Too Much to Ask (by BettyHT)

Summary:  Forced to make an agonizing choice, brothers have to tell their father what happened and that sends them on quest for justice and retribution.  They aren’t aware of all that has happened though and there are more surprises to come.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  14,206


 

“Joe, you don’t know what you’re asking.”

“Hoss, I know he’s hurt, I know it’s too much to ask, but it’s our only chance to get out of here.”

Swallowing any more of his objections, Hoss watched Adam slowly roll on his right side. Every movement caused him to groan and grimace. He paused at the slightest progress and then moved again. Hoss didn’t know how he did it. He obviously had damaged ribs that might be broken and what appeared to be a broken leg or a severely injured one. His left side was mostly useless. You could tell just by how still he kept his left arm as he moved even those agonizingly short distances. Finally Adam neared the ring of keys. Next he would have to crawl with that ring to their cell. Hoss wasn’t sure if Adam could do it because he seemed weaker with each push across the floor. Joe kept encouraging Adam to keep going.

Hoss and Joe needed those keys. They had been taunted with that earlier when Adam had been dumped on a thin mattress against the wall opposite their cell. The thugs had dropped the ring of keys next to him and laughed.

“You want to get out of here. Just get him to bring those keys to you.”

The men had left then. They had been merciless to them for three days now. Forced to work in a mine and set dynamite charges before removing the debris and the ore rich with gold from dawn to sundown, the brothers were exhausted. Every time one of the Cartwrights objected to anything, one of those men would hit or kick Adam. Joe had lost his temper that afternoon after they had been pushed to work without food or water for hours. Joe and Hoss had been held back at gunpoint while they administered a vicious beating to Adam. Hoss understood the logic of it, but it caused him to be furious inside. If they punished each of them for not working or for not following the many rules here, then none of them would be fit for work. Instead they concentrated the punishment on one, using that to drive the other two to work. Now, however, Hoss knew as well as Joe that they needed to get out of this place or Adam would not survive. One more beating like he had gotten that afternoon would be the end of him.

What those men didn’t know was that Adam had strength of will that was daunting. He had survived in the desert after torture and deprivation at the hands of a sadistic man. Most men would have perished. He had come out of so many terrible situations with his life and his sanity, Hoss wondered sometimes how he did it.

As Adam crawled closer and moved into the circle of light thrown by the lantern hanging in the center of the room, Hoss could see the bruises and abrasions as well as dried blood on his face. With the damage done and the beard he had grown in four days, Hoss could hardly recognize his older brother.

One of the men had taken his boots so he was barefoot. They probably assumed that he couldn’t work anymore so had no need of boots. Hoss had seen one of their tormentors wearing the boots earlier. At that point, he had been afraid that his brother was dead, but they carried him in and dropped him on the floor a short time after that. Hoss could hear them now. They drank and got loud every evening. They were not likely to see any of them again until morning, when the prisoners would be given a thick grainy paste that passed as breakfast and then taken at gunpoint to work that mine.

The three brothers were far from home. They were not known here. They had been approached by men in town and had not known their intent. They were asked if they knew how to mine and how to use dynamite. Joe had chimed in quickly with an affirmative answer, but Adam had cut him off, saying they were not interested in a job. The men had left, but as the three brothers rode out of town, Adam said he felt they were being watched. They rode harder than they normally would in such a situation, trying to put some miles between them and that little town.

Joe had complained and demanded they stop for lunch. Reluctantly, Adam had agreed after Hoss said he was hungry and they had already left any pursuers in the dust. They had been wrong and were bushwhacked as they ate. They were told to be quiet as their hands were tied. Joe told Adam he was sorry, and one of the men hit Adam in the stomach because Joe had violated the order to be quiet. Hoss told them not to hurt Adam, and they had hit him again. They were informed that from that point on, Adam was to be punished for any of their transgressions. The first day, all three had worked in the mine. By the second day, Adam was having a difficult time doing the tasks assigned after having been hit in the back with a thick rod, and after today, he wouldn’t be able to work at all. He had been hit or kicked periodically but today had been the worst by far.

Turning his attention back to Adam’s agonizingly slow progress across the floor, Hoss noted that it was getting quieter outside their jail. The men were probably dropping off to sleep in a drunken stupor. The time to get away was now, and every minute of delay was a precious minute lost, but he couldn’t press Adam to go any faster; he was sweating and panting with the exertion and the pain already. As he got about five feet from their cell, it was clear he couldn’t go much further. Adam knew it too. He had sharp pains in his left side that almost robbed him of the ability to think. His vision was getting hazy too and the floor looked like it was crowned to him. Knowing he had very little time and energy to accomplish what he had set out to do and what their tormentors had assumed he could not, he took the keys in his right hand and fell over onto his back. Then using the last reserve of strength he had, he bent his right arm at the elbow and threw the keys toward the cell. They landed only about two feet away from the cell bars, and Joe lay on the floor and stretched out to retrieve them.

Once Joe had the keys, he handed them to Hoss who reached outside the cell and inserted the keys one by one until he unlocked their cell. Rushing out, both brothers dropped to their knees next to Adam.

“How we gonna get him outta here, Hoss?”

Hoss was quiet. He had no ideas.

Adam whispered the only solution. “Leave me. You’ll hurt me worse by taking me along. Go get help.”

“Adam, when they find us gone, they’re gonna hurt you some more. If they do that, I don’t think you can take it.”

“Lock me in the cell. Lock the door.”

“Hoss, there must be a better way. We can’t leave him. He’s our brother!”

“Joe, what can we do? If we take Adam on horseback, he’s gonna get hurt worse. If we carry him out into the rocks, they’ll probably find us and you know what they’ll do then.”

Quiet and frustrated, Joe squeezed his eyes shut. They would have to do it his way. Hoss thought it might work, and unfortunately, it was the only idea they had. Hoss used the key to lock Adam in the cell after he and Joe had carefully moved him to the mattress in there. Adam had groaned softly as they had moved him. It was clear he wouldn’t be able to ride. After Adam was resting in the cell, Hoss gave the keys to the men in the next cell to release all the other prisoners who had been forced to work. Most were Chinese, but there were a few Native Americans as well. He signaled them to be silent as he and Joe left the building. The brothers quietly moved to where the horses were kept and saddled up Cochise and Chubb. They took Sport on a lead rope so that the men couldn’t use him. Then they stampeded the other horses out into the night before riding toward Carson City because it was the nearest source of help they could count on.

As Hoss and Joe rode down the road to Carson City in the early dawn hours, they saw a number of riders headed their way. Once they were closer, they could see their father in the lead. Finally something had gone their way. They rode rapidly to intercept the men.

“Hoss, Joe, I am so glad to see you. Where’s Adam?”

“Pa, it’s too long a story to tell here. Please, we just gotta ride hard. Adam’s life depends on it.”

Accepting Hoss’ leadership, Ben and the other men followed as Hoss and Joe turned to retrace their route. Hoss and Joe yelled as much of the story as they could while riding. As they neared the mining camp where they had been held prisoner, they saw a column of black smoke. Hoss’ heart sank, and as he glanced at Joe, he could see that Joe was as scared as he was. As they neared the camp, they found that most of the buildings had been set afire including the one where the forced labor prisoners had been held each night. Joe rode ahead of everyone and raced up to the building where they had left Adam. There was almost nothing left. The iron bars stood bent in crazy shapes but the rest of the building and its contents were reduced to smoldering ashes. The odor or coal tar was strong. The building had been fired on purpose.

When Hoss and the others arrived, Joe turned to them with tears streaming down his face. Hoss knew immediately why he was crying, but Ben suspected he knew the reason too.

“Did you leave your brother here?”

