Aida and Adam stories (by BettyHT)

Summary:  This is a set of five stories. Aida And Adam Just — The story is a WHI for some of the pivotal events of the last two seasons, and then a WHN after that. Adam is featured but the others play significant roles and there is romance for Ben, Hoss, and Joe.  Hallucinations — For the Halloween season, a dark story of poison and bizarre behavior with a cunning adversary.  Love or Pride — Adam’s wife Aida welcomes her parents for a visit but things don’t go as she had hoped.  The Christmas Trip — a short pleasant interlude.  Deceit and Mistakes — Adam and Aida have troubles with family, but Candy finds romance to his liking.
Category: Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  T
Word Count:  94298


Aida and Adam Just

Chapter 1

“Pa, this is a really good book.”

“Joseph, I don’t think any of those dime novels could qualify as a good book. We have many good books here in the house if you’re interested in reading one.”

“Pa, I read most of those already. No, Dan DeQuille told me about this one. Says it’s a writer who writes realistically about stuff out here. The author’s name is David Burn.”

“I believe I have read a biography of Daniel Webster by a writer named David Burns. Well what is the subject of this book?”

“It’s about a bounty hunter who’s hiding his identity because he doesn’t want his family to know what he’s doing to make a living. Seems he’s got a dark past, and he doesn’t want them to know. He feels he’s done something so wrong that they wouldn’t forgive him. He really is a sad character, but he’s really smart and so good with a gun, it’s amazing.”

“Why do you suppose Dan told ya to read that?” Hoss was getting interested too.

“He said he thought the main character seemed very familiar and wondered if I would think so too. So far, he doesn’t, but I’m only about a third into the story.”

“You don’t suppose he’s writing about Dev, do you?”

“Could be, I guess, but Dev gave that up a long time ago. He’s Reverend Farnum now. This story seems more about this time because she mentions things that happened just in the last year or two.”

“What’s this character’s name?” Ben did have a little interest after Joe’s explanation.

“Adam Just. He was collecting his first bounty and the sheriff asked his name. He said ‘just Adam’, so the sheriff wrote down Adam Just and that’s his name.”

The mention of the name Adam had caused Ben to sober a little. Adam had left over eight years ago. Letters had come fairly often at first and then more and more slowly until they ceased altogether. They had no idea what had become of Adam. For years there had been no letters and no news. Hoss and Joe noted the change in their father’s demeanor. Joe could have kicked himself. He knew how melancholy his father could get while thinking about Adam. He decided he needed to change the subject and fast.

“Hey, Pa, is it alright if I invite Alice to dinner tomorrow?”

“You seem to be getting very serious about this lady. Of course, invite her to dinner, but remember to let Hop Sing know that we will be having a guest.”

*****

Miles away in Denver, a dark man with a beard, long hair, and wearing a long duster strode up to a modest house and knocked on the door. The owner peeked out the window and sighed deeply. She had been expecting this visit, but this was sooner than she anticipated. She opened the door and could see the fury in his eyes as well as his stance.

“Good afternoon, Adam.”

“You had no right!”

“Did I write anything that wasn’t true?”

“That’s not the point. It’s my life. I have a right to privacy like anyone else. You think a kiss and a little loving earned you the right to take my life and use it to make money?”

“No, I thought your story was fascinating and needed to be told. You never said I couldn’t write about you. You did tell me that Adam Just is not your name, so why are you so concerned. Your family won’t know it’s you. I used your current name. You never told me your original name only that you have used a variety of names. Was there another name you wanted me to use?”

“I didn’t want you to use any name. I didn’t want you to write my story at all. You had no right!”

“You have said that already. Is there anything else you would like to say?”

Adam stepped into her house making her retreat. He kicked the door closed behind him before he reached for her. He pulled her to him and crushed her lips in a kiss as he ran his hands up and down her back. She had not seen this side of him the first time she had been with him. He kissed her deeply and then moved to kiss her neck as his hands continued roaming. She moaned in pleasure, and he bent down sliding a hand behind her knees before he lifted her in his arms and carried her up the stairs. His lips moved back to hers and his tongue probed her mouth. With her arms around his neck, she kissed him back and her tongue wrestled with his. At the top of the stairs, she only said one thing.

“Second door on the right.”

Still with her in his arms, Adam pushed the door open and carried her into her bedroom. Standing her on the floor next to the bed, he hurriedly dropped the duster and his hat. He pulled off each boot and then slipped out of his vest. Then he renewed his kissing barrage as he unbuttoned the long line of buttons down the back of her dress. Sliding it off her shoulders, he followed its downward path with kisses. He never said a word. He kissed and caressed until they were entwined on the bed and making furious love to each other. When he finished, he pulled her into his arms and held her tightly.

“I don’t know what I am going to do with you. You make me lose my mind. You make me furious. Yet the moment I saw you again, all I wanted was to kiss you and love you.”

“Isn’t it enough?”

“No, it isn’t and it’s too much. I never wanted to be like this again.”

“Who hurt you so much?”

“Who didn’t would be more like it. But I can’t tell you anything. I can’t see any more of my life out there for entertainment. It is not entertaining to me.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know it would bother you so much.”

“But you did know it would bother me, and you wrote it anyway?”

“I have written about a lot of men. They all are bothered by it, but most are more flattered than anything. They enjoy people knowing about them. Not one has ever come to my door to complain until you. I have never met anyone like you.”

“You didn’t seem all that surprised to see me?”

“No, I expected to see you. It was the fury that surprised me. Adam, I will never write anything else about you now that I know how you feel. Can you trust me?”

“I don’t know that I have any choice. I have fire in my blood every time I see you. I haven’t felt this way for so long. I can’t control it. It controls me.”

“Will you stay the night?”

“I have to put my horse up.”

“You can put him with mine in the back. There’s an empty stall and plenty of feed.”

“What will your neighbors think?”

“My neighbors are not exactly in the upper echelons of society. They find me unusual and think me quite a wanton woman already.”

Adam furrowed his brows looking at Aida and waiting for an explanation. He knew he was the first man she had ever been with so he wondered why the neighbors would think her a loose woman.

“I make my living writing books about men. I ride astride. I go on long trips camping out in the wilderness. I travel alone. They make assumptions.”

Adam raised an eyebrow.

“I try to fit into my environment. When I lived in Washington, I acted the prim and proper lady and wrote about well known politicians. When I lived in Chicago, I was more brazen but still a proper lady as I wrote about inventors and entrepreneurs. Then I met you riding the train from St. Louis. I got as far as Denver. I saw you again on a trip to Abilene. I needed to know more about the West to write your story.”

“You’re a chameleon. How will I ever know the real you?”

“You already do. This is as real as it gets. I think I love you. You have had an impact on me like no one ever has. I am in thrall to you as much as you say you are to me. I will do anything you want me to do.”

“Hm, anything?” Adam used his knee to nudge her legs apart again and made love to her slowly and sensuously. It was as languorous as the earlier bout had been frenetic. When they finished, Aida was exhausted.

“Stay here. I’ll take care of my horse and be right back.” Adam pulled on his pants, shirt, and boots and left. About a half hour later, he returned to her bedroom where she was sleeping. She felt him slide in beside her but also smelled food. “I brought you a sandwich. There’s some coffee on the table next to you.”

By the time Aida and Adam finished their dinner, he wanted to make love to her again. She wanted it as much as he did. They fell asleep in each other’s arms. In the morning when she awoke, she had burning and itching sensations from her cheeks and chin down to much lower regions. As she began to move, Adam awoke and pushed himself up on one elbow.

The whisker burns were all too obvious in the morning light. “Oh, I am so sorry. Did I do that to you?”

“Well unless another bearded man was all over me last night, I would say the answer must be yes. You need to shave before we do anything more.”

Walking downstairs without dressing, Adam returned with his saddlebags. He rummaged around in them for a minute and then returned to the bed with some salve. She wanted to put it on herself, but he insisted on spreading the ointment for her. The relief was almost immediate.

“Oh, my, what is that? It feels so good.”

“An old family friend used to use a lot of these on us. There are a thousand uses for a healing salve like this. I always try to have some with me.”

As Aida lounged in the bed, Adam pulled a shaving kit from his saddlebags. He used water that was in a pitcher to lather his face after cutting the beard very short. He shaved then, and when he turned to her, she was amazed at his handsome face. She had seen it before but each time his rugged handsome face just made her heart melt at the sight of him.

“How about a bath?”

“That can be arranged. I only have a large washtub that I put in the kitchen. I’ll dress and get some water heating.”

“I’ll help. You don’t need to dress too much. I was rather hoping we could bathe together.”

“But, but, …”

“What? You don’t want a bath?”

“No, it just seems so decadent.”

Laughing then, Adam sat on the side of the bed next to Aida. “After everything we have done together, it’s taking a bath with each other that you find decadent? Really?”

Aida had to laugh with him then. Her whole view of how a man and a woman would be like together had changed so dramatically since she had met him only a few months before. She still remembered vividly when he had stopped beside her seat on the train and asked if the empty spot was taken. Adam often commented on how little things in life could turn things around so much. If she had said yes that day instead of no, he would have walked on and she would still be writing books about powerful, wealthy men. Instead she now found him more fascinating than any man she had ever met. Her publisher said that her readers agreed and sales had skyrocketed. She would never write another word about him without his permission, but now she looked at the world differently.

Aida had always seen the world as contrasts and opposites. There was good and evil. There was right and wrong. Adam had thrown that whole concept into turmoil for her. Here was a good man who hunted people for money yet brought them to justice. She wondered at that point if he had ever killed and then collected the money. She wanted to think that he had not, but feared that it was likely that he had. She was afraid of him and felt a yearning to be with him. She had planned to travel to Denver but he was stopping in a town along the way. She hoped he wouldn’t mind if she stopped with him. She did want to know more about him, and wanted to discuss many things with him. She had stepped off the train behind him, and he had turned to her and grinned. Her heart was lost at that point and she knew it.

*****

Chapter 2

Adam and Aida had talked a lot on that train ride. When they got to the next town, she had gotten off with him. They had taken rooms at the hotel, but after the first night, she spent little time in her room. They made love, they walked, they shopped, and they enjoyed restaurants. She had found him to be an enigma. He looked hard and dangerous, but he was the most kind and gentle lover she could have imagined even with her fertile imagination. He had knocked on her door after freshening up and shaving that first evening. His hair was still very long and wavy. She liked it although she had never before thought a man in long hair looked masculine. Everything about Adam was masculine though. He had taken her arm and escorted her to dinner. They had talked and laughed much like they had on the train. He found her career fascinating. A bounty hunter who enjoyed great literature and was impressed at meeting an author was amazing to her.

That first evening together, Adam had walked her to her door. He asked if he could kiss her good night. She said yes and he brushed his lips gently over hers before softly kissing her. He had slid his arms around her waist and pulled her to him. Then he had teased her lips apart with his tongue. When she yielded to his tongue, he used it to touch the roof of her mouth and flick across her tongue. She reacted as she never had before and met his tongue as it thrust in her mouth. In a husky voice, he asked her if he could continue. She didn’t want him to stop and he invited her into his room. Later she was amazed that she took such a chance. She barely knew him, and yet had trusted him implicitly.

Once inside the room, Adam had taken her into a more intimate embrace using his hands to pull her tightly to him as they kissed. Then he kissed her beneath her ear and down her neck and up the other side to behind that ear. She was panting by then. She had never felt that way and didn’t know what to do. When he began unbuttoning her dress, she had asked him.

“What do I do?”

Adam had leaned back then to study her face. “You’ve never been with a man?”

“No, I’m sorry. I don’t know what to do.”

“There’s no need to be sorry. I’m sorry if I have taken too many liberties with you. I had no idea. You seemed so passionate. I’ll stop if you want me to.”

“Oh no, don’t stop. Just tell me what to do. I want to be with you.”

And Adam had been gentle and moved very slowly with her after that. Each time he wanted to do something more, he asked her if she was still willing. At one point though, he asked her and told her that if she said yes, he wasn’t sure if he could stop himself after that point.

“I haven’t been with a woman in over eight years. You are so beautiful and so enchanting; I don’t think I can stop if you change your mind after I go this far. So you have to be sure. Is this what you want?”

She had answered by reaching for him and pulling him close. Then he moved above her and told her it would hurt a little, but once she was past that, it should feel very good. And for the first time in her life, she made love with a man. When they were done, he pulled her into an embrace, and she began to cry. He was breathless and sweating, but gently caressed her face.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t hurt you, did I? Was that too much for you? Aw, tell me what’s wrong.”

“No, not at all. You were very sweet with me. But, am I going to have a baby now?”

Adam had looked into her eyes. “Maybe, but probably not. The odds are against it. Many women count the days.”

“Count the days?”

So Adam had explained to her about counting and flows, and how a woman might know she was with child. Her mother had never had that talk with her. Many proper ladies never talked to their daughters about such things until the day of their wedding. Adam and Aida had tried to make love again, but she had been so nervous about it, that Adam had not finished. She knew he was disappointed, but her fear held her back. Then he had told her what else they could do so that she would not become with child. She knew so little about the relations between a man and a woman that she had been shocked. Then when they tried some of the other things a man and woman could do, she was pleasantly surprised at how much pleasure they could have together.

Adam and Aida had been together a week that first time. They had talked and he had explained what he did and that he was in that town to meet a man who had information for him. He would pay the man and then head out. As any writer, she was good with questions, and by the end of that week, knew most of what he had done for the previous three years. He did not say anything about his life before those three years which left her burning with curiosity. She had a book idea churning in her head by the middle of that week and started writing as soon as she could. After she continued on her journey, she bought a small house in Denver and contacted her publisher to let him know where she was working. She traveled to the towns Adam had mentioned so that she could describe them accurately.

*****

It was in Abilene that she had met Adam for the second time. She had a room at the hotel and was walking about town getting an impression of it and jotting down notes. She had felt someone move up close behind her and was ready to fight or flee until that gentle voice had called her name.

“Aida, what brings my happy lady to such a rough cow town?”

“I’m doing research for a book. I wanted to see the town in person so that the descriptions I write will be accurate.”

“Did you hope at all that I might be here knowing that this is one of the towns I visit often?”

“Well, I did hope but thought it would have been too much to expect.”

“Not at all. Do you have a room here?”

Aida’s voice had gone all husky then without her having any control of it. “Yes, yes I do.”

Adam had smiled and brushed a finger over her cheek. “Would you like to have dinner with me?”

“Yes, yes I would.”

“In your room or the restaurant?” Her eyes must have gotten very big because Adam smiled then. “The restaurant it is. Which hotel and which restaurant?”

Aida had given him the information and then Adam had said he would see her at seven. She had trouble concentrating for the rest of the day and finally gave up heading back to her room to decide what to wear. At seven there was a knock at her door. She opened it to find Adam freshly shaved and dressed in a dark blue shirt and dark blue pants.

“I missed you so much.” And Aida had rushed into his arms and kissed him. She didn’t want to let go and pulled him into the room. Later on the bed, Adam pulled her atop him and held her face between his hands.

“You have gotten into my heart. I thought it was closed to everyone, but you’re in there. Every night, I dream of you. I see pretty things and I want to buy them for you. You have bewitched me.”

“Adam, what are we going to do?”

“We will spend this week together, and we’ll talk about that. Now, I believe we had a dinner date. I am hungry. My mind wasn’t on food before, and I think I forgot to eat today.”

Aida had laughed then, and rolled from him and dressed and pinned her hair again. It took about a half hour to get ready, and she laughed when she heard his stomach growling. He watched her as she dressed and did her hair. It only took him a minute to pull on his pants, boots, and shirt. He ran his fingers through his curly locks and he was ready to go but waited patiently as she readied herself. He had a small smile as he sat on her bed.

“What’s funny?”

“I never watched a woman dress and prepare to go out before I met you. It is endlessly fascinating.”

They had dinner together, and then Adam had walked her to her room before leaving through the lobby. Then he had gone to the back of the hotel and taken the back stairs to the second floor and Aida’s room. She opened the door as soon as she heard his boot tread outside the room. He moved quickly into her room and spent the night. For the rest of the week, they did the same each night. During the day they walked and talked.

“Are you Italian?”

“No but my father had a love of opera, and all of the children in my family were given Italian names. How did you get your name?”

And Adam had smiled at her and shook his head no. It would not be that easy for her. He loved her but he didn’t trust her enough to share his past. He didn’t trust anyone. She only saw one thing while they were in Abilene that gave her any real insight into Adam. He collected a bounty one morning as they walked. It was obviously a lot of money because when he came out of the bank after cashing the voucher, he had a thick wallet. He pulled a wad of bills from his wallet and placed them in an envelope. As they walked, she felt that he was directing her to go to a particular place. When they ended up next to a church, he told her to wait. He walked up to the church and greeted a minister by name. After just a few minutes, he was back and said he had an errand. They walked about a quarter mile taking a number of turns until he stopped in front of a dilapidated house. He asked her to wait again, and he went up to the door and knocked. A woman came to the door looking suspiciously at him.

“Ma’am, Reverend Benjamin sent me. I have something for you. He said you could really use it because you have five children to feed.”

Aida had seen him hand over the envelope with the money. The woman cried, and he patted her on the shoulder before bidding her goodbye. When he got back to Aida, he didn’t want to talk about it. She persisted.

“That was a lot of money you just gave away.”

“How much money does anyone need to live, anyway?”

And that was the last that Aida heard him say about his generosity that day. She knew by the way the minister had talked to him, that it could not have been the first time he had done that. The rest of the week had held no more surprises until the last day, but had been very pleasant and satisfying until then. She knew she would use the generous gifting in her book. It would make him a more sympathetic character. On their last day together, she got more information she could use and was astounded.

Adam and Aida had breakfast together. She knew he planned to leave that day following some leads he had just gotten. As they walked, she heard a man yell out to Adam. She didn’t realize what would happen next.

“Adam Just, you polecat. You hunted my brother down and brought him here. You bastard. They hung him. Did you know that? Just seventeen years old, and they hung him. You need to answer for that. You and your blood money. You bastard. Draw!”

As soon as the man had started talking, Adam had pushed Aida to the side and began walking away from her clearing his right side by dropping his saddlebags. He waited until he was well away from any bystanders and then he stopped. It was about that time that the man yelled at him to draw. He didn’t. He tried to talk him out of it. The man could not have been more than about twenty or so.

“You don’t want to die today. Your little brother assaulted and murdered a young girl. You knew as soon as he did that, he was a dead man. He may have been seventeen, but he chose his own fate. Don’t make your family grieve the loss of another son.”

“Old man, you’re the one who’s gonna die today. Draw or I’ll shoot you down where you stand like any other dirty rabid dog that deserves it.”

Even then, Adam did not draw, but when the man drew, Adam drew and killed him. Aida had never seen a man die. She had never seen a gunfight. She turned and retched until her breakfast was gone. She hung onto the rail in front of the building where she had stood and watched. She found the whole thing almost surreal. She couldn’t believe it had actually happened. The sheriff was soon there, and he took statements from bystanders and then from Adam.

*****

Chapter 3

The sheriff was very direct when he spoke to Adam after taking his statement. “I knew this was gonna happen with you bringing that boy and others back here. I know you done nothing wrong, but I hafta tell you, I don’t want to see you in my town again. Is that clear?”

Picking up his saddlebags, Adam nodded and then reached for Aida’s arm. She flinched and he saw it.

“I’m sorry. I’ll walk you back to your hotel, and then I’m leaving. You won’t have to see me again.”

Aida had not known what to say. She was in shock. Adam walked her back to her hotel, and then he turned to leave.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what to think right now. Adam, I do want to see you again. Please, just give me some time. I have a lot to think about.”

Adam had nodded and walked away. Aida had not seen nor heard from him until he walked up the steps to the porch of her home in Denver. Now they had to talk. Aida was determined to find out Adam’s past and why he would not talk about it. She wanted him in her future and needed to know if he felt the same way, but they were going to have to tell each other painful secrets. She thought that if they could do that, they could forge a lasting relationship.

“You didn’t stop me at all. Have you been counting?”

Aida took a deep breath and answered Adam. “I don’t think that’s necessary any more.”

Adam had paused briefly and then asked her. “You’re with child?”

“Maybe. I’m late, and last month was very light. I haven’t seen a doctor yet, but if I don’t get my flow soon, I will have to.”

“We should get married.”

Aida had looked at him then wondering if he meant it. “Would you live here with me?”

“No, I don’t see any reason that we would change anything. But you’re the only woman I ever want to be with. Do you think there will be another man for you?”

“No, never.”

“Then why not. That way if you do have a baby, the child will know we are the parents. I will do everything I can for you and for a child if there is one.”

“Could you do something else to make a living?”

“I could but I made a commitment to this job. I feel like I have to give something back. I have to balance the scales.”

“Adam, what do you have to make right? What did you do that causes you to carry this guilt?”

“I killed someone. I spent five years in prison for it. I got out about three years ago.”

“I can’t believe you did that. Surely you were innocent.”

“No, I wasn’t. I got myself into a bad situation, and I killed a friend. I had to pay a penalty for that.”

Softly as she touched his chest with her hand, Aida asked. “What happened?”

“I guess you deserve to know. I didn’t want to tell you. I was afraid you would never want to see me again. I wanted to travel. I went to New York, Boston, and then to New Haven. I went to parties, plays, opera, and recitals. I reconnected with men I had met while in college. I could enjoy all those things I had missed for so many years. In New Haven, I stopped at a friend’s home. Paul had said to stop in if I was ever there. No one was home according to a servant who told me my friend was expected back that Friday. He told me there was to be a garden party, and that he was sure my friend would not mind one more guest. As I walked away, a gorgeous woman walked toward me. I said good day to her, and she asked me if I was looking for someone. We struck up a conversation, and I ended up asking if she would like to have lunch the next day. She said she would and asked if I would like to have lunch at her place. She gave me an address, and I bid her good day. I met her the next day. We had lunch, and she was very clear that she believed in free love. I was not committed to anyone and she was gorgeous, and as it turned out, very experienced. We were together every day that week. She introduced me to things I never knew two people could do. I think I was falling in love with her. She was beautiful, sophisticated, and lusty.”

Aida felt a little uncomfortable with this knowledge but urged Adam to continue.

“On Friday evening, I went to my friends house for the garden party. Paul was happy to see me, and he introduced me to his wife except I already knew her but not by the name he used. I had been having relations with my friend’s wife. I managed to hold myself together. She didn’t even flinch. I went to her apartment the next day to confront her. I had a standing invitation to join her every day for lunch and then enjoy whatever debauchery she had planned for the afternoon. She was there, but my friend showed up shortly after I arrived. He had a pistol. He meant to shoot me. We struggled and the gun went off blowing a hole from under his chin through the top of his head. His blood and brains were all over me. He was the cuckold and I was the killer.”

