Candy, and Joe escorted the Cletus and Abe to the line shack. When Adam and Ben rode there later, Joe’s horse wasn’t tied with the others.

Adam rushed inside. “Where’s Joe?”

Hoss answered. “Just after you peeled off, he headed to town at a gallop to tell Roy.” Almost at the moment he said it and looking at the shock on Adam’s face, Hoss realized what he had done. Ben had walked in behind Adam, wondering at his sudden panic. As he heard Hoss’ words, he sighed. “My son just rode into the lion’s den!”

*****

Virginia City, Nevada

Hoss and Candy rode with Ben directly to Roy’s office and found what they had feared most. Joe had never seen Roy. The four of them spread out in town and could find no one who had seen Joe. Finally, at the livery stable, they found Cochise. Levi told them that he found him wandering and had brought him in, knowing he was Joe’s horse. He had not seen Joe at all, though. It was too dark to look for tracks so the four were very frustrated. Roy suggested they go question the two men Adam was guarding at the line shack to see if they could get any information.

From the Silver Dollar saloon, Brent and his son Frankie had watched the search but knew they would find nothing. Joe was secured in back of a ‘crib’ that they had set up in town. The girls working there were paid as little as possible but also charged very little. It was a steady stream of cash that the Brents could use to play poker and finance a number of illegal operations.

Frankie with his charm and good looks had been the front man to deal with banks and potential investors. It wasn’t paternal concern that had Jason Brent so upset with the mauling of his son’s face; it was the difficulty it would present in carrying out their nefarious deals. Frankie was supposed to meet with two potential investors — one a wealthy widow who had practically swooned when he had first met with her, and the other was an elderly couple who had been treated grandly by Frankie when he also had some of their men do some minor repairs around their place. Those two deals were in jeopardy now if Frankie showed up battered and without his front teeth. It could cost them twenty thousand dollars, and Jason wanted someone to pay for that. They had Joe Cartwright now but they weren’t quite sure what they were going to do with him.

*****

Ponderosa Ranch, Nevada

Roy asked Candy to sit in as he grilled Abe and Cletus. He didn’t want the angry Cartwrights in the room as he did his job; that only made the angry Cartwrights even angrier. When he emerged after almost an hour of questioning, Roy had gleaned a fair amount of information from the two witnesses.

“Well, now, I got some useful information but I also got some bad news. Those two gave me at least a couple places to look for Joe. But they never had any contact with either of them Brents. They were told by Nick Collins that they were working for and being paid by the Brents. We only got their word that’s what Nick said, and then we’d also have to get a jury ta believe that Nick was telling the truth. We need something to back up their story. We need some corroboration.”

“Roy, what we need is to find Joe. What places?” Ben cut right to the heart of the matter as far as the Cartwrights were concerned.

“Well, they’re saying that the Brents are running some cribs down near where the Chinese live. They got an opium operation there too. Then on D Street, they got a warehouse full of stuff but never get any deliveries that these two have seen. They’ve done some labor but never when the Brents were around. They also did some cleanup and repair over to the Johnston place. Those folks got an old empty stable out behind their house. Joe could be in any one of those places or somewheres else.”

Standing and moving toward his horse, Adam looked determined. Ben and Hoss knew where he intended to go and rose to go with him. Candy and Roy had no idea why the three were leaving.

“Adam, now where are you off to? You know better than to take the law into your own hands,” Roy stated.

“Might be best if I didn’t tell you what I was going to do, then. Sheriff, you have your witnesses, and the Brents have Joe. We’re going to do something to shift the odds to our side.”

“Ben, now you gotta get your boy to cool down and do this legal.”

“Roy, Adam never said we were going to do anything illegal, did he? Candy, you coming with us?”

“”I think I’m going with you. Candy, I’m authorizing you as a deputy to hold these two men and keep em safe.”

“Sheriff, you can’t make me a deputy against my will.”

“I can if I need to enforce martial law, and that’s what I’m saying. This here situation is pure lawlessness.”

Roy untied his horse and mounted up as Hoss did a good imitation of an Adam smirk. Roy had just declared that extreme measures could be taken and justified. They would get Joe back.

