Conspiracy (by BettyHT)

Summary:  It’s a dastardly plot involving trickery, attempted murder, false accusations, and more, but the Cartwrights will work together even letting Joe help with the planning to defeat the villains.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word count:  11781


Chapter 1

Leaning back in the hard seat, Adam Cartwright wrote in his journal. It was a letter, but one that was never going to be mailed. He was headed home to a sad event, and hoped to be there in time for the services. He had done everything he could to travel as fast as he could but doubted it would be in time. Now he was on that last leg of the trip and would arrive in Virginia City in about two hours. He penned the saddest words he could ever remember writing.

Dear Hoss

My dear big brother, I know you can’t read this letter but I’ll have to read it to you when I get home. I never meant for so many years to pass before I returned, and now it seems it’s too late. I’ll never feel that big reassuring hand on my shoulder or on my back. I’ll never get to look into those pure blue eyes so full of sincere trust and love when we talked. You told me to promise to return, and I did promise, but you should have made me give a deadline. You know how I am when it comes to following the rules. I would have been back when I said I would. Now perhaps I’ll only see a cold stone reminder of what you once were, and I know that will hit me as hard as your fist did once or twice. You taught me an important lesson that night you were so angry about Regan albeit a painful one in so many ways. You taught me a lot over the years in how to be kind to strangers and look for the best in them. It didn’t always work out the best for you or for me, but that was their fault, not ours, wasn’t it. So, I’m coming home, big brother, and if there’s any justice in the world, the report of your demise has been a cruel falsehood. I pray that is true, and when I arrive, Pa and Joe will say you have been found and never drowned in that damn river. It is a thin hope, but without it, I could not make this journey without strangers staring at me for the tears would never cease.

Your older, sadder, but wiser now brother,

Adam

Ps: If you are in heaven already, save a spot for me as I’m sure you and Pa can convince them to let me in when the time comes. Once the three of us are there, I’m sure we can find a way to sneak Joe in too.

With the relationship he had with Hoss, he had to put that last part in. They always had a way of speaking with each other that ended up making both of them feel better by the end. He couldn’t stop on such a maudlin note so that last bit helped. The rest of the trip home, he sat by the window staring at the passing scenery but not seeing anything as his mind rolled memory after memory for him. Guilt assailed him for he knew he should have come home sooner than this, but it seemed business issues had always gotten in the way. Now years had gone, and he was finally fulfilling that promise.

*****

On the Ponderosa, Joe was standing with his hands on his hips watching his brother toss things around looking for something and obviously quite frustrated at not finding it. When he stopped for a moment and stood in the middle of the stable looking around apparently for something more to toss, Joe had to ask.

“What the heck are you looking for and who’s going to clean up this mess when you’re done?”

“I lost that knife Adam sent me for Christmas. You know, that one with the special whalebone handle on it with the whale carved into it. He sent one to Pa with the ship on it, and you got one with the eagle on it. I cain’t find it nowhere. You know I always carry it on my belt and it’s gone.”

“Well, where did you have it last?”

Hoss stopped then and thought. “I was whittling with it on the porch yesterday before we went to town so I had it then. I don’t remember using it after that. When I took my belt off last night, it was gone. I looked all over the house then and couldn’t find it. Pa said it was probably in the wagon we used or in the stable and I’d likely find it in the daylight, but it ain’t here.”

“Maybe it fell while we were driving to town or back. We could go again and look for it.”

“I dunno if Pa wants us goin’ ta town two days in a row.”

“We didn’t get into any trouble yesterday and got all the supplies just like he asked. Besides, today is Saturday. We can ask to go early because we’d likely be going in later anyway, wouldn’t we?”

“Ya, we probably would. Let’s go see what he says.”

It almost worked the way they wanted, but Ben wanted Joe’s help so he told Hoss to go with Candy. He said Joe could join them in an hour or two. Within an hour, the two friends were cleaned up and headed to town. It took them twice as long to get there as they rode slowly looking for the bone handled knife along the way and never saw anything. In town, they stopped at the livery stable and headed to the saloon. They were almost there when they were intercepted by a boy who had a message for them.

“Man paid me two bits to tell ya that he wants to talk to ya ’bout something but he can’t be seen talking to ya. He said he’d meet ya behind the livery stable real soon.”

“What’d this man look like?”

“I dunno. Like a regular man. You know, he had a coat on and a hat and he had a beard.”

Hoss looked at Candy wondering what it could be about and then shrugged. “Oh well, guess we could go see what he’s got to say.”

They waited behind the livery stable and no one came. They heard the whistle of the train arriving and wondered who might be coming into town speculating on whether any pretty women had arrived.

*****

While they were doing that, Adam had taken his small valise and was headed toward that same livery stable intending to rent a horse and ride to the Ponderosa. He never got that far. Cutting through an alley, he wasn’t careful as he would have been in the city. He should have been because men blocked his exit and as he turned, men were behind him. One rushed him from behind but he heard him coming and twisted slightly before he got there to meet his attack. It was lucky that he did because the blade of the knife entered his side instead of his back as intended. He was seriously wounded but not fatally or at least not yet even though the knife was buried to the hilt and the force of the man’s blow with it also pushed it downward. He had strapped on his pistol earlier before leaving the train and now reached for it causing the men to flee. Weakened by the knife in his side, he was slow to draw and fire hitting only the side of a building but drawing attention. When men got there to help, they pulled the knife from his side. He saw it and uttered only one word.

“Hoss.”

Adam’s eyes closed then and stayed that way. Men picked him up to take him to the doctor’s office as Sheriff Clem Foster arrived to ask what had happened. The men there handed over the knife, explained what they knew, and repeated what Adam had said.

*****

Shocked, Clem headed to the doctor’s office too with the knife in his hand. He saw Hoss and Candy then walking to the saloon after they had given up waiting for the unknown stranger behind the livery stable. They had heard a gunshot and nothing more so assumed there had been no real trouble they needed to check out. Clem switched directions and headed toward them. When he got next to them, they greeted him warmly until he held up Hoss’ knife with wet blood still staining the blade and the handle.

“Damn, Clem, that’s my knife. Candy and me been looking for it. Looks like somebody done used it to hurt somebody.”

“Hoss, the one who was hurt said your name and no one else.”

“What?”

“Clem, Hoss was with me. He didn’t do anything.”

“Where were you?”

“We were behind the livery stable.”