Hoss told him the whole story then. There was nowhere to race to any more. There were a few explosions when the supply shack on the outskirts of the camp caught fire from the other buildings. By nightfall, there were only ashes where the slave labor mining camp had been. Ben walked to the building where Hoss and Joe had last seen Adam. He knelt and grasped a handful of the warm ashes.

“My son!” And he broke down in heart-rending sobs. There was nothing anyone could do to lessen his sorrow. Hoss and Joe found themselves reduced to tears too. There was nothing they could do. They couldn’t find any remains for the building had burned so hotly everything in it had been reduced to a fine ash except for the iron bars that stood warped and misshapen in a parody of how the three men felt their hearts twisting inside them.

*****

John Rennick, Paul Barth, Mike Finnan, Dolph Jurgen, Niles Davis, and Pete Thompson were their names. Adam had told them to listen, and in just two days, the three brothers had learned the names of most of the men who held them prisoner. They called each other by first or last names. When the Chinese had been their main work force, it really didn’t matter if they used their real names. They had gotten careless. Like most criminals, they didn’t know that just one mistake was all it took to get the law on them. Hoss and Joe sat with U.S. Marshals and the sheriff of Carson City for most of one day describing and helping a sketch artist draw the faces of the men who had done this. The wanted posters were printed and distributed in every direction and as far as the stage lines were willing to take them. The men were wanted for kidnapping, false imprisonment, extortion, assault, robbery, and murder. The state of Nevada would have preferred even more charges if they could. It was enough. Ben Cartwright added a ten thousand dollar reward for each man. Bounty hunters and law officers would be able to collect, according to the offer made by the Cartwrights.

After being home just two days and seeing the devastating change that had come over their father, Hoss and Joe were ready to leave again.

“Pa, we know what they look like better than anyone. Hoss can track them away from that camp. We’ll follow and bring them to justice.”

“It won’t bring your brother back.”

“We know that, Pa. But Joe and me think that if we can get all these men, well then maybe we can rest easier knowing we got some justice for our brother.”

Ben wanted to retort that they should never have left him in that camp. He knew it was wrong to feel that way, but he had nightmares of his son caught in that fire, beaten, and unable to help himself, and then gradually consumed by the flames. He knew how a small burn on his hand had sent pain shooting up his arm. He could only imagine the agony of feeling your whole body burning and the torment of not being able to get away from it. He hated to go to bed at night. He only crawled into his bed when exhaustion forced him to try, but still the terrible dreams came.

Hoss watched his father and just knew what terrible thoughts he probably had. Hoss had those awful dark dreams at night too, and heard screams in his dreams. He imagined flames searing his brother’s flesh and sometimes thought he could even smell the hair and skin burning. He often spent much of the night staring at the shadows in his room and hearing his father’s footsteps in the hall in the early morning hours. He wanted to go to him but had no solace to give. And he heard the same recriminations in his head because he condemned himself for his actions as much as anyone could.

“Pa, do you want to come with us?”

Joe too suffered the same as his father and surviving brother. Joe was tormented by more guilt than Hoss, though. If he had not lost his temper that last day in the camp, those men wouldn’t have beaten Adam so badly. Then when they escaped, Adam could have gone with them. Joe wasn’t thinking that if Adam had not been beaten, they would never have gotten those keys.

At this point, Joe just wanted to work together with his family. If they could do this together, perhaps it would help the three of them at least a little. Ben wanted to say no. He wanted to say they needed to run the Ponderosa, but he couldn’t. Until those murderers of his son were brought to justice, he wouldn’t be able to sleep or function normally anyway. He nodded and walked upstairs to pack a few things as Hoss went to the kitchen to tell Hop Sing what was going to happen.

Within an hour, Ben and his two younger sons headed out. There had been no rain so there should still be tracks even after four days. If there were, Hoss would lead them and they would find the murderous thugs who had done this terrible thing to their family. It was dark before they reached the destroyed mining camp. They fixed dinner and rolled out their sleeping rolls. For the first time in days, they would all sleep just a bit better because they had a purpose again and knew they needed the rest to accomplish this task. In his mind as he drifted off to sleep, Hoss kept the last image he had of his older brother. Adam had grasped his vest when Hoss was about to leave and had just said one thing, ‘Hurry, please.’ Hoss had wrapped his hand around his older brother’s and told him he would. Then Adam had let go of his vest and closed his eyes although his face had still been contorted in pain. It was the last that Hoss and Joe had seen of Adam.

For nearly a week, Ben and his sons rode following the tracks that had been barely discernible at first. Each day, Hoss had found the tracks easier to see. They rode from sunup to sundown. They cooked dinner in the moonlight, ate some of the leftovers for breakfast, and packed away the rest of the cold food to eat at midday as they rode. They took no time to bathe or shave. Every available minute was used to find Adam’s murderers. Finally it seemed their quest would be successful.

“Pa, that’s got to be their camp. Looks to be four or five of them there.”

“Hoss, I think you’re right. We should wait for them to settle for the night and then surprise them. You and Joe can work around to the other sides, and I’ll come at them from here. Now no gunfire unless they start it.” Ben said the words but didn’t mean them. He didn’t want his remaining two sons to kill these men. He was thinking he would like to do it himself.

“Pa, it shouldn’t take Hoss and me more than a half hour to get into position. Then we can come in from three sides. We can get the drop on all of them.”

These had to be the men Ben and his sons had been tracking for almost a week. These men had avoided towns but moved at a leisurely pace. They seemed to suspect that there would be an alert for them in towns, but they had stopped at a couple of ranches to get supplies and fresh horses. They had paid with gold nuggets. Ben and his sons wondered how much gold these men were carrying. If it was a lot as they suspected, it could be a reason for their slow pace and why they had already worn out two sets of horses. Joe had selected three extra horses for the three of them to ride, and they had just switched off in the middle of each day so all of their horses stayed in good condition. They had ridden so far through rugged backcountry, none of them were sure any longer where they were except that their quarry was ahead of them.

The pursued had moved in a southeasterly direction most of the time and led the Cartwrights until they were here well away from any familiar places. They had traveled due south through some very rugged country for a time before moving southeasterly. Just this morning they had turned and started moving to the northeast. Late the night before, Joe had spotted their campfire up ahead. It made the job of tracking them much easier today. Now they had caught them.

Hoss and Joe moved out to flank the men they had been pursuing. Ben waited for the signal but planned to move forward before it was given. Joe had said a half hour. He would move in twenty minutes. He wanted a chance to confront these men when they might think they could fight their way out. Ben wanted the opportunity to fight them. He began moving before his sons could signal him. Once he was close to their camp, he felt his rage build and his heart rate speed up. These were the men who had murdered his son out of anger and nothing more. His death had not helped them in the least. Now Ben would let them have a taste of fear before he killed them.

*****

 “Hold it right there. Don’t move or I’ll shoot!”

Five men looked at Ben and worried. The silver haired man held that weapon like he knew how to use it, and the anger was apparent as well.

“Who the hell are you, old man?”

“I’m Ben Cartwright. You held my three sons and forced them to work. You beat my oldest son and then you killed him. It’s time for you to face justice for that.”

“You think you can take all five of us?”

“I’ll send as many of you to hell as I can. You want to be the first one?”

Several of the men were edging toward their weapons when another voice made them freeze. It was behind them and just as angry.

“It ain’t just him. We’re back too.”

Another man stepped from the darkness as the big man behind them came forward.

“Now you can just drop them guns or go to hell just like my Pa told you. Drop ’em, I said.”

All of the men but one complied. He drew and was shot by both Ben and Joe. The other four quickly raised their hands.

“Don’t shoot. We ain’t gonna fight back. Please don’t kill us.”

Moving quickly around the camp, Joe gathered up all the weapons. Ben still had his pistol aimed at the man who had spoken last.