*****

Virginia City, Nevada

Adam rode directly to the Silver Dollar saloon. Hoss, Ben, and Roy walked in behind him. Adam walked up to the poker table and asked to sit in. Jason Brent had no idea who he was and said ‘of course’. The way Adam was dressed, he looked like any other cowhand with a week’s pay to lose.

It had gotten very quiet in the saloon, although there were many hushed whispers. No one wanted to say anything about the reincarnation of Adam Cartwright, especially with his father, brother, and Sheriff Coffee standing at the bar and watching the whole thing. Frankie was playing too, as were a friend of his and two cowhands. The table was heaped with coins and dollars, mostly stacked in front of the two Brents. After a few hands, there was a growing stack in front of Adam. Jason had a frown and Frankie was looking angry. The next pot grew to enormous proportions because neither Adam nor the Brents would fold, and raise and call and raise and call repeated until Adam had pushed all of his table stake into the pot. Jason grinned wickedly and raised. As he reached out to pull in the pot, Adam sharply said no. He reached in his vest pocket and pulled out a roll of bills and matched the raise to call. Jason had to show his hand. He had two pair. Adam laid down his full house and reached for the pot.

“Who the hell are you?” exclaimed Jason.

“Well, Mr. Brent, I would have thought you would have done a little better research than that. I’m Adam Cartwright.”

Frankie responded immediately “You can’t be. He’s dead. I ordered, I, uh …”

Frankie moved to draw his weapon but heard the unmistakable sound of three pistols cocked behind him. He let his pistol drop back into his holster until Roy stepped up and relieved him of it.

“Frankie Brent, you’re under arrest for the attempted murder of Adam Cartwright. Now you come with me.”

“Sheriff, you’ll never get a conviction against my son with half a statement like that. Don’t make a fool of yourself.”

“Well, now, Mr. Brent, I got two witnesses to this attempt as well. I think I got enough to get a conviction and see this lowlife head to prison. Now there ain’t gonna be no bail. There could be more charges if we don’t find Joe Cartwright soon.”

That last statement got a strong murmur of disapproval from the crowd. Joe was well-liked, and if the Brents did anything to him, the people here were going to be itching for some justice. Roy walked out with Ben and Hoss. Adam stayed at the table staring at Jason Brent, who moved to get up until he heard a pistol cocked under the table.

“Sit down. You’re going to sit right here. And if they don’t find my little brother or if they find you’ve done something to him, then I’m going to shoot you. I’ll shoot you low too so you’ll take a long time dying.”

“You can’t do that. There are all sorts of people in this saloon who just heard you say you were going to murder me.”

“I don’t know. Cosmo, did you hear anything?”

“Couldn’t hear a thing. I don’t think anybody heard anything. I was just thinking of cleaning up ’cause there ain’t no customers here tonight.”

With that, the men in the saloon began walking out and the saloon girls walked up the stairs to their rooms. Soon, Adam and Jason were the only ones in the saloon. Jason was sweating. Sweat ran down his forehead and into his eyes but he was too terrified to move so he didn’t wipe it away. Adam sat with that cold deadly stare he had. They could hear the clock ticking each second away. Jason was looking more and more pale, it seemed, as each of those seconds ticked away. After about twenty minutes of this, he broke. “He’s in the cistern at the Johnston place.”

Adam turned to the door as Ben and Hoss entered with Roy. Jason used the opportunity to flip the table up. There was the sound of a gun shot and Adam was laid out on the floor groaning as Jason escaped out the back door with Roy in pursuit. Ben and Hoss rushed to Adam who was in obvious pain and holding his left side.

“How bad is it, son?”

Adam was having trouble talking but spit out the words in between short shallow breaths. “It hurts like hell, and it’s hard to breathe.”

Hoss tried to roll Adam onto his back to help him and Adam asked him to just help him sit up.

“You shouldn’t try to sit up until doc gets the bleeding stopped.”

“What bleeding? He pushed the damn table right into my ribs. I think they might be broken now.”