“Doing what?”

“A boy brought us a message and said we were to meet a stranger there who had something important to tell us.”

“That’s not far from where the stabbing took place.”

“Listen, Clem, I didn’t stab nobody. Who says I did?”

“Your brother, Adam.”

Stunned, the two were speechless. About that time, Joe rode into town and seeing them talking with Clem, he rode up to them and dismounted. He saw Clem holding Hoss’ bloody knife.

“What the heck happened? Hoss, you aren’t hurt, are you?”

“Hoss, you need to come with me. I need to get this figured out.”

Clem addressed Hoss making Joe wonder what was going on. Both Hoss and Candy started to explain and it took some time to get the story out so that Joe understood what it was.

*****

Up in the hotel, two men and a woman looked out a window at the three men in the street. They had gotten the report only a moment earlier of the botched attempt to kill Adam Cartwright. Granted, he might still die, but they were going to have to work on a plan to make sure that happened. Meanwhile, having Hoss and Joe Cartwright in town had worked out perfectly. When they had seen them ride in, they had quickly amended their plan to fit that development into what they wanted to do. Having Hoss in town the day before had helped them because one of their men had easily slipped the knife from its sheath on his belt as he sat in the saloon enjoying a beer after loading supplies into a buckboard. He hadn’t even noticed it was gone. They had chuckled over how complicated it was going to make things for law enforcement to have the murder weapon belong to Adam’s brother, and now that brother was in town too. Anything that caused confusion like that was perfect for them because it meant that no one was looking in their direction. Plans were going ahead as they had set them up. They had to make sure that Adam died, and then they could move on to step two of their plan.

*****

Chapter 2

Getting over the initial shock, Joe got his voice back and began peppering Clem with questions making him stop and evaluate the three men.

“Adam’s back? Where the heck is that old Yankee granite head? I’ve got a few words to say to him about how long it took him to get back here. Pa’s been worried sick about him.”

“Yeah, and why would Adam say I done stabbed somebody? I ain’t stabbed nobody. Heck, I ain’t even got my knife. Candy and me been looking for it. I figured I lost it yesterday someplace between here and home.”

“I’ve been with Hoss and he didn’t stab anyone. I don’t know his brother, but he must be mistaken.”

“You don’t know, do you?” Clem was getting the clear impression that the men didn’t even know what had happened.

“Know? Of course we don’t know. If we knew where he was, we wouldn’t be asking you.” Joe rolled his eyes and looked at Hoss as if to say they were dealing with an ignorant man who couldn’t understand the simplest questions.

“I have to tell you some bad news then. Adam is at the doctor’s office. He’s the one who was stabbed. The only word he said was Hoss’ name when they pulled the knife from him. He passed out then, and they took him to the doc’s office.”

Hoss had a very sick feeling then. “What’d this knife look like?”

“It was a bone-handled knife with a big whale carved into the handle with about a six inch blade on it. The one I have in my hand.”

Hoss dropped his head into his hands, and Joe put a hand on Hoss’ shoulder. They both knew then that Adam had been stabbed with Hoss’ knife. Clem guessed the same. He spoke gently to the two brothers.

“Let’s go to the doc’s office and see what we can find out.”

The four turned then to walk to the doctor’s office. Up in the hotel room, the three didn’t know what to make of that, but it didn’t matter too much as long as Adam died. That was the key to the whole plan. They sat down and began looking over the documents with his forged signatures and other documents that would give them control of one third of the Ponderosa as soon as his death was formally recorded and his will went to probate. Adam had made a mistake with this woman many years earlier when she had tried to blackmail him into supporting her claiming her son was his son. He disputed it and proved her wrong, but he felt sympathy for the boy who had no father and had to live with such a manipulative and conniving mother. He sent her a small stipend each year so that she could live more comfortably and therefore so could her son. Over the years, she devised a plan using that as the foundation. She had partners who would make her effort very profitable for very little effort on her part. They had hired men to kill Adam and now would apparently have to make a second attempt.

At least Doctor Martin was doing his best to make sure they would have to try again. He had hoped to one day see Adam again, but had never wanted to see him on his surgery table with a gaping wound in his side. Bleeding was the major problem and Paul worked as hard and fast as he could to stem that flow. Once he managed that, he explored a bit but only enough to satisfy himself that there seemed to be no serious internal damage. Apparently Adam had twisted enough to the side that the knife had entered to the hilt but tore through muscle primarily doing significant and painful damage there and causing serious bleeding, but no internal injuries that were life threatening. Infection would be his next worry if Adam survived the blood loss that would make him very weak and unable to fight well against an infection. He cleaned the wound as thoroughly as he possibly could and then bandaged it tightly after all the stitches were in place. It took him nearly two hours to complete the procedure. Adam nearly awoke several times but the pain and weakness caused him to pass back into unconsciousness each time. Paul did not want to have to anesthetize him in his condition fearing he might not wake.

Paul’s wife, Lucille, and his nurse, Winifred Warner, were assisting him. They had not even undressed Adam when he arrived only draping sheets over him exposing the wound only by cutting away the shirt and letting the doctor get to work. Once the surgery was complete though, they pulled the sheets aside and began the task of undressing Adam while trying not to disturb him too much. Getting his boots and pants off wasn’t too difficult, but he was a big man so getting his coat off was going to be far more difficult. When Paul heard the sound of men’s voices in the outer office, he asked Lucille to see if there were some men there who might help them get Adam more upright so they could get his coat off and get him into a bed. He was but probably shouldn’t have been surprised when it was Hoss and Joe who came through that door first. Their worry was evident, but they were quiet as they took his directions and carefully lifted Adam so his coat could be removed. Then the remnants of his shirt were cut away. With the doctor and Clem helping too, they lifted Adam, who began to groan softly at that point, and carried him to a bed. Once Adam was in the bed, Paul laid a sheet over him and turned to his brothers to give them the information they clearly wanted. However, he was interrupted by Adam, who in a weak voice, said the only thing that mattered to him at that moment.

“Hoss.”

Hoss immediately moved to Adam’s side leaning down and grasping Adam’s hand as the older brother attempted to raise his hand to touch the middle brother he thought he had lost forever.

“You’re alive.” It was a strain to talk but he was so amazed to see Hoss alive he had to be sure. He used the strength he had to try to verify what his eyes were telling him.