“Did you give my son that chance? He wasn’t fighting back. My boys here told me he couldn’t hardly move because you had hurt him so badly. But you murdered him! Why shouldn’t I just shoot you down right here?”

“Pa, don’t do it. I know how you feel. Hoss and I feel exactly the same, but you know how Adam would have felt about this. He would have said they should get a trial and let the law hang them. You know that’s true. Pa, please.”

“Pa, Joe’s right. Adam wouldn’t want you to murder these men no matter how much they deserve to die. I’d like to choke the life out of each one of ’em with my bare hands. But I would dishonor Adam’s memory by doing something like that. It would be for me and not for him. We came out here to get justice for Adam, not vengeance for us.”

The four men stood silently waiting to see how the tense situation would resolve itself. At least the younger ones were speaking for them. One man, though, didn’t want to wait and suddenly ran. Ben turned and fired, hitting the man in the leg. He fell moaning and crying out. It seemed to take the rage from Ben.

“Joe, see to him. Hoss, tie these three up while I keep my gun on them. I assure you men, I will shoot anyone who even looks like they’re trying to escape. In fact, I look forward to any of you trying it.”

None of the men did. They dropped to the ground just as Hoss told them and placed their hands behind their backs. Hoss tied them tightly and then hogtied each one just for security. The man who had been hit in the leg was bandaged and then tied as well before Hoss and Joe left to get their horses and supplies. It was nearly dark. The four men would spend a sleepless night wondering if they would see morning. The next day, the Cartwrights would take them to the nearest town.

The next morning, Hoss made breakfast. He gave some to the men to eat but made them eat like dogs, untying some of the ropes but not those that bound their hands behind their backs.

“I don’t want to untie their hands at all. There’s four of em, and they had all night to think of ways to get away. Feeding them like that is necessary and I don’t feel sorry for them one bit. They acted like animals, they can get treated like animals.”

Neither Joe nor Ben was about to stick up for the rights of these men. They had rolled the dead man in a blanket, and now they piled some rocks over him. They didn’t work too hard at it. In their minds, it was better than he deserved. One by one, they got the four men up on horses and tied their hands to the pommels. With lead ropes on and the reins tied off on the horses, they would not be able to get away.

“Boys, which way to the nearest town do you think?”

“Gallup is to the east and Flagstaff to the west.” One of the four prisoners had spoken up.

“I figure the sooner we get to a town, the less likely we’re gonna be shot.”

“Well, riding west makes sense to me. I don’t want to backtrack that rugged country we come through to get here. No need for us to avoid towns. Let’s ride west. First place we see we can ask and find out if we’re going the right way.” Hoss headed out, leading the way.

Joe and Ben nodded at Hoss’ idea and mounted up to ride out, each leading two or three horses. They had found saddlebags full of gold nuggets, the ill-gotten gains of illegal forced slave labor. They weren’t sure what they were going to do with it yet, but Joe had suggested giving it to the Chinese community as some compensation for the men who had been forced to work those mines. They didn’t think there was a chance that they could ever find the men who had actually been there with them, though. At the first ranch they saw, they stopped in to find that they were in fact headed directly for Flagstaff. Another night camped out and one more day of travel and they reached the city. They were a motley crew who stopped in front of the U.S. Marshal’s office there. A deputy came out and asked them what their business was and assumed by their answer that they were bounty hunters.

“These four men are wanted on federal and Nevada warrants. The most serious charge is murder.” Ben then produced the warrants and identified which man fit each warrant.

“These are just sketches. How can we be sure you got the right men?” The Marshall was skeptical.

“Because my sons are the witnesses, and they can identify each one of them. You can have the reward. It is payable to anyone, including officers of the law. All you need to do is make sure they get to Carson City, Nevada for trial.”

“You don’t want the reward? That’s forty thousand dollars, according to these warrants!”

“We’re the ones paying the reward. I’m Ben Cartwright and these are my sons, Eric and Joseph. We’ll be in the hotel if you have any questions.”

As Ben went to get rooms at the hotel, Hoss and Joe led the horses to the livery, stopping at the freight station to have the saddlebags and extra gear shipped to the Ponderosa. They would ride their three regular horses on the way home and sell the three extras. After bathing, shaving, and dressing in clean clothing, they met in the hotel restaurant for dinner.

“Funny, but I guess I would feel better somehow once we caught those men. I feel the same as I have. Nothing has really changed.” Joe didn’t even feel like eating. He wished he could go to sleep and wake up to find this was all some horrific nightmare. Each morning he woke up hoping that, and reality would jolt him each time.

“Pa, I been meaning to ask you. Why didn’t you wait for us before you walked into that camp? Did you want them to draw down on you? Joe and me practically had to run to get to that camp before there was a shootout.”

Hesitating to answer was as much of an answer as the Hoss and Joe needed, but Ben felt he needed to be honest. “I never felt like I wanted to kill some men as I did that night. I didn’t wait because I did want them to fight back. My heart was broken, and I guess I wasn’t thinking about you two. Now I know how stupid and inconsiderate that was. It could have made things so much more difficult for the two of you and I apologize for my foolish actions.”

“I never been a father, Pa, but I guess I understand. If I had a son and somebody murdered him, I’d want to kill the bastard too.”

“I understand too. It’s all right, Pa. We’ve all been under a lot of pressure.”

“Joseph, I have to say I’m proud of how you stood with Hoss in that camp when I just wanted to kill those men. I know Hoss stood with Adam on that issue in the past, and his words did not surprise me. But yours did. That may have been what helped pull me out of my rage.”

“Pa, I lost my temper in that camp and that’s why Adam got hurt so bad. If I had kept my mouth shut, those men wouldn’t have beaten him like that. Pa, I’ll take that guilt with me the rest of my life. I made a promise when we were at that camp. I promised Adam I’d hold my temper and use my head. It was real hard to do, though, when I saw those murdering bastards. But then I heard what Hoss said and it was like Adam was talking, reminding me of my promise.”

Hoss felt a little pride at hearing Joe’s words, but he still had a significant concern. “There’s still one more of ’em out there, Pa. What’re we gonna do?”

“Hoss, I think we’ll let the law find Niles Davis. According to the four we brought in, he was the ringleader and left before any of them did and headed east. They don’t know where he is, and we’ll never find tracks this late. I can increase the reward if you think that will help.”

“Nah, if ten thousand doesn’t do it, then twenty won’t either. I guess I just want to get home. It won’t ever feel the same, though, will it? We rode through some beautiful country. A couple of times I caught myself thinking that Adam would enjoy hearing about it. Then I would remember and it was like Sam Hill hit me with his sledgehammer. It feels that way every time I’m thinking on something and remember he’s gone.”

“I never got to say goodbye. It still hurts so much. Here in Flagstaff, we saw those people laughing and talking. All I could think of was that my oldest son would never get to do any of that again.”

“We was just riding home after a successful drive and we didn’t have no money or anything on us, so I thought we would be safe. And then we got bushwhacked and a few days later, Adam was gone. Life sure is awful sometimes when it dumps a surprise on you like that. Pa, I’m so sorry we left him there. We should of thought of something else to do. He asked me to hurry, Pa, but it wasn’t enough. It’s my fault Adam is gone.”

“Pa, I’m so sorry too. What we did was so stupid. We were so desperate, and we never thought they would do what they did.”

“Whose idea was it?”

“Adam. He said he would get hurt worse by riding. Pa, it hurt him just for us to carry him into that cell. He couldn’t even hardly talk.”

All three men sat silently for a time. “My sons, I suggest we all forgive each other and forgive ourselves for what we’ve done. One failure Adam did have was always taking responsibility for things that went wrong and then suffering with the guilt. We need to move forward. We need a fresh start.”