Relieved that it wasn’t a gunshot wound, Ben and Hoss realized they needed to get Adam to a doctor but also wanted to rush to the Johnston home. Cosmo and some of the men who had been in the saloon came back in and offered to get Adam to the doctor’s office. Adam wanted to go along to rescue Joe, but Ben told him he would just slow them down, so he acquiesced. Within a half hour, Joe joined him at the doctor’s office anyway. Joe was beaten and bruised and looked almost blue he was so cold. By then Paul had Adam bandaged and lying in a bed. He got to work on Joe. Knowing that Joe was in a cistern, Paul had water already heating by the time Joe came in. Checking to make sure there were no open wounds, Paul had Ben and Hoss strip the filthy clothing from Joe and lifted him into the tub. Then they added warm water slowly warming him up. The Brents had failed again.

*****

Virginia City, Nevada

Frankie Brent was in jail. Abe and Cletus were in jail. But Jason Brent was on the loose with had a lot of resources to use and a probable desire for revenge, not just against Joe now but Adam too. Hoss and Ben took turns sitting with Adam and Joe. Although they had been the more in need of attention the night before, Adam was the one the doctor was most concerned with. If those now broken ribs moved, he could be in serious or critical condition almost immediately. The doctor had placed a large thick pad over the injury and wrapped it securely but the inclination of these Cartwrights to step up to help each other no matter what had him worried. As soon as Joe was ready to get out of bed, Adam would want to do the same. Paul decided he needed to talk with Ben as soon as possible.

Inside the patient room at Paul’s, conversation was what Joe wanted too, but Hoss was asleep in the chair snoring and Adam was asleep in the next bed. Usually Adam was the first awake and then Hoss, but both of them were sleep deprived and Joe had the advantage of a long uninterrupted sleep after Paul had given him some laudanum. Adam refused it because of the side effects and had spent a restless night until he was so exhausted he fell into a deep sleep.

Joe couldn’t talk so he decided to sing a little. He sang softly but soon had awakened Adam. “You could have just stuck a finger in my eye to wake me. Would have been less painful than your singing.”

“Boy, you sure wake up crabby in the morning. Good thing you usually get up before me. I wouldn’t want to have to deal with you like this every morning.”

The conversation on top of the singing awakened Hoss too, who looked grumpily at his brothers. “The two of you could have had a little consideration. I was up half the night watching over you two yahoos.”

“Yeah, you were watching real good too. Those snores were a good cover. No one would have guessed you were watching over us.” Joe laughed at his own statement and Adam chuckled until the stabbing pain in his chest told him not to. His grunt and the way he scrunched up his face had his brothers immediately concerned.

“Adam, you should be starting to feel better not worse. I’m getting the doc.”

“Hoss, don’t. I’ll be fine.”

“Yeah, you’d tell me that if you had an arrow stuck in your back, if it meant you could get outta that bed sooner. No, I’m getting the doc. Joe, you make sure he don’t get outta that bed.”

“How am I supposed to do that?”

“Sit on him if you have to. Just don’t sit on his chest. Hell, you ain’t got no clothes on. Just threatening to sit on him ought to do it.” Hoss chuckled to himself and left to find Paul.

Adam looked over at Joe who was grinning. “You wouldn’t dare?”

“Try me, older brother, just try me.”

“Try what?” Ben walked in to find the two brothers staring at each other, one with glee and one with a scowl.

“Adam wants to get out of bed, and I won’t let him.”

“Why shouldn’t he get out of bed?”

“Pa, he’s hurting pretty bad this morning. Hoss went to get Paul.”

Adam should have known the answer before he asked. “Shouldn’t I be the one to decide if it’s too much pain?” Joe and Ben simultaneously said ‘No’ just as Paul walked in the room and echoed it. Paul removed the bandage and the pad and probed gently as Adam lay on his back trying not to react to the painful poking.

“You can try to hide it all you want, but I know that had to hurt like the dickens. There’s inflammation and swelling. There’s some bruising lower on your chest. I’m afraid at least part of a rib is displaced. There’s a strong possibility of gangrene or other infection developing and you may be bleeding internally as well. This looks much worse than last night. How did you sleep?” Not hearing an answer was all the answer Paul needed. “There’s only one thing to do.” Adam groaned not because he was facing surgery but it probably meant ether, and also morphine or laudanum. He didn’t do well with any of those and often found them as difficult to recover from as the initial wound or injury.