“Course I am, older brother. It’s you we’re worried about. We didn’t even know you was coming home, and then you end up here scaring us plumb half ta death.”

“Read my journal.” Adam closed his eyes then clearly too weak to say more.

Clem had hoped to ask him a question or two, but Paul shook his head. Adam needed sleep and rest, and Paul wasn’t going to let them question him at all.

“He’s extremely weak. You can’t question him now. Maybe in six or eight hours, he may be strong enough. I’m surprised he was able to say what he did. It must have been terribly important to him for some reason.”

“Yeah, what did he mean by saying Hoss was alive. He seemed surprised by that.” Joe looked at Hoss wondering what Adam had been thinking. Then he remembered what he said next. “Where do you suppose his journal is?”

“He had a small piece of luggage with him when he was attacked. Maybe it’s in there.”

“Please, if you’re going to talk, could you leave and do that elsewhere. Adam needs to sleep, and he needs quiet to do so.”

“I’ll stay here with ‘im. Joe, you let Pa know. And find that journal ifn ya kin.” Hoss kept Adam’s hand grasped in his unwilling to let go. Paul moved a chair near the bed and Hoss sank down on it gratefully.

Agreeing to Hoss’ requests, Joe left with Clem as the two decided to find that piece of luggage and the journal they apparently needed to read. The luggage was in the outer office so that was easy to find. The journal wasn’t in there though. Frowning, Joe thought about that before snapping his fingers and heading back into the surgery returning in a couple of minutes with a small journal.

“It was in his coat pocket. I remember him doing that when he traveled. He would have a book to read in one pocket usually some poetry or something little like that and a small journal like this and a pencil in the other.” Paging through the journal looking at sketches and small notes and entries, Joe got to the letter Adam had written to Hoss. Marking that page, he found a folded telegram informing Adam that Hoss had been lost in an accident and presumed drowned in the river. The telegram supposedly had come from him. He looked at Clem and handed over the items for the sheriff to read.

“I never sent that telegram!”

Clem was thoughtful for a moment as he evaluated all that he had learned. “Someone wanted Adam to come back here and in a hurry. They didn’t want him to check on anything. They wanted to catch him off guard. They did. Joe, can you think of anything that would make Adam rush back here faster than thinking Hoss had died and he needed to be here for your father and for you?”

Putting his head down for a time, Joe thought about what Clem had said and had to admit to himself that he was probably correct. “Yeah, if Pa had died, I would have had Hoss to lean on. If I died, Pa would have leaned on Hoss. He’s the anchor we both need sometimes. He always has been there like that. But if Hoss died, then Pa and I would need somebody. Adam would know that. He’d likely need somebody too. We would all have to help each other if we lost Hoss.”

“So whoever did this knows your family very well. This plot, whatever it is, was hatched right here in Virginia City. At first, I was thinking this had something to do with Adam’s job, but this makes it a whole different story.”

Candy had been listening to the two of them talk and had heard the rest of the story too. He had an important question to ask. “If they did all of this to kill him, then what are they going to do when they find out he’s still alive?”

“Joe, you better let your father know, and we’ll have to put our heads together on that one.”

“Clem, for now, let’s not tell anyone that Adam is doing all right. Let’s keep that among us. I’ll let Paul and the ladies know too.”

“You working on a plan, Joe?”

“I’ve got an idea. I need to talk to Pa first though. Be back here later when you see Pa get here. I’ll find somebody to go tell him. I want to check on a few things first. Candy, will you go tell Pa and stay with him until he gets here? He may not handle this very well.”

“Joe, you stay away from that telegraph office. I know you think you can find something out, but that temper of yours is only going to get you in trouble. Let me handle the investigating. From the way things look from my side, you should stay here and make sure no one makes another try on your brother. I’ll send over a deputy, but maybe you can find someone else to help with that. You and Hoss can’t cover the front, back, and sides of this building even with one deputy to help. By all accounts, there may have been four men who attacked Adam. That many were seen leaving that alley after the gunshot.”

What Clem said made sense so Joe reluctantly agreed at least for the time being. He went into the room where Hoss sat beside Adam and whispered to him what they had learned. Paul and the ladies were interested too so they came out to the office where Joe filled them in on what he and Clem had discussed. Paul was concerned about the safety of the two ladies, but Joe assured him that he would get enough protection for the place. Then he headed out to see if he could find one or two Ponderosa hands to help him out in defending the doctor’s office should there be another attempt on Adam’s life.

*****

Chapter 3

On his way to town to have dinner with friends, Ben was enjoying a leisurely carriage ride when he was intercepted by Candy riding up to him. After he got the news about Adam, he was glad he wasn’t riding Buck because he wasn’t certain he would have been able to stay in the saddle. Adam was back but wounded terribly in an attempt on his life. It was all such a shock that his hands shook as he held the reins and drove the horse hard to get him to town as fast as possible. Luckily he was almost three-fourths of the way there when he got the news so the poor horse didn’t suffer much. Candy went with him and volunteered to take care of the carriage horse, but Ben hardly heard him as he rushed to the doctor’s office entering and looking for anyone who could tell him about his son. Paul intercepted him before he rushed directly into the surgery.

“Whoa, wait here a moment, Ben, and I’ll tell you what’s going on.”

“I need to see my son!”

“I know you do, but for your health, you need to calm down, and for Adam’s benefit, you need to be calm and quiet when you see him.”

Ready to explode at the doctor’s first statement, Ben had to acknowledge that the second part was important. He accepted Paul’s words and stood waiting for what he would hear next.

“Sit down. I have a few things to say, and you should sit. Now, Adam doesn’t have any life-threatening wound. The knife blow was with a lot of force and went deep and then was pushed downward some. What he did suffer as a result was a tremendous loss of blood. Now that can be as serious as anything else. He is very weak. An infection or any other problem could be too much for him to fight off at this point. We have to be careful what we put him through. He needs a lot of rest and quiet.”

“I’ll be as calm and quiet as need be.”

Putting his hand on Ben’s arm as he sat beside his chair, Paul talked calmly and quietly. “Good. Hoss has been sitting with him, and Adam has been sleeping. He’s not likely to wake for a while. He’s exhausted. Now, you have time so I’m going to tell you the rest of the story as I learned it from Joe. By the way, your youngest son is coordinating the protection of this place, and what I’m going to tell you will explain why that is necessary.” So Paul told him what he had found out from Joe.