Almost reluctantly, Hoss and Joe nodded, although both knew it was far easier to accept their father’s forgiveness than it would be to forgive themselves. Ben saw their frowns and knew how hard it would be for his sons to forgive themselves. They did have that in common with Adam. He knew too that it would take some time for him to be able to forgive them completely as well. But right then, he needed to get their minds on something else at least for a time. “I never asked. What did you do with the money you got for the cattle?”

“Adam mailed the draft home. He said too many people knew we got a big payout so it would be safer not to carry the money. It’s probably sitting in the post office in Virginia City right now. Yeah, he found some new maps he wanted, so he bought those and rolled them all up together in the map tube and mailed it to himself.”

“What did you boys do with all that gold we found? I forgot about it until now.”

“We shipped it home with the other gear we didn’t need any more. The freight guy may wonder at some point why those crates are so heavy, but they should be waiting for us in Virginia City too.”

“Guess Adam taught you boys something.” Then Ben’s grin was erased as he remembered Adam would not be teaching them anything anymore. The three men were quiet for the rest of the evening, and the next morning as they rode toward home. They had had only a brief conversation before leaving Flagstaff.

“If you boys don’t mind, I would like to avoid most of the towns along the way. Let’s do some hunting and fishing as we ride home. We need the time to heal as much as we can. You boys are more important than anything I own.”

Because of the conversation father and sons had the night before, Joe had anticipated something like this. “So what about the ranch, Pa? Somebody needs to be making some decisions there. Shouldn’t we get back?”

“Joe, the ranch will still be there. We hired very capable people. If we can’t be gone for two weeks, then we need to hire some other men.”

*****

In Virginia City earlier in the week, an urgent message was delivered to the Chinese community. It was too dark to send someone at that time, but the next morning as soon as possible, the message would be delivered to the Ponderosa. They would let Hop Sing handle the details of how to explain what had happened and what needed to happen next. How could any Chinese explain the presence of a badly injured white man among them, especially one who had needed an operation and medical care which had been provided?

Very early the next morning, Hop Sing was in the kitchen making breakfast when there was a light knock on the kitchen door. He answered and found a young man with a roll of paper. After accepting it, Hop Sing unrolled it, thanked the young man, and told him he would be there as soon as possible. Once breakfast was served and arrangements were made for the chuck wagon cook to prepare lunch, Hop Sing went out to hitch up the buckboard to drive into town. He reached the Chinese community in Carson City by nine, and when he drove to where he had been instructed, a long stretcher was carried to the wagon and a man was placed on the mattress in the back. Hop Sing formally bowed and thanked the men before driving back to the Ponderosa. Once there, he went to the bunkhouse to ask some men to help him carry Adam into the house. Even though Adam was asleep or unconscious and looked terrible, he was alive. It was shocking to the men there to see the results of the brutal things that had been done to him. All of the men there were happy that Adam was alive but were concerned about his family.

“Does his father know?” was the first question.

Hop Sing had to tell them that none of the family knew, and that he did not know how to get the message to them. One of the hands volunteered to go into town to tell Roy Coffee and to tell the doctor. Within two hours, Roy and Paul were in Adam’s bedroom. Roy wanted to know where Hop Sing had found Adam.

“Go to Carson City. Some men bring Mr. Adam to wagon. Then I drive Mr. Adam home.”

“I think I get the picture. Doc’s gonna see how he is now. You got any idea where Ben and his brothers are?”

“They go find bad men who do this. They not know Mr. Adam alive.”

“Do you know how Adam was rescued?”

“He help men escape. Men he save see bad men burn building. They go rescue before too late. He stay with them until now.”

“I think I got the whole picture now. Well, if you ever see any of these men again, you just let them know that I am very grateful, and if they ever need any help, they should call on me.”

Nodding, Hop Sing retreated to his kitchen with a smile. Roy waited in the great room for Paul to complete his examination. In Adam’s bedroom, Paul was able to get only a little information from Adam who awoke briefly. He was weak but lucid.

“I don’t remember much from the time my brothers left until this morning. I remember someone asking me if I wanted them to help me. I said yes because I was in terrible pain and could hardly breathe. When I woke up later, I was in much less pain and could breathe more easily. That’s about all I know. Some men carried me to a wagon and I saw Hop Sing who brought me home. Where’s my family?”

“First things first; you’ve had surgery on your ribs. They’re all bandaged now and the incision looks clean. You must have had a broken rib that was displaced. Someone operated and put it where it belonged. Your other wounds were cleaned, treated with salve, and bandaged as needed. I’m guessing you don’t remember much because you were drugged for the surgery and to help with pain management. Someone took very good care of you.”

“Paul, where’s my family?”

Pausing and realizing he should tell Adam the truth if only the short version, the doctor replied, “I’m not sure, but I think they went to find the men who did this to you.”

Not knowing what to ask next, Adam decided he knew enough for now because he was exhausted. He closed his eyes and quickly succumbed to sleep. Paul walked from the room but left the door open. Once he got downstairs, Roy wanted to know how he was.

“He’s got a severely bruised knee and ankle on his left leg. Looks like he was kicked among other things. He’s covered in bruises and abrasions and has a few light burns. Someone operated on a broken rib and put it back in place, and his ribs are bound. He may have had some internal bleeding, possibly from his spleen, but it appears to be resolved. I’ll let Hop Sing know to watch for any new bruising. He’s asleep now. I think he’s going to be all right, but he may need a lot of rest before he’ll be back to normal.”

“Can he talk to me now?”

“He shouldn’t. He needs to stay calm and rest. I thought you had all the information you needed?”

“It would help to have Adam fill in some of the story with what he knows. We have enough for now, but we may need more if any of those jaspers end up in court. But that can wait. I wouldn’t want to cause the boy any more pain. Sounds like he’s been through the mill already.”

Standing near the kitchen door, Hop Sing listened. He told the two men that he would care for Adam if they would please locate his family and let them know Adam was home.

“Well, Hop Sing, we’re gonna do that, but it may take some time. I’ll send out telegrams and try to find them.”

“Hop Sing, I have a woman who does quite a bit of nursing. Frequently she has helped me care for more seriously ill or injured patients. She could come out for a few days to sit with Adam and help you?”

Hop Sing agreed that was a good idea. He didn’t like leaving Adam by himself and having someone else there to sit with him would be very helpful. Roy and Paul left then. Roy planned to start sending out telegrams to sheriffs in towns the Cartwrights might visit so that they could let them know the good news.

Day by day, Adam started feeling better. The lady hired to help nurse him noticed that when he began flirting with her. His lips were still a bit swollen from the splits in them received when he was beaten. He asked her to kiss him to check the condition of his lips. She had laughed and said that wouldn’t be necessary. She also told him her services were no longer necessary and she would be moving back home soon.

“Thank you, Kate. You have been wonderful. Maybe I could call on you in a few weeks?”

“Adam, that’s not a good idea.” Kate would have loved that, but Adam was a sophisticated man and had been with so many ladies. She just didn’t think she would be able to match him and thought it best to avoid the embarrassment of being rejected by him when he found out her shortcomings.

“Well, will you be at the dance in a few weeks? Perhaps you could pencil me in on your dance card? I’ll do my best to be back on my feet if you’ll promise to dance with me.”

“All right, one dance, but that’s it. You have so many women clamoring after you, I don’t want to get lost in the stampede when they see you upright and healthy again.”

“Perhaps, you’ve mistaken me for my brother Joe. He has hordes of women chasing him. Not me.”