Paul needed an assistant for the surgery, and because it wasn’t an emergency, he asked if someone would please get Catherine McHugh to come to help. That made Adam groan again and Paul thought he was experiencing more pain, but Hoss cleared it up.

“Adam likes ol’ Katie, but other than a couple dances with him on occasion, she won’t have nothing to do with him.” Hoss chuckled at his brother’s discomfort and Adam scowled at him too.

Candy volunteered to go get the lady and smiled when Hoss realized then that he would have to stay with Adam after getting him in a temper. Joe had gotten dressed and Ben was taking him to breakfast. After Paul assured them that the surgery was fairly simple, Ben looked over at Hoss and told him that he and Candy would ride back to the ranch with Joe, and asked Hoss to please stay with Adam. Ben intended to return and be there by the time Adam woke up. Hoss glanced over at Adam and didn’t like the stare he was getting. He would have to make amends later with Adam.

There were no surprises in the surgery. Doctor Martin found a shard of bone that was about as wide as a knitting needle and only about two inches long but it was poking into tissue and creating the problems. As a result, the incision was relatively shallow, making the surgery a short one. After the surgery, Kate sat with Adam to monitor his condition so Hoss could go get some sleep in another room.

Before Hoss left, Roy had stopped in to let them know there was no sign of Jason Brent. Roy had hired a few men as deputies to watch the jail while he and Clem spent more time walking through the city monitoring activity. There was nothing suspicious at any of the businesses they had identified as Brent’s.

They had missed a couple of places, though. One was a gambling parlor in an old house along D Street. There were no games going on there at the moment as Jason and his remaining men plotted their next move.

“First, I want you men to move some of these women to our operations in Carson City. No one wants to go near them now that the nosy sheriff and deputy are around so much. Then, when you’re there, hire a couple of fast guns. We’re going to need some help here to get Frankie out of jail and eliminate any witnesses or obstacles.”

“Mr. Brent, how are we going to do all of that? There’s a lot of firepower over in that jail right now.”

“Well, first we hit the target on the Ponderosa. Once that happens, there’s gonna be a lot of people leaving here. I would guess the sheriff would go out there. They’re not gonna expect us to hit that other Cartwright at the doc’s office, so that will draw more. I’m guessing at least one or two deputies will have to go look that over. Then we hit the jail.”

“Then where do we go? You and Frankie can’t go to Carson City. It’s too close and you’ll be arrested.”

Jason whirled on the man and almost hit him until he realized the man was just trying to determine what they were going to do. He wasn’t questioning orders. In his unit in the War, Jason had dealt very harshly with anyone who questioned his orders. His men had seldom questioned anything. Once the War was over, he had not let his men surrender. He would not quit. Eventually their raids drew the attention of the federal army, and they had to leave. Nevada had seemed lawless enough, so he took the wealth he had accumulated on those raids and moved to establish his lucrative businesses there. But this complication with Joe Cartwright had certainly messed things up. Previous obstacles had been removed much more easily and ruthlessly, warning off potential threats. Those threats had been from others operating outside the law and little had been done to determine how they had died. The law wasn’t much interested in knowing why a criminal was dead. How this had gone so wrong, Jason couldn’t yet determine, except he knew the Cartwrights who had made this mess for him had to be removed along with anyone who helped them.

“In answer to your question, Frankie and I will go to that little ranch we got north of here. From there, we can handle any issues that arise in either city but we’ll be far enough away so that there won’t be any problems. Frankie won’t want to be seen anyway, now that his face is so messed up. I’m thinking about where we can move our operations to as well. Wyoming or Montana may be better suited to our needs. First, though, we need to make sure that those charges against my son are dropped so we need to get rid of all the witnesses.”

“Mr. Brent, how we gonna do that if we break him out of jail?”

“We’re not breaking him out of jail, much as I would like to and wanted to do at first. We’re gonna take care of those two lily-livered bastards who would send him to prison, if not the gallows. We’ll leave Frankie there to be legally released once those charges get dropped.”

The men all nodded. Each of them were impressed with how well Jason could plan. Their confidence in him had been shaken by the events of the last weeks but now he seemed to be in charge again. Working for him had lots of benefits — women when they wanted them, whiskey when they wanted that, good money, and plenty of opportunity to take out their anger. They listened carefully as Jason Brent assigned them their duties.