“But that was self defense!” Adam didn’t respond to her claim.

“When the police arrived, she claimed I had shot him in cold blood, deliberately and with intent. I was arrested. I hired a lawyer who could show them the defensive wounds I had, and he also discovered that the pistol was one of a matched set at my friend’s home. There were witnesses who saw him carry the pistol into the building. She had orchestrated the whole thing. She got rid of a husband she didn’t want but inherited his wealth. I went to prison.”

“But why did you have to go to prison? You did nothing wrong.”

“I had an affair with a married woman, and I killed her husband. I broke the law and the Commandments. I had to pay a penalty for that. They allowed me to plead guilty to charges under an assumed name so my family would not know. I haven’t used that name either since I was released. Paul’s father threatened to kill me when I was released. I wanted to make that as difficult as possible for him to do.”

“Do you think he still wants that?”

“Probably. I would if someone did that to my son if I had one.”

“Did you let your family know what happened?”

“No, I have never told anyone until you. I brought shame upon myself and it would hurt them to know what kind of man I really was. I wrote a number of letters before I was locked away and asked my lawyer to send them to my family periodically and hopefully from some exotic locations. I made my letters general enough to be able to be posted from almost anywhere.”

“Did you write your family once you were released?”

“No. I do not want them to know the shame I brought upon myself. Better that they think I’m dead. I was a little crazed too by the time I got out anyway. They used the silent system. I don’t think anyone would have wanted to see me like that.”

“What is the silent system?”

“Prisoners were not allowed to speak with each other. Prisoners were only allowed to speak to answer a guard’s question of a question posed by a staff member at the prison. We were supposed to be contemplating our wrongdoing and reflecting on what we had done wrong. I knew the answers to all of that before I ever entered those iron gates.”

“You didn’t speak for five years?”

“Mostly, no. My voice was hoarse and weak when I was released. My hair was long as was my beard. No one would recognize me. I decided that was what I would do. I would invent a different person and live a life separate from my family and my former friends. I have no family and no friends now, except you. And after telling you this, perhaps I don’t have you either.”

“Oh, Adam, you have me, but I think you should let your family know you’re alive at least. They must have suffered when those letters stopped coming. Now they must worry and wonder. Their hearts are probably broken.”

“But they can heal and forget me. Contacting them would only open the wounds I made. That would be cruel. It’s another thing for which I have guilt that cannot be removed. I did it, and no one will forgive me for it. It is painful to think of what I did to my father especially.”

“What makes you think they’re healed? They may be suffering yet.”

“They’re better off without me.”

Aida’s view of the world had shifted from her earlier simple version to a more complex version in which a good, moral, ethical man could do things that were wrong but not know they were wrong until it was too late. Then the guilt over the transgressions caused him to do other cruel things that he thought were the best he could do but it caused him to feel even more guilt. Adam had found it nearly impossible to reconcile his actions with his morality and ethics. He had done what he thought best, and yet he knew it was not a good thing at all.

Aida wrapped her arms around Adam and held him then offering comfort and love even if she could not understand his reasoning. He rested his head on her shoulder receiving solace for the first time in nearly eight years. They did not make love that night although they did sleep together. In the morning, Aida awoke to find Adam resting on his elbow and looking down at her.

“I don’t know what I did that God has sent me an angel. Last night was the best sleep I have had in eight years I think. You are a very special woman. Now will you marry me?”

“Let’s have breakfast, and then we’ll talk. I think there are things you should know about me too.” Adam was sure there was nothing she could tell him that would change what he thought about her and how he felt.

“I went to work for a wealthy family as a nanny. There was no one courting me and at nineteen, my parents decided that I needed to work at a respectable position until some man would want me. Well the man who employed me, wanted me. I rebuffed him again and again. One day he became very forceful, and I hit him. I fled the house and ran home. My mother was there but refused to talk about it. She said my father would handle it. My former employer went to my father’s office and complained that I had tried to barter sexual favors for money. He said when he refused that I hit him and stormed out. Well my father arranged for me to marry a much older man. I didn’t even know him and I refused to marry him. My father set an ultimatum: marry him or be disowned. So I was out on the street with nothing by the next day. I had a talent for writing and got myself a job at a local newspaper and a room at a boarding house. Eventually I started writing books, and here I am, a soiled dove.”

“You did nothing wrong.”

“I could say the same about you, but you would argue with me.”

“My situation is different. Now will you marry me?”

“This will be such an unconventional marriage.”

“Neither of our families will know, and everyone who knows us already thinks we are a bit daft for the choices we have made and the things that we do.” Adam wrapped his arms around Aida and they stood for a time just holding each other.

*****

The following week, Dan DeQuille was reading newspapers that came into the office from all over the west. He saw a small notice in the Denver paper explaining that Aida Hepburn had married Adam Just. Dan leaned back in his chair. “Well, well, well, that is a surprise.”

Dan pulled out the book Aida had written about Adam Just. He wondered if Joe Cartwright had noticed the page where she described Adam after he had shaved. There was the dimple, the cupid bow lips, the cleft chin, and that little scar on the left side of his lip. It was too much to be just a coincidence he thought, but then he couldn’t reconcile the Adam Cartwright he knew with his absence and his silence and with Adam Just, bounty hunter. He decided to write to a few friends including one in Denver. He needed more information.

*****

In Denver, Aida continued trying to learn about her new husband.

“Adam, why a bounty hunter? Why aren’t you a marshal or a sheriff somewhere?”

“Aida, I’m a criminal in the eyes of the law. They wouldn’t want me as an officer of the law. This is the only way I can pay back for what I did. I find murderers and bring them to justice.”

“You risk your life, don’t you?” That had not bothered Aida so much when she first knew it, but now she loved the man and couldn’t bear the thought of losing him. She knew he would be gone from her for long periods, and she would worry about him until he stood in their home again. She began to understand the pain she would suffer in this marriage, but she wouldn’t have made any other decision because of it. She realized she loved him more than anything, and would bear any burden to be with him. “Could I come with you?”

Looking at Aida to see if she was teasing him, Adam had to shake his head. “Sweetheart, you would never be able to do that. The men I seek hide in the most rugged areas when they know I’m looking. Those are not places for a woman like you.”

“A woman like me?”

“You are adventurous and daring, but there is a lot you don’t know about the west. Your reaction to that gunfight in Abilene made that very clear. I don’t want you to change because you see more terrible things that happen out here. Here in Denver, you can write and be safe, and I’ll come back to you every time I finish a job.”

“Please, could you consider another job? Do you know anything about ranching? There seem to be a lot of those around here.”

By Adam’s smile, Aida had an inkling that she had just learned a bit more about him. “Did your family own a ranch?”

“As far as I know, they still do.”

“Where?”

“In Nevada, by Lake Tahoe, and that is enough prying by you for now. Let’s go pick up that wedding ring I ordered.”

*****

Chapter 4

In Virginia City, Nevada, Joe Cartwright was doing much the same thing. He had ordered engagement and wedding rings and was riding into town to pick them up. Joe was happier than he had been in years. He wasn’t quite sure when he was going to ask Alice but it would be soon. He hoped to marry as soon as Hoss returned from his trip to California. Hoss seemed to be gone to California a lot in the past year, and Joe had to wonder if he wasn’t sparking some gal over there. He hoped he was. It would be so sweet to have all three brothers married and having children. His father had waited so long for grandchildren.

That thought made Joe pause a bit and think about his missing oldest brother. Joe wondered if he was married and having children in a new life he had made for himself or had he died in some tragic circumstance. Sometimes Adam’s absence made him melancholy like this and other times he was angry and frustrated. His father deserved to know his oldest son’s fate instead of worrying and hoping to one day see him walk through that front door again. For now, his father had Hoss, Joe, and Jamie but it never seemed enough. It always seemed that someone was missing from the table although they never talked about it any more. It was too painful.

As Joe rode down the main street, Dan DeQuille called him over.

“Did you enjoy that book I recommended?”

“Dan, it was great. Are there any other books by that author?”

“Yes, she has written a number of biographies but that is the only western one.”

“Don’t you mean he?”

“No, the author is Aida Hepburn. She uses David Burn much like Sam uses Mark Twain and I use Dan DeQuillle except in her case it’s because people don’t like to buy books by female authors.” As Joe shook his head in wonderment, Dan had to ask. “Did the main character seem familiar to you?”

“No, I thought maybe she was writing about Dev Farnum, but the more I read, I knew it wasn’t Dev. Who do you think he resembles?”

“Didn’t you read the description she wrote of him after he shaved?”

“Oh, I skip over parts like that. I like the action stuff a whole lot better.”

“Well, when you have the time, read it again.”

“Hoss has it now, and he’s in California. Maybe when he’s done, I’ll take another look at it. I have a lot to do though, so even though it’s been nice talking with you, I need to get going.”

Dan nodded and Joe continued on. Dan walked to the telegraph office then to see if he had any responses to the messages he had sent out. Joe continued to the jewelers shop and picked up his rings. As he did so, he decided to ask her on Saturday night. Then they could marry. He had already picked out a spot for their house and cleared the land. His father had laughed when he found out that Joe was already preparing to build a house for the two of them.

“Are you that sure she’ll say yes?”

Shaking his head, Joe had just looked at Ben and sighed deeply, causing Jamie and Candy to laugh. Ben seemed more lighthearted than he had in years as he contemplated Joe marrying and having children. Jamie was getting serious about his girl, and Hoss was gone to California quite a lot in the past year making all of them wonder if he didn’t have something going on over there. As soon as Hoss could get away this spring, he had traveled there again.

When Joe returned home, he had a request of his father that he thought he would like.

“Pa, I would like to ask Alice here on Saturday. If all goes well, perhaps we could have a celebration dinner. I’ve got the ring in my pocket.”

“Son, that is almost the best news I could imagine. Please tell Hop Sing to prepare a special dinner.”

Nodding, Joe walked to the kitchen. Saying ‘almost the best news’ meant that his father still harbored some hope that Adam would return. Hoss and Joe had spent money on detectives over four years earlier when the letters had stopped arriving, but as far as they could find out, Adam must have left the country eight years ago and not returned. Letters had been posted from all over the world so it appeared he had been traveling a lot. They had not tried again recently, but Joe was thinking perhaps just one more effort could be made, and then they would tell their father that they had tried but Adam was gone. It would hurt him deeply, but then perhaps he could grieve and come to terms with it. Joe planned to talk with Hoss about it when he returned.

*****

On Saturday, Joe dressed in his best and picked up Alice in the carriage that he had rubbed, polished, and spruced up until it looked almost new. He had even applied a fresh coat of paint to the wheels. He was nervous as he guided her to the carriage, and Alice thought she had a pretty good idea why. Joe was fairly quiet on the ride to the Ponderosa, and Alice did her best to keep the conversation going even though she was becoming more and more nervous too. When Joe walked her to the garden in back of the house instead of inside, she was sure she knew. Then she smiled thinking he was very sure of himself if he would ask her here on the Ponderosa. Joe asked her to sit on the bench in the garden. He sat beside her and held her left hand between his hands. Joe had rehearsed a grand speech for the occasion and now suddenly his mind was nearly blank. He had to be extemporaneous and express what was in his heart and hoped it would be enough.

“Alice Harper, I’m a lot older than most men who are courting a young lady. I never seemed to find the right woman for me. But that has all changed. You are the most beautiful, most intelligent, and sweetest lady a man could ever hope to know. Would you do me the great honor of agreeing to be my wife? Would you please be Mrs. Alice Cartwright?”

Alice had thought to tease him a little, but the raw emotion she could feel in his words reduced her to snowmelt. She reached for his face with her free hand and nodded not sure if she could even speak at that moment. Joe leaned in to kiss her then, and she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him as passionately as she knew how.

“Well, I guess that means yes. I have a ring for you. I hope you like it. If you don’t, I’ll get you anything you want.”

Reaching in his pocket, Joe pulled out a small green velvet box. He opened it, took out the ring, and slipped it on Alice’s finger. She leaned into his muscular chest then and hugged him as tears flowed.

“I hope those are tears of happiness.” Alice looked up then to see tears in Joe’s eyes as well.

“We’ll have to tell John. Oh, Joe, you have made me so happy. The ring is gorgeous, and I would never want another. This is the one you chose for me, and I love it, and I love you.”

They kissed again, and then again as they walked to the house. Before they entered the front door, Joe wrapped his arms around her and kissed her one more time. The couple walked inside to cheers from Ben, Jamie, Candy, and Griff. Hop Sing brought out bottles of champagne and flutes. Ben told Hop Sing to stay and enjoy a toast with them. Once all the congratulations were completed and toasts were made, Joe told them he was taking Alice to see the home site he had picked out and prepared. He planned to start building immediately and asked Alice if a home in the style of the Ponderosa ranch house would meet with her approval.

“Yes, as long as it’s not as big as this.”

“No, I plan on just five rooms to start. We can add on later if we need to.” Alice had blushed a little at that statement in front of all the men so Ben decided to change the subject.

“Your brother, Hoss, is going to be so surprised.”

“Pa, I think he knew this was coming. We want to get married as soon as we can. We were thinking a month from today would be good. Is that enough time to prepare?”

Ben looked at Hop Sing who was grinning, and then at the other men who couldn’t have looked more willing to help. “I think that will be just fine. We’ll have everything ready.”

Joe was correct in his assumption that Hoss would not be surprised, but Hoss was going to surprise all of them. He was in California celebrating his own wedding. It had happened very suddenly but when he found out that Claire was going to have a baby soon, he knew what he wanted to do. He thought his family especially his father would be upset at missing the wedding, but he could not let his child be born illegitimately. He would stay here until the birth of the child, and then the three of them would go home. He hoped his family would be happy to know he had found his true love.

Everything happened so much faster than Hoss had anticipated. On their wedding night, he and his wife celebrated their marriage with gentle lovemaking. By the early morning hours, she started labor. Hoss rushed out to ask a neighbor to send for the doctor. Eighteen grueling hours later, Joshua Cartwright was born. When Hoss held him in his arms, he thought his heart might burst as he fell in love a second time. He looked at his wife and smiled his biggest grin, but Claire could barely manage the small smile she had before she closed her eyes.

“That’s quite a big boy you have there, Mr. Cartwright. Your wife is exhausted. I don’t think I have ever delivered a baby as large as that one. Your wife needs to rest. She has had quite an ordeal.”

“When can she travel? I want to take her home.”

“Give her two weeks at least. Then if the travel is not too strenuous, she will be fine. Where are you going? The Ponderosa?”

Nodding Hoss continued to smile. He probably smiled the rest of that day and into his sleep. Josh was a hungry baby, but nursing the baby was all that Hoss allowed his wife to do. He took care of everything else. Each night, he slept by her side, got up when Josh cried, changed him into a dry diaper and gown, and then handed him to her for a feeding. After a few days, he did have to go deliver the soiled clothing to a laundry, but that was the only time he left the house in the first week. By the beginning of the second week, his wife wanted to be out of bed. Claire sat in the kitchen as he cooked according to her instructions. She watched as he bathed their son, and dressed him. She thanked God every day for bringing this wonderful man into her life. They talked of the Ponderosa and discussed whether they would live with Ben or build their own home.

Finally after two weeks, Hoss packed up what they would need to travel. He made arrangements to have the rest of her belongings crated and shipped to them. His plan was that they would take the train as far as they could, and then the stage over the mountain passes. In Virginia City, Hoss planned to rent a carriage to take his wife and son home to surprise the rest of the family. He hoped his father would be pleased.

Hoss also suspected that Joe might have something to tell him. He would have to apologize to Joe if what he had done took anything away from the celebration of Joe’s engagement and wedding plans for Hoss was sure that Alice Harper was going to be Alice Cartwright before the summer was over if not sooner. He smiled to think about how his father would feel with his two oldest sons married. Then he paused as he thought that was wrong because the oldest son was still missing and causing their father to alternate between mourning his loss and vainly hoping for his return. Hoss decided it was time to tell his wife more of their family history. He found it painful to talk about Adam, but she needed to know about all of his brothers not just the two she would meet.

*****

Chapter 5

In Salt Lake City, Adam was getting a hotel room at that same time. This was the closest he had come to his former home in eight years, but the murderous gamblers he was tracking had come this way. Their deadly trail wasn’t too difficult to follow. They had started in Dodge City, Kansas with their scheme. They would lure in gamblers with early wins and then fleece them of everything they owned allowing them to use IOUs to try to win back the money they lost at the table. They never won that money back and then had those debts to pay as well. Men who did not pay those gambling debts ended up dead and often members of their family were killed too.

The marshal who alerted Adam to the quartet warned him of how dangerous they were and that there was only a small reward because they moved on so quickly after every town in which they worked their scheme. As Adam had time to think as he had traveled, he had made a decision. He would make this his last apprehension.

Reverend Benjamin had told him a number of times that he had paid his penance and should move forward. He had not accepted that until now for the killing that he had done. What penance he would pay for the hurt and harm he had caused his family, he had not yet decided. But with a wife, and a child on the way, he thought it irresponsible to keep risking his life. He worried perhaps that someone might recognize him as he neared Nevada, but as he looked in the mirror, he also knew it was unlikely. His beard and hair were long and starting to show the gray more. His slouch hat, and duster effectively disguised the rest of him. He just needed to do his work and go home to Aida.

Resting comfortably in the room after dinner, Adam pulled out the book that Aida had written about him. He read it slowly this time thinking of her as he read her words about him. He had never read the whole thing before because in his fury, he had skipped through the book after seeing it for sale. Now he read slowly and enjoyed her gift for prose. By the time he finished the first part of the book, he was tired and decided to read more on the next few nights if he had the time. He lay back in the bed and thought of the last time he had been with Aida.

“Do you have to go?” Aida had tears in her eyes and a few slipped down her cheek.

“Yes, but I will be back. We’ll talk more. We need to make plans for our future.”

That had brightened her countenance somewhat. She had wrapped her arms around him, and he had leaned down to kiss her. It was very early, and he hoped the neighbors were not watching as he pulled her to him for a passionate kiss. Finally he had taken his arms from her and mounted up. She had looked so forlorn standing there with her hand on the gatepost of the little fence in front of their house.

Watching until she could not see him any longer, Aida had stood just a bit longer at the gate. The neighbor to her side had walked out to bring in the morning paper and had watched Adam kiss Aida and then leave. She wondered what their relationship was for the man no longer hid his presence at her home as he had the first night he was there or so it seemed. She walked out to speak with Aida for her curiosity was aroused.

“Good morning. We have not met yet, but my name is Vera Webster.”

“Good morning. It is so good to finally meet a neighbor. My name is Aida Hepburn Just.”

“And is that gentleman who just left, your husband?”

Vera was fishing and Aida knew it. Aida was secretly so very pleased to be able to answer her. “Yes, that is my husband, Adam.”

Vera paused in thought for just a moment. “Adam Just! Well I just read a wonderful book about him. It never mentioned that he was married.”

“Well, Vera, we are well and truly married.” Aida held up her left hand to show the wedding ring Adam had given her. She was amazed herself every time she looked at it. Vera was suitably impressed, and Aida had no doubt that before the day was done, all the neighbors would know. It pleased her more than she would have thought. Somehow she felt more complete as a person now. She took her leave then to go inside and write a letter to her family. She knew more of their lives than Adam currently knew of his family, but she still missed not seeing them and hoped her good news might change her status with her father so that she could reunite with her family at some point. She dreamed of that happening and prayed for it often.

Adam had encouraged her to write knowing how important her family was to her and how hurt she was to be separated from them for so long. She would spend most of the day writing, and the next day, she would post the final version of that letter. Then she would pray for a good response. In her letter, she only referred to Adam never giving a last name. If and when they met, she wasn’t even sure what name he would want to use, and she wanted to avoid any inquiry as to why he had more than one name.

For the rest of the time that Adam was gone, Aida planned to write. She was sketching out stories of some of the men of the west and would choose one eventually for her next book. And she purchased a journal and began writing more and more about Adam. She wrote of their first meeting and the things she talked about with him. She wrote all the anecdotes she could remember. She wanted their child to know as much about his or her father as possible, and despite his assurances, she was worried that he might not come home from this trip. In his type of work, she knew she had to be ready for that and it scared her. She went to the newspaper offices to get back issues of newspapers they had gotten from other states and territories. She intended to find as much information as she could about the men who might be the subject of her next book. The busier she was, the less time she would have to worry. What she found was far more information than she had thought or expected.

In the Territorial Enterprise papers from Virginia City, there were a number of articles about a very large ranch on the shores of Lake Tahoe. Aida bought a map then and looked over the area. She realized there could not be very many Nevada ranches on the shores of Lake Tahoe because most of the lake was in California and that one very large ranch took up so much of the shore. She read a number of articles and many referred to the Ponderosa ranch. She started to get a niggling feeling as she read. She decided to do some research on that area especially of that large ranch. A man who had grown up in a region like that would likely know how to handle himself and use a pistol, but how many of them would have had the family resources to go to college.

If he grew up on a ranch, then he would know how to do that. In Abilene, when Adam had been in that gunfight, Aida had been shocked at the sudden explosive violence. She had been shocked too to realize how quickly a life could be snuffed out. She had seen the deadly precision with which Adam handled that pistol, and she knew it could not have been the first time he had killed a man in a duel. Afterwards she had seen the sorrow in his eyes at having been forced to take a life, but also the steely resolve that justice had been done and he had done no wrong. She had to wonder if he could change after three years of doing this. She would love him and stand by him regardless, but hoped that somehow he would eventually decide to make his living doing something else. She wondered at what other skills and talents he had that she did not yet know. He had been in college, and she wondered what he had studied. In the weeks he was gone, she had more and more questions she wanted to ask. She had to wonder too how many of those questions he would answer. How much would it take for him to trust her enough to tell her his secrets?

*****

In the morning, Adam arose and went to see the sheriff. He suspected that the men he was following would not try their scheme here but had to be sure. The sheriff told him that men fitting that description had passed through the town recently.

“I saw them, and I didn’t like the looks of them. I watched them pretty closely, but they left town without breaking any laws. Good riddance, and I suppose you’ll follow them now?”

“Yes, any idea where they were going?”

“Considering what you say they do, Reno, Carson City, or Virginia City are your best bets. Do you know the way?”

Nodding, Adam had thanked the sheriff and left. His stomach let him know how hard this was going to be even if in his mind, he had convinced himself that he could do this the same way he had done other searches and captures. The ride to Reno was unpleasant. There were a number of rain showers, and the road was muddy slowing his travel and ensuring that he would be thoroughly drenched by the time he reached any kind of shelter.