Kate looked at him then. Was this a ploy, or did he not really know how handsome he was and how his masculinity made women go weak in the knees with his grin or a few words in that glorious baritone voice? Well, she granted that he didn’t look so handsome right now with his face in various shades of yellow, green, and brown as the bruising slowly faded away, and his lips and left cheek were still swollen, but gosh she still found him attractive. If she wasn’t so shy, she might have kissed those lips when he offered. Like many others she had a bit of a crush on him. But then she had wondered if he was playing with her. She guessed she would never know. Like many women, she found Adam to be intimidating and difficult to approach. He looked dangerous, and he dressed in black like an outlaw. She wasn’t as intimidated as she had been before she had been hired to care for him, but still he scared her in many ways. Joe was much more easy to approach, especially compared to Adam.

Watching her, Adam saw her face move through a number of subtle changes. She was obviously thinking intently about something. He rather hoped it was him. He was determined that he would get to know her better.

“How about lunch with me before you go? I would like to try the stairs today if you don’t mind helping me?”

“Are you sure? What if you can’t get back upstairs?”

“Well, if I get down there and can’t get back up here, I can always sleep in the guest bedroom downstairs.”

Kate thought that made sense, so she helped Adam sit on the side of the bed. With her help, he had taken short walks in his room first, and the day before, had walked up and down the hallway outside his room. This would be a big challenge, though. Kate left to put a chair at the top of the stairs. Then she alerted Hop Sing about what they were going to do. Finally, she helped Adam put on his robe and tie the sash. With his right arm around her shoulders, they walked to the top of the stairs. Adam said he was ready to keep going so they moved down the stairs slowly. Hop Sing waited at the bottom. As Adam neared the bottom, Kate could see how pale he was and asked if he would need a chair at the last step. He said no and pointed at the blue chair. He made it there and gratefully sank into it.

“Dining table, or lunch here?”

“Here would be fine. I think I may try to make it to the table for dinner, but this is enough for now.”

Kate and Adam ate lunch together and chatted. When lunch was finished, she got him a book to read. Adam put his feet up on the coffee table and began to read. It felt good to be doing something so normal. Then he looked over at his father’s desk and groaned. Kate had brought their empty plates to the kitchen and was dismayed to hear the groan.

“What’s wrong?”

“Oh nothing too much. I just looked at the desk. One of the hands must be picking up the mail. My guess is that there are at least several days of work sitting there. Has anyone heard from my family yet?”

“No, the only thing we know is that four of the men are in custody in Flagstaff and will be returned to Carson City for trial. There’s a request for four bounties to be paid.”

“So it wasn’t my family who brought them in but somebody who did it for the bounties. I wish I knew where they were.”

“Would you like me to help you to the desk so you can go through the mail?”

“Yes, thank you, that would be very nice.”

Adam wrapped his arm around Kate’s shoulders for the walk to the desk. He liked the feeling it gave him, and he was thinking more and more that he would like to be able to do this all the time.

*****

Once Adam was seated behind the desk, Kate began helping by opening letters and parcels for him. He started stacking materials, prioritizing what had to be done immediately, what could wait a few days, and what he could put off until his family returned. No one had told Adam that his family thought him dead. They had not wanted to worry him in his weakened state. Kate began to think it was time to tell him though. Although he was still physically weak, he had recovered remarkably well mentally and emotionally.

“Adam, there’s something that Sheriff Coffee and Doctor Martin didn’t tell you about your family.” At Adam’s intense look of worry, she had to quickly reassure him. “No, nothing happened to them. No, it’s just that when they left here, they thought you were dead. I’m sorry if that is rather blunt, but I didn’t want to resort to euphemisms and make it a puzzle for you. Sheriff Coffee sent a lot of telegrams out to try to locate them and let them know you are alive, but we don’t think they got any of them because we haven’t heard from them at all.”

Dropping his head into his hands, Adam found memories flooding back in. He had awakened in terrible pain a number of times. Each time there had been a voice there offering hope and help. Up until now, he had thought that somehow that voice had belonged to Hop Sing, even though he had not been able to reconcile that thought with being lifted into a wagon Hop Sing was driving “Who saved me?”

Hop Sing had come out to see if the Kate and Adam needed anything and had heard Kate talking. Now he stood and watched Adam struggle with his memories.

“Chinese men rescue you. You save them. They save you. All is in balance. But they afraid what men say or do if find out you cared for by Chinese so they give you to Hop Sing to bring home.”

“So it was a Chinese doctor who operated on me and saved my life. Hop Sing, you must tell them how grateful I am. Whatever they want, I will pay.”

“You pay in advance. All in balance.”

“Thank you.”

Unable to help herself, Kate knew she could fall in love with this man so she was even more determined to leave. As Adam continued to work, she went to the guest room she had been using and packed. She would ask a hand to hitch up the carriage and would leave after dinner once Adam was back up in his bedroom. When dinnertime came, and Kate announced her plans, she could see how disappointed Adam was, but she assured him it was time. He reluctantly agreed, and thanked her profusely for all she had done after she helped him back up the stairs to his room.

“Is there anything I can say to change your mind?”

“Adam, all you need is help with the stairs, and one of the hands can do that. Just take it easy and don’t try to walk too far too soon. Don’t try to work more than a few hours each day until you feel your strength returning. You’ll be fine. Besides, I know that Hop Sing will be watching out for you and ordering you around.”

“Makes you wonder sometimes who’s the boss around here, doesn’t he?”

Laughing, Kate had bid him goodnight and goodbye. She felt a little sadness on leaving. It had felt good to be needed and appreciated by a man. She would look forward to that happening in her life some day. Once she reached her home, her parents were surprised at her melancholy and wondered what had happened. Her mother was sure that Adam had done something to cause it, but Kate assured her that Adam had been very nice to her. She told her mother she just missed being needed and kept to herself that she missed him.

As Adam lay in bed before he fell asleep that night, he was thinking of Kate. He had decided that one way or another he would be well enough to dance at least a slow dance in a few weeks so he could dance with Kate. Then he wondered again as he gazed at the moonlight streaming in the window: where was his family and why had no one heard from them? After Kate’s news, he knew why they had not contacted him. He wished there was a way for him to let them know he was home but couldn’t think of anything that wasn’t already being done.

*****

Miles to the south, Ben and his younger sons were making camp for one last night. They had pushed hard that day, knowing that on the next day, they could be on the Ponderosa. Even though it wouldn’t be the same, it was still home and they missed it. Cooking dinner in the moonlight, Hoss reminisced about the last hunting trip that he and Adam had taken. They had been out in bad weather for the first three days, and had not bagged a single animal as they were all staying put in cover because of the bad weather.

“Pa, I can tell you now. Adam and I went to Miss Betsy’s Emporium for the rest of that trip. We had a grand time. Adam was laughing all the time with telling tall tales and singing with the gals. That buck we brought home was a lucky chance for us. He just wandered right into our path not more than five miles from the house. Adam brought him down with one shot and then laughed the whole time we was gutting him out and dressing him to bring him home.”

“Miss Betsy’s Emporium! Why I told you boys dozens of times I never ever wanted to hear you had been there.”

“Pa, that was the first time I was ever there. But Pa, them gals called Adam by his name the first time we walked through the doors. Pa, they really liked him there, and he had a grand time.”

“So he had been there before, is that what you’re telling me?”

“Pa, he’s been there a lot of times. They said the first time was when he was seventeen.”

“What?”

“Pa, I ain’t joshing you. I just thought you could know that Adam was well liked wherever he went. He had fun too. He wasn’t always so serious as he seemed.”

“Please do not tell me that my oldest son went up the stairs with one of those saloon girls! I don’t want to know.”

“Well, Hoss, I want to know!”

“Pa, Adam did not go upstairs with one of them saloon gals.”