Ben Cartwright had some military experience too, and was determined to keep his sons safe. He had left Candy to help Hoss, even though it had appeared that Candy had left with them. Candy had circled back and was already entering Doc Martin’s office from the back. Paul was happy to see him and offered to share lunch with him. Ben planned to make sure Joe was safe by calling in hands and setting up a defensive perimeter. Then he would head back to town with a few other men to see how Adam was doing and have others there to protect him. He expected Jason Brent to move against his sons. He knew he would do whatever it took to protect his sons, so he expected Jason, a father too, to do no less.

*****

Carson City, Nevada

“Yes, there are two more of them.” Sitting in the sheriff’s office in Carson City, Clem pointed out members of Brent’s gang. There was trouble here too, and with the information Clem had brought, the sheriff was well on his way to cracking down on the illegal businesses Brent had set up in his town. There was also some suspicion now that the Brent gang may have been responsible for the death of several prominent criminals in that city and the disappearance of others. Jason Brent had lived in Carson City for quite some time before moving to Virginia City. The governor’s office was alerted to the possibility of Brent trying to establish a criminal empire in Nevada and they were beginning to help with the investigation. Property records were being scrutinized in both cities trying to determine everything he owned or had an interest in.

As the investigation proceeded, there was surveillance of men associated with Brent. Interesting things were witnessed, giving the watchers at least a partial idea of what Brent had in mind. Telegrams started to flow quickly between Carson City and Virginia City, with men waiting at each office to gather them so that no third parties could find out the contents. Once Clem had a good idea of what the Brent gang was doing, he headed back to Virginia City.

*****

Virginia City, Nevada

“What do you mean you can’t find out what the sheriff is up to. He’s been going to that telegraph office a lot. What’s in those telegrams?” Brent was getting very frustrated.

“Mr. Brent, we don’t know. We ain’t got anybody who can read that code, and the sheriff or a deputy takes the telegram as soon as the operator writes it down. Our guy ain’t been near one of em.”

“Well, they’re up to something. I think we gotta move fast to make sure our plan works. The men get back from Carson yet?”

“Yeah, they were able to hire some men there. Pretty much no-account drifters. Just the kind of men we like to do the dirty work. They were drooling when they saw some of the women. Obviously it won’t take much to satisfy them. One of them is pretty smooth though and seems smart. He might be of real use to us along the way. Might be a good replacement for Nick. Looks like he can kill someone without a backwards look.”

“Good, I want him with me when we go to the doctor’s office. I want to shoot that damn Cartwright ‘down low’, just like he said he was going to do to me. I’ll let him die slow, but there’s bound to be those other Cartwrights after me then so I’ll need a good backup.”

“What about that big Cartwright that’s staying there with him?”

“If he doesn’t leave when he hears there’s trouble out on the Ponderosa, we’ll just have to shoot him first. You have your orders. Now get those men organized and on your way. I expect that you’ll have no trouble blasting into that house with the eight men you have. They have a lot of men working for them, but in this weather, they’ll all be out on the range. That leaves just Joe Cartwright, that cook, and maybe Joe’s daddy. Nobody is to be left alive there. No witnesses, is that clear?”

“Yessir, Mr. Brent. We’ll take care of it for you.”

*****

Ponderosa Ranch, Nevada

Ben lay back on his bed and closed his eyes. Sleep was going to be as difficult as it had been the night before. They expected an attack to come under cover of darkness and made most of their preparations with that in mind. There were two men sleeping in the hayloft. Four were in the bunkhouse. There were two in the downstairs guest bedroom, and one in each of the guest bedrooms upstairs, and in Hoss’ room and Adam’s. Joe and Ben were in their bedrooms. Everyone had a rifle, pistol, and extra ammo. Hop Sing had a shotgun in his room off the kitchen but was only expected to use it to defend himself if necessary.

At least two men were scheduled to be on watch at any one time, but most found it difficult to sleep. They didn’t know how many men Brent was sending. If the men were seen leaving Virginia City, there were men assigned to follow them but there was no way of knowing if they would detect the gang leaving. There was a lantern burning on the porch, one by the corral, and one near the stable but no lanterns and lamps were lighted inside any of the buildings. The windows downstairs in the house were shuttered and the doors were barred. They were as ready as they could be but the tension was palpable.