After making camp, Adam sat on a tarp and read a bit by campfire. It was too difficult though so he rolled into his bedroll pulling the tarp up an over a small lean-to frame he had made earlier. He hoped to have a decent night’s sleep at least. He reached Reno after another two days of wet travel.

The sheriff is Reno was brusque with Adam. It was easy to tell he had no use for bounty hunters, however the sheriff was at least impressed that Adam only sought to bring murderers to justice even if he assumed Adam did it for the money.

“Why just murderers?”

“They leave too many victims behind. The person they kill is the luckiest victim. The others suffer for years afterward. At least if the murderer is punished, they have that solace. It isn’t much, but it’s something tangible.”

The sheriff noted that Adam’s evident sorrow for the victims seemed real enough. He gave him all the information he could. The group had tried to work the scheme in Reno, but they were known to some of the professional gamblers in his town and they had warned the sheriff who ran the dishonest gamblers out of his town.

“My guess is Carson City or Virginia City will be their next stop. Not sure where they might go after that.”

After thanking the sheriff for his help, Adam mounted up to ride to Carson City. He hoped to find the men there because the risk of someone recognizing him was mounting the closer he got to home. After staying overnight in Reno, Adam left early and rode hard reaching Carson City late that same day. He took a room and ordered a bath. The next morning he headed to the telegraph office to send a wire to Aida. He sent one from every town he visited on this trip that was taking much longer than he had expected when he left. He told her he would stay here for two days so she could reply. Aida’s reply was that she was well but missing him terribly. He found that he felt both very good and very bad about that. He felt bad that she was lonely and he hoped to be with her again soon. But it did feel good at the same time to know that she loved him and missed him.

After consulting with the sheriff and talking to bartenders in the saloons in town, Adam was sure the men he was following were not in Carson City. He would have to go to Virginia City to find them for he doubted they would go any further until they had made some money. They hadn’t worked their scheme since they were in Laramie. He suspected they were originally working this region and had come back. They certainly seemed to move at ease in this far western region.

That night, Adam had a lot of time to kill so he began reading Aida’s book about him. He read for an hour and suddenly threw the book across the room where it hit the wall with a thud and fell to the floor as Adam vented his frustration. “Damn, damn, damn.” He had read her description of him when he had shaved. It was far too accurate. He wondered how many people out here might have read it. Knowing his youngest brother’s taste in literature, he suspected he would be reading it at some point. He needed to finish this job and get out of this region as quickly as he could. His stomach churned, and he felt a headache developing.

Well, Adam had expressed his thoughts on this type of thing to Aida more than once. Seemingly inconsequential things could loom so importantly in lives at the most unexpected of moments. Her allowing him to sit by her had been one such occurrence. Her writing that book had not done so much but that one paragraph description could have far reaching consequences. He had trouble sleeping that night. The next morning, it was raining again.

“Great, just great!”

After getting his horse from the livery stable, Adam mounted up and rode toward Virginia City. He was wearing his slicker and had his tarp wrapped around his bedroll and duster. Those lay over his saddlebags so the contents could remain dry. Again travel was slow because of the muddy roads. He did think it unlikely anyone would recognize him now as bedraggled as he was. About a half hour from Virginia City, he heard a roar and thought he knew what it was. He paused on high ground and waited. The valley was a broad one and the little creek at the bottom was prone to flash floods. He knew a stage had headed out before he did that day, and he hoped they had made it over the ford and up the next rise before this deluge hit. The roar was getting much louder and then he saw the wall of water crash into the valley and spread out making the little stream suddenly a quarter mile wide torrent. He wasn’t sure any more if he would get to Virginia City that day. Sometimes these floods cleared in an hour or two leaving mud as the only evidence that flood waters had inundated the valley. Other times the rain in the mountains continued to feed the surge and it could last most of a day.

*****

Chapter 6

Adam looked to the mountaintops, and it appeared there were no storms there so this should hopefully clear soon. He began to ride on to wait on the edge of the flooded area until he could cross. As he came around the last curve and looked downhill, he was unnerved. The stage was upside down in the water. Men were trying to rescue those trapped inside before the stage rolled again. But that was not what shocked him the most. There was a big man trying to get into the coach. He was about six foot six and probably weighed three hundred pounds and he was wearing a ten gallon hat. Even at this distance, Adam recognized his brother and hurried as rapidly as the muddy road would allow.

Hoss was struggling to hold his wife and not allow either of them to be swept away by the current pulling at his legs. He begged her to let go of the stage but she would not because Josh was inside yet. Hoss yelled at her that he had to get her to safety so he could rescue Josh for he could not do both at once. She was in such a panic nothing was getting through to her. A rider came up and threw a rope to the driver who quickly tied it to a wheel as the stranger tied the rope to a tree on shore. Hoss briefly wondered why he didn’t tie it to his horse but realized one horse could not pull this stage in this current especially. The stranger threw off his slicker and hat and waded into the river using the rope to keep his footing. When he got to the coach, he told Hoss to take the woman and use the rope to get to shore. She screamed no and fought against both of them. The stranger grabbed her then and pulled her away from Hoss and the coach. She screamed and clawed at his face. Hoss grabbed her and pulled her into his arms before he had to grab the rope to keep from falling.

“Our baby is in the coach. That’s why she’s so crazy.”

“I’ll get the baby. Get her to shore.”

The couple that had been hanging onto the coach had already used the rope to move toward the shore. Looking at the driver, Adam yelled at him to help his passengers. Next Adam climbed through the window of the coach. He had to submerge to do so but it was the quickest way in. He found the baby immediately. Someone had put the baby beneath the seat that of course now was at the top of the coach. The baby was crying, and Adam held him to his chest wondering how to safely get the baby out of the coach when the coach started to shift and flipped on its side. Adam hit his head against the side of the coach but kept the baby safely cradled against his chest. Getting out had been simplified somewhat if the coach would just stay where it was for a minute. It was rocking though so he pushed the door open at the top and climbed out as quickly as he could. Hoss had nearly screamed when he saw the coach flip on its side but when saw the stranger climb out with his son, his heart was relieved. His wife and son were alive!

The stranger walked to shore clinging to the rope and holding the baby. As he walked from the coach to the shore, Hoss waded in and tenderly took his son and walked carefully out of the floodwater. Then he dropped to his knees next to his wife to show her that Josh was safe. The baby was the only one who was dry. The stranger dropped to the ground obviously exhausted. He was bearded, had long bedraggled hair, was soaking wet, and was covered in mud yet Hoss and his wife had never seen a more impressive man. Everyone sat silently for a time. The water gradually receded. When the water was quite shallow around the coach, the stranger waded in and untied his rope. He coiled it as he waded back and then walked to his horse.

The stranger’s voice was hoarse. “I’ll ride to town and send help. Just try to stay out of the water until help arrives. I don’t think there’ll be any more flash flooding. It looks clear up on the mountain now.”

“Mister, what’s your name? Let me pay you or offer you the hospitality of my family’s ranch.”

“Not necessary. I’ll send help. Take good care of your family, Hoss.”

“Thank you. I will.”

The stranger’s voice even though it was a bit hoarse had sounded so familiar. The roar of the water and the commotion hadn’t let Hoss concentrate on anything like that though.  His manner and his walk also seemed very familiar, but Hoss couldn’t place him and didn’t take too much time to think about it as he cradled his wife and son in his arms. In just over an hour, there were wagons and men there to help. Hoss and the others were wrapped in blankets and helped into wagons. Men from the stage line went to retrieve luggage and try to right the coach and bring it back. The horses were gone having ripped away their harness as soon as they had been caught in the flashflood. As they drove to the Ponderosa as Hoss had requested of the driver promising to pay any additional charges, Claire asked Hoss a significant question.

“Eric, how did that man know that you are called Hoss?”

“Well he must have heard someone here call me that.”

“Eric, I don’t call you that, and we introduced you to everyone on the stage as Eric. Yet he told you to take care of your family and called you Hoss.”

“You know, he did seem really familiar like I should know him. Maybe I’ll find him in town and buy him a drink if he’s still there tomorrow. Today, I gotta get you two home and warmed up. Boy howdy, this isn’t how I planned our homecoming, but now I’m just so thankful that I still have both of you to take home.”

*****

In Virginia City, Adam wanted a room and a bath but his funds were running low. He went to the cheapest place in town, and asked for pitchers of water and a washtub. In his room, he bathed himself as well as he could and then washed his clothing hanging them up to dry on the rope he also washed. He did his best to scrub his boots inside and out before setting them down to dry. After cleaning and drying his pistol, he oiled it and then oiled his rig. He looked at himself in the mirror and hardly recognized himself. He had scratches down one side of his face and the skin was puffy around them even though he had washed them carefully. On the other side of his face was a large bruise from his face meeting the side of the coach rather forcefully when it had rolled with him inside. It was painful, but he had suffered much worse in the past and these injuries would help to disguise him even more.

Sore but hungry, Adam eyed his wet boots and wondered what would be worse: skipping a meal or slogging around in all that wet leather. He decided he didn’t need the meal, and it would conserve his dwindling funds as well. He spread some healing salve on the cuts on his face and slipped into bed. He planned to eat breakfast the next morning and then begin looking for his quarry.

*****

On the Ponderosa, Hoss had reduced nearly everyone to silence with the shocks he had given them. First of all he showed up wet and muddy with a woman and baby describing how they had barely survived being killed when the stage was caught in a flash flood. Then he introduced the lady as his wife, Claire, and the baby as his son, Josh. Joe recovered first.

“Hoss, you old hound dog. You were married and keeping it from us. And you got a son. Pa, it’s your first grandchild.”

Ben stepped toward Hoss and held out his arms. Hoss tipped Josh toward him so Ben could see him more clearly. Hop Sing got them all back to reality quickly.

“Bath water heating. You come now. I get towels and you clean up, and missy clean up, and baby too.” Herding them to the kitchen and then the washroom, Hop Sing brought them soap and pitchers of water. “Soon water hot and bath ready. Clean off mud first.”

Both of them began using soapy cloths to clean themselves and the baby. Claire was concerned about modesty but need not have been. When the water was hot, Hop Sing knocked on the washroom door and told Hoss to come get the water. There were two large kettles of water, and Hop Sing said he was heating more. Claire and Hoss stripped the filthy gown from their baby first and bathed him before wrapping him in a clean soft towel. Then Hoss held him as Claire stepped into the steaming tub and soaked the sore spots and washed herself.

“Eric, I don’t have any clean clothing.”

“Well, there’s a robe here that will cover everything and then I’m sure my family can scrounge up something for you to wear tonight. One of Joe’s nightshirts will fit you even if it’s a little big on you.”

“I would like that right away if you could ask, please.”

Hoss opened the door to ask Hop Sing to do just that, and Hop Sing pointed to a stack of clean clothing on a chair next to the door. There was quite a bit of clothing there giving them choices as to what to wear. The best fit for Claire was some of Jamie’s clothing. With a little addition of a notch to the belt, she was dressed modestly even if the clothing was for a male. Hoss had his own clothing of course. He bathed after Claire was dressed and holding Josh. Then he dressed and the family walked out of the washroom.

“Hop Sing, I know the washroom is a mess. I’ll clean it up later. Thank you so much for helping us.”

“Yes, thank you so much, Hop Sing. Eric has told me so much about you, and you are even more of a treasure than he described. I will help you in any way I can to clean up the mess we made.”

Smiling at the appreciation and the offers of help, Hop Sing continued his cooking. He had added more dishes when he realized Hoss was home and had brought a wife as well.

When Hoss and Claire walked into the great room with Josh, they could see that everyone was anxiously waiting to hear their story. Hoss told them of meeting Claire in Kansas City over a year before, and how she had moved to California when a job opportunity opened up in a library there so she could be closer to Hoss. Then he had visited as often as possible until winter. Upon returning to see her in spring, he found her with child and married her before Josh could be born which turned out to be just in time.

Then Joe announced his news that he and Alice were to be married in two weeks. Hoss offered congratulations to him. Ben made a suggestion.

“Joe, perhaps you could delay your wedding a couple of weeks so we can celebrate Hoss’ wedding first?”

“Uh, Pa, we really can’t.” Joe had turned a bit red in the face, and suddenly everyone knew why.

“My sons seem to have a little trouble getting the order right. It’s marriage first, or didn’t anyone teach you that sufficiently?”

Unwilling to be cowed, with a cheeky grin, Joe had an answer. “Uh, Pa, just following your lead.” Joe had been born well before his parents celebrated nine months of marriage.

Ben was going to react, but had nothing he could say. “Well, what’s done is done. We’ll celebrate Hoss’ wedding this weekend, and then Joe’s wedding the week after. Is that satisfactory?”

No one had any objections. Later as Claire was upstairs nursing Josh, Hoss walked out to look up at the stars. Ben followed him outside.

“Pa, tomorrow I’d like to go to town to see if I can claim our luggage. I’d like to look up the man who helped save us, and see ifn he needs anything. I’d like to know who he is too. He seemed real familiar.”

“Didn’t you say he declined your offers?”

“Yes, but I’d like to try again. He saved my son. That’s worth an awful lot to me.”

“To me, too, son. I’ll ride in with you if you like.”

“That would be great, Pa. So, Pa, do you like her?”

“She seems a wonderful woman, Hoss. Are you happy?”

“Pa, I never thought I could be this happy in my life.”

“That’s what really matters the most, son. Congratulations on being a husband and a father. I’m very happy for you. And for me: I finally have a grandson!”

Hoss wrapped an arm around his father’s shoulders, and they walked back inside the house.

That night, Hoss awoke from a disturbing dream. Not surprisingly, he had dreamed of the near disaster that might have claimed his family save for the intervention of a stranger except in his dream, the savior was Adam. Before he left, he told Hoss to take care of his family. For a long time, Hoss was unable to get to sleep.

*****

Chapter 7

In Virginia City, the next morning, Adam began his search for Sloan and Hanley and whomever else they were working with. He moved from saloon to saloon after a light breakfast. He found them down on D street at a saloon that was new since he had been in Virginia City eight years earlier. He ordered a whiskey and sat a back corner table and watched from beneath the brim of his slouch hat that was pulled down low over his eyes. There appeared to be four of them and they already had a mark. He listened but never picked up any other names. He nursed the drink to make it last so he wouldn’t have to have another. Twice saloon girls approached him but he shook his head, and they went away each time. After that, they left him alone.

Ben and Hoss had come to town to locate the stranger who had helped Hoss and his family. They found a man who fit the description had registered at a cheap hotel. His signature was so sloppy they couldn’t read it. The clerk didn’t know his name. They told the clerk to put any charges on a Ponderosa account and they would settle up when he left. Knowing he must have gone to a restaurant in town for meals, they located the restaurant where he had had his breakfast and made the same arrangement there. Finally, Ben and Hoss saw Dan DeQuille and talked to him about the stranger. Dan told them he thought he saw such a man walking from saloon to saloon earlier. He wasn’t sure where he had ended up for he had not seen him for hours.

Although Hoss was willing, Ben did not want to take a tour of the saloons in town to see if they could find the Good Samaritan. Ben said he thought they had done enough especially because the man had earlier declined Hoss’ offers. Hoss was disappointed as they rode home. He had wanted to ask the man how he knew his name was Hoss. And outlandish as it seemed, he wanted to see if the man resembled Adam and had caused him to have that dream the night before. However he wasn’t ready to voice such an idea to his father, so he had to acquiesce to his father’s decision to stop searching for the man.

On the ride back home, Hoss and Ben decided to ride to Joe’s building site and were amazed at the progress that had been made. The kitchen and one bedroom were done. The office, parlor, and other bedroom still had to be finished but it was clear the house would be ready for occupancy by the time of the wedding. First, though, there would be a big party to celebrate Hoss’ wedding.

*****

On Saturday, Adam was standing near the saloon where his quarry usually played poker all day. He was trying to work out a plan for taking all four men. He had not come up with anything at that point. He watched as wagons and carriages rolled down the street carrying a number of well dressed people. He did wonder where they were all going.

“Wondering what’s up?”

Adam glanced to the side and saw Dan DeQuille. He had successfully avoided the newspaper writer for days. He just nodded.

“Big wedding on the Ponderosa. You must have heard of it. Yes, Hoss is celebrating his wedding, and the second brother, Joe is getting married next Saturday. Ben Cartwright must be very proud. Only the youngest, Jamie, isn’t headed into marriage yet.”

Dan watched and the stranger did not react. He looked familiar, but the news had not had an impact. Dan would likely continue to wonder who he was for he answered no questions. “You looking for work here?” The man shook his head slightly. “You got business here?” and he shrugged.

Noticing the injuries to the stranger’s face, Dan wondered if the man did spend a lot of time in saloons for he thought it looked like the man had been in a brawl. Not knowing the details of the crash of the stagecoach in the flash flood, Dan didn’t ask about the injuries. Dan didn’t pick up on anything that would let him know there was a story here so he just wished the man good day and headed to his office. All he got was a finger to tip the hat. Again that looked so familiar, but Dan concluded the stranger must just look like someone he knew. He would later regret jumping to those conclusions and ignoring his suspicions. The stranger had put him off so easily he should have wondered at that too.

Looking calm on the exterior, Adam was churning inside. He had thought Hoss had been married a while but apparently despite the child the marriage was recent. Then he had the news that Joe was getting married, and felt a little sorrow that he would not be there for that either. He had no idea how to react to the news that there was another son on the Ponderosa now. He couldn’t imagine how that had happened. He had only been gone eight years so to have a younger brother who was old enough to consider marriage was extremely surprising to him. He pushed his reactions down and headed into the saloon, but the group was not gambling. The mark was not there. Adam ordered a whiskey but stood at the bar trying to overhear any conversation at the table among the four. He learned very quickly that the mark was the brother of the woman Joe Cartwright was to marry so had been invited to the wedding celebration that day.

On Sunday, the men did not gamble but there was a very serious discussion at that table. Apparently the mark was now deeply in debt, and the men were demanding payment. He was asking them to wait until his sister was married into the Cartwrights so that he could ask her for the money. The four men seemed unwilling to wait. Something was going to happen very soon, and Adam still did not have a plan. He considered that the emotional pressure of being here had robbed him of some of his analytical skills. He would have to think hard before tomorrow for he expected them to try something by then, and he needed to be ready. He kept his horse saddled the rest of Sunday, and then again Monday morning as he watched the four men.

Seeing John Harper ride into town, Adam worked his way close to the man but kept out of sight of anyone who might confront him. Sloan and the others did confront Harper and push him down an alley.

“I asked. She won’t ask her fiancée for the money. I don’t have any more than I gave you. You have to believe me. I don’t have any more.”

“Well, let’s go visit your sister and see what she’s got.”

“No, I won’t take you to her.”

“Well, then, you’ll die right here.”

The four men moved off down the alley with John Harper between two of them. Adam thought about confronting them until two small boys ran into the alley from the other direction. He would not risk them being injured so he ran to get his horse and ride out of town. He would certainly see them as they headed to the Ponderosa he thought. He planned to intercept them. It didn’t work. They rode out of town by another exit, and it was only by luck he saw them riding away. They took a roundabout way to the Ponderosa which made no sense to Adam until he saw them approaching a building site. He knew then that it was probably a house that Joe was building. They had ridden this way to avoid being seen. He dismounted, grabbed his rifle, and headed through the trees to try to get in a position to help the Harpers for he had to assume Joe’s fiancée was at this location.

“No, no, don’t hurt her.”

John Harper’s cry made Adam hurry. He finally had a clear view of the house and saw Hanley with a gun to a woman’s head. He sighted his rifle into the center of Hanley’s head but he was not standing still because the woman was fighting him. Hanley used the pistol to hit the woman in the head. When she fell and Hanley raised his arm to hit her again, Adam fired. Hanley flew back into the wall of the cabin. Sloan held John Harper in front of him as a shield as all three men fired in the general direction of where Adam had fired, but he had already moved. From his new position, he aimed at one of the other men and fired. That was two down. They again fired but he had returned to the original position he had used and fired at the other man. That was three down but Sloan had moved next to the woman. With John as a shield, he pointed his pistol at the woman’s head.

“Come out now, or I’ll blow her brains out!”

There was no way Adam would come out. It would only mean all three of them would die. He rested the rifle on a branch. He took several deep breaths. Then he aimed carefully at the man’s hand holding the pistol. He fired. He heard Joe’s voice behind him demanding he drop his weapon. He did even as he heard the woman scream. Sloan had his arm around her neck now holding a pistol in his undamaged hand. In a hoarse voice, Adam told Joe what to do.

“I’ll walk out now. When he aims at me, shoot him.”

Holding his hands out to his sides, Adam walked forward. Joe was confused. He had thought this man was shooting at his fiancée and her brother. Now he saw that a man had his arm around his wife’s neck and a gun to her temple. He realized he did need to do as the stranger had asked. He pointed his rifle at Sloan and carefully aimed at his head which showed partially over Alice’s. As the stranger walked from the trees, Sloan turned the weapon toward John and fired, and quickly swung it toward Adam and fired again. Adam dropped to one knee as Sloan raised the pistol to fire again releasing Alice from his grasp. He never finished the move because Joe’s bullet found its mark. Adam stood and watched as Joe ran forward and wrapped his arms around Alice. Hands from the Ponderosa rode in soon after. Adam said only a few words.

“I’ll take the bodies in for the bounties. Would you throw them over their saddles, please?”

After walking back to retrieve his rifle and his horse, Adam rode to the house to collect the four horses and their cargoes. He left before Hoss returned and before Joe had calmed Alice enough to find out what had happened. John was dead too.

“John owed money to these men. He came out this morning to ask me to help him. I said I wouldn’t. I told him to get a job and pay his own debts. Oh, Joe, I never thought they would kill him. They threatened him and said I needed to get the money. I said I couldn’t, and the big man hit me with his pistol. Then there was gunfire, and he was shot as well as two of the others. Then that last man held a gun on me and someone shot his hand. Joe did you do all of that?”

“No, my love, the long haired stranger did that.”

Joe looked around and asked the hands where the stranger had gone. They told him that he said he would take the bodies for the bounties. Soon after that, Hoss and Ben arrived with more hands. Once Joe described the stranger, Hoss exclaimed that is had to be the same man who had helped them with the stage coach.

“Sloan shot him. I tried to shoot Sloan but Alice was so close to him and I was afraid of hitting her. Once Sloan thought he had the man hurt, he relaxed his hold on Alice and I had a clear shot. I guess he couldn’t have been hurt too bad though if he rode away. We should send some hands to town to see if he needs help and get Roy out here to tell him what happened.”

Roy was there about two hours later. No one had brought any bodies in for bounties, and he nor anyone else had seen the stranger, wounded or not. No one knew where he had gone.