Ben turned away to roll out his bedroll, and Hoss held up two fingers to Joe and winked. Joe started giggling and only stopped when Ben told him that his oldest son’s shenanigans were nothing to laugh at. All three fell asleep, though, with a lighter heart than they had before Hoss’ story.

Waking early the next morning, Ben started coffee and breakfast. He knew that would wake Hoss. The two of them would wake Joe, he thought, but soon both sons were rising and helping him with breakfast. When both Ben and Hoss made comments about Joe rising early, he told them he just wanted to get home. “Last night looking at the moon, just before I fell asleep, I had this funny feeling that I needed to get home soon.”

Both Ben and Hoss stared at Joe and almost as one said the same thing. “Me too!”

Wondering what it could mean, the three of them gobbled down their breakfast and broke camp quickly. Even Hoss declined lunch later as all were anxious to get home. As they topped the last rise before riding to their home, they looked and everything appeared normal and peaceful. They could see hands working in the pastures, and smoke coming from the chimneys of both the ranch house and the bunkhouse. They rode toward home no longer worried and yet still somewhat ill at ease over their premonitions. As they rode into the yard and dismounted, a voice they had never thought to hear again sounded from the shade on the porch.

“About time you got home. I’ve been worried.”

All three men whirled around to see Adam struggling to stand and using a cane to balance when he did. Ben walked slowly to the porch with his arms out to his son. He was worried it was an apparition and would disappear.

“I’m real, Pa. A little worse for wear though.”

Reaching Adam, Ben gently wrapped his arms around his son and pulled him close. Ben couldn’t talk but the tears streaming down his face said anything that needed to be said. Adam dropped his cane and leaned on his father, placing his head on his father’s shoulder like he had not done since he was about seven years old. Completely shocked, Hoss and Joe came up to each lay a hand on Adam’s back and shoulder.

“Now, I don’t want it to sound wrong, older brother, but Joe and me thought you were dead and gone. What happened?”

Adam picked his head up from his father’s shoulder and put his hand there to steady himself. Ben couldn’t speak. He kept an arm around Adam and let his heart heal.

“I really can’t remember any of it except for pain, but apparently some of those Chinese workers you released came back when they saw the building on fire. I don’t know how they did it, but they got me out of there. I kept thinking Hop Sing was there but of course he wasn’t. One of them operated on me, and they gave me something for the pain. I don’t remember much until they were loading me in a wagon and Hop Sing was driving. The next thing I remember is waking up here and Paul, Hop Sing, and Kate were taking care of me.”

“Kate?”

“Katherine McHugh. Paul sent her out here to help because all of you were gone and Hop Sing needed some help. She just left yesterday after giving me a list of rules to follow.”

“Thank goodness someone was here to care for you. Why didn’t someone let us know?”

“Pa, Roy’s been sending telegrams all over trying to intercept you but without any word didn’t really know where to look. If you don’t mind, can I sit down?”

“How about inside? We need to clean up, and you can relax until we’re ready to hear everything.”

“And you need to tell me what you’ve been up to. Roy sent word that four of the men were apprehended in Arizona.”

“Son, that was our doing. We turned them over to the marshal there. He’ll get them to Carson City and then we’ll send the reward to him.”

“Yeah, one of ’em is dead, four in jail, but there’s still one jasper out there on the loose.” That one of them escaped still rankled with Hoss. Somehow he knew that man would cause heartache for a lot of other families if he wasn’t stopped.

“Niles Davis?”

“Yeah, how’d you know that?”

“Hoss, I could tell he was the smartest one, the one in charge. He was always standing in the background whenever anyone did anything. He would nod and it would happen.”

Hoss offered to help Adam then, but he said he only wanted someone on his right side as his left still hurt too much to take any kind of pressure. Ben released his hold then and moved to support Adam on his right side. Nodding in appreciation, Adam began walking to the door with his father’s assistance. He asked him to take it slowly as they took the one step down, and then they proceeded toward the front door that Hop Sing was holding open.

“By the way, son, I heard a few stories yesterday about you. Perhaps when you’re telling us everything that happened, you could explain to me what you were doing at Miss Betsy’s Emporium when you were seventeen!”

Quickly turning his head, Adam stared at Hoss with a look of horror. “You didn’t?”

Looking chagrined, Hoss could only nod and say one thing. “Sorry, brother, I thought you were dead, and it wouldn’t matter.”

*****

“Pa, you did say over and over again that you did not want to hear that one of your sons had been at Miss Betsy’s Emporium. Now you never did say we couldn’t go there.”

Adam was smiling, and under the circumstances, Ben had to shake his head and smile back at him. This was the Adam he loved and would have missed so much. The Adam who liked to tease him and have fun was someone a person just had to like. He understood very well what Hoss had said when he had stated that Adam was liked wherever he went and that he did have fun. Somehow the pressures of running the ranch and working long hours robbed him of that sometimes. Ben was more determined than ever to find a way for his son to enjoy his life more. He thought perhaps sending him on more buying and selling trips might be a good start. He would miss him, but it would give Adam a more interesting life and relieve some of the stress he faced.

Adam watched the emotions play across his father’s face. Ever since his family had come home, and they had shared stories until everyone knew as much as there was to know, Adam had sensed an undercurrent of emotions that his father and brothers seemed unable to face. Adam suspected guilt was one factor affecting his brothers, but he was still mystified by his father’s attitude. Ben treated Adam as if he was fragile. Now Adam knew he was still recovering and needed more time to be back to normal, but the worst was well behind him. Yet his father acted as if he still needed care and nurturing. Adam found it so ironic that he was the one who nearly died and yet it was his father and brothers who needed to heal now.

The morning of the first day the family had been home together had not started well. Doctor Martin had walked into the house to see Adam but found the other three Cartwrights seated at the breakfast table.

“Oh, I’m very sorry. I had no idea all of you were home. I’m very glad to see you, and I would imagine that Adam was overjoyed.”

“Yes, he was, I think. He’s still sleeping this morning.” Ben pointed up the stairs.

“Well I was heading home from delivering a baby and thought I would stop in to see how he was doing. Kate told me he was much better. I’ll go upstairs and check on him. I know the way.”

A half hour later, an angry Doc Martin added to their guilt. “He’s exhausted. Adam is recovering from some serious injuries. He needs rest and calm. I don’t know what kind of ordeal you put him through yesterday, but there better not be a repeat performance today unless you want to risk him getting weaker and sick.”

The three men had, of course, offered apologies and promised not to do anything to tax Adam’s strength. Once Adam did get up and dressed, he came to the top of the stairs and asked if someone could help him down the stairs, and three men rushed to be the one to help. He had laughed and said just one would be fine. But as the day went on and all three men continued to pamper him, he started to get rather testy.

“In all the time Kate and Hop Sing were taking care of me, they never hovered like you are doing. It’s suffocating. I’ll ask for help if I need it. I’m not stupid. I know what I can and cannot do. I’ve been dealing with this for two weeks now.”

At the looks that came over all three faces at his statement, Adam was frustrated. He was tired and now he would have to help all of them heal. He needed some time to think, so he slowly walked out to the porch and sat in his favorite chair out there. That’s when he came up with his plan. He knew he would need to develop it more as time went on but thought he had a good starting point. He would keep things lighthearted and sometimes funny. He needed his family to get back to acting normally. He might even try a little anger. Needling Joe would likely set him off eventually, even if he was feeling guilty, but then he held that thought, for it would possibly make him feel more guilty too. So instead, for the next few days, he kept it humorous and brought up fun anecdotes from their shared past to get them to tell stories, and they could share in the laughter. And so it was with Miss Betsy’s.

“Pa, Hoss told me what you said. Now, what I’ve been wondering is how did you know they rebuilt after the fire and added a second story?”