“Someone lured my son here to kill him?”

“It appears that way, and for some reason, they wanted to confuse things by doing it with Hoss’ knife. It would have worked too except that Adam didn’t die so he was able to tell us to read his journal. That set Joe and Clem on the right track.”

“Clem would know that Hoss wouldn’t hurt Adam.”

“Yes, but a lawman has to follow the evidence.”

“So, it would have wasted time and confused everything.”

“Yes, it seems a rather diabolical mind is behind this. Now that you’re calm, let’s go see your son. You can take Hoss’ place.”

Although difficult, Ben avoided rolling his eyes or even raising his eyebrows much at his old friend’s comment. He was too anxious to see his first-born son to do anything to delay that. When he walked in the dimly lit room, it took a moment to adjust his vision to the low light conditions. When he did, he saw Hoss holding Adam’s hand and sitting beside him. Adam seemed to be resting comfortably or as much as one could under such circumstances. Paul whispered to him that as long as Adam remained quiet and didn’t move much, he probably wouldn’t feel too much pain. Hoss moved to let his father take the chair beside the bed. Ben took Adam’s hand in his noting that the hand was warm probably from being held by Hoss. It didn’t matter. He had his oldest son back and was going to sit by his side until he awakened so he could welcome him home. Hoss said something to him but he didn’t even hear the words. His middle son smiled indulgently and left with the doctor. Joe was waiting in the office for them.

“How did he take it?”

Paul answered. “I was a bit worried when he first arrived, but he calmed quickly and I held his arm to take his pulse. I don’t think he even noticed. He’s fine. Even when I told him the story that you told me, he did all right.”

“I’m glad I was able to find Candy to go get Pa. I don’t think I could have trusted anyone else to do it and get him here safely. He must have been almost in town though to get here so fast.”

Candy stepped into the office to hear that last part. “Yeah, he was. He drove that carriage like a wild man though after I told him. I was afraid he was going to overturn it a couple of times, but he still has some good hands on the reins and kept the rig on the road. Scared a few people as we came through town though. So you still need my help?”

“Yes, we shur could. We gotta protect this place cuz we think whoever tried to kill Adam is likely to try again and ifn they do, we aim to make shur they don’t.”

“I’ve got an idea about that.”

Joe explained what he wanted to do. Paul said that part of the plan wouldn’t work so they amended that part and then talked about the other parts until they guessed they had a workable solution. Candy went outside to help the other two men guard the place. When Clem arrived later, Joe and Hoss talked to him about their idea. He agreed it might work better than trying to guard Adam around the clock when they didn’t know whom the enemy was. They would have to convince Ben to go along with the plan though because he was the key to making it work, and he wasn’t going to be available until Adam woke up so they waited.

Over many cups of coffee, Hoss and Joe talked. Joe wondered openly why Adam had not come home sooner. He had promised to come back home, but without a timetable, that promise had remained unfulfilled.

“I think maybe he had to make some things happen in his life and some memories here had to fade away more.”

“But doesn’t Adam have good memories of living here on the Ponderosa?”

“Shur he does, but funny thing is, memories work both ways. Some help and some hurt.”

“Yeah, and that last year or so wasn’t so good for him, was it?”

“No, and it wasn’t only what happened with Laura. I mean when you plan to get married and the woman goes behind your back with your own cousin, well that’s pretty hard to take, but there were other things that didn’t go well neither.”

“But he knows we’re there for him and we would have supported him no matter what.”

“Shur he does, but you see, he wanted something he couldn’t get here. He wanted to be able to run some things and do things on his own. He never could do that here.”

“Pa put Adam in charge of lots of things.”

“Ya, but listen to how ya jist said that. Pa put him in charge. He reported back to Pa. And you gotta remember how Pa was when a job he gave ya didn’t go the way he wanted it to go. Then he’d talk about how he hadda do things himself to get ’em done right. He always talked about this as his ranch, and how he built this ranch, and how he ran this ranch, and nobody was gonna take this ranch away from him.”

“That’s just the way Pa talks. It doesn’t mean he isn’t including us.”

“In a way, it does. But you see, it don’t bother me none. I don’t want to be in charge. That was never the job I wanted. You like being the second in command to Pa. That job suits you jist fine. Well, you see, that ain’t what Adam wanted. He was raised up to be jist like Pa.”

“But he works for other people now. He takes orders like he did here.”

“I don’t think it’s the same. He’s got a whole big part of the Department of the Interior that he has to handle. He reports to people higher up, but he has a lot of decisions to make and work to do and people to boss around.”

“Yeah, he did like to do that kind of thing.”

“In Washington, he’s an important man. I don’t think the people who tried to kill him know that. I think they knew he works there but didn’t know all that he does. It kinda shows that it’s somebody that knows him and us but not that well.”

“You’ve been thinking about this too.”

“Not much else to do when you’re sitting by a sleeping man and have to be quiet.”

“You know, if Adam knows a lot of important people, maybe we ought to tell them what happened, and maybe they’ll send some help.”

“Now that’s another good idea, but you think we can send a telegram from here?”

“Oh, yeah, that could be a problem.” Joe twisted his mouth to the side as he did whenever he was thinking hard and then looked at Hoss with a confidence that said he had another scheme he was sure would work. “We’ll send someone to Carson City to send it.”

“Who can we trust enough to do that?”

“Only one man I know: Roy will do it for us.”

Hoss grinned because he knew that Joe was correct about that. “You gonna ask him or you want me ta do it?”

“You can go. I’ll stay here.”

It took quite a while because Hoss had to explain everything that had happened. With Roy’s background, he had a lot of questions. As the retired sheriff who helped out sometimes, he still had an interest in what happened in his town. He didn’t like what he was hearing at all and agreed to Hoss’ request. Hoss handed over some money knowing that Roy didn’t have a lot since he had retired.

“This should pay your expenses. You take a room there and come back tomorrow.”

“Hoss, I can’t take your money. We’re friends.”

“We may be friends, Roy, but I asked you to do a job for us. We pay our friends when they work for us. Far as I can see, you’re hired from now until this is over ifn you’re agreeable to that.”

“Well, I’d help you out, paid or not, but if you want me to be on the payroll, I’ll accept that. Now, you know I won’t do anything that goes against Sheriff Foster though.”

“I know that, Roy. One of the reasons I want to hire ya on is to help keep my little brother in line. Ya know how he can get all riled up. I figure, between the two of us, we can keep him headed in the right direction on this.”