*****

In Carson City, Adam arrived at the sheriff’s office leading four horses carrying four dead men. Even in Carson, that drew a crowd. The sheriff came outside to see about the commotion and asked Adam what had happened. Adam pulled four wanted posters from his coat and handed them to the sheriff with a bloody hand. Then he slumped low over the saddle.

“Are you hurt?” He nodded to the sheriff’s question.

“What’s your name?”

“Adam Just.” Then he started to fall from his horse, and several men stepped forward to catch him and carry him to the doctor’s office. In the doctor’s office, he was carried directly into the surgery at the doctor’s instruction. The doctor could see enough blood to know he had to do something quickly. He found that a bullet had torn a hole in Adam’s spleen. Luckily the bullet had been a .38 caliber. The doctor was able to repair the damage, but Adam needed a week to recuperate and was weak from blood loss. He probably should have taken longer, but he wanted to get home. Against doctor’s advice, Adam left town and headed to Denver. He had them put his horse in a stock car, and he bought a ticket to ride.

A few days later, Adam arrived at his home. Aida was waiting on the porch when the carriage brought him there. She rushed to the carriage as soon as she saw Adam start to climb out. He gave her one of those little crooked grins of his, and her heart stopped pounding so much. The driver untied his horse from the back of the carriage, and hauled his saddle and saddlebags to the porch. Adam paid him well for his services, and Aida helped Adam into the house. She had been worried and unable to sleep or eat properly ever since she got his first telegram saying he had been shot and had needed surgery. Even though he had assured her he was going to be fine, she had not truly believed it until she saw him. He was pale however and seemed weak.

“I’m tired, but I’ll be all right. The doctor stitched me up well. and I took the train ride back here. Please don’t worry too much. There’s some good news too. I decided that was my last job as a bounty hunter.”

Aida began to cry. Not only was she overjoyed to hear that, but her pregnancy had made her more emotional. After a few minutes, she went to get his saddlebags and then she went to put his horse in their stable.

*****

In Virginia City, Dan DeQuille was reading a paper from Carson City when he exclaimed. “Damn!” On the Ponderosa at about the same time, Hoss said the same thing for the same reason. The headline on a short article was: Famous Bounty Hunter Adam Just Turns In Sloan Gang for Bounties, and the line underneath said all four had been shot dead. In the article, it mentioned that Just was also wounded and spent a week under a doctor’s care before leaving town.

Dan had realized that he had missed the opportunity to see if Adam Just was Adam Cartwright. He was convinced more than ever that he was. The man who had given him that tip of the hat, the clipped answers to questions had to have been Adam Just, and the way he mounted up on his horse was so like the Adam Cartwright that he knew. He wondered what he could and should do at this point.

Hoss had to explain to everyone why he had used that expletive. The whole family was together for dinner.

“That stranger who saved me and my family and then showed up to save Alice was Adam Just. You know, he’s the one in the book. Here we had a chance to talk with him, and we didn’t even know who he was.”

Joe was reminded then of the conversation Dan DeQuille had with him weeks earlier. He asked Hoss where that book was because he wanted to read parts of it that he had skipped over. He had an even greater curiosity about the bounty hunter now.

“Joe, I ain’t finished that book yet. I’ll give it to ya when I’m done if that’s all right.”

Hoss’ curiosity was piqued now as well and after dinner, he sat in the chair and read for hours. About nine, he suddenly stopped reading and reread the previous paragraph. He thought for a bit and read it one more time. He looked around the room, and no one was looking at him. He bent the page over, and walked to Joe.

“Here’s the book. I’m done with it for now. Take a look at that page I marked. You might find it more interesting than the rest of the book.”

A little irritated that Hoss had interrupted his time with his wife, Joe took the book and set it next to him. He and Alice were staying at the house until she felt more comfortable being at their house. The trouble there had unnerved her, and Joe didn’t want her to be too upset in her condition. About that time, Hop Sing announced that he had a bath ready for Alice as she had requested. She left, and as she walked into the kitchen headed to the washroom, Joe picked up the book to read the page Hoss had marked.

*****

Chapter 8

“Well, what do you think?”

“Hoss, I don’t know. That sure describes Adam, but it could describe other men as well. He was right next to you. Doesn’t it seem odd that you wouldn’t know him?”

“That’s just it, Joe. He seemed so familiar like I shoulda known him. As soon as I read that in the book, I knew it. I was so worried about Claire and Josh, I didn’t pay as much attention as I should have that day. That was our brother, Joe. I’m a hunderd percent sure of it. I’m positive! That’s why he called me Hoss when nobody there knew I went by that name instead of Eric. I think I might even have known then but I was thinking it couldn’t be. I mean why didn’t he say something to me? Joe I even dreamed of that day and the man who was there was Adam. I know it in my heart. I just know it.”

“I’m not so sure.”

“Joe, you saw him too. Didn’t ya see the resemblance?”

“I don’t know. I was so worried about Alice, I don’t think I paid much attention to anything else.”

Hoss nodded his head knowing exactly how his younger brother had felt.

“Hoss, I still don’t know, but I have been meaning to talk to you about hiring detectives one last time to try to find our older brother. I’m assuming you would agree? We need to find out if this Just could be our brother.”

So on that Monday, Joe headed to town to see about hiring a detective agency to check into Adam Just and find out as much about him as possible. As he left the telegraph office, he saw Dan DeQuille and walked over to talk with him. From the look on Joe’s face, Dan had a pretty good idea what he wanted to talk about.

“You suspected all along that Adam Just was my older brother, didn’t you?”

“Well you do get to the point. Yes, I did but it was and is just a suspicion. Are you more sure than that?”

“Hoss is. Why didn’t you say something? Why play your silly little game?”

“It wasn’t silly at all. I didn’t want to suggest anything to you. I wanted you to have an honest reaction. I could be wrong. We could be wrong, but we probably aren’t if all three of us came to the same conclusion. I wish I had realized that he was in town here. He did seem familiar, and yet I never put the two together.”

“Hoss didn’t either. That was the man who helped save Claire and Josh and the other passengers when the stage was caught in that flash flood. Heck, Hoss would probably died too because he would never have given up trying with his wife and son in danger.”

“Hoss didn’t recognize him?”

“Well he was focused on saving his wife and son. And Adam Just has long hair and a beard, and he doesn’t dress at all like he did if that’s my brother Adam. Hoss said his voice was hoarse. Said it didn’t sound like Adam’s voice. I only heard him talk once but that voice was hoarse. It wasn’t my brother’s voice, at least not how I remember it.”

“What will you do now?”

“We’re contacting a detective agency to check into things.”

“Did you know Adam Just is married?”

“No. How do you know that?”

“It was in one of the Denver papers. It was a small notice that said Adam Just married Aida Hepburn.”

“Hey, isn’t that the woman you said wrote that book about him?”

Dan nodded, and Joe could only sigh. Joe knew that, somehow, all of this had to be connected but he had no idea how at this point. At least now, there were a couple of leads. What he didn’t know was that those leads would allow someone else who was nursing a grudge to locate Adam as well.

*****

In Denver, Adam woke up late that Monday. He had been sleeping a lot since arriving home. Aida brought meals to him sometimes and let him eat propped up in bed as she sat at the bedside table to eat. He decided that he had enough of pampering. He was feeling stronger each day. The train ride had been too much just as the doctor had warned, but home with his wife, he was feeling better and better in just a couple of days. He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He kept a hand across the incision area on his side to be careful. Then he slowly pushed himself up until he was standing and had to sit back down again as dizziness assaulted him.

“You could have asked for help, you know.”

Aida was at the door but smiling. She walked in to stand in front of Adam and offer him her hands. He took one hand and stood. She helped steady him until the dizziness passed. Then she helped him dress in pants and a shirt. He told her he could skip the socks and boots for now. Gingerly, he walked down the stairs. As his balance returned though, he felt stronger and more able to walk by himself. By noon, he had a request.

“After lunch, can you cut my hair?”

“Really? Are you ready to look like you used to?”

“Well, I probably won’t. My hair has a bit of gray in it now, and my face is definitely older looking, but yes, I’m done with hiding.”

“Will you start using your real name?”

Something about her demeanor caused Adam to draw a conclusion. “You know, don’t you? You figured it out.”

Caught out, Aida was honest. “Yes, when you said your family had a ranch on the shores of Lake Tahoe in Nevada, it wasn’t that far to the rest. How many families out there could afford to send a son to college in the East?”

As Aida stepped closer, Adam pulled her onto his lap. “You haven’t told anyone else, have you?”

“No. I promised you I would never write anything else about you without your permission. I did write it in my journal. But that’s just for me to read, or you can read it if you want to. I have written a lot about us in there. I would never let anyone else read my journal. But I have no secrets from you.”

“Well, then, my devious clever little wench, yes, I’m Adam Cartwright.”

“Pleased to meet you, Adam Cartwright. Do you think you’d like to give me some kisses?”

“What will your husband think?”

“Oh, I’m hoping he’s going to love the idea. Maybe he would even like to do a lot more if he thinks he can. It has been a long time.”

That got a grin for in fact he was quite willing to do more. Later lying together on the thick rug in front of the fireplace, Aida again asked if he was ready to be himself again.

“Well, I think I have to take that chance if I want a job as an architect. My degree is as Adam Cartwright. I don’t think they’ll accept my word that I have a degree if I use another name.”

“You want to get a job as an architect?”

“It was one of the things I studied in college. It’s a skill I have, and it keeps me here with you and safe from being shot, I hope. Any angry relative seeking Adam Just will find that he has disappeared. I doubt any of them will hire detectives to figure it out.”

“What if your family seeks you out?”

“Then I’ll have to face them. I don’t know how I could possibly make up for all the hurt I’ve caused, but I’ll have to wait and see what happens. I’d probably want to poke my brother in the eye if he had done something like that, so I wouldn’t be surprised too much if they wanted to do that to me, or perhaps never want to see me again. It’s what I deserve.”

“What brought all of this on? Did you see some of your family while you were in Nevada?”

“Yes, I did, but I thought a lot about you and about us while I was traveling. It was time for me to trust you. I love you, and you deserve to know the truth, all of it.”

With tears suddenly filling her eyes, Aida kissed Adam and held him tightly and then kissed him with all of the passion she had. She knew then that he loved her as much as anyone could love another. He had given her all of his trust. He would have no more secrets from her. She could ask questions now, and he would answer. Adam responded to her passion, and they enjoyed another bout of lovemaking.

Later as Aida was cutting Adam’s hair, he told her about seeing Hoss and finding that he had a wife and son. Then he told her that he found out he had another brother but had no idea how that had happened.

“Adam, I would think you know how that happens.”

“No, you see he’s old enough to consider getting married, and I’ve only been gone eight years. So I have no idea how he came to be another son.”

“Perhaps, your father has secrets too.”

“Well, someday I may find out that story.” Then Adam told the story of following the four wanted men and what happened at Joe’s house.

“You what! You walked out there unarmed and let a man take a shot at you? Are you crazy? You could have been killed!”

“I trusted Joe. It was the only way to save his fiancée, well, wife by now I would guess.”

Not knowing how to react to that, and extremely upset by what she had heard, Aida stood shaking and then started crying. Adam stood and wrapped his arms around her. They remained that way for a long time as Adam gave her time to think and process the whole story.

“I think I understand, but if you ever do anything else like that, I may shoot you myself.”

Adam held her to his chest and talked softly. “I’m sorry, but if that same situation happened, I would do the exact thing that I did. It’s who I am. I couldn’t let him kill her.”

“I know, I know. But why do you have to be the hero? Now that I have you, I can’t imagine living without you.”

“Well hopefully if you finish this haircut and make me look presentable, I can get a job that doesn’t involve using a gun.” Adam tried to keep it light because he knew how upset she was. If it had been Aida’s life at risk, he would have been just as upset or likely even more so. When she had calmed, Adam sat back down and waited for her to finish his haircut. Then he shaved, and when he dressed, Aida just looked at him with her eyes wide.

“Oh my!”

“Does that mean you like it?” And Adam laughed and kissed her. He had not buttoned his shirt for he had another request. “Do you think you could remove these stitches? I think they’ve done their job and now they just itch. Then if you don’t mind, I think I need to go buy some new clothes. Would you like to go shopping with me?”

When Adam and Aida left to go shopping, Vera was outside. She stared at the couple as they walked by. Aida chuckled and Adam smiled. “It’s the same husband. I just have a lot less hair now.” And they continued walking as Vera mumbled a good afternoon to them. She wished she could cut her husband’s hair and have him look like that. In her mind, the scenery in the neighborhood had just improved dramatically. Adam deposited the money from the last trip in a bank, keeping enough cash for clothing purchases, and other expenses they might have in the near future. It was the first official use of his true name in eight years.

When they returned home, Adam hung his new wardrobe in their small closet. He looked at the clothing that Aida had and wished he could buy her some gowns and take her to some wonderful parties. She walked in as he was staring into the closet.

“Second guessing yourself?”

“Not at all. I just wish I could buy you some pretty things, and take you to parties and the theatre.”

“Adam, we’ll do those things. I have a steady income from the book royalties. You will have a regular income too and it will likely be much larger than mine. I would guess that in a few months, we’ll be able to do some of those other things. I can wait. Meanwhile, I love the things we do together now.” She had grinned provocatively at him then which was all it ever took with Adam. He wanted her as often as she was willing. He bent to kiss her, and as her arms wrapped around his neck, he began undressing her.

“Impatient, are we?”

Stopping, he looked at her to gauge her mood. She grinned, and he knew she was teasing him so he continued. Later they wore their robes to the kitchen and had a late dinner. Both slept very well that night.

On Tuesday, Adam made a tour of some of the architectural and construction companies in town. He secured a probationary position at one of the better firms. On Wednesday, he left their house shortly after eight to go to his new job. He was a little rusty, and had to borrow some drafting tools until he could order some for himself, but by the end of the day, it was clear to his new employer that he had hired a quality employee. He was exact with his measurements, and his drawing was better than anyone else he employed. He would watch him work on some of their current projects, and then he would decide what project to assign to him. He wouldn’t tell him yet, but Adam was no longer probationary after just one day on the job. On that Friday, Adam brought his first paycheck home. From that point on, he thought he would bring home a paycheck every Friday. It felt very good to have a steady income in a job that held no danger.

After a week and a half of work, Adam felt healthy and happier than he had felt in a long time. He and Aida decided to take their horses for a ride on Saturday. It was a beautiful day, and they had a picnic. The gentle breeze was warm and the sun was shining. Adam had been telling Aida about growing up on the Ponderosa, about his family, and about his life before he left to satisfy his wanderlust and he told more stories as they relaxed. She talked of her family, and cried a little to tell him her father had not answered her letter. She missed them so much, and it seemed they did not miss her. Adam held her and they kissed. He told her she had a new family now that would soon be larger, and the two of them could love their child with all of their hearts. Life seemed to have finally become more peaceful for them.

However when they arrived at their home, the back door was standing open. Adam drew his pistol and told Aida to stand back. Once he was sure no one was inside, he called to her to come into the house. They looked all through the house but found nothing missing. Adam walked back outside with Aida and they examined the back door. It had obviously been forced. Vera called to them from her vegetable garden.

“I knew those three were up to no good. They said they was friends of yours, but then they left before you got back.”

“Could you describe them?” Vera was very observant and described them well, but neither Adam nor Aida had any idea who they were. Adam went to the store then and came back with new locks. He spent the rest of the day installing them on the front and back doors. Then when they were inside, he opened another package to show Aida a pocket pistol. She had learned to fire a weapon out in the west but told him she wasn’t very accurate.

“It fires a shell with a number of different size shot in it. You don’t have to be very accurate, but it is only good for the two shots. It has to be a weapon for dire threats when you have no other options. It will fit in the pockets of your dresses, aprons, or jackets.”

“Adam, who were those men?”

“Sweetheart, I have no idea and that’s what worries me the most.”

*****

Chapter 9

On the Ponderosa, Hoss brought home the mail including a package from the detective agency Joe had hired to look for Adam. Hoss rode to Joe’s house because he wanted to know what was in the package. Joe and Alice had moved to the house he had built. Joe had installed locks and shutters to make the house secure. He had even built a small cellar under the kitchen for storage but also for emergencies. Finally, he had hired one of Hop Sing’s cousins, Mai Li, to live there and work with Alice. There was a cow in the stable, a small chicken coop, a couple of cats, and a dog which meant there was likely to be some noise if there was an intruder.

As Hoss arrived, the dog started barking and didn’t stop until Joe came outside.

“Well, that dog sure does sound the alarm. He’s seen me a bunch of times, but he still barks up a storm when I come over here.”

“He won’t bite you though. His tail was wagging the whole time. I do like having him here though. We get advance warning of anybody coming near the house.”

“Alice think of a name yet?”

“She calls him Douglas. She named him after Stephen Douglas cause of all the noise he makes. You got some mail for us?”

“Yeah, it’s a package from that detective agency.” The two men went inside to open the package in Joe’s study. They had gotten results sooner than expected. All their questions were answered too.

“Boy howdy, he looks older but that’s him. Got all the hair and the beard cut off too.” Hoss was looking at the sketch that was sent. Joe read the report.

“He’s using the name Adam Cartwright now. He is married to Aida Hepburn. They have a house, and he’s working at an architectural firm.”

Both brothers were silent as they thought, and then both started to talk at once so Joe pointed at Hoss to go first.

“Why don’t he come home or at least write?”

“Hoss, I don’t think we’re gonna know that until we talk to him. More importantly, when do we tell Pa?”

“Joe, I think we gotta figure a way to tell him today. This is too big to keep from him. He needs to know too.”

“Know what?”

Walking in the study, Alice had heard part of the conversation. They filled her in on the rest and she agreed with Hoss. “Yes, I understand your father is sixty-four, and this will be a big shock. But he has the right to know, and he’ll want to know.”

The three of them gathered up the materials, and stuffed them back into the package only then noticing another small note. Joe picked it up and read it. “Someone else is looking for Adam. The note says that the others have used illegal means including a burglary of their offices to gather information, and they suspect they are meaning some kind of harm to Adam, his wife or both.”

That caused all three of them to hurry. Not only would they tell Ben the news, but Hoss and Joe were already thinking they would be heading to Denver as fast as they could go.

Ben was shocked and turned pale nearly fainting with the news. When he was given a glass of brandy and a moment to process the information, he had the same thought as his two sons. “We’re going to Denver, and find out what is going on. I want to know why I haven’t seen my son for eight years, and why he stopped writing.”

“Pa, Joe and I could go.”

“I may be older, but he is still my son. I will be going. You can stay here or come with me.”

The three men packed that night, and made arrangements to be gone. As early as they could the next morning, they headed to town to buy tickets for the trip to Denver. Candy, Jamie, and Griff would be in charge until they returned. Ben asked Claire if she could please stop by and give Joyce his regrets that he would not be seeing her as he had promised. Joe and Hoss kissed their wives goodbye at the station, and the three men headed out determined that Adam would do their best to convince him to come home and there was nothing that could not be forgiven.

*****

In Denver, Aida was looking through her desk. Finally she turned to Adam who was working on a set of plans. “Adam, have you seen my journal. I never leave it anywhere except the desk and it isn’t here. Everything seems to be a mess in here too.”

Adam looked at her rather absentmindedly at first until the import of what she had said hit him. “Didn’t you say you wrote everything you knew about me in your journal?”

“Yes, and I had newspaper clippings in there too.”

“So anyone who got hold of it would know everything about me.”

Suddenly, Aida understood it too. “Oh no, that’s what those men were after when they were in our house. They wanted information on you, and they got it all because of me. Oh, Adam, I’m so sorry. Who do you think it is?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps we should get out of here for a while.”

“Where would we go?”

Taking a deep breath, Adam had only one answer. “The Ponderosa. No matter what, they would protect us regardless of how mad they are at me.”

Aida agreed with him. He made plans to tell his employer the next day. They planned to contact a lawyer to handle the sale of their home. They never got a chance to do any of those things. As Adam left the next morning to deliver the completed plans and inform his employer that he had to leave, he was arrested. Aida didn’t know what had happened until the next day. All she knew was that Adam did not come home. Aida was contacted by the lawyer who had been hired to represent Adam. Apparently Adam had been arrested on an extradition warrant from Connecticut. He asked Aida to explain everything she knew about what that could be. She told him everything Adam had told her but had no idea why the state of Connecticut would want to extradite him. She went with the lawyer to the jail to speak with Adam, and both were shocked at his condition.

When Adam was brought into a room to meet with the lawyer and his wife, he could barely walk. He slumped to the chair and leaned on the table. His wrists and ankles were shackled.

“Oh, my God, what happened to you?” Aida wanted to get up and go to him but the guard signaled that she could not.

“Apparently former bounty hunters are not popular in jail. One of the guards was kind enough to mention that part of my background to some of the other prisoners. I have been knocked to the ground and kicked more times than I can count.”

The lawyer was writing rapidly. He would see to it that Adam was removed from the general population. Then he asked the most important question. “Why does Connecticut want to extradite you?”

“I don’t think Connecticut cares at all. I was supposed to stay in Connecticut for two years while I was on parole. I think the judge who signed the order is the only one who wants me extradited for that.” Adam dropped his head down. He had been optimistically thinking it was all behind him, and now this had happened.

“Adam, why?” Aida wanted something to make sense.

“The judge who signed the order is Paul’s father. The man who said he would kill me when I was released.” Aida gasped, but the lawyer sat back with a more confident look.

“Mr. Cartwright, I think we can quash this warrant. I could use some character references, and any information you can provide. Now your wife has told me a lot. I need to hear it from you though, and don’t spare the details. We have drawn a very fair judge for the hearing, but he is a stickler for knowing everything before he makes a ruling. Now you may think me young, but I have spent my life with the law in Colorado. My father is the present governor. So you see, I do have influence, and I am ambitious. Winning a case like this will be good for me so I will do anything I can to help you. Now, let’s begin.”

Hours later, the lawyer closed his small valise. He told Adam to wait. After about a half hour, the lawyer was back letting Adam know he would no longer be in the general population. He was surprised that Adam was not happier about that. Aida explained how he had spent five years in effect in solitary.

“Mr. Cartwright, Adam, just try to hang in there a few days. I think we can have you out of here by the end of the week.”

Adam nodded, and the guard told him to follow him. He left with just one backwards look at Aida that showed his regret at how things had developed.

“Adam, I love you. None of this is your fault.”

Then Aida and the lawyer headed out. The lawyer escorted her to her front door and waited until she had lit some lamps. He asked her to remain home for the next two days so that he could contact her with any questions he might have. Then he left, and Aida broke down in sobs. She finally made herself go to bed, and took one of Adam’s shirts from the laundry and held it as she lay in bed. In the morning, she was up as the hint of dawn appeared in the sky. She knew she should sleep more, but could not. She stayed home as the lawyer had requested. He did send word that he had arranged for a doctor to see Adam, and that he did have some badly bruised ribs and damaged kidneys, but the doctor said he should make a complete recovery. It hurt to hear than even though he would be fine in time for she knew how much he must be suffering every minute of every day he sat in that cell alone and in pain.