Ben’s red face only set Hoss laughing until his sides hurt, and Joe literally fell from the settee where he had been laying onto the floor because he was giggling so hard.

“I have heard plenty of stories about that place! Debauchery doesn’t begin to describe what goes on there, if even a fraction of those stories are true.”

“Perhaps you could tell us the stories you’ve heard, and then Hoss and I could compare it to what we know, all in the interest of learning, of course. We must challenge our minds so they don’t become stale.”

Adam’s playful baiting of his father had been so blatant his brothers couldn’t stop their merriment.

“Don’t you two have some work to do?”

Hoss and Joe had left still laughing as they exited the front door. Hoss’ laugh could be heard until the two mounted up and rode off. Ben turned to Adam with a mock fierce look.

“You think you’re quite clever, don’t you?”

Adam just raised his eyebrows as if he were completely innocent of anything his father might accuse him of doing. Ben shook his head and smiled as he got back to the mountain of paperwork on his desk. Adam offered to help and was gently rebuffed. Well, he didn’t like doing paperwork anyway, so he picked up his book to do some reading. A knock at the door interrupted both of them just a short time later. Sheriff Roy Coffee was there, and from the look on his face, he didn’t have good news.

“C’mon in Roy, it’s good to see you.”

“Real good to see you home too, Ben. Your boy was missing you something fierce. Good to have you all here safe and sound. Say, where are those other boys of yours?”

“Oh out catching up on some of the work we have piled up because we were gone two weeks. You should see my desk! What brings you out here, Roy?”

“Well, I got some bad news. ‘Cause Adam here is alive, they had to drop that murder charge. Well, them four jaspers got themselves a high priced attorney from San Francisco, and he done got the four of them out on bail. Ben, Adam, there ain’t no easy way to say this, but nobody knows where them four got to. The trial is supposed to start up again tomorrow in Carson City, and it ain’t likely any one of them is gonna be there.”

“And you think my sons are in danger now?”

“Yes, Ben, I hate to say it, but I think that’s the case.”

“Well, I wasn’t looking forward to the ride to Carson either, so this may work out well.”

“Ahh, Adam, there’s just one problem with that. You’ve been called as a witness. You have to be there tomorrow or the judge could order the law to come get you. You and your brothers have to be there when the trial starts up again tomorrow just as if you never heard what I told you.”

“Roy, that’s ridiculous. You know there won’t be a trial! Why should my sons put themselves in jeopardy for no reason?”

“Now you see, though, there will be a trial. The judge had them in court yesterday to make their pleas and have the lawyers lay out what they was gonna do. Their lawyer said he needed an extra day to prepare as he only got to town, and the judge said all right. That’s when that lawyer of theirs said he wanted bail for them, and it was paid by that lawyer right then and there. It was after that they disappeared. So the judge says the trial has started and it’ll keep going even if the four of ’em don’t show. He says it’s in absentia. Clem’s been over there and he says he knew by the way that lawyer smiled that he was in on it. They wanted to know what was the evidence against ’em and then they’re gone. Adam, you know as well as I do that you and your brothers are the evidence against ’em. Without you, they’ll walk away free as birds.”

“Roy, you know that’s too much to ask. My sons will have to put their lives at risk. Why can’t they just use the statements Hoss and Joe gave the law when they first talked to them?”

“The judge won’t accept that if the witnesses are capable of appearing. Now we could make an argument that Adam can’t attend, but that won’t work for Hoss and Joe.”

“I’ll go. Pa, once they’re convicted and sentenced, we won’t be in danger any more. I need to do this. I think Hoss and Joe will want to do it too.”

When Hoss and Joe returned for dinner, they did agree with Adam. They wanted to end this and put it all behind them. They couldn’t do that if those four men were wanted based on the testimony of the three brothers. The most difficult issue was how to get the three of them safely to the courthouse in Carson City. Once there, the sheriff and deputies could keep them safe. It was the travel there that might be the most risky element of what they were planning to do. Over dinner, they discussed their options with Roy who had eagerly agreed to talk over one of Hop Sing’s delicious meals.

The next morning very early, Ben and the others rode out as planned. Five of the Ponderosa hands had volunteered to help and rode to the front and back of the main group. They were observed from the moment they rode out of the yard of the Ponderosa, and the trap that had been set for them was ready to be sprung when they rode into range.

“There they are. The one in black, the big one, and the one in the green jacket are the ones we want. As soon as they get close enough that you can be sure of your shots, fire. They won’t know what hit ’em.”

Five men up in the rocks were situated for an ambush. They had planned all of this after their lawyer for the four who were charged informed them that, if the witnesses were eliminated, there would be no evidence against them, and they would be free men. Niles Davis had hired the attorney, and now orchestrated the ambush. These were his handpicked men, and he needed them for other plans he had. Unfortunately for Niles, he wasn’t as good at orchestrating an ambush as he was at kidnapping men and forcing them to work. Terrorizing Chinese immigrants had made him and his associates overconfident in their abilities.

As soon as one of the men leading the way for Ben’s group saw a flash of sunlight on metal up above, he sounded the alert and the whole group headed for cover. Anticipating an ambush and knowing the land, they knew which spots were most likely for an ambush and had been extremely vigilant every time they passed one of those points. The men up above opened fire but were unable to hit any of the rapidly moving men. Ben and the others were in a less desirable position because they were lower than their assailants, but they had brought plenty of ammunition, water, and some food, expecting such an assault, and there were nine of them to the five who had intentions of ambushing and killing them. All they had to do was wait it out and stay safe in their defensive positions until Roy and his deputies heard the shooting and moved in to apprehend the outlaws.

Up above, Niles knew it was a classic standoff but wasn’t too upset about it. He was thinking that they could easily hold this group here until nearly dark if necessary. Then they wouldn’t get to Carson City, and the trial would have to be declared a mistrial at worst and possibly their attorney could get the charges dropped if there was no evidence presented. That would be the best outcome in his mind. Then they could take care of these pesky cowboys at their leisure.

*****

In Carson City, at ten in the morning, the judge in the trial of the four men was angry. The four defendants were very late, and he suspected they would not appear. The judge declared as expected that there would be a trial in absentia because, by not showing in court, the four defendants had forfeited their right to confront the witnesses against them. Their lawyer, however, asked for a mistrial because there were no witnesses. He claimed that without the witnesses, there was no evidence against his clients.

“Mr. Robinson, how do you know there are no witnesses? They have not yet been called.”

“Your honor, I had assumed that the prosecution would be ready to proceed, and I see no witnesses here.”

“Mr. Robinson, are you familiar with our witnesses? I was not aware that you had met them. I thought all you had were their statements.”

“Well, I’m sure someone must have described them to me, Your Honor.”

“I doubt that very much, but we shall proceed with this trial. Now both of you have made your opening statements. Is the prosecution ready to proceed with its case?” Looking pointedly at the prosecution, the judge waited.

“Yes, Your Honor, we are.”

At that point, the defense attorney was the most surprised man in the courtroom. The witnesses were not here, and he had been assured by his clients that they would not arrive on this day. Now the prosecution was proceeding as if everything was as expected. It was a conundrum of major proportions. He did wonder if they were going through the motions trying to buy time, but he smiled a little to himself thinking that they could not possibly buy enough time to save their case.

“The prosecution would like to call Joseph Cartwright to the stand.”

Robinson waited for the inevitable complaint by the judge when the witness did not walk forward. Instead a man wearing a dark green chang shan and a ma gua with a black braided hat. Once he tipped his face up to be seen, it was clear that he was white and not Chinese. He removed the hat and jacket and walked to the witness stand to be sworn in.

“What is the meaning of this charade in my courtroom?”