About nine, there was movement in the shadows and the man on watch in the house alerted everyone there. Everyone started looking for more movement and eventually could see the shadowy forms of men getting closer. One was clearly visible as he grabbed the lantern at the corral and turned it down until it was dark and then did the same with the one by the stable. By then Ben and the others had a good count of the men attacking. They had them outnumbered and were in a better position. They waited until Ben yelled out for the men in the yard to throw down their weapons. They didn’t and within seconds a fusillade of bullets flew. The men in the yard were dimly illuminated by the remaining lantern and had no cover. They could only fire at the muzzle flashes all around them. Several were down quickly and the rest began to break for cover. Several more never reached it and then men came from the house, the bunkhouse, and the stable to pursue them.

Within a minute, it was over. So often people talked of gun battles and made it seem as if they went on and on. Telling what happened often took much longer than what had happened. It was so in this case. Three men were dead, two were wounded, and three gave up. One of the men was assigned to ride to town to let them know that a battle had happened, but to the public, the attack by the Brent gang would be reported as far more successful than it had been. Roy would leave town, and they expected that would set the rest of Brent’s plan into motion. After tying up the survivors and after seeing to their wounds as best they could, Ben left them in the hands of his men and rode to town with Joe. They would intercept Roy who waited for them just outside the town.

*****

Virginia City, Nevada

The only activity at the jail was a deputy pushing two drunks ahead of him into the jail. Then a rider came in and rushed into the jail. He came out soon, and he and Roy rode out of town. Then several of Brent’s men took up positions around the jail. They saw one deputy leave to do rounds. They were about to go to the jail when they saw the second deputy leave by the backdoor and head into the outhouse there. They moved quickly and rolled a barrel in front of the outhouse door and then moved into the jail through the back door the deputy had left unlocked. There was a lantern burning near the cells and one of the men hoisted it up so they could see who was in each cell. The first one held a big man who was snoring. In the second bunk was a much smaller man also snoring.

The next cell was Frankie’s, and he pointed to the cell next to him.“ That’s where the canaries are that were singing about me. You gonna get me outta here?”

“Nah, Mr. Brent said to get rid of the witnesses and the charges’ll be dropped, and they’ll have to let you go. Now what about those two in the first cell?”

“Just a couple drunks they brought in here earlier.”

Abe and Cletus were cowering in the back of their cell with nowhere to go. Both expected to die until there were voices directly behind the men threatening them.

“Now, boys, you wanna put down them guns. I don’t wanna kill you.”

Looking over his shoulder, the leader of this group saw the big ‘drunk’ holding a rifle and the shorter ‘drunk’ had a shotgun. Behind them, the deputy came in and then Clem came in behind him.

The leader dropped his weapon and soon the others did too.

“Who the hell are you?” Frankie was very upset. The men who had been sent there to eliminate the witnesses were mostly curious.

“I’m Hoss Cartwright. It’s my brothers you been threatening. This here’s Shorty. He ain’t so good with guns, but ain’t nobody can miss at this range with a shotgun. You already know the deputies I think.”

Clem took over then, directing the men into the empty cell. This time it was actually locked. So far the plan was working. The last part was the trickiest, but they had a couple of their best men working that angle. Hoss picked up one of the pistols from the floor and stepped to the back door and fired four shots. That got the deputy making rounds running their way and sent Jason Brent to carry out what he thought was the third and final part of the plot, not knowing the other two parts had failed already.

Once Jason Brent and his hired gun reached the doctor’s office, they cautiously tried the front door and found it unlocked. Jason smiled. He was going to enjoy this. It had been years since he had actually killed someone, and he found he had missed how you felt before you took a life. He liked the feeling very much. He walked softly and quietly through the front office and opened a door that led to a hallway. There was light coming from one room. He signaled to his man to ease the door closed and the two of them moved silently down the hallway until bursting into the room. Candy looked startled and started to rise from the chair where he had been seated and talking with Adam. They had been eating pie that Doc Martin’s wife had brought to them earlier.