On the second day, Aida heard a knock on her door and looked out to see three men standing on her porch. One of them was very large. She pulled the small pistol from her pocket and opened the door holding the small pistol in front of her.

“You need to get off my porch and off my property.”

The three men looked shocked, and then the biggest one smiled. “Ma’am, I don’t think Adam would like you to shoot his Pa and his brothers.”

Aida stared at the three men, and processed the descriptions Adam had given her with the three who stood before her. She dropped her hand and the pistol. Hoss stepped forward and removed it from her hand gently. “How did you get here so quickly? I just sent you a telegram yesterday.”

“Ma’am, we were halfway here by yesterday. I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but you look a fright. Is everything all right?”

Aida nearly collapsed in grief then, but Hoss took her arm and led her into the house to the kitchen. He had her sit at the table and asked if she had any tea. She pointed, and he made tea for her. Then he pulled out a chair next to her as Ben and Joe stood back and watched.

“Ma’am, do you want to tell us what’s going on?”

So Aida told them everything she knew. It was all going to come out in court anyway so she didn’t think Adam would mind her telling his family. By the end of the story, all three had questions but Aida did not have answers. Ben had read the book about Adam Just on the train so all three knew about that part of Adam’s life. Aida filled them in on more recent events. It was those first five years that shocked all of them. Adam in prison was one scenario none of them had ever considered. Even now it seemed so incongruous. But there were more important things to consider.

“The hearing is on Friday. The lawyer sent word today. He also said he has built a very strong case, and if necessary the governor will intervene.”

The three men were invited to stay with Aida. She said they had two extra bedrooms so two of them could share a bed and the other could have room to himself. Both Ben and Joe immediately said they would share, and Hoss smiled. There were some advantages to having a legendary snore. All four of them had trouble falling asleep at first but eventually fell into sound sleep.

*****

In the jail, Adam was not doing as well. In addition to the pain from his injuries, he was suffering from the isolation and inactivity. It was as if he had never left that prison in Connecticut. Each time he closed his eyes, he was startled awake and thought he was still in prison. Whatever happened, he knew he could never go back to that prison. If he spent any more time there, he knew he would lose his mind. Being alone and unable to talk with anyone was almost worse than being beaten repeatedly.

Being locked up for Adam was torture. He felt as if someone had tied a tight bandage around his chest. It was hard to breathe normally. He couldn’t eat because he retched up anything he tried. The food was greasy and heavy which made matters worse in that regard. He did manage to keep water down but even that was sometimes a struggle. The smells, the cold stone walls, and the isolation were working to break him. He knew that sometimes men spent fifteen or twenty years or more in prison before being released. He didn’t know how they survived it. He knew that people made comments about free meals and beds but the mindless inactivity and isolation were a steep price to pay. Finally he tried to lose himself in memories. He tried to relive moments with Aida doing his best to recall every word spoken, every nuance of movement, and every natural thing that had been around them. He couldn’t sleep, but at least he could soothe his mind and soul that way.

*****

Chapter 10

On Friday morning, Aida and the other Cartwrights were up early. They had spent the day before talking and sharing stories. Now they needed to go to court and hope that justice truly would be served. There was plenty of room for them in the spectators’ gallery for an extradition hearing did not draw much interest. Aida recognized Reverend Benjamin and thought the other distinguished looking gentleman was Adam’s employer. They all waited for the judge and Adam to enter the courtroom. Aida gasped when she saw Adam for the first time since Tuesday morning. He had lost weight and looked wan and weak. His clothing was filthy, and he had a thick beard. The lawyer seemed as shocked as she was. Adam sat next to the lawyer with his head down. The lawyer took him by the elbow to get him to stand when the judge entered the courtroom.

“Mr. McCook, is your client all right? He looks ill. We could postpone to Monday if you think a couple of days rest would help.”

At that statement, Adam raised his head and shook it violently. “No, Your Honor, we are ready to proceed. My client wishes to resolve this today.”

“Very well, now I would like your client to tell me what he did to end up in prison in Connecticut in the first place. Don’t leave anything out. I want to know the whole story.”

So Adam began a recitation of what had happened with Ivy and Paul, and how he had pled guilty under an assumed name. He told the judge about the letters he had written to be posted to his family over time. He admitted that much of that was done because he was ashamed of what he had done and didn’t want to bring shame on his family.

“Now this warrant states that you violated your parole and should be returned to Connecticut to serve out the remainder of your term. Why did you violate your parole and how long was it?”

“Your Honor, my parole was for two years. I wasn’t supposed to leave Connecticut during that time, but I left the state because Paul Miller’s father said he would kill me when I was released. Your Honor, if you send me back to Connecticut, I don’t think I’ll live long enough to get there.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Your Honor, the judge who signed that extradition order is Paul Miller’s father, and he is sitting right there in this courtroom today.” The judge looked like he knew that already.

“Why didn’t you go home to your family? Why did you pursue bounty hunting as a career? It would seem that you had many other possibilities.”

So Adam told the judge that he feared that those seeking retribution for what he had done might bring danger to his family. He explained how he felt he owed society a debt and wanted to serve justice.

“And your womanizing: has that continued since your release?”

“No, Your Honor.”

“How many women have you been with since your release?”

“Only one, Your Honor; my wife is the only one.”

“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright. Now I believe your attorney has some character witnesses for you.”

Adam’s employer stood to testify that Adam had been a good, hard working, and honest employee even if it had only been a short time. Reverend Benjamin talked of his counseling of Adam and his generosity to the needy families in Abilene. Then the lawyer introduced Adam’s father and brothers. That was the first time Adam knew they were there. He was ashamed then that they had heard all those things about what he had done, but also relieved that they were there. He wasn’t sure how they were going to react to him, but he would accept anything they had to say because they were there and had not rejected him.

“Very well, I have what I need to make my decision. I am going to quash this warrant. In fact, I have been in communication with Connecticut authorities and they have no interest in pursuing this extradition if I so rule. In addition, they were unaware that it had even been issued. Furthermore, Judge Miller has written authorizations for these two men to take Mr. Cartwright to Connecticut, but they do not in fact work for that state. They are the personal employees of Judge Miller apparently. As such, they have misrepresented themselves to the government here, and will be facing charges as will Judge Miller. Following the conclusion of Colorado’s case against the three of you, Connecticut has asked that the judge be extradited to their fair state to face charges of malfeasance and fraud. This court so orders that to be the case. Mr. Cartwright, you are free to go.”

Judge Miller jumped up and screamed at the judge on the bench. “No, he’s a murderer. You can’t let him go.”

“Not only can I let him go, I cannot even believe that he spent one day in prison for what happened. He may have acted immorally but he did so without knowing the full implications of what he was doing. I can even say that he acted rather stupidly for an intelligent man, but I see no violation of the law. It was his guilty conscience that caused him to end up in prison. He showed an admirable amount of morality and ethics although a bit misguided perhaps in accepting all the blame for what happened. You, sir, have not acted morally and ethically. That outburst in my courtroom is going to cost you a month for contempt of court. That should be enough time for the state to build its case against you. Court is adjourned. Bailiffs, take those three men into custody and see that they are charged according to my instructions.”

Adam didn’t move at first. His lawyer leaned down to tell him to hug his wife. Then he stood and Aida was there. He wrapped his arms around her and held her. His father and brothers moved outside the courtroom waiting in the vestibule for him.

Reverend Benjamin came over to Adam and put a hand on his shoulder.

“I hoped you listened to what the judge said. It’s what I have been trying to say to you for three years. You made mistakes. You were fooled. You behaved without thought of consequences. But you broke no laws except God’s and you have remorse and have paid the penance for those transgressions many times over. You have lived a good, moral life. The errors of one week did not erase that. Live your life, love your family, and praise God. There is nothing more to do.”

Adam clasped the minister’s hand between his and thanked him for everything. Then Reverend Benjamin took his leave. Adam thanked his attorney and said he would arrange for payment as soon as possible, but the attorney said that he had already been paid in full by Ben Cartwright.

As Adam and Aida emerged from the courtroom, all five of the Cartwrights walked outside. Adam looked to his father and was at a loss for words. He didn’t know how to express all the shame and regret he felt. Ben reached out his arms and pulled Adam into an embrace. He didn’t care if they were in public, and he didn’t care if Adam didn’t like such shows of affection. He felt he was due this hug. Adam dropped his head to his father’s shoulder and hugged back.

“Pa, I’m so sorry.”

“Why didn’t you write? If you had told me anything, I would have been there to help.”

“Pa, I was too ashamed. I didn’t want to shame the family, or to bring danger to anyone because of what I had done.”

Joe had listened to everything that morning, and was feeling angry. He had been seething with anger for years when he saw how their father had suffered with not knowing what had happened to Adam. Joe didn’t think that anything Adam had done was awful enough for him to have shut out his family like that especially their father who had been so hurt so much by all of it.

“Damn it, Adam, that’s no excuse. Nothing you’ve said is enough to explain what you did.”

And as Adam had generally predicted, Joe swung and hit him in the face. Adam staggered back into Hoss who could have caught him but let him fall back to the wall of the courthouse where he sank to the ground. Aida rushed to his side. Ben was incensed. Joe’s anger and Hoss’ as well dissipated immediately.

“This is no way to act. I thought you wanted our family to be reunited. Fighting is not the way to accomplish that!”

“I didn’t hit him that hard.”

“Adam, I know you’re a bit older now, but what we did shouldna made you fall like that.”

Aida looked up with fire in her eyes. “He was beaten while he was in jail here. He has bruised ribs and damage to his kidneys. Now do you suppose you could help me get him up, or do you just want to hurt him some more? Maybe you should consider the condition he was in three years ago when he left that prison. Can you imagine what that isolation would do to a man like Adam? Have you even tried for one minute to see this from his point of view?”

Hoss expressed how sorry he was, and Joe mumbled an apology.

Adam took her hand. “Sweetheart, I did tell you they might want to poke me in the eye. It’s all right. It’s done now. Can we all just go to our house?”

After helping Adam into the back seat of the carriage that Ben had hired, Joe and Hoss climbed in the front and Aida and Ben sat to either side of Adam in the back.

“I think I need a bath.”

“Older brother, there ain’t no maybe in that. I’m driving as fast as I can. Joe and me got it easy up front here compared to Pa and your poor wife. I hope you don’t smell that bad all the time, or you ain’t never gonna have any children.”

“Well, there is one other thing we haven’t told you yet.”

All three men jerked their heads to look at Adam, but Hoss had to turn back quickly so he didn’t run over anyone in the street.

“You’re going to be a father?” Ben was ecstatic at seeing Adam’s grin and nod. His prayers were being answered one after another and so fast he was having trouble accepting all the change. Aida and Adam beamed with all of the congratulations, and then Joe had to ask when. At Adam’s answer, Hoss started to laugh, and Joe had to say it.

“I guess it really does run in the family!”

To Ben’s embarrassment, Joe had to explain what he meant about that. Ben was very happy when they arrived at Adam’s house and cut that conversation short. Hoss assisted Adam into the house and into the kitchen.

“Sorry, but we don’t have a washroom so we have to clean up in the kitchen.”

“Adam, why don’t you add on a washroom?”

“Hoss, I don’t have enough money to do that yet.”

And Hoss got an insight into how it would be like to live without the resources of the Ponderosa.

“Why doncha just use some of the money ya got invested?”

Adam gave a questioning look to Hoss who smiled.

“The lawyer said we should have you declared dead after seven years. He said we could invest all that money in the Ponderosa. Pa wouldn’t even think of it. Everything you invested is still there.”

Adam shook his head, and Aida, who had entered the room with clean clothing for Adam, wondered how much money they had now. Looking at his wife and smiling his first genuinely happy smile in days, Adam had to tell her. “I can buy you all those gowns and pretty things I wanted to before and couldn’t.”

Hoss wondered what plans Adam and Aida had before all of this had happened so he asked them.

“We were going to go to the Ponderosa and ask you to take us in.”

A bit shocked, Hoss looked to Aida, and she nodded. The Hoss went out to the parlor to give Adam some privacy while he cleaned up. Standing in the tub, Adam let Aida help him wash. She soaped his back for him, and then asked him to sit in the washtub so she could wash his hair. Then she told him to relax and close his eyes. She lathered his face and carefully shaved off the five days of beard growth. When she finished and wiped his face with a soft towel, Adam attempted to stand and could not. Aida wasn’t strong enough to help him in his slippery state.

“I’ll get your father or one of your brothers to help.”

“Get Hoss.”

When Hoss helped Adam stand, he was shocked at the bruising on Adam’s torso. He apologized again for his rough treatment earlier.

“It’s fine. It’s less than I deserved.”

“Aw, Adam, ya don’t have to always feel guilty over every little thing. We’re back together again, and that’s all that really matters, isn’t it? What are you two planning to do now?”

Looking at Aida, Adam stated his thoughts. “After settling things up here, I think we’ll be heading to Nevada.” Aida smiled at him, and he knew she agreed. “Now I have one burning question for you. Who’s Jamie and how did Pa get another grown son?”

So Hoss sat down as Adam dressed, and he told him about Jamie and how he had come to be a Cartwright. Then he told him about Candy being almost like one of the family, and that he had been living in the house until Hoss brought Claire and Josh home.

“Yes, I remember Claire well.” And Adam rubbed the side of his face where the tiny pink marks from those scratches still showed a little.

“Ah, Adam, you’re gonna really like Claire. She loves books just like you. She only acted that way that day cause Josh was in danger. Claire’s a she-bear when it’s about Josh.”

Noticing the pensive look on Aida’s face, Adam stepped to her side and put his hands on her shoulders. “What’s bothering you, sweetheart?”

“Not bothering, really, just thinking. I’m going to have three brothers and two sisters. I have a nephew and another niece or nephew on the way. We’re going to be part of a big family.”

Then she smiled and looked at Hoss. “And I really like our big brother quite a lot already.”

Hoss did that aw shucks smile he had, and the three of them went into the parlor to discuss what would be happening next. Adam had made a commitment to some projects with his employer, and after the man had stood up for him, Adam felt even more obligated to stay and finish that work. They would have to sell the house too, and crate up Aida’s belongings to be shipped to Nevada. Both of them liked the horses they had and wanted to ship those too.

Apparently Ben would have to wait about two months for his family to be fully reunited. As long as there was a plan though, he could accept it. He decided to stay in Denver two more weeks to get to know his daughter-in-law, and to spend more time with Adam. Hoss and Joe headed home to be with their wives and to run the ranch. All looked forward to the final reunion.

*****

Chapter 11

Walking down the hallway to the top of the stairs, Ben paused at hearing voices down below. It was a little chilly in his room and he had forgotten to have enough wood in there for the fireplace. There had been so much going on that he had neglected that chore for several days and was now paying the price for his forgetfulness. At the top of the stairs he looked down to see Adam sitting with Aida on the settee next to the Christmas tree. Adam was gently running his hand over her distended stomach. Aida was due to deliver any day now, and had trouble sleeping. Ben was going to retreat to his cold bedroom when Adam addressed him.

“Come on down, Pa. I’ve been telling Aida the history of the ornaments on the tree, but there are a lot of new ones that I don’t recognize.”

Smiling, Ben walked down the stairs to join them. Aida just looked at Adam and had to ask.

“How do you do that? I never even heard anything, and you not only heard someone, but knew it was your father.”

“I think my hearing was trained to listen for sounds in the night especially because I grew up out here, and knowing what or who was around you could be critical. As far as knowing it was my father, everyone walks differently. The sounds they make as they walk and the weight of the tread lets you know who it is.”

“Don’t pay too much attention to that. Hoss thinks he’s part Paiute. Adam did play with them quite a lot as a child, and he learns quite easily as I’m sure you’ve noticed by now. He also has a better memory than most and that helps too. I think he got that from his mother. She was very bright just like Adam.”

“Adam showed me the ornaments that came from your short time with his mother. And those from Inger, Marie, and all sorts of people you have known.”

“Yes, and this year there are three new ones for my new daughters, and one for my first grandchild. Next year there will be two more.” Reaching under the tree, Ben handed a small box to Aida. “This seems a good time to open this.”

Opening the box, Aida found a clear crystal ornament. It was heavy and the firelight danced through it.

“It came from England. It is your ornament for the tree, and then if you and Adam choose to have your own home, you will have an ornament to decorate your tree there. I put a similar ornament on the tree every year Adam was gone. This will be the most special one of all.”

Noticing now all the clear crystal ornaments on the tree and realizing their significance, Adam took the ornament from Aida and hung it on the tree as she stood and did her best to give Ben a hug. Aida moaned and then she looked at Adam with her hand pressed to her stomach and only had one more thing to say.

“You may need to get another ornament soon. I think the baby is ready to make an appearance.”

Ben had to laugh at the shocked and then helpless look on his son’s face. After everything he had been through, it was the imminent birth of his child that shook him up.

“I’ll wake Hop Sing, and get one of the hands to get Paul. He was invited to dinner anyway so he’ll just be arriving a bit early. You get your wife into the bedroom, and make her comfortable. Hop Sing will be in soon with what you need, and he’ll tell you what to do.”

“Could you wake Claire too? She said she would help me when the time came.”

“Aida, I think we can wait a bit for that. When it gets closer, we can wake Claire although there might be enough noise by then that we won’t have to wake anyone.”

Adam knew what his father meant by that. He had been present when Joe was born. Aida didn’t know yet, and Adam didn’t think he wanted to tell her and make her worry. She would find out soon enough. Joe and Alice were at the house because Joe never wanted to miss a minute of a Christmas celebration, and now there would be even more fireworks than he had planned.

With all of the commotion, Joyce Edwards came out of the downstairs guest room. Joyce had been visiting when Adam and Aida had first arrived at the Ponderosa. Adam had greeted Joyce with a smile for he had always liked her and had thought it was a shame that she and his father had never gotten together. Hoss had filled him in though on what had happened.

“Tom died two years ago of influenza. We had a nasty outbreak here that year. A lot of older folks, some little ones, and people who were already having troubles died. We all did our best to help Mrs. Edwards out for that first year, and pretty soon after that it was just Pa helping out if you know what I mean.”

“So Pa is courting Joyce?”

Ben had come around the corner of the house then with Joyce on his arm and heard Adam’s question. He had paused just briefly before smiling and answering.

“Yes, yes, I am. I am courting Joyce Edwards.”

Joyce had looked at Ben just a little startled but then had smiled broadly. Yes, he was, and she liked it. Aida didn’t like seeing how Adam had looked at Joyce though. Later as they were unpacking in Adam’s room which had now become their room, she expressed herself.

“Joyce is very pretty.”

“Yes, she is.”

“You like her.”

“Yes, I like her very much.”

“She seems younger than your father.”

“She is. She’s twelve years younger than Pa.”

“So, she’s closer to your age than to his.”

And Adam had stopped unpacking and turned to look at his wife. “What’s this all about? She’s an old family friend, one of the first people Pa met when he moved here. Let me see, I was seven so she was seventeen. When I was thirty, she was forty. Are you kinda getting the picture here?”

“I’m sorry. I guess I’m just feeling a bit insecure.”

“And jealous?” Aida nodded and looked so sad, Adam had to hug her. Then he kissed her deeply. “Now, I would never do that with Joyce.” Then he kissed her neck and caressed her back. “And I definitely would never even think of doing that with Joyce.” Then he started unbuttoning her shirtfront dress and pulling away her wrap. “And no one, absolutely no one, would ever think I would do this with Joyce.”

“Adam, your family is expecting us back downstairs after we unpack.”

“”I’ve never had a woman in my room here. It’s rather exciting, and they will never know how much unpacking we are doing now or later or tomorrow. Do you want me to stop?” His hands were roaming over her, and he continued to kiss her.

“Oh, Lord, no, don’t stop.” And Adam had reassured Aida of his love that afternoon, and many times since even though she had gotten over her jealousy after just that one afternoon. Adam told her that one learned best by repetition, and he was only doing it for her own good. Aida would laugh each time, and then tell him not to stop.

There had been a few questions about all the women in Adam’s past though it was not out of jealousy. Aida wanted to know Adam better and understand him, and was actually a little angry on learning how many women there were that she did not know anything about. One day some of those names were dropped at a church meeting when the ladies were preparing treats for poor families and for the orphanage. She came home that day asking about Ruth, Regina, Rebecca, Sue Ellen, Laura, and a host of others.

“You ladies do talk a lot when you’re working.” And then Adam had spent some time explaining his history with women.

“Adam, the judge asked you about womanizing. You said only me, but you really came after me that first time, and then again when I ran into you in Abilene. I knew at your age you would have been with other women, but were you telling the truth when you told the judge I was the only one?”

“Sweetheart, I don’t lie. The moment I met you and talked with you, I knew I wanted you. Not just once or for a week, but I wanted to win your heart. There was no other woman who touched me like you did. I didn’t just accidentally see you in Abilene. I followed you there. I had gone to see you in Denver and found that you were gone. I tracked you down. I wanted to see you so much. You were in my thoughts and in my dreams.”

“Oh my! I never knew that. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t want you to think I was so desperate for you that I would follow you like that. I didn’t want to scare you away. Then with that gunfight, I thought I had lost you until I saw you in Denver. You looked at me a lot like I looked at you.”

“That’s why you asked me to marry you!”

“Yes. I thought you were ready to say yes.”

“I hope Joyce says yes to your father.”

“I hope he asks her soon.”

Joyce was staying with them for the Christmas season, and all the sons and the daughters-in-law expected an announcement. After their Christmas Eve dinner, most of them thought Ben would pop the question, but it didn’t happen. Instead they decided to sing Christmas carols. Adam had been practicing with his guitar since he had returned to the Ponderosa. Nearly everyone there expected him to lead the singing but he did not.

“Older brother, you better lead us in singing or Joe will do it, and you know how awful that would be.”

“Hey, I don’t sing that bad.”

“Nah, ifn there’s a bunch of other people singing and at least three of them have strong voices, then you don’t sound too bad at all.”

Joe threw a pinecone at Hoss which caused him to fall backwards on the table in front of the fireplace. All of the commotion led Adam to believe that they had forgotten Hoss’ original request, but Ben had not. He asked Adam to lead the singing. Adam looked at Aida and she nodded. It was time for him to tell them.

“In prison, we were not allowed to talk to each other or even to ourselves. It made me nearly crazy sometimes, and I would talk to myself or sing very softly. At first, no one could tell who it was, but once they zeroed in on me, they listened for me doing it and punished me.”