“Your Honor, my brothers and I mean no disrespect to your courtroom, but there was an attempt to keep us from being here to testify. We were smuggled here by some of our friends in the Chinese community who want justice for their people who were held and forced to work as we were.”

“Do you have any information on who was trying to prevent you from being here today?”

“No, Your Honor, I do not. But Sheriff Coffee from Virginia City was hoping to catch them in the act and turn them over to you.”

“And I now assume the other two gentlemen similarly garbed are your brothers who will also be testifying?”

Adam and Hoss had also removed their hats and jackets by then. The jackets especially were rather warm to wear inside. The two of them were tall and the robes and jackets had been constricting, especially on Hoss. Joe nodded affirmatively.

“Very well, then would the prosecution please proceed.”

The testimony took most of the morning. Mr. Robinson looked rather pale and had little to ask on cross examination. The trial had a lunch recess, and when it resumed, the judge asked if the defense had anything to present. The only testimony that the defendants offered was that they did not know anyone was still in any of the buildings when they set the fire. Hearing nothing more from the defense attorney, the judge was about to send the case to the jury when there was a commotion and Ben and Roy pushed five men into the courtroom ahead of them.

“Now what?”

“Your Honor, I’m Sheriff Roy Coffee of Virginia City. I have here the four defendants who run out on you, and we caught ’em ambushing a group of men from the Ponderosa Ranch.”

“Who is the fifth man?”

“Your Honor, this is Niles Davis. He’s the one we was missing. You have charges against him, but he wasn’t here for the trial.”

“Well, we can remedy that right now. Mr. Davis, do we have to have the witnesses repeat their testimony, or will you stipulate that you accept what they said? And you should remember that I am the one setting your sentence, and I do not look kindly upon men who needlessly waste my time. So do you so stipulate?”

At Davis’ nod, the judge looked to the jury. “It’s all in your hands now. Do you need some time?”

The jury members quickly consulted with each other. “No, Your Honor, we’re in agreement. We find the defendants guilty on all charges except a not guilty on the attempted murder.”

“Very well then. You have been found guilty by a jury of your peers. Your sentence is as follows: for kidnapping, twenty years; for false imprisonment, ten years; for extortion, five years; for assault, two years; robbery, three years; and bail jumping, two years. Now that’s forty two years in prison total. If any of the five of you would be willing to testify as to who put you up to these things and anyone else who helped you, I will reduce that sentence to twenty years and make you eligible for parole in fifteen. That would get you out in time to enjoy a little of your life yet. You must know that forty two years is the same as a death sentence. You will never see the outside of those prison walls again.”

The five men looked at each other and then pointed at the attorney, telling the judge he was one of their advisors. Then they started naming names so fast the judge had to tell them to slow down so that his clerk could get all the names and information. Roy walked up to the Cartwright brothers, Ben, and Hop Sing and asked if they were ready to go home.

“I’d like to get out of this robe and into my clothing.”

The Chinese style clothing was uncomfortable to Hoss, and Adam nodded in agreement to his statement. They had given a set of their clothing to men who had ridden out with their father. It had fooled the men who sought to stop them from testifying. Now, however, the brothers wanted to change into the clothing they had brought with them.

Ben decided to get some rooms at the hotel so they could all have dinner and celebrate a little. Adam declined the offer to go to the saloon after dinner. He was tired and wanted to rest. Hoss also declined. After their father and Joe had left with the others to go to the saloon, Adam looked at his younger brother. “I don’t hold it against you.”

“Hold what against me?”

“You know exactly what I mean. You wear your heart on your sleeve all the time. You’ve been pussyfooting around the issue since you got back home. I wish there had been another alternative that night. The last thing I wanted to do was stay there. But I sure couldn’t think of one then, and now when I think about it, I know that it was the best idea we had. Sometimes situations just don’t give you many viable alternatives.”

“Viable?”

“Things that will work.”

“You could have been killed.”

“I could have died if I went with you too. You had no way of knowing that they would fire those buildings. Let it go. Forgive yourself for not thinking of another way to do it.”

“Pa still blames us.”

“He wasn’t there. He doesn’t understand, but he’ll get over it.”

“Joe’s still hurting about everything too. He feels bad about leaving you there, but he feels bad about the other stuff too.”

“What other stuff?”

“Well when we was tracking them men down, Joe kept telling me that he was gonna handle it just like you. He was gonna take ’em in to the law. Then when we caught ’em, and Pa wanted to kill ’em, Joe wanted to do that too, but he followed my lead, and we took ’em to the law. Adam, you would of been real proud of our younger brother. But then they got out and threatened you again. I don’t think any of us could have taken it if you had gotten hurt again because of us. Joe was thinking he should have done what he wanted to at first and shoot them dirty dogs down so they couldn’t hurt any more people. It was our fault they got out again.”

“The only men responsible for hurting me are locked up right now or soon will be. We may have made mistakes. That’s life. That’s how we learn. But none of us did anything wrong. There’s nothing to feel bad or guilty about. Please let it go. I just want people to act normal around me. It was hard enough having Pa hovering most of the time.”

“You gonna talk to Joe too?”

“I think he needs to chew on it a bit more. I think I’ll know when he’s ready to talk.”

“How will you know?”

“Oh, he’ll yell at me for something or threaten to poke me in the face.”

“Sounds about right.”

“Now go over to the saloon and do a little celebrating. Have a drink for me if it’ll make you feel better, but I just want to go to bed.”

Hoss walked up to his older brother and grabbed him in a hug. Adam hugged back and then released Hoss, who smiled and grabbed his hat. Adam locked the door when he left, and after undressing, slid into the cool comfort of the sheets. He had gotten his father to let him plan and carry out the ruse that let them testify. Hoss had just relinquished his nursemaid role. Two down and one to go was Adam’s last thought before sleep claimed him.

About a week and a half later, there was a dance scheduled in town. Joe had a gal to take to the dance as did Hoss. Adam went by himself. There was a lady who had said she would be there and would save a dance for him. He meant to claim that dance. A number of ladies intercepted Adam for the first dances of the evening. He got tired and stepped outside the door to get a break. As he stood there, he felt a hand touch him gently on the forearm.

“I did save a dance for you. I wouldn’t want you to think I don’t keep my promises.”

Offering his arm, Adam walked back inside and danced with Kate. He held her close and felt so lucky to have a slow dance with her. When they finished, she said it was time for her to go home. He offered to walk her there, but she declined. Once Kate was gone, the dance held little interest for Adam so he left to go home too.

The next morning, Joe showed up at breakfast with a shiner. Adam and Hoss stared, and he had to explain. “I danced with a few ladies when you left early and then Hoss took his gal home early too. They said you were on their dance cards. Some of the other men didn’t appreciate it, and one of them hit me.”

“You couldn’t talk your way out of it?”

“No, and for your information, most of what they said was insulting you.”

“Maybe you should remember to keep your guard up when you throw a punch.”

“Maybe I should poke you right in the eye ’cause this shiner really belongs to you!”

Adam started laughing then, which really riled up Joe who stood up from the table looking furious. Adam laughed harder. Hoss understood what it was about, but Ben was mystified.

“What is so funny about you making your brother angry?”

Still laughing, Adam choked out an answer. “I’m just glad to have my feisty little brother back. I’ve been missing him.”

Suddenly Joe understood the laughter and played along. “And don’t call me little!” And then he started laughing too.

All of it started to make sense to Ben too at that point. He thought he could do them one better. “Hoss, Joe said you left the dance early, but I heard you arrive home after he did. If it isn’t too much to ask, would you care to explain that?”

Hoss had such a worried and forlorn look at that question, Adam and Joe started laughing so hard they had to hold their sides. Hop Sing stepped out from the kitchen. “Such foolishment!” Then he went back to work with a smile on his face too.

***End***

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