“Now that’s a good plan too. That boy has good ideas but he goes too full steam ahead some times.”

“He does. Now, I want ta get back ta see ifn Adam’s woke up yet.”

When Hoss got back, Adam was in a semi-conscious state. He was awake enough to take some water but not enough to communicate or see who was around him. He seemed warm, so Doctor Martin had the sheet pulled back, and he and Ben used cool damp cloths to wipe him down. That seemed to make him more comfortable, and he fell asleep again. Paul only pulled the sheet up to Adam’s waist leaving his upper body exposed. It was warm enough in the room.

“Shouldn’t we put a nightshirt on him?”

“Ben, at this stage, it is much easier to care for a patient without that and less painful for him. Otherwise we would have to move the nightshirt up every time we wanted to look at his bandage or change the dressing. We would have to do the same to empty the urinal or sponge him down as we just did.”

“I guess modesty isn’t an issue at this stage.”

“No, in a day or two, it will be, but at this point, he doesn’t care and it is more efficient to care for him without one. The good news is that he seems to be rallying already. I hope that in a few hours, he’ll wake, and you can say hello to your son. Right now though, he’s sleeping soundly. It would be a good time for you to take a break, get something to eat, and do whatever you have to do. I’d say you have at least two to three hours before he’s likely to wake again.”

Reluctant to do as the doctor advised, Ben was convinced by Hoss’ gentle pressure on his arm to come with him as well as his whispered comment that he had things they needed to discuss about protecting Adam, and they could only do it outside the room. That got his attention and he left with Hoss. Paul sat down in the rocking chair in the room and relaxed closing his eyes to rest while Adam slept.

*****

Chapter 4

There wasn’t much of a chance for any of the family to visit with Adam because he was weak, and if they were going to implement their plan, they had to do it soon. It was an elaborate ruse, and the family began playing it out the next day. First up were Hoss and Joe who walked out of the doctor’s office where Joe turned to Hoss and got enveloped in his big brother’s arms. They stood that way for a short time until Roy walked out and put a hand on each of their shoulders.

“C’mon, boys. I know it’s hard, but you gotta take care of things for your father. He ain’t doing so good with all of this.”

“I know, Roy, I know. C’mon, Joe, we gotta go get a wagon and you know, the other thing we need.”

With heads down, the two walked with Roy to the livery stable to rent a wagon and then to the undertaker’s office to buy a coffin. They drove the wagon around back of Paul’s office and sat there a moment before climbing down to carry the wooden coffin into the building. About a half hour later, they carried the coffin out with the help of Clem and a Ponderosa hand. Roy helped Ben down the steps as he was clearly distraught. He walked to the wagon and put a hand on the wooden coffin standing there with his head down for a long time. People had come around to the back of the building to see what had happened and word spread through the town at an amazing pace that the oldest Cartwright son had died. They heard Hoss and Joe say that their father should take the carriage back to the ranch.

“I’ll ride with my son. I don’t have much time left with him, so I want to take every minute I have left.”

Ben climbed into the wagon then and leaned on the coffin with his head down as his younger sons stood as if unsure what to do next. Roy moved up next to them.

“Why don’t you have your man here drive the carriage back and you two stay in the wagon with your pa?”

In all the turmoil and drama, no one noticed that Candy wasn’t with the group. No one had paid attention to who had come and gone except for the Cartwrights. Inside the building, Clem stood with Candy and breathed a sigh of relief.

“Looks like it went well. Now, you stay with Adam. I’ll keep a deputy near by but they can’t be too obvious. I got word that two men are coming from Washington to help. The attempted assassination of a federal official is serious business. They’ll be able to help more because no one will know them.”

“Ben and the boys did a heck of a job out there.”

“They did. Now, like Joe said, whoever is behind this will likely show their hand. They wanted him dead for a reason, and I suspect we’ll soon find out what that reason is.”

*****

The funeral for Adam Cartwright was held on the shore of Lake Tahoe and a grave was dug and the coffin interred there. The family showed all the proper signs of a grieving family. As far as the conspirators could tell, their plan had been successful in achieving their first goal. They were a bit nervous that no one had seen the body, but the open grief they had witnessed from Ben Cartwright was the proof they accepted. They began to prepare to make their second move as soon as it was announced that Adam’s will would be read.

At Paul’s office, Candy stood guard for Adam by sleeping in the same room and never leaving it. He took his meals there, and as Adam began to recover, they began to play chess and to talk.

“You know Joe thinks that maybe part of the reason you didn’t come back was because of him and things he said to you.”

“I forgave him long ago for anything he ever said to me. He should know that.”

“I think he finally figured out that somebody can forgive you, but the scars from the wounds never go away.”

“There were never any real scars. We skirmished but never had any real battles. It was fighting for position more than anything. He wanted what I had and being twelve years younger, it wasn’t there for him. He wanted it faster than he was going to get it until I left.”

“You think you leaving was good for him, don’t you.”

“I do.”

“You think ripping a hole in their hearts was good for them. You’re quite a damned stupid fool for supposedly being such a smart man.”

“I know you care about my brothers and my father, so I’ll let that go, but be careful in the future what you call me. Stories about my temper and my pride aren’t some tall tales anyone made up.”

Adam paused then, and even in his bed with a thick bandage across his middle, Candy had to admit that the man looked intimidating. Candy dropped his head in acknowledgement of the rebuke.

“You weren’t here then. You don’t know everything that went on nor do you know my personality. It didn’t mesh well with the situation in which I found myself at thirty-five years old. It was a long way from any vision I had of my future when I was a younger man. I think I earned the right to make a choice of what I wanted to do next. I put a lot of years into that ranch, and I waited until my brothers were ready to handle anything that came their way. I wanted to leave years before I did, but instead I gradually made sure that my brothers knew how to do every single thing that I could do so that they could do it when I was gone. They may not have realized what was happening, but Pa did. We talked about it more than a year before I left.”

“He saw what you were doing?”

“It was his idea.”

That shook Candy up. “Ben planned your leaving for you?”

“No, he knew I wanted to leave, and came up with a plan to make it less difficult for my brothers and so that I wouldn’t feel as guilty about it. You have to remember that my father left his family to come west. He walked away from them knowing he would never see them again. At least with me, he knew I could come back.”

“That’s not how the whole thing was explained to me.”