“Well, how did they punish you to make you so scared you don’t want to sing?”

“Hoss, I’m not afraid of it. It just doesn’t work so well for me any more.”

“Adam, just tell them.” Adam looked at Aida and shrugged.

“They poured hot scalding tea down my throat to shut me up. Once it was extremely hot. When I got out of prison, I thought my voice was hoarse from disuse, but it isn’t. It seems they must have damaged my voice itself. It hasn’t gotten much better in the last three and a half years.”

From the kitchen, Hop Sing had heard while the others were quiet thinking about how awful that was, and he got busy. Before Ben could start the singing with Adam playing guitar, Hop Sing was busy brewing a concoction meant to soothe the throat. He brought it out for Adam who grimaced when he smelled it, but under Hop Sing’s insistence, tasted it and found it reasonably refreshing. Hop Sing said he would brew that drink every day for Adam until his voice improved. After the singing, everyone except Adam and Aida had gone to bed. She had said she was very uncomfortable and wouldn’t be able to sleep. She had never had a child before or she would have suspected that she was getting very close to labor.

Joyce had never had any children. Her husband had been injured so early in their marriage they had not been able to have children. However being on the Ponderosa with Ben’s sons and their wives, with Josh, and now a baby on the way made her feel like she thought a mother must feel. All she wanted to do was help in any way she could. However she had never assisted in nor even seen the birth of a child. What she did do was tell Hop Sing to stay with Aida, and Joyce volunteered to make coffee, heat water, or do anything else that needed doing in the kitchen. Hop Sing was reluctant to let someone in his kitchen, but there was that big Christmas dinner coming up and there were a lot of things that needed to be done. He started Joyce on preparing coffee, but he also let her know that if the doctor did not arrive soon, she would have to do some of the baking and other preparation for breakfast. There were eight who would expect it especially on Christmas morning.

*****

Chapter 12

About three in the morning, a scream and groaning woke any who were sleeping. Hoss and Claire knew what it likely was, but Joe and Jamie came running into the hallway expecting to confront intruders. All they saw was Claire and Hoss calmly coming from their room in their robes. Claire hurried to Adam and Aida’s room while Hoss headed down the stairs where his father had awakened from the nap he had been taking. Joe asked what was happening.

“The baby? The baby’s coming? Oh, boy, this is gonna be a Christmas to remember.” And Joe went to tell Alice the news. Alice was nearing her delivery date too, and was a little shook up to hear the screams and some of the salty language that she had no idea Aida even had heard much less was able to say. Once they dressed in their robes and went downstairs, Hoss and Ben assured them that it was normal to expect that.

“You shoulda heard what my little Claire called me. Ifn a man called me those things, I woulda had to call him out. It’s just a way of letting off steam. I doubt that Aida is gonna holler as much as my Claire did. Course Claire had eighteen hours of hollering so she had a lot of opportunities to yell out.” Seeing Alice’s wide eyed look and Joe’s frown, Hoss was quick to amend that statement. “Course, Aida ain’t gonna have a baby as big as Josh. Probably gonna be a lot faster.”

Comparing Joe’s size to Hoss, Alice was somewhat relieved. She patted her large tummy and hoped it would be as easy as Claire had had it difficult. Joyce brought our coffee and had made a coffee cake. Everyone relaxed in chairs then getting some sleep on this night. When Doctor Martin arrived, Jamie dressed to go take care of his horse and then finished up all the morning chores as long as he was out there. When he came back in, he had an announcement.

“Hey, everybody, it’s snowing!”

The snow was light and fluffy and made everything outside sparkle. It took everyone’s minds off of the drama playing out upstairs. Adam had stayed with Aida even after Doctor Martin had arrived surprising everyone except Hoss. Hoss had been at Claire’s bedside for the entire labor except to take care of necessary things. Claire had mentioned that to Aida who asked Adam if he could do the same. It was not a request that Adam could refuse even if he were so inclined. He longed for a child so much and at the same time feared the whole event so instinctively that it made the decision altogether simple.

Hop Sing had come down after the doctor arrived, so the smells of breakfast were soon wafting through the house along with the smells of the baking of items for the dinner later. Joyce continued to help Hop Sing and their voices could frequently be heard amazing everyone with how wonderfully they were getting along. That only reinforced Ben’s decision, and he was looking forward to the opening of presents far more than he ever had. Everyone was dressed and at the breakfast table when it became very quiet upstairs until there was the wail of an infant. All waited anxiously until Claire came downstairs with soiled linens to announce that mother and child were doing very well.

“Adam may have a broken hand though.” At the serious looks she got, she had to amend that statement. “He probably thinks it’s broken. Aida was hanging on with everything she had there at the end and bringing tears to his eyes. Blisters from the guitar and now his hand’s likely to be swollen too.”

“Blisters?” And Claire explained that Adam had said the callous had not built up enough for the long session the night before so his fingertips were blistered a bit from the friction.

“Why didn’t he say something?”

“Papa, I don’t think he can say no to you for anything right now.” Everyone at the table seemed to nod at that. Adam was carrying a load of guilt and found it hard if not impossible to say no to Joe, Hoss, or Ben. Joe had thought it funny at first when he got Adam to do some tasks that Joe really hated to do, but realized that it was too much.

“Pa, what are we gonna do about that? He don’t tell us how he’s feeling or argue with us about anything. It’s like he ain’t really all home yet. Just don’t seem like Adam not to have an argument now and then.”

“Hoss, I know, but I don’t know what to do about it. Perhaps we need to have someone talk with Aida to see if she has any ideas. The two of them certainly chew on a lot of things.”

Jamie was mystified. “You want to fight with Adam. Then you’ll be happy?”

Hoss attempted to explain. “Everybody has their own way of working things out. You know, letting off steam and coming to terms with stuff. Pa likes a good brandy and a good tobacco in his pipe. Joe likes a good cold beer and a real good laugh. I like a good meal and some time to relax, maybe go fishing. But our older brother has always held things in until he just blows up. Then it’s all over and he feels better and everybody can relax.”

“So you’re saying he feels this guilt thing you’ve mentioned before and he’s gonna blow up at some point?”

“Yes, Jamie, the boys and I saw it a number of times. Too many to count. And now he’s going to be tired and stressed with the new baby, and he always hated being cooped up for the winter.”

“Pa and Hoss are right. He’s gonna be a cougar on the hunt if he doesn’t let some of that out soon.”

“Well, I do think it would be good if you wait for the Christmas season to be over before you think to do something about it.”

“Joyce, that is a wise thing. I wonder what they’ve named the baby?”

Ben didn’t have to wait long. Doctor Martin came down the stairs and told them they could go see mother and child, briefly. When the family got to the bedroom door that was open, Adam was sitting up against the headboard with Aida leaning against him holding their child.

“Well, everyone, meet Daniel Hepburn Cartwright.” The family gathered round for a view of the dark haired infant with the dark eyes and chubby cheeks.

“He’s so little!”

“Hoss, not every baby comes out big enough to walk like yours. He’s just the right size. Paul said he is very healthy. He said I’m fine too which has old worry wart here relieved. Maybe now he won’t be hovering around all the time.”

Adam shrugged, and the rest laughed. He had been rather overprotective for the last months of her pregnancy. Now he didn’t have to worry about that.

“Well, two handsome grandsons! Joe, I guess it’s up to you to see if I get a granddaughter.”

“Just ask Alice. She thinks it’s a girl one day, and a boy the next. So who knows. Can we open presents now?”

“Joe, I think we should let Aida have some rest. We can open presents in a couple of hours. No one’s going anywhere. Your brother probably needs some rest too. He never got to sleep last night either.”

So it was almost lunchtime before everyone gathered near the tree to open gifts. Adam had helped Aida down the steps, and she was reclining in one of the red leather chairs with her feet up on an ottoman and a quilt wrapped around her. Next to her was the tiny cradle that Danny was sleeping in. Adam sat next to them. Most of the gifts were a lot of the usual with books, tobacco for Ben, clothing, and bridles and such exchanged among the family and guests. There was a red velvet box that many had been wondering about and as the last of the gifts were presented, Ben handed it to Joyce to open. She found a set of crystal win glasses inside. One had a red ribbon around the stem so she pulled that one out to show everyone but then almost dropped it when she saw the diamond ring on the ribbon. Joyce looked at Ben who was smiling and hoping for her answer. She stood and rushed into his arms.

“Yes, Ben, yes. You said that I would find this a Christmas to remember, and you are oh so right about that.”

“Let me then.” Ben untied the ring from the glass and reached for Joyce’s left hand. He slid the ring on her finger, and the whole group cheered. “Would a late January winter wedding be too soon?”

Smiling and then laughing, Joyce shook her head no before placing her hands on Ben’s cheeks and kissing him soundly and slightly embarrassing him. The rest of the holiday proceeded smoothly until New Year’s Day when Adam made an announcement.

“Pa, Aida and I have rented a home in town. We plan to live there for the next few months.”

“What, you did that without consulting me? I think I have a right to have input on a decision like that. You have been home only a few months and you’re leaving.”

“I am not leaving. I am simply going to be living in a different house with my family. Joyce will be living here, and Hoss and Claire are already here with Josh. Jamie’s here. We just want a place for ourselves. We have all of Aida’s stuff in storage. We would like to get it out of there and use it. She can cook for us then and bake. Both of us can get some quiet time to get some work done.”

“Oh, boy, so now it’s our fault.”

“No, damn it, you’re not listening to me, and don’t call me a boy. I’m a man and I have been one for quite a while. We are moving into town for a few months, and then I’m building a house. The way this conversation is going, I may just build that house in town too!”

The volume of the discussion had escalated and silenced everyone else who waited to see how far the explosion would go. Ben started laughing then, but Adam stood fuming which made his father laugh even harder.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, but it’s just so good to have you back.”

“Back, but I said I was moving my family to town.”

“I know, and you said it rather forcefully just like the Adam of old. You’re back now, you’re really back. Would you like some help moving?”

Holding the baby, Aida came up to stand next to Adam. She smiled at him and nodded yes to Ben’s question. “Adam and I were hoping to move as soon as we could before the weather gets very bad, and he said that could happen any day now.”

So the next day, Adam and Aida packed up their baby and their clothing, and headed to town. Hoss followed with a wagon load of their other belongings and goods and supplies they would need such as some canned beef, hams, and some other canned goods from Hop Sing’s cellar. The rest of the family rode in using Joyce’s carriage which was packed with other items. Once they unloaded those conveyances, they went to get the rest of Aida’s furniture and goods out of storage. The house was cold at first but the several fireplaces and the kitchen stove were fired up and soon warmed it well. Only then did Aida unwrap Danny and sit in their bedroom to nurse him.

It was a small house but larger than the one they had occupied in Denver. It was on the outskirts of town and still had trees around it. Ben could see why the two of them had chosen it. It was close to the conveniences of town, but far enough away from the hustle and bustle that each of them would have time and quiet to work. Aida was trying to work on her new book, and Adam was working on some house plans for himself and for a couple of potential clients. If the men liked the plans and bought them, he would have a job he could do in winter and during bad weather, and they all knew how he liked to keep busy.

Before they left, Joe had a suggestion. “Hey, Adam, since you’re already in town, maybe you could check the mail for me and ride it out to the ranch once or twice a week depending on how much mail we get.”

“No.”

Hoss wanted to give it a try too. “Hey, you could bring out the weekly supplies too, and you might as well bring the mail with ya then.”

“No.’

“Gees, Pa, Adam’s gotten kinda ornery snapping at me and Joe that way. Is that what’s supposed to happen to a new father cause I’m pretty sure I ain’t been acting that way.”

The sun was shining, the snow that had fallen was wet, and soon there was a snowball headed toward Hoss who anticipated it and ducked. It hit Joe square in the face though, and soon there was a snowball fight. It was two on one so Jamie jumped in on Adam’s side to help even the odds. It lasted until a snowball hit the window of the house and brought Aida to the door.

“The baby just fell asleep. If you children want to keep playing, move away from the house.”

“Boy, you sure got a feisty one, Adam.”

“Wouldn’t have it any other way, Hoss. I love her just the way she is.”

Moving in to change the subject and distract his sons from continuing the snowball fight, Ben had a reminder. “Now, son, I believe Joyce is planning to stay with you a couple of days next week so she and Aida can do some shopping and some sewing. Is that still all right with you.”

“Of course, Pa, and then you’re coming over after church on that next Sunday for lunch and to give her a ride home?”

“Yes, if the weather holds.”

“Don’t worry, Pa. We’ll take good care of her while she’s here. The two of you need to go over to her house to see what furniture you want to bring to the Ponderosa, and what will stay. I can help with that.”

“I think we may leave all the furniture there. Hoss is thinking that might be a good house for him. I thought he would stay at the house, but Claire saw Joyce’s home and fell in love with it.”

“Well, you still have Jamie.”

“He’s talking about medical school or law school. Seems some of those conversations you had with him about going to school had quite an impact.”

“So perhaps you and Joyce will have the house all to yourselves at some point. You won’t be lonely. Are you anxious for the wedding?”

Hoss and Joe started chuckling and from Ben’s look, Adam knew why. It felt good to be able to just talk with his family and not worry about it. His father and brothers left, and Adam went inside to find Aida. She was in the bedroom laying in bed waiting for him. It was too soon after childbirth for lovemaking, but there was no reason they couldn’t kiss and snuggle.

Within a month, Ben and Joyce married. The most touching moment was probably when Adam stood with his guitar and sang Greensleeves for them. It was a romantic moment, but all the Cartwrights had tears in their eyes to hear Adam’s beautiful voice raised in song again. He had been practicing a lot at his home after Hop Sing’s brew soothed and relaxed his vocal cords. Hop Sing told him he would likely have to keep drinking that tea if he wanted to continue singing, and although Adam frowned at that pronouncement, he would willingly keep drinking it to have the gift of his voice back. He could sing for the entire family, but even more importantly to him, he could sing for his wife and child.

The next best entertainment of the winter was when Joe’s daughter was born. Joe having a daughter was an endless source of amusement for his brother’s who warned him to watch out for boys just like he was.

“Course, Adam, he has an advantage. He knows just how those kind of boys think so maybe he can outsmart em.”

“They’ll be scheming and coming up with all sorts of games to play. Couldn’t happen to a nicer father.”

There was still snow on the ground. Everyone was on the Ponderosa to welcome Ben and Joyce back from their honeymoon. Joe picked up a handful of snow, and the fight was on. The ladies joined in too, and soon there was a lot of snow flying.

“Adam, couldn’t you and your brothers think about building a snowman next time?”

“Aida, that just wouldn’t be my family.” And he leaned down to give her a kiss, and the two of them were hit with a barrage of snowballs.

Inside, Ben was watching through the window as his sons, and the wives of the oldest three had a snowball fight. Joyce stood by his side. “It’s so good that you have all your sons home and healthy.”

“Our sons. Yes our sons, our daughters now, and three grandchildren, and my lovely wife by my side. What could possibly be better than this?”

*****

Chapter 13

“All three of you at once?”

“Nah, just Jason. He’s the fastest gun that ever come out of Abilene. It’s his two brothers you murdered. We’re here to support our cousin.”

“I didn’t murder either of them. I brought Rafe home to face charges for the murder of that girl. A jury found him guilty.”

“Ya, well, he was just a boy, and he coulda started up fresh somewhere if it wasn’t for you. And then you gunned his brother down in the street.”

“He challenged me. I tried to talk him out of it.”

“Shut up! Just get your lying butt outside.”

“He’s telling the truth. I was there. I saw it. That young man didn’t give him a choice. He drew first. Adam had to defend himself.”

“Now why would we believe you? You’re married to this lying murderer.”

One of the men was holding Aida back. She had Danny in her arms and could do little to help. This morning, there had been a knock on the door, and these three men had forced their way in. Now they wanted to force Adam into a gunfight, and there seemed little that could be done to prevent it.

“We ain’t no murderers so we’ll give ya a fighting chance before Jason sends you to your Maker. You can try your excuses on Him before He sends you to hell.”

Jason shoved Adam toward one of the other two men who propelled him out the door. Aida held Danny and was worried sick. She feared for Adam’s life but couldn’t risk their son to save Adam. Outside, Jason shoved Adam’s gunbelt into his hands and told him to strap it on threatening to kill his wife if he did not comply. They had said they were not murderers, but Adam couldn’t take a chance on his wife’s life.

Jason’s two companions stood on his left side, and all three were looking forward to the demise of the man they blamed for the loss of two young men in their family. Their families had told them not to go, and Jason’s parents had begged him not to do it for they feared losing their last son. But once the family had received the letter with Adam’s identity and location, the three young men had been burning with anger and a desire for revenge. Finally they had decided that as a force of three they would be able to kill their foe without fear. Now they stood confident that they were near their goal. Jason had been the driving force in this plan and it had been is brothers who had been killed so the cousins thought that Jason deserved the right to kill the man they all hated.

However Jason and his cousins were startled by three shots fired from the house. They dove for cover and Adam threw himself behind the water trough that was the only place he could take refuge that was close at hand. Adam knew exactly what Aida had done. She wasn’t good with any firearm although she could shoot. She had fired off three shots in the air to alert people to the trouble.

In a precarious position, Adam drew his pistol and hoped help arrived soon. Aida had to protect their son and was no doubt barricaded inside the house. There were three men who wanted to see Adam dead, and all Adam could hope for in the next few minutes was that they did not have a working knowledge of military strategy and tactics. If the three of them moved against him in a three pronged attack, he would not stand much of a chance. For now, he could hear them talking and knew they were still together. The longer they stayed that way, the better, because it increased the likelihood that help would arrive in time.

As two of the men ran to his left, Adam was relieved that he only had to face men attacking from two directions. Part of his wish had come true. But even with them advancing on him from only two directions instead of three, he was in a vulnerable position and couldn’t retreat because any other safe location was too far for him to reach with three shooting at him. The three assailants got worried and looked toward town and saw men coming toward them. Jason charged Adam firing as rapidly as he could showering water and splinters over Adam as he hugged the muddy cold ground behind the water trough where he stayed pressed as low as he could until they were so close he was in mortal danger. He moved to fire on Jason then as Jason fired his last shot. Adam was hit in the thigh, but Jason had emptied his pistol and had to reload. Realizing that Jason could not shoot, Adam held his fire.

“Shoot him, shoot him down!” Jason wanted his cousins to finish their quest.

“Jason, that ain’t right. We don’t want to just have the three of us kill him. You said we wasn’t murderers, but ifn we do that, we would be.”

Jason finished reloading and raised his arm to fire. Adam shot hitting Jason in the side. Jason struggled to aim his pistol to fire.

“Don’t do it. I don’t want to kill you.” Adam tried to back away, but Jason swung his pistol around to fire, and Adam fired in defense hitting him again.

As Roy and Clem raced into the yard at breakneck speed, Adam stood and walked to Jason’s side. The young man was badly injured and would need medical help very soon if he was to have a chance to live. Adam asked Roy to get men to carry him to the doctor. Within a short time, men were carrying Jason to the doctor’s office.

“You coulda killed him, but you tried to get him not to fire. I’m thinking maybe you was telling the truth to us before about Rafe and Thomas.”

“I thought I could stop him. He’s too blinded by hate right now to think straight.”

“We were told you murder people for money.”

“I did receive a bounty for bringing Rafe in for trial. I got nothing for the gunfight with his brother.”

“We were told that you would lie to us ifn we talked with ya.”

“What makes you think that? What reason would I have to lie to you now?”

“We got a letter. It was from a judge. He said you murdered his son, and that you kill other people for money. That’s how you got this fancy house. He said you had powerful people who got you off when you shoulda hung. He said you’re wanted in Connecticut.”

Aida had come outside carrying Danny.

“Adam, you’re hurt. You need to see a doctor.”

“I think it’s a through and through. It just needs to get cleaned up and bandaged. I’ll be fine.” Adam wrapped his arms around his son and wife. He held them until he realized the pain and blood loss from his leg were making him dizzy and a little nauseous. “Maybe you’re right. I do think I need to sit down at least.”

Roy, Clem, and bystanders had heard what the two men said and chuckled a little and some of the men had openly laughed at their ridiculous statements. Roy and Clem helped Adam up the steps to his porch. He sat on a chair there as Aida went inside to get what she needed to help him. As Adam sat there, he explained his history especially with the judge, and explained about the Ponderosa to the two cousins. Roy and Clem were there to validate what he said. The two men were surprised at what they were hearing, and suddenly realized they had been duped and used by the judge to carry out his vendetta. Adam finally got to ask the question he had wanted to ask as soon as they said a judge sent them a letter. Their answer was what he expected to hear.

“Judge Miller sent a letter to Jason’s parents. It’s probably still in Jason’s coat pocket. Damn that judge! He’s the one who caused this and now Jason might die.”

“What were you supposed to do?”

“He said he wanted to know when you were dead. He said he wanted to go to your funeral and spit on your grave.”

“Where is he?”

“Last we saw of him this morning, he was in Carson City but he said he would be here by noon. We was supposed to meet him at his hotel and tell him what we done, and then he was gonna give us money.”

Looking at Adam, Roy could see his demeanor and knew exactly what he wanted to do. He had to get Adam to wait. They needed a plan to deal with Judge Miller and his quest for vengeance. It wasn’t too hard to convince Adam because he did appreciate the benefit of a good plan, and his wife and son were here and needed his protection. The two cousins agreed to work with them in exchange for their freedom because Adam said he would not file charges for their assault with the sheriff. They asked for mercy for Jason too, and Adam agreed he had been punished enough if he was willing to give up his plan.

“Now, don’t you worry. We’ll talk to him. He’ll come around. He won’t like hearing what we got to tell him, but he’ll believe us.”

What Adam and Roy asked of the two young men was that they tell the judge that Adam had been killed as had Jason, and that Jason had the judge’s letter in his pocket. There would be officers of the law listening to the conversation. The testimony of the cousins, the letter, and the judge’s own words would be enough to convict him of conspiracy to murder. He would spend the rest of his life in a Nevada prison. There would be no more letters. That was the plan. Now Roy and Clem had to help so they could be the objective witnesses to the judge’s admission to a conspiracy to commit murder. That would be the trickiest part of the otherwise very good plan.

After the two cousins visited the doctor’s office, they took the ‘body’ to the undertakers to enlist his help. Roy and Clem went to the back room of the undertakers and waited for the cousins to bring the judge there. It didn’t take long.

“Mr. Simmons, we would like our cousin’s personal effects. He should have a letter in his coat pocket, and we would like that.”

Handing over a small box, the undertaker played his role. “Everything that was in his pockets is in that box.” Then telling them he had to work, he walked to the backroom.

“Is it there?”

“No. I don’t know where that letter is, Judge.”

“I want that letter.”

“Why?”