“Don’t move. You, you’re going to die just the way you threatened me. I’m going to shoot you right in your privates and you’re going to die real slow, wishing it would come faster.” Brent wanted his victim to suffer a bit first.

“I don’t think so. I think you ought to drop your gun right now. You’re outnumbered.” Adam seemed amazingly calm and it infuriated Brent.

“You seem to have a problem with numbers, you fool.”

“No, you have a problem.”

Brent heard the gunman behind him cock his pistol. When he glanced back to look, he was shocked as it was pointing at him. He turned back only to realize that Candy had a gun in his hand that he had been hiding under the napkin on his lap.

“Hello, cousin,” the man with the pistol said.

“Hello, Will. Thanks for helping out.”

“Glad to be of service.”

“How’s Laura and the family?”

With a roar, Jason Brent swung his pistol toward Adam, who flung himself off the bed onto the floor. They had miscalculated one thing. Jason Brent lost his mind when he was this furious. They didn’t know that about him. Candy and Will made sure no one would ever have to worry about him again, though. He was dead before he hit the floor. Adam was lying on the floor groaning again and thinking that this was getting entirely too commonplace. Then Doc Martin and Kate rushed in. Paul went to see Jason Brent but found he was no longer in need of medical services. Ben, Hoss, Joe, and Roy rushed in having heard the gunfire from down the street. They stood quietly taking in the scene.

Ben told Hoss to help Adam back up into bed. Hoss took one look at Adam with his head cradled on Kate’s lap, with her ample bosom pressing against the side of his face and decided that Adam would probably not appreciate his help at that time. Ben looked over when Hoss pointed and smiled. There was nothing like being injured or wounded to get a lady’s attention. Candy and Will decided getting the body out of there would help keep them from busting out laughing, and Joe and Hoss thought it prudent to help them for the same reason. Paul said he needed to get some things from his wife to clean up the blood on the floor. Standing there and not knowing what to do, Ben said he would go help Paul.

*****

EPILOGUE

Virginia City, Nevada

“Adam, you’re bleeding.” Kate had been holding his head and caressing his face while looking at his bare lower legs and feet. She thought they looked very nice. Then she blushed a little, remembering what had happened after surgery. Doctor Martin had said they would take his pants as well as his boots and hide them so he wouldn’t try to get out of bed and leave. His boots were already off and they unbuttoned his pants, and with Doc on one side and Kate on the other, they began pulling them down when they suddenly realized he wasn’t wearing any drawers. Doc had quickly pulled a sheet over Adam but not before Kate saw him. She had seen babies when she cared for her brothers, but she had never seen a grown man. There apparently was quite a difference. Doctor Martin had pulled out a nightshirt for Adam to wear, but as he lay here in her lap, she knew he probably didn’t have anything on under that nightshirt.

Adam was enjoying her ministrations and wondered why she blushed when she said he was bleeding. She had assisted in his surgery so blood could not be a problem. The more he thought about it, the more he realized it probably had something to do with his missing pants. He smiled at Kate. “I think I may have pulled out one or two of those stitches. Paul is not going to be happy with me.”

“Oh, he can’t blame you. You had to do what you could so you wouldn’t get shot. Here, maybe I should help you up into the bed.”

Adam slipped his arm around Kate and let her help him stand and then lay on the bed. He could have easily done it himself, but it was a much more pleasurable experience having Kate that close. She unbuttoned his nightshirt then and saw that he had been correct. She got cloths and soapy water to wash the blood from the area of the incision. Then she used some carbolic acid to clean the area. Finally she pressed a pad of bandages across the incision and waited for the doctor to return to repair the damage. “I hope that didn’t hurt too much. I suppose the doctor will want you to stay an extra day now.”

“I can’t go anywhere until he gives me my pants again.” Adam was rewarded with another blush that confirmed to him his earlier theory. In fact, now that he wouldn’t have a guardian, it might be nice to spend a day or two with Kate attending him. He smiled at her.“ Do you like to play chess?”

“I don’t know how.”

“Tomorrow, I could teach you or we could play checkers.”

“I’d like that. You can teach me how to play chess, tomorrow.”

***End***

 

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