“Joe told you.” It was a statement not a question. “If Hoss or Pa had told you about it, you would have a different way of looking at it. Joe sees it as doing something wrong because he wouldn’t have done it. Pa and Hoss see it as doing it my way instead of their way. It’s an important distinction.”

“Are you always this way?”

“What way?”

“So logical and unemotional: it’s kind of scary to think a man can be that cold.”

“No, unfortunately, I have that Cartwright temper and stubbornness, and I’ve been known to be impulsive especially when it comes to women. I try to control myself, but inside, it’s a whole different kind of story.” Adam smiled then and chuckled to himself.

“What? Seems like there’s more you were thinking just then.”

“When I was younger, I had a Paiute friend, Young Wolf. He’s dead now, killed in the First Paiute War. When we were much younger, he described the three of us as animals in the Paiute kind of tradition. He said that Joe was the coyote: the trickster, full of fun, ready to play, quick to anger, and actually quick at everything, moving from one thing to another. Hoss of course was the grizzly bear: straightforward, minds his own business, relaxed most of the time, and moves about his own territory watching out that no one messes with his family. He’s got a temper though so don’t try to push him around.”

“And you, what are you?”

“He said I was the cougar. I was always watching, thinking, planning, and waiting for the right opportunity.”

“But the cougar is also a vicious killer and can tear a man’s head off.” Candy looked at Adam who smirked. “Yeah, Hoss said that you can be very dangerous. I don’t see it, but that cat never looks so dangerous either when it’s walking through the grass.”

“Hard to look dangerous propped up on pillows with a bandage around your middle.” Adam rested his hand on his side then knowing if he started to laugh, it was going to hurt.

“Yeah, there is that too.” Candy laughed then but not too much knowing it wouldn’t be good for Adam to start laughing. “You ready to lose another game of chess?”

“If I recall, I only lost one and you have lost about ten. So I would think you need to ask yourself that question.”

“I was only taking it easy on you because you’re hurt. Now that you’re getting more feisty, I can unleash my powerful game on you.”

Adam smirked again, but an hour later when he finally checkmated Candy, he had to admit it had been a far more difficult game than any of the previous ones. He had lost one of the earlier games due to his lack of concentration, and now suspected that Candy had been taking it easy on him in those first games. He was determined to prove that he could handle anything Candy could throw at him though and told him so. Two hours later, he checkmated Candy again. The two men smiled and saluted each other in recognition of a great match. It was time for dinner then and Paul brought in a tray for them.

“I got a note from Clem too. He says they plan to move the two of you out of here tomorrow night. I had told him that I thought you could tolerate the trip by then without any major problems. It will be uncomfortable, but I’ll take the last of the stitches out tonight and check tomorrow to make sure that everything still looks good.”

“How are they moving me?”

“Aaron Kaufmann will stop by here to sell me a few things. You’ll leave in the back of his wagon. Candy will wait until later, and they’ll bring his horse around once you’re safely out of town.”

“Where am I going?”

“One of the line cabins on the Ponderosa. Apparently some agents from the government are here to help and Ben fixed up the cabin for you and they fixed up the small stable too. The agents will stay there with you, and a few of the hands will be there too supposedly working there.”

“So it won’t seem odd if any member of my family stops by to check on things.”

“Yes, that was the thought. Having you at the house opens the door to too many possibly seeing you and realizing you’re alive.”

“What hands will be working at the cabin?”

“Candy and the two agents.”

“The agents?”

“Yes, they’re playing the role of greenhorns and are being taught by Candy.”

“Let me guess: Joe thought all of this up?”

Candy and Paul had to smile because of course it was Joe. This was a scheme that might actually work especially as others had helped smooth out the rough points and added in ideas to make it more complete.

*****

Chapter 5

Once the move was made, Candy and the two agents began working on setting up a better defense for the cabin. They cleared brush and made sure they had good firing lines in every direction from the cabin. There was only one line that was a problem. One side of the stable allowed men to approach rather closely without being seen because of the boulders and the hill beyond it. Candy and the two agents were talking that first evening about that problem as they made plans to clear brush and do other things the next day to improve the defense of the cabin. It would look like cleaning up so no one would likely think they were setting up a defensive perimeter when in fact that is what they were doing.

“Use the manure from the stable.” Adam was reclining in one of the bunks in the cabin.

“How is manure going to help us?”

“Put a manure pile on that side of the stable. You’ve got three horses in there. You should be able to get a fair amount of manure in short order. Anyone trying to come that way will have to climb through it or go around it. You know they won’t go through it. When they come around it, they’ll be in the open.”

“Hoss said you were sneaky.”

“I like to think of it as being creative.”

“It’s a good plan though. We’ll start doing that tomorrow too.”

*****

For two days, it was quiet at the cabin. Candy and the two men worked during the day but not too hard spending time having breakfast, lunch, and dinner, caring for the horses, and clearing brush. On the third day, Hoss and Ben arrived with a wagonload of lumber and supplies to expand the stable. It was late afternoon, and they had a basket of food from Hop Sing including a couple of bottles of wine. Adam was glad to see them.

“Halloo, Pa. I’m happy to see somebody other than Candy.”

“What about the two other men?”

“They hardly ever talk. They look around all the time like there’s a badman who’s going to jump out from behind a rock at any minute.”

“Well, I’m sorry if you’re bored, but I’m glad they’re looking out for you so well. We know now what the plan is.” That got Adam’s attention. He sat up at the table anxious to hear what it was. “Do you remember a Julia Smith?”

With a sour look, Adam sighed. “What has she done now?”

“She’s claiming that her son is your son. He does look a bit like you.”

“He’s not mine, Pa. I proved that a long time ago. She tried that scam on me. I saw her once. We sat by the fire and had wine. There must have been something in that wine because the next thing I knew, I woke up in her bed without a stitch of clothing on. She claimed we had done the deed, and she thought we ought to get married. I dressed and left without saying anything. I knew she was lying, and my headache was proof of being drugged.”

“How could you prove that it didn’t happen even if you were drugged?”

“Pa, it was after that mess with Laura. I was in that wheelchair for a long time, and then for months afterwards, I couldn’t even ride a horse and had to take the carriage to go anywhere. It was during that time. My legs didn’t work right and neither did other things. I saw Paul about it, and he told me he thought that in time as things healed and the swelling went away in my back, it would be all right. It was, but not when I saw her.”