“I don’t want that letter falling into the wrong hands.”

“Why? Cause you told us how to find Adam Cartwright and that you wanted us to kill him? And you’d pay all of our expenses if we did it?”

It was too much too fast. Judge Miller got suspicious and turned to leave. As he did so, Roy and Clem emerged from the back room. The judge drew a pistol knowing that he was caught, but Clem was much faster. The roar of the pistol was deafening in the small space, and the smoke burned the eyes, but the worst sight was the judge. He had tried to drop to his knees to hide behind some boxes but that had only meant that Clem’s shot hit him in the head instead of much lower. Blood pooled around his head as he lay on the floor and then stopped flowing altogether. Sightless eyes stared at the ceiling.

“It’s too bad. He didn’t need to die. If he had just accepted the truth, he could have enjoyed the rest of his life with his family.” Roy hated to see death even when a man was twisted in evil by his grief like the judge had been.

“For us, it ends now. We’re real sorry about what we did. If there’s anything we can do, just ask.” The cousins were remorseful especially after the sobering event of a few minutes before.

“I think the best thing is that we go talk to Adam and see how he’s doing and let him know what happened.”

Sitting in his house with his leg up on the couch in his parlor, Adam had forgiveness in his heart and a hope for the young men when they came with Roy to talk. Doctor Martin had come to the house and stitched up the entrance and exit wounds. “Doc says your cousin is going to live, so we can just be thankful more people didn’t die because one man was after vengeance. Just live a good life, and try not to kill anyone. It’s what I hope to do now. I would like to find some peace.” Adam was getting so weary of the violence. It seemed he could not escape it no matter where he was.

Roy stepped up to the two cousins. “You can stay here in town until your cousin, Jason, is healed up enough to travel. We’ll put you up in a boardinghouse if you need a place to stay. I’ll get a wagon so we can move Jason over too.”

“Well, thank you, sheriff. We’ll be needing some help cause the judge said he was going to pay our expenses. We ain’t got but a few dollars between us. Maybe somebody would be willing to hire us.”

“Roy, just send the bill to me. I’ll take care of it. They can talk to Hoss about a job too. He’ll need some drovers for that drive that’s coming up. I don’t think I’ll be able to help.”

Nodding, Roy left with the young men after telling Adam he would take care of them and take care of notifying the judge’s family of his demise at the hands of a law officer in Virginia City. Adam’s name would not be mentioned.

After Roy left, Aida took Danny upstairs to nurse him and put him down for a delayed nap. Usually Adam liked to be there when she did that if he could for it was the greatest sight he could imagine witnessing, but his leg told him to stay put. The baby was overtired, and it was some time before she returned downstairs. Adam wanted to hold her, but his leg was feeling very stiff. He asked her to sit by him. She did, and then the tears came. All he could do was hold her and let her cry it out. He knew there was nothing he could say to help at this point. She was a tough lady, but accepting all that had happened on this day would be expecting too much.

“Adam, Hoss and Claire have moved into the Edward’s place, Joe has his own place, and Jamie will be leaving for school in two months. Have you reconsidered your father’s offer?”

“That we move back to the Ponderosa and live with him and Joyce?”

“Yes, he said you could add on rooms if you wanted to. Adam, after what happened today, I am so scared. I’m scared for you, and I’m scared for our son. I think we would be safer on the Ponderosa especially with all the other people around who would look out for us.”

“The judge is dead, and I don’t think we have to worry about those boys again.”

“Yes, but how about other people out there holding a grudge against you? What if another one shows up?”

“Let’s think about it for a bit. We have time to decide, don’t we?”

“Danny’s christening is in a week and a half. Could we decide by then?”

And Adam knew exactly what his decision would have to be. He needed to protect his family, and Aida was correct in what the best way to do that was. He would spend some of his recuperation time designing a small addition to his father’s house to better accommodate two families and two women as well as Hop Sing. He hoped they all would like his ideas.

Word had been sent to the Ponderosa to let them know about what had happened. Not surprisingly, Ben was at his son’s house an hour after he heard. Hoss and Joe arrived later because they had been out working. Adam laid out his ideas for the main house.

“You came up with this all in the last couple of hours?”

“No, Pa, I’ve actually been thinking for some time that the house could use some modernizing. An addition with a water closet and an office that Aida and I could share would be very practical. A new and bigger stove in the kitchen especially if we can find one with two or three ovens will help a lot especially when all the family comes to visit. I think we can expand the kitchen into the washroom area which would allow a much larger pantry. Then a new washroom with new drainage would make laundry and baths a lot easier for everyone especially if the bathtub could be screened from the laundry area so both could be used at the same time. We could put the old stove in there to heat water and heat the room.”

“Hey, Adam, do you think you could design something like that for my house too?” Joe liked the ideas and thought his small house could use some expansion as well. Hoss then asked the exact thing.

“We could work on these projects in between the drives, and then over the winter if we get the walls and roof on each of them by then.”

Ben could see where this was going. He already thought he knew how Joyce would react. The water closet would be a big hit. She hated going out to the necessary at night especially when it was cold. Having access to the kitchen would be something both Joyce and Aida would like. Hop Sing had been asking for a new stove for a long time. He decided he would have to get used to more change especially if he wanted his oldest son and his family living with him and Joyce. He smiled and agreed. Aida sat next to Adam and gave him a big kiss. She wasn’t usually so demonstrative in front of anyone, but she was so relieved.

By the time of Danny’s christening, they had moved back in with Ben and Joyce, and some of the construction preparations had started. Adam wasn’t ready to work yet at that time, but he was drawing and ordering. The long awaited water closet would be the last to be finished, but the promise of one had everyone in the house looking forward to it. At the dinner celebrating Danny’s christening, Ben had a toast.

“Here’s to our family’s good health. May all live long and prosper and continue to be loved by those we love. Here’s to grandchildren and the joy of seeing our family enter another generation. Father, we thank You for the privilege of being together as a family, and we will face the future together.”

*****

Hallucinations

Chapter 1

“Where are you?” Adam stood on the shore looking for the beautiful woman with the raven hair and the cloak of white feathers. He had seen her from the top of the hill and had rushed down here to see her. But now standing on the shore of the lake, he saw no woman and no raft. It had been a small raft, but even so, it could not have disappeared so quickly. He took off his boots and jacket to wade into the lake. He waded in and searched and searched but found nothing. He felt like he was floating after a time and wanted to just relax into the water and drift away to wherever that beautiful woman must have gone. Suddenly he was jolted from his reverie by a large hand grabbing his collar and dragging him from the lake.

“Damn, you, older brother. I’m near to freezing and I was in that water only long enough to drag you out. What were ya doing in there?” Hoss set Adam down on the grass and reached for his boots but realized he would need to remove the wet socks before putting his boots on. “Lordy, you’re so cold. How am I gonna get you home and get you warmed up?” It wasn’t freezing yet but it was very cool and the wind was blowing.

Hoss had been riding and driving cattle into the pasture when he had seen Adam veer off toward the lake. Wondering where his brother could be going, he had followed and from the top of the hill, watched as Adam took off his boots and waded into the frigid water. There had been several episodes recently where Adam had done some rather bizarre things, but this one was downright dangerous. He pulled Adam’s wet shirt from him and helped him into his jacket but he knew it wasn’t going to be enough. He picked up his coat and layered it over his brother’s. Then he pulled on his dry socks and boots before helping Adam to his horse. Adam was shaking with cold by the time he got him on his horse and headed home. Hoss was shivering too and hadn’t been in the water nearly as long. Late October was no time to be swimming in the lake.

“What happened?” Ben was scared as he saw Adam pale and slumped over his horse’s neck. He helped him down and watched as Hoss dismounted. “You’re both soaking wet. Get in the house and I’ll have Hop Sing start a warm bath. Meanwhile the two of you need to get out of those wet clothes.”

Later Ben and Hoss got Adam into a warm bed where he promptly fell asleep. He had said nothing that made sense for he had been looking for a woman in a feather cloak on a raft on the lake.

“Pa, this is a lot like him seeing that ghost and such in the cave. Pa, none of that was there. We all went there the next day and there was nothing.”

“Yes, and when he said he was shooting at a band of women warriors who were chasing him, and there was nothing there either, no tracks, no women, no arrows, nothing.”

“Pa, you don’t think Adam could be, you know, losing his mind?”

“No, I can’t believe that. Hoss, you know what they’ll do with him if he’s diagnosed with that. It would be better if he had drowned in that lake.”

“Pa, ya cain’t mean that. Pa, it’s Adam!”

“I know, I know, but Hoss, I feel so helpless. He’ll wake up tomorrow and he won’t remember any of this, or at least that’s what he’ll tell us. He tells these fantastic stories, and then the next day can’t remember any of it, what he says happened or even that he told us another story.”

“Pa, what did Paul say when ya talked to him?”

“He has no idea. He says it is way outside of his experience for these events to occur, and then for Adam to seem so normal for a week or so afterwards, and then we have another strange episode like this.”

“Pa, his marriage is on the line, and after today, his life is too. Pa, we gotta do something.”

“What’s happened now?” Aida had come back from visiting Claire and heard the voices upstairs. Seeing her husband lying in bed in the afternoon, she knew there had been another incident. Danny clung to her hand. It seemed that not only had Adam rejected any contact with Aida lately, but Danny was sensing something very wrong with his father and didn’t want to go near him. Aida was sleeping in a guest bedroom now. She spent many days visiting her sisters-in-law or working with Joyce or Hop Sing in the kitchen. Danny went with her wherever she went.

“Ben, Hop Sing wants to know if he should brew some tea for Adam to warm him.”

“He’s asleep now. I think the bath warmed him enough. I would like some coffee though and I would imagine Hoss would too. Perhaps some hot soup and some biscuits for Hoss if he has some. He was very chilled too. Let’s all go downstairs, and Hoss can tell Aida what happened.”

So Hoss told Aida of following Adam to the lake and watching as he waded into the water. “I’m so sorry, Aida. Ifn I had any idea he was gonna do that, I would’ve been there sooner. At first, I just wondered where he was going. The way things have been going, I should have known something was wrong.”

“Hoss, don’t blame yourself. Ben and I have sat and talked with Paul. Adam refuses to talk with him for he says he can’t remember any of these things we say he has done. We can’t help him if he refuses to admit there’s a problem. Actually this morning, he seemed a bit paranoid. He seems to think that somehow we are out to get him. It is all very frightening. The man I married is gone, and this stranger is in his place. Even Danny doesn’t want to go by him.”

“Papa, sick.”

“Yes, he is, sweetie, but your father is a strong man. I hope he’s strong enough to beat this, whatever it is.”

No one had any more to say. Adam slept through the night, and as expected had no memory of any of the events of the day before. He stayed home. Ben returned inside after watching the hands heading out with Hoss to herd cattle. About midmorning, Mrs. Nolander arrived in the yard of the Ponderosa.

“Well, good morning, Mrs. Nolander. What brings you to the Ponderosa?”

“Oh, Ben, please, I’ve asked you to call me Maria. We’re neighbors after all.”

“Then Maria, what brings you to the Ponderosa?”

“I was worried. Adam said he would be back today to work on those repairs you sent him to do, and when he didn’t arrive as expected, I waited and then thought I ought to alert you in case something had happened to him.”

At that statement, Maria saw a dark look pass over Ben’s face, and although she hid it well, she was pleased to see it.

“No, Adam is in the house. He must have forgotten.”

At that point, Adam walked out with Aida and Danny. He had convinced them that they should accompany him on a ride to town. He already had the carriage all set to go. This was one of those days when Adam seemed like his old self, and Aida had agreed to go. When Adam saw Maria, he dropped Aida’s hand and went to greet their neighbor. He grasped her hand and she stood on tiptoes to kiss his cheek. Aida was shocked. He had not kissed her in nearly two weeks, but he accepted a kiss from a neighbor they hardly knew.

Maria Nolander had moved in just a few months before. Then only a month earlier, her husband had died suddenly of a fever and left her with a small ranch badly in need of repair. Ben had sent Adam to help her out. He had been there three days in the last two weeks. Now it seemed to Aida and to Ben, that Adam and Maria had developed a significant amount of familiarity in just two weeks.

“Maria, what brings you here.” Adam continued to hold her hands.

“When you didn’t show up as you promised, I worried about you. Were you planning to bring your wife and son with you this time?”

“No, we were just going to take a ride to town. That can wait, though. I’ll get my horse saddled and head back with you. I can still get a lot of work done today.”

Ben was shocked as was Aida who turned on her heel and headed back into the house with Danny next to her. “Adam, perhaps you could do this tomorrow. Aida was looking forward to spending the day with you.”

It seemed that Adam didn’t hear his father. He did what he said he was going to do, and saddled his horse for the ride to Maria’s ranch. Another shock to Ben was when Maria suggested Adam ride with her, and he tied his horse to the back of the carriage and climbed in next to her. They drove off, and at dinnertime, Adam was not yet home. It was a very quiet dinner as no one knew what to say to Aida. Ben and Joyce were dismayed at Adam’s behavior, and had no idea why he was acting that way.

As usual, there was a lantern hanging on the porch and another lit by the stable in anticipation of Adam arriving home. When Ben finally heard a horse in the yard, he grabbed his coat and walked out wanting some answers from his son. Aida was upstairs putting Danny to bed, and she heard Adam arrive home too. She read a story to Danny, but she intended to confront her husband too as soon as she could.

As Ben neared the stable, he heard Adam retching. Once he reached the stable, Adam was taking his canteen off his saddle and drinking apparently to dilute the acid residue in his mouth and throat. Ben was shocked at his appearance. He was disheveled and pale. Adam looked at Ben and shook his head. He seemed unable to speak or express how he felt.

“Adam, what’s wrong?”

Choking the words out slowly one by one as if each one was a major effort, Adam answsered. “Pa, I don’t know. I don’t even know how I got home. I don’t remember much of anything after I arrived at the Nolander ranch. Pa, what’s wrong with me?”

Suddenly Adam arched his back and slammed back into the side of the stall. Then he crumpled to the ground. Ben rushed to his side to pull Adam away from the startled horse before he was trampled. As he got him far enough away, Adam went into a seizure as his eyes rolled back in his head.

“Oh, my God, what happened?” Aida had arrived just as the seizure began.

Holding his son, Ben looked up helplessly at Aida. “I don’t know, but whatever has been wrong has just reached a crisis, I think. Please have Hop Sing get the guest room downstairs ready and have a hand ride for the doctor. I’ll need some help getting him to the house too.”

*****

Chapter 2

Hands were dispatched to let Hoss and Joe know what had happened, and they were at the main house when Doctor Martin got there. Paul had been as perplexed as any of them with Adam’s strange behavior, and now a seizure and collapse. Joyce directed him into the downstairs guest bedroom where Adam was quietly resting. Paul sent Aida and Ben out to be with the others.

“Did Adam say anything, Pa?”

“No, he never opened his eyes. He’s breathing normally and doesn’t seem to be in any distress, and there’s no fever, but he wouldn’t wake up either.”

There were sandwiches and coffee supplied by Hop Sing, and the five waited for Paul to emerge. They were hoping for good news, but after an hour, Paul stepped out with a very sad look and no one expected good news when they saw that look.

“Paul, how is Adam?” Aida wanted to know but was terrified as to what he might say.

“Adam is not sleeping. He’s in a coma. He is completely unresponsive to any stimuli.”

There were gasps all around the room.

“What could have caused this to happen to my son?”

“Ben, Aida, I think Adam was poisoned. It is the only thing that fits with my examination of him and what I found. Depending on the type of poison used, it could account for his bizarre behavior over the last two weeks. Now Ben, you said he was vomiting in the barn. Can you show me?”

“I’m sure the hands have cleaned it up by now.”

“Well, can you remember anything about the vomit? Any particular smell or color that you remember?”

Ben sat down and thought about what he had seen. He tried to visualize the whole thing. “It looked rather black to me. I thought that was unusual at the time, but then he was convulsing in a seizure, and I didn’t pay any more attention to it.”

“Aida, you were there too. Do you remember any smell or anything about Adam that you found unusual besides the seizure?”

Then Aida did the same thing Ben had done. She sat down and tried to visualize the whole scene. “He was holding his stomach as the seizure ended almost as if he was in great pain.”

Paul nodded his head. “What you’re telling me fits with what I have observed. Some poisons and toxins have hallucinogenic properties. I believe someone has been poisoning Adam repeatedly over the last two weeks. I don’t know who or how and that really bothers me. We need to discover how he has been getting the poison first. If he gets any more at this point, and I hate to be this blunt, but I don’t think he can survive it. He probably ingested enough poison to kill him but it was so much, his body rejected it. He wouldn’t be alive now if he had not vomited up so much of that poison. But it was still enough to put him into a coma.”

Hoss asked the next question that everyone had. “How long will this coma last?”

“A coma can last a day, two days, a week, a month, or a year or more. The longer it lasts, the less likely he will wake up from it.”

“You mean that my husband may never wake up from this?”

“I’m sorry, Aida, but I can’t hide the truth from you. All we can do now is try to get him to take fluids and keep it calm and quiet for him. Talk to him though. Sometimes people in comas can hear people. If that’s true, you may be able to pull him back. There’s no way to know if he hears you though until he wakes up.”

“Paul, how can he take fluids if he doesn’t wake up?”

“Swallowing is an automatic reaction. If you hold him up or prop him up and put a small amount of fluid in his mouth, he may swallow. You’ll know when he’s ready to do that because if he isn’t, the fluid will just run out. Try a variety of fluids. Usually my experience is that warm works best, but there’s no absolute in this. Try anything to see if he will swallow. Without fluids, he has less chance of recovering.”

“Paul, what about his arm?” When undressing Adam, Aida and Ben had discovered numerous scratches and bruises on his left arm. Now Aida wanted to know if he had any idea how Adam had received those injuries.

“I can’t be sure, but from what I saw, it looked like he was trying to get away from someone. There are marks from what appear to be two hands and scratches that correspond to those. Because it’s his left arm, my conclusion would be that he was on his horse, and someone tried to pull him off or at the very least prevent him from mounting up.”

There was a knock on the door and Joe went to answer it. It was Candy with Adam’s canteen. He handed it to Joe who asked him what was going on.

“Joe, I went to clean up Adam’s gear. His saddle was quite a mess. It looked like he must have retched on the way home and not just in the stable. When I got that done, I was going to drain his canteen and let it dry out. When I did that, this started to come out of it.”

Candy held up his hand with some black ooze in it. Joe tipped the canteen and soon had some in his hand too. Hop Sing saw it and yelled at the two men.

“No, no, you come in kitchen. You wash hand. Very bad. You wash.”

Paul walked over to look at the black ooze and took the canteen and smelled it. “Well I think we know where he was getting poisoned.”

“What is that stuff?” Hoss got right to the point that everyone was thinking.

“There’s no way for me to tell other than it seems to be plant based. Someone is brewing this from plants they’re grown or purchased. Maybe someday there will be a way to analyze a poison like this, but right now, I could only guess.”

“Paul, how can that explain some of Adam’s behavior?” Aida was hoping that at least some of this could make sense.

“I definitely would think it is the reason for his behavior changes, and probably all of his unusual behavior. He could have been hallucinating as a result of the poison. But with some of the drugs that could have been used, a person could have been planting ideas in his mind when he was deeply under the influence of the drug or drugs. He could be unwittingly doing as instructed without being aware of it. A more worrisome theory could be that there are changes in his brain as a result of the poison making him act in uncharacteristic ways much like a stroke can affect a person’s personality.”

“Someone planting ideas? You mean that he knows the person who was doing this to him?” Ben was incensed to think that someone they knew had done this.

“Ben, think about this. Who would have access to his canteen, and possibly his food, in order to continually give him doses of this poison? I think someone wanted him dead. And it’s someone we know.”

Everyone was very quiet and thinking after that. Joe was the first and only one to offer an idea. “All this trouble started after Pa sent Adam over to help Mrs. Nolander. Maybe someone doesn’t like us helping her.”

As the family thought about that, they had to agree with the timing, but the motivation seemed too strange to be true. No one had any other ideas though. Ben asked Candy to alert the men to watch for anything unusual. He hoped no one would try to get to Adam now but didn’t want to take any chances. Candy understood.

“The usual? One hand in the loft watching out over the whole place?”

“Yes, and we’ll keep a lantern burning by the stable and one by the house. In fact, perhaps we’ll have one out back just in case. We’ll keep a few lamps burning inside too. Hop Sing, please keep your shotgun loaded and ready. And you two should head home to your wives and children. Do you want anyone to watch over your places?”

Both Joe and Hoss declined for the night but said they would discuss it with their wives and get back to Candy with a final answer the next day. The two brothers left then. Candy left to take care of those things that Ben wanted done. Aida went to sit by Adam’s side, and Paul asked if he could sleep there that night and leave early in the morning.

“I can’t do anything for Adam right now, but it’s late and dark, and I would prefer going back to town when I can see the road.”

“Of course, Paul. Joyce, will you show Paul to the guest room upstairs, please. I want to say goodnight to Adam and Aida, and then I’ll make sure the house is locked up tight.”

In the early morning hours, Danny woke up crying. Ben and Joyce found him wet and cold. After changing him into dry clothing with Joyce’s help, Ben carried the sobbing child downstairs. “Mama, Papa, Mama, Papa.” His call for his parents was heart rending. Aida heard them coming and took Danny from Ben’s arms outside the room where Adam lay.

“I don’t want him to disturb Adam.”

“Aida, Paul said that Adam might be able to hear what’s going on around him. He said that might call him back to us. What could be a stronger call than a son for his father?”

Danny had quieted in his mother’s arms. Aida carried him into the bedroom, and he stretched out his arms to his father. He had not done that in days. It was as if he sensed that a change had taken place. Aida set him on the bed, and Danny snuggled into his father’s side. Aida pulled the blanket over him as his eyes closed. She looked at Ben and nodded. Perhaps it would help. Ben told her to go to bed and get some rest, but she said she couldn’t. So Ben told her to lie on the other side of Adam. He pulled a blanket that had been folded at the foot of the bed and covered his daughter-in-law.

“You sleep. I’ll sit here, and I’ll wake you if I see any change.” Aida said that she would try to sleep but wasn’t sure she could.

About four in the morning, Joyce tapped Ben lightly on the shoulder and whispered to him. “I’ll take over now. You go back to bed for a few hours.”

Ben had nearly nodded off at least a dozen times so he didn’t need any more encouragement. After he left, Joyce sat and surveyed the family lying in the bed. Adam looked like such a choirboy when he was completely relaxed in sleep. Joyce knew that he wasn’t, but he had such a strong moral code, he could never truly do something bad. Aida looked worried even as she slept but Joyce thought it was probably because of all that had worried her for the past two weeks. A lot of tears had been shed, and the young woman still had so much to face.