“So you couldn’t?”

“That’s right. Even when I wasn’t drugged, and even with the most desirable woman that I wanted more than anything in the world, I wouldn’t have been able to.”

“You never said anything.”

“It’s not exactly the kind of thing you want to say to anyone much less your father. The only one who knew was Paul, but he was the one who mattered.”

“But why have you been sending her money every year?”

“I felt sorry for her son. He’s stuck in a bad situation, and it’s not at all his fault. I thought if I could help her live a bit more comfortably, he would have a bit more comfort in his life. It was all I could do.”

“So she wanted you dead so you could not contest her claim to one third of the Ponderosa on behalf of her son. But why isn’t she worried that Paul would come forward to testify against her?”

“He can’t. What I told him was confidential. I told him never to tell anyone. If he keeps his pledge, he can’t tell anyone that she’s lying, because he would have to break his confidence with me. She knows that because we talked about it five years ago when I proved she was lying by having Paul there to back up my story. He did, but I told her that it was all confidential so I wouldn’t be bringing any charges against her. I didn’t want my secret shared so she got away with attempted blackmail.”

“That’s a pretty cold-hearted woman then. She wanted you dead to get part of the ranch. Now, could she have planned this alone?”

“She could have, but she wouldn’t have wanted the work of exploiting the land once she got it, so I’m guessing she has one or more partners. She plans to get the land, sell it to them, and then go live a life of leisure on the money she’ll get for the land.”

“She’s staying at the International, but there’s no boy with her. She had pictures and a birth certificate with your name on it as the father.”

“I wonder what she’s done with him. That birth certificate is a forgery. Check that out and you’ll find it is.”

“Can we use Paul’s testimony now to discredit her claim?”

“I suppose you’ll have to. Do it in closed session with the judge if you can. I would appreciate that.”

“We’ll see what they do next then.”

“They may not have a back-up plan. They could have assumed that first plan would work.” Thinking for a moment, Adam had another concern. “Maybe you ought to put someone with Paul too. He stands in her way once he testifies.”

“I was thinking the same thing. We’ll do that. Do you think you have enough protection here?”

“I do. She has no idea I’m alive. Until she suspects that, I’m safe here.”

“How are you feeling?”

“Stronger every day.”

“He’s starting to irritate us. Does that mean he’s getting back to himself?” Candy was grinning while he said it though belying the nature of the comments.

“He’s never been a good patient. He gets grumpy.”

“Hey, I’m right here.”

“We know. You need to hear this so you can adjust your attitude, young man.”

“I know I’m home now. Pa’s talking to me like I’m sixteen again.” But Adam gave his father a hug, and then got one from Hoss before Hoss and Ben left.

*****

After court the next day in town, Julia was furious. “How did they know all of that? The doctor seemed to know more now than he did five years ago. That’s impossible.”

“It is possible if Adam Cartwright isn’t dead.”

“Of course he’s dead. We saw the casket and Ben Cartwright practically sobbing over it as they drove out of town.”

“We never saw the body. We talked about it at the time but decided that as sad as everyone was and the way they carried on, he had to be dead. There’s been no sign of him, so we assumed he died. But what if they’re playing a ruse on us like we’re trying to scam them?”

Julia frowned first, then looked angry, before clearly beginning to think about what to do next. “There’s one way to find out.”

“We can send some men tonight. It shouldn’t take long. It’s only been less than a week.”

“Have someone else ready to set a diversion if it looks like they’re watching that grave for anyone to do exactly what we want to do.”

*****

Working together with Clem on the plan, Ben and Joe had indeed anticipated that someone might decide to check on that grave to see if there indeed was a body in that casket. There was enough decomposing animal parts and an old skull in there in Adam’s clothing that in a week or so, no one would think to question it, but until then, they would be able to tell it wasn’t a person. Every night, there was a guard on the gravesite to stop anyone from checking.

Two men hired to dig up that coffin slipped through the forest to approach the lakeshore and saw the guard. One went back to tell the third man that he indeed had to go take care of the diversion for them. He quietly headed out to do that. About a half-hour later, there were three gunshots fired that alerted the man watching the grave that there was an emergency. He quickly climbed to the top of the ridge and saw the glow of a fire. He ran to his horse to ride there to help. A forest fire if it got out of control could ruin things for all of them. When he left, the two with shovels moved quickly to the grave and dug up the recently interred coffin. As they neared it, they could smell it and thought their mission was in vain, but they had been told to open it and check so they kept digging until they could pull the lid from the coffin. What they saw surprised them.

“Holy crap, Miss Julia is gonna be surprised when we tell her this. Let’s go before anybody comes back.”

“Don’t we have to fill it in again.”

“She never said nothing about doing that.”

She should have.

*****

By morning, the fire was out and the open grave was discovered. An exhausted Joe rode to town to tell Clem because now they didn’t know what Julia would do next. Then he rode to the cabin to tell Adam and Candy who thanked him and told him to get home and get some rest.

“You might need some help here.”

“Exhausted men aren’t going to be much help. She won’t likely do anything right away. We’ll keep our eyes open for her. You go get some sleep.”

They were wrong.

*****

Julia had decided that they needed to strike fast before the Cartwrights could come up with another plan to defeat her. Her men came back with the news, but the man who set the fire had an interesting tale to tell too.

“I rode by one line cabin and had to go way around it so they wouldn’t see me because they had the front door open and I could see them standing on the porch. Not one of them left to go help put out the fire. Now I saw men coming from the main house and bunkhouse, but why didn’t those men at that cabin go help?”

“That’s where he is. That’s where they took him. You said three men. Only three ought to be easy enough to overcome. We have four and the rest of us can help. That’s seven.”

“Julia, we hire men to do the work. We don’t do it ourselves.”

“If you want that land, this time you do. We’ll go in there and take care of those three and then we’ll make sure that this time, Adam Cartwright is really dead. Then we’ll make sure that doctor never talks again. When we take this to trial, they won’t have a witness on their side and we’ll get one third of the Ponderosa. Otherwise, we have nothing.”

“When you put it that way, I guess we do help.”

*****

Chapter 6

After what seemed like only minutes but was probably two hours of sleep, Ben was awakened by a soft knock on his door and then Hoss coming in to stand by his bed looking a bit sheepish.

“Sorry to wake ya, Pa, but I got a worry. I ain’t been able ta sleep ’cause I bin thinking on it since we got back.”

“I’m awake now, so what is it.” Ben couldn’t help sounding a bit peevish as he hadn’t gotten more than an hour’s sleep the night before when he had been summoned to fight a fire and now only about two hours more when Hoss needed to talk. He was always there for his sons though so he was ready to listen despite his mood.

“Well, Pa, last night at that fire, I saw Jake. It was his turn to watch the grave last night.”

“Yes, I understand.” Suddenly, Ben did understand. “And that fire could have been set to get him away from there. Hoss, you are right to worry. Wake Joe, and we’ll ride there to check as fast as we can dress and saddle those horses.”

It had been a small fire and no one could determine why it had started. Their best guess was that someone had camped and then left an unattended fire, but they had found no evidence of a camp anywhere in the vicinity. Now the whole thing seemed to be potentially far more sinister. Their horses were tired so they quickly saddled three other horses and rode to the lake discovering to their horror that the grave was open.

“They know.”

About that time, they heard gunfire and assumed that there was an assault on the line cabin. They were a good forty-minute hard ride away. They started to go with Joe heading out first fastest and sent ahead by the other two. At the line cabin, one of the government agents had been shot as he crossed to the stable to take care of the horses that morning. A rifle shot had taken him out. The three in the cabin took up positions then to defend themselves with Adam sitting on a chair at the front window with a rifle. Candy had one side window and the other agent had the other side window. Too late, those assaulting the cabin realized the rifle shot had been a mistake. There was no way to get close to the line cabin except by one route. They had to circle around to do that and approach using the stable and the hill and boulders behind it to get close enough to fire at the cabin.

“It was a good idea you had to reinforce the walls of the stable. They won’t be able to get inside and use it as cover.”

“Yes, it leaves only one avenue of approach. I want to see them use it.”

“You do have a mean streak.”

“Candy, they killed a man out there. I want them to suffer for it.”

“Yeah, there’s that.”

*****

Behind the stable, the group was finding that out. Julia ordered the men she had hired to make a run at the cabin. They refused telling her it was suicide. She pulled a gun on them and then ordered them to do it. Her two partners followed her lead and aimed their pistols too at the four men they had hired.

“It’s a chance you can make it out there, and there’s no chance here. What’s it going to be, boys?”

“Lady, you’re a real bitch, you know that.”

The four men readied themselves and then began a mad dash toward the cabin. They almost made it too because it was such an unexpected tactic.

*****

Adam shot two and then Candy hit another one when he moved next to Adam and fired out the top section of the window. The fourth man decided to run sideways to get away but Adam wounded him in the leg. He lay on the ground clutching his leg and howling in pain.

“You probably broke the bone with that shot.”

“I hope so. He meant to kill us, so it seems fair enough.”

“I wonder how many are left.”

“That was a crazy stunt. Why do you think they did it?” Adam was frowning and had a terrible thought. “I think she’s out there. I think she made them do it even though she knew it was suicidal.”

“How could she make them do that?” But Candy understood too as he thought about it. “She is a witch.”

“They can’t see us and we can’t see them. But, you could shoot through the walls of that stable. From inside, you could probably see through the cracks and see where they are.”

“We’d have to leave you here alone.”

“I’ll take my chances, but first make sure no one is coming from any other direction.”

Looking at the agent, Candy got a nod. They checked the rest of the perimeter.

“Clear.”

“Then go.”

Moving swiftly across the yard, the two men carefully lifted the bar across the stable door and pulled it open. Any slight sound they made was covered by the screaming still being done by the wounded man. In the stable, they moved to the back wall and could hear the three talking outside about what they could do next. Apparently they planned to try to burn the line cabin by asking to go help the wounded man as a pretext to get close to the cabin. With hand signals, Candy and the agent lined up on the two men outside and then fired simultaneously through the stable wall. There were screams, groans, and a variety of vile things said as they raced outside and around the side of the stable. Julia dropped her weapon and raised her arms high.

“I’m unarmed. These men forced me to come with them. They forced me to do all sorts of terrible things. I’m so glad you rescued me.”

Walking up to her, Candy took off his neck scarf and grabbed her wrist pulling that arm down and then grabbed the other tying her hands behind her back. The agent checked the two men and shook his head. They weren’t going to make it. He picked up their weapons and walked back to the cabin placing the weapons on the porch as Candy shoved Julia ahead of him. By then, Adam had walked out to greet them. When he saw Julia, he advanced on her making her back up until she could back up no further because the manure pile was there. Adam wanted to push her into it. Candy could tell and asked why he didn’t.

“I can’t stand the thought of touching her.”

Reaching over with the butt of his rifle, Candy pushed her back, and she fell awkwardly into the manure and then struggled to get up because her hands were tied behind her. As she struggled, she rolled back and forth in the manure getting more and more soiled and screamed at them to help her up. Adam looked at Candy.

“I can see why my brothers like you so much. Thanks, friend.”

“You’re welcome. It seemed the right thing to do.”

About then, Joe rode hard up to the cabin and stopped looking at Adam and Candy standing by the manure pile with a woman still struggling to get out of it. He cocked his head to one side.

“Julia Smith?”

Looking at Adam, Candy grinned. “You see, he is pretty smart.”

Hoss and Ben arrived soon after. It was time then for serious business as the dead agent was respectfully wrapped in blankets and his body placed in the wagon that had held supplies. The other agent took charge and headed to town with him. The other dead men were laid side-by-side to be picked up when another wagon could be brought. Ben didn’t want any of them buried on the Ponderosa. The wounded man and Julia had to wait too until the agent could send Clem with a wagon to transport them. Julia sat with filth drying in her hair and on her clothing. She smelled quite awful, and would be facing serious charges as well. Ben sent for a carriage so that Adam could go to the main house. He was feeling quite a bit better but wasn’t ready to try riding a horse yet.

A leave of absence from his job in Washington let Adam spend time with his family and get to enjoy the Ponderosa again as he fully recuperated from his wound. He made an effort to find Julia’s son who was in a boarding school in California. He made sure that the boy was going to be properly cared for and that Julia would no longer have any contact with him arranging for a family he knew to take him in. When Joe asked him if he was going to leave or stay, he said he didn’t know, and they could talk about it. Six months later, Adam accepted a position with the Interior Department running their western office, which he chose to open in Carson City. He was home.

***The End***

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