Then there was Danny who at ten months was looking more and more like his father every day. He was bright and coordinated too which had led to a number of small disasters as he was smart enough to get into things and skilled enough to do it but had the common sense of a rock as Hoss described it. She had to smile as she thought of the boy and the man he would become. Without the isolation, hard work, and deprivation like his father had experienced as a child, she wondered just what kind of man he would be. She wiled away the time with thoughts like that until dawn began lighting the room. She could already hear Hop Sing getting busy in the kitchen.

Soon there would be a number of people up and about, and Adam still lay as pale, still, and unresponsive as he had been the night before. Paul surprised her a few minutes later by knocking lightly on the doorjamb. He looked over the three in bed and whispered to Joyce that he was leaving but would return in the late afternoon to check in on Adam. He would be back sooner than that to treat another Cartwright, but he didn’t know that yet.

*****

Chapter 3

Hearing Paul and Joyce talking, Aida awoke. As she sat up on the edge of the bed, the movement woke Danny who sat up as well. Joyce picked him up as Aida stood.

“You should go freshen up. I’ve got Danny, and I can take care of his breakfast too so you don’t have to rush. I’m sure Ben will be down soon, and Hop Sing is already at work.”

Reaching down to touch Adam’s cheek, Aida was shocked at how warm he was. She sat at his side quickly and put her hand on his chest finding that he was very hot.

“Does he have a fever?”

Aida nodded, and Joyce reminded her that Paul had said that could happen as his body reacted to the toxins and the need to clean his system. Now more than ever, they needed to get some fluids in him. Almost as if reading their minds, Hop Sing appeared with some hot sweet tea and a spoon. Working together, Hop Sing and Aida were able to pull Adam more upright and put pillows behind him to prop him up. Aida took a spoonful of tea and eased Adam’s mouth open so she could pour the tea over his tongue. He closed his mouth and swallowed. She wanted to yell for joy. Finally something was working as she hoped. She continued to spoon the tea in and he swallowed each time. When she finished, she tried to talk Adam into opening his eyes. He grimaced a few times but then his face relaxed and she knew he had lapsed back into a deeper coma again. Several more times that morning, they attempted the same thing. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, but they were getting fluid into him. The fever did not rise to a level that was worrisome.

By midmorning, Hoss and Joe were back and their wives and children had come with them. Just to be safe, they were all going to stay in the house. It would be crowded, but this way they could help each other. Aida was especially grateful because Danny loved being in Josh’s company so he was much easier to care for that way.

The family members again discussed what had happened and who might be responsible. No one had any more ideas. No one could think of anyone with a current gripe against Adam or against any of them for that matter. Adam’s past was considered but no one could come up with a scenario for how that could lead to someone they knew poisoning Adam. It was all so inexplicable. Joe said he was going to follow Adam’s path from the day before and see if he found anything unusual.

Playing detective was exactly the thing that Joe liked doing. Hoss took charge of things that needed to be done on the ranch. The ladies and children stayed in the house and helped Aida care for Adam. Ben stayed inside as well for most of the day. Because they didn’t know who had done this to Adam, they had to be very cautious. No one came to visit and the hands never saw anyone visiting the ranch so there were no easy answers.

The only one actively seeking answers was Joe. As he traced Adam’s trail from the night before, he found that it was somewhat erratic but in a general direction of the Nolander ranch. The closer he got, the more he thought that something had happened on that ranch. There was evidence that Adam had been unable to control his horse well the night before for the entire ride home. As Joe rode into the Nolander ranch yard, his senses were on high alert. Now Adam had supposedly worked here on repairs on three days, but other than a box of tools sitting by the stable, Joe could see no repairs that had been completed.

“Hello, Joe. Did you get lost on your way home?”

“Not at all, Mrs. Nolander. I was following Adam’s track from last night and it led me here.”

“Well, why would you be following Adam’s track. Couldn’t he just tell you where he was?”

“Adam’s in a coma. Somebody poisoned him. Doc doesn’t know if he’ll make it. He says one more dose of that poison could kill him.”

“Oh, my, that is awful.” Maria staggered then in shock. But it wasn’t shock that Adam had been poisoned. It was shock that he was still alive. She thought he had drunk enough of the special brew the day before to have finished him off. If not, she had dosed his canteen very liberally with her special concoction and that should have done it. She didn’t know how it had failed, but unwittingly Joe reassured her.

Dismounting quickly, Joe, in his best white knight mode, rushed to Mrs. Nolander’s side so she didn’t fall. He helped her to a chair on her porch.

“Poison! How did he survive being poisoned?”

“He retched a lot. Apparently he threw up enough of the poison so it didn’t kill him, but otherwise he would already be gone. Now do you know anyone who would be upset about him working here?”

“Well, I have no idea. Why don’t you come inside? I was just brewing up some sweet tea. I think you’ll like it. We can talk about this and see if I can think of someone dastardly enough to do this.”

Sitting at Mrs. Nolander’s table drinking a cup of her sweet tea, Joe began to evaluate what he had learned. She acted now as if there was nothing wrong. He would have expected her to be more concerned. He remembered the repairs that had not been done. Then he remembered what Paul had said about the poison and what it could do to a person. Unfortunately, he was almost done with the cup of tea before he realized he probably should not have been drinking it. He stood to leave, and the room spun around. She was there immediately to help him sit again. She poured another cup of tea for him and insisted he drink it. He knew there was something he was going to do but couldn’t remember what it was. He drank and tried to concentrate but his mind was not cooperating.

“I hear you are quite a horseman. I think that when you finish that tea, you should ride home and not let anything deter you from a straight line directly home. Nothing in your way is an obstacle. You can jump them all. You are a great horseman. You can jump that horse of yours over anything. Isn’t that right, Joe?”

“Yes, yes, you’re right. There’s nothing I can’t jump with my horse. We can jump anything.”

“There, now, why don’t you ride right on home then? I’ll clean up here.”

Standing caused Joe to stumble once again, but Mrs. Nolander was right there to help him. He was thinking she was a darn helpful woman as he walked with her aid from the house to his horse. He mounted up and rode toward home easily jumping the fence instead of going the long way around and through the large gate. He continued his headlong ride home until he tried to jump a large pile of rocks and rubble from a landslide. His horse made it but stumbled a bit on landing, and Joe flew over the head of his horse and into a pile of jagged rocks. He felt a searing pain in his leg and then darkness rescued him from agony.

Maria Nolander was sitting in her kitchen and thinking. She thought she had eliminated a problem the day before but apparently had failed. She couldn’t believe he wasn’t dead. She wondered for a moment if Joe had been lying and trying to trick her. Then she thought he couldn’t be that good at acting that he could be so casual if his brother had truly died. Once again she wondered why he had not. After he rebuffed her the day before, she had grown furious. She had groomed him for two weeks feeding him her special concoction and planting all sorts of ideas in his head. He had taken the first doses in coffee but that had been enough to get him to take her special tea, and then she had made sure each time that some of the thick concoction was at the bottom of his canteen and leaching into every drink of water he had. That way he was getting doses even when he was not on her ranch. She knew he would hallucinate and behave in an uncharacteristic manner but that actually helped because people would think he was losing his mind.

All Maria had wanted from Adam was a Cartwright heir. With a child from him, she could claim some of the Cartwright wealth. She didn’t need to marry one of them. She had wished the old man had sent one of his younger sons. She thought she could probably already be with child if he had done that. That older one had been somewhat difficult to manage. She realized she had probably tried for her ultimate goal too soon. If she had just been a bit more patient with him, it might have worked.

But yesterday when Maria had moved to seduce him, some part of his brain had still been aware enough to reject her. She had plied him with more and more of her special brew until she knew it was far too much. She had thought he would die, and that would eliminate all the evidence of her machinations. She had tried to get him to stay until he was so far gone he could not have gotten home where he could be helped, but some part of him recognized the danger and fought her until he had wheeled his horse about and rode off. Even then she wondered how he had stayed in the saddle. Now she needed a new plan to rid herself of him. She had already taken care of three husbands, and with each one, her lot in life had improved. She had gone from a dirt poor urchin in south Texas to a landowner in Nevada, but she wanted more, and Adam Cartwright stood in her way.

Well actually, Adam lay in her way. He had not awakened, but Aida was somewhat reassured because his breathing remained normal and his heart rate was steady and strong. The fever did not rise much, but he was sweating profusely. Luckily with help, she had been able to get him to drink a cup of fluid every hour. He swallowed, he yawned, and made a few guttural moans but never opened his eyes. Ben too felt better with the apparent improvement in Adam’s condition, but like the others, they waited for Paul’s return to know if these were hopeful signs of improvement or not.

In mid-afternoon, Ben and the ladies heard a lot of commotion in the yard. Aida stayed at Adam’s side, but the others went outside to see what was happening. Alice nearly fainted when she saw the cause. Joe was bloody, unconscious, and had a leg that was obviously broken. The men were lifting him from a wagon to bring him into the house. Ben directed them to carry him upstairs and turned to Hoss to ask what had happened.

“Pa, his horse came running into the pasture where we was working, He had bloody forelegs and the reins were hanging loose. Pa, Joe tried to jump that big ole rockpile in the far southeast pasture. That was a crazy thing to try. He could have been killed.” Ben and Joyce were shocked, and Hoss suddenly understood why. Joe had done something crazy and almost gotten himself killed. “Pa, it’s just like Adam!”

“Yes, it appears to be. I want you to stay at the house. Don’t go anywhere alone. Did you send someone for the doctor?”

“Yeah, Pa, we sent someone right from where we were working. He should be here soon. We couldn’t go too fast as bad as Joe was hurt.”

“Where was he? Where was he that someone could poison him?”

“Pa, he said he was gonna backtrack Adam’s trail. He thought he could find something out by doing that. You know how he loves to play at being a detective. But, Pa, he was onto something. He must have run into whoever did this to Adam.”

“Yes, and we’re going to get Roy and backtrack both of their trails and see where they cross. That’s where our adversary is.”

*****

Chapter 4

Screams from upstairs announced when Paul was setting Joe’s broken leg. Luckily it was a clean break, but Joe’s head injury would not allow Paul to give him any narcotic until he was sure he could recover from that damage. Joe passed out from the pain which was the only benefit of setting his leg before dealing with his other injuries. Ben and Hoss sat with their wives and the children who luckily were too young to know how badly things were going. Paul had been there over an hour already working on Joe, so they had not been able to ask him about Adam.

That was less of a concern suddenly as Aida stepped out to call Ben and Hoss to the guest bedroom. Adam was blinking his eyes, and Ben and Hoss thought they had never seen a prettier sight. Joe’s scream had startled him enough and as he reacted, Aida had called to him over and over to please open his eyes. Now she cajoled him into keeping them open.

“Adam, sweetie, just keep those eyes open. C’mon now, we need you to fight this. Fight harder.” She became a little more agitated as it appeared he might fall back into the coma, but he struggled instead to say something. Aida leaned down to hear his strained whisper and then sat up to turn with a smile to the others.

“He wants to know what happened, and he wants some help him with the urinal.”

Smiling Hoss returned to the others to tell them Adam was awake and lucid. Ben pushed the door closed so that he and Aida could see to Adam’s personal needs. Then they pulled the damp sheets from him, and replaced them with the clean crisp sheets Hop Sing had left in the room earlier. They got Adam settled back against the pillows once more, and then tried to engage him in conversation. His throat was inflamed from the retching he had done, and his voice was weak because he was weak, but he could communicate.

“Adam, do you remember what happened at all?”

“I remember you asking me to help Mrs. Nolander at her ranch. Then I remember some hazy things since then but nothing clearly until I woke up just now.”

Shocked that Adam had so little memory of the past two weeks, Aida pressed him more. “What hazy things do you remember?”

Adam looked at her and his brows furrowed. She and Ben knew he didn’t want to say so they encouraged him.

“Adam, sweetie, nothing you say is going to shock me. We have had a difficult two weeks around here, and we’re trying to understand what happened.”

“Son, we don’t blame you for anything. We know what happened to you, but we’re trying to find out who did it to you.”

That got Adam’s attention. Aida had not wanted to tell him so soon about the poison, but even in his weakened and confused state, his mind had zeroed in on his father’s statement so they had to let him know what they knew. So she told him about being poisoned and about what Paul had said about what the poison could do. Then he knew. The weird things he had been thinking had actually happened. He was so embarrassed and guilty then for his behavior.

“So, I did push you away? I wouldn’t kiss you?” At Aida’s nod, he closed his eyes in his humiliation and remorse. “I am so sorry. I didn’t think there was anything that would ever make me hurt you, and I did hurt you. What can I do to make things better for us?”

“You already did. Now that you are back to yourself, you have made it clear you didn’t mean any of those things that happened.”

“But how could I have been poisoned? I don’t remember anyone doing that to me.”

“We don’t know how you got the first dose, but there was some in your canteen, and every drink of water you took from that canteen, added more poison to your system. Can you remember anything about anyone you were with in the last two weeks who might have given you something to eat or drink?”

“Other than going to church; I did go to church, didn’t I?” At Aida’s nod, he continued. “I haven’t been off the ranch in two weeks except to help Mrs. Nolander.”

Then no one spoke for a minute. Aida and Ben noticed that he did not use the more familiar address of Maria, but spoke of her as he would any neighbor he didn’t know very well. All three began to wonder what her role in this was. She was the only part of the puzzle that was a constant. Aida and Ben knew that Joe had likely ridden to her ranch too. Hop Sing knocked and brought in a cup of hot thick broth for Adam to drink, and then he set a cup of coffee on the bedside table as well.

“Mister Adam want other drink?”

“Thank you, Hop Sing. Yes, a tall glass of lemonade would be wonderful.” And suddenly Adam remembered a tall glass of lemonade and then cups of coffee the first day he was at Mrs. Nolander’s place. He had just pulled tools from the stable to do some work, and she had brought him a drink and then more drinks. Then after that his memory was foggy and he wasn’t sure about anything until he had awakened in this bed. A hazy memory of her unbuttoning his shirt and then running her hands across his chest made him shiver. Adam looked at Aida.

“I remember some things. I’ll tell you, but I have to warn you that you won’t like hearing some of it.” Then with his head down, Adam recounted everything he could remember, some early memories like the lemonade which were fairly clear, and other darker and more hazy memories of Mrs. Nolander kissing him and groping. He couldn’t be sure those things happened, but was afraid that those memories were real. Once Adam looked up after relating what he remembered, he was afraid of how Aida would look at him. He need not have feared. She sat next to him on the bed, took his face between her hands, and kissed him soundly. Ben quietly left the room.

“I’m so sorry that I didn’t trust you. I should have known something had been done to you to make you act the way you did. I know how embarrassed you must be to have to tell us these things, but I trust you more now than ever. You didn’t hold anything back, and I love you more than I thought was possible.”

“Now I need something from you. Tell me what’s been going on around here. I can hear all sorts of conversation drifting in from outside, and it seems that everyone is terribly worried about something. It isn’t me or you or Pa, and I saw Danny, Hoss, Joyce, and Hop Sing, so who’s in trouble now?”

So Aida had to tell Adam what little they knew of Joe and what had happened to him. She said Doctor Martin was still with him, and they had not heard what the doctor had to say yet.

“I want to go out there. I want to be with my family, my whole family.”

“Adam, you are in no shape to be walking around.”

“I know. I can sit in a chair as well as I can sit here though. I’ll try to do it by myself if no one helps me, and you know I will.”

“Oh, and were you planning to go out there without any clothing. Everything you had on was reeking and we burned them once we realized some of that poison was on them from your retching.”

“Please, Aida. It’s very important to me to be with my family now.”

“I’ll get you some clothes. If you can get yourself dressed, then I’ll get Hoss to help you to a chair.”

Adam knew that getting dressed was likely to be difficult, but he saw the slight grin his wife was trying to hide. She was glad to have him back even with his temper, irritability, stubbornness, and all.

“Could you do one more thing for me before you leave?”

“And what would that be?”

“Come here.”

Kissing his wife with all the passion he could muster, Adam was soon out of breath and held her to his chest as she snuggled in. Sitting like that for a few minutes healed a lot of hurt. Then she got him his clothes, helped him shave, and then asked Hoss to help him to a chair. Danny was so excited he walked from the red chair over to the blue chair where Hoss helped Adam sit.

“You’re walking. Danny, when did you start walking?”

“Ah, right now. He’s been close for quite a while but seeing you seems to have made him forget his fear and let go.”

Danny basked in his father’s smile and praise as he stood next to the blue chair, and Adam rubbed his back. Then Paul appeared at the top of the stairs, and the smiles in the group disappeared at his grave look. Once he got to the bottom of the stairs, he told Alice she could go up to see Joe and he would be back up to talk with her. She rushed past him on the stairs.

“As you know, Joe has a broken leg. It was a clean break and set well. I splinted it, and I’ll be back every day for this week to resplint it as the swelling goes down. He has a nasty gash on the side of his head and that’s where most of the blood came from that you were all so worried about. I stitched that up and no one will even see the scar once it heals. It will all be covered by his hair. What worries me most is the concussion. I can’t tell how serious that is until I can talk with him. He’s in so much pain and so groggy now that when he’s awake, he can’t talk. You know the drill. Wake him every hour or two until he seems lucid.” Looking at the worried family, Paul had to say more. “He could have been hurt much worse or even killed, but he is very muscular and managed to protect himself somewhat by curling to soften the blow.”

“Was he poisoned?” Ben thought he knew the answer but wanted confirmation.

“By what he retched up, yes, there’s no doubt that he had some of the same thing Adam had. By the way, Adam, I can see I don’t have to check on you. Just remember to take it easy until that poison is completely out of your system. Drink as much as you can. I’ll talk to you and Aida later about your recuperation and what you need to do.”

“Paul, Hop Sing was about to serve. Would you stay and eat with us?”

Paul was more than happy to agree to that, but said he needed to go and talk with Alice first. Once they were all sitting down to eat, the discussion turned to Mrs. Nolander. They were all sure now that she had poisoned both Adam and Joe. Why was still a mystery.

“Pa, we need to tell Roy. She can’t get away with doing that to my brothers.”

“Hoss, that’s exactly what I was thinking, but we have a big problem with proof.”

“Why, you dun got Adam’s story, and Joe can tell us the same once he wakes up.”

“Hoss, none of what I remember is likely to be taken seriously. Paul can tell you that I was hallucinating and that my mind was affected by the drugs. How can I swear that what I remember is the truth of what happened? I know it is, and I think everyone here knows that too, but under the law, it won’t be believable. It’s one thing to know the truth, but in a court, it has to be proven. And knowing and proving are two entirely different things.” Adam ate the soft scrambled eggs that Hop Sing had made for him, and sipped his water and coffee.

“Well, dadburnit, what are we gonna do then? That woman is dangerous.”

“Roy should be here soon. We’ll ask him what he thinks, and then we need to come up with a plan.”

*****

Chapter 5

“Adam, after everyone finishes, I would like to talk with you and your wife.”

Paul’s request sounded more like an order than a query, and everyone left the table as soon as they finished. Joyce took Danny from Aida and said she would watch him until the two of them were done speaking with Paul.

“Adam, I’m glad to see you drinking as I asked, and eating lightly. But your kidneys and especially your liver need time to recuperate. I know you want justice especially after what happened to your brother, but you need to stay here. I don’t want you even walking outside now. You need to be careful. Your color is off. I’m sure Aida has noticed that. Well it’s a sign that your liver was damaged. Now I think you will recover completely but you can’t take any strain now.”

From the great room by the fireplace the other adults were being reasonably quiet and straining to hear. They heard most of what Paul had said, and expected Adam to respond in opposition, but they were surprised.

“I know, Paul. I would be a handicap to anyone now if I tried to ride with them. They would have to watch out for me as much as anything. I’ll stay here, but don’t expect me to be idle. Someone has to be here to keep the women and children safe. I think Hop Sing and I can take care of the house.”

It was probably the best compromise that Paul and Aida could get from Adam under these circumstances. There may have been a bit of bravado in his statement, but that he recognized he would need Hop Sing’s help was an admission too that he knew how weak he was. Aida put her arm around him and leaned in close.

“Thank you. I know how hard this must be for you.”

There was a rider there then and everyone assumed it was Roy. Instead it was Johnny from the bakery in town. He had a box of cookies that he said had been sent to them as a gift. Ben gave him a tip and brought the box inside. Hoss reached in to grab a cookie and take a bite, but Adam slapped it out of his hand and told him to spit out the bite he had taken.

“Now why’d you go do that? You still being crazy with that potion you had?”

“No, maybe, but no. Don’t you smell it? Those cookies smell just like that sweet tea. I’ll never forget that smell.”

“Adam, son, these cookies smell just like cookies to me.”

Paul walked over and sniffed though trying to smell what Adam had. It was difficult to ignore the smell of the icing and the sugar cookies, but Paul understood what Adam meant. There was an unusual odor with the other smells. It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t smell like iced cookies either.

“Ben, I think Adam is correct. There’s a funny odor with these cookies. Not bad, but not the smell I associate with sugar cookies.”

“We need to have one of us go to town and talk to that Johnny. He must have been asked to do this by Mrs. Nolander. We need to get some information from him.”

Roy rode in about that time, and they were all glad to see him. They told them the story they had, and Adam recounted again what had happened to him. He was embarrassed to share some of the details, but they all did need to know what they were facing. Then Ben explained about Johnny and the cookies.

“Ben, that bakery is run by two sisters. Now they make some mighty fine baked goods, but Ben, they don’t deliver. It’s just the two of them. Mary works in the kitchen baking. Nancy works out front doing the icing, taking orders, and selling stuff. Now I could see who bought a box of cookies there today, and that might help us build a case ifn it is Mrs. Nolander who bought em.”

“Why did she want to poison all of us?” Claire was very upset that the children might have been hurt.

Paul had a theory. “I don’t think she wanted to poison all of us. She just wanted to get one more dose in the one person here who could not tolerate any more.” Almost everyone looked at Adam then. Roy asked what was going on and would they please tell him everything. So Paul filled him in on Adam’s condition. Then they all understood. If she could remove Adam, there would only be conjecture about what she had done. There wouldn’t be an eyewitness to tie the pieces together for a jury.

“Ben, I was delayed a bit too because I wanted to find out about her selling her ranch.”

“What? Roy, she sold her ranch?”

“Yes, I knew from what I heard that you folks was suspicious of her, so I checked it out. She sold it cheaper than she had to but this way she got her money quick. I expect she’ll be gone soon.”

“But then why did she try to kill my husband?” Aida wanted just one chance at this woman, just one chance.

“Well, I guess could swear out a warrant for her if a judge accepts Adam’s story as enough to make her a suspect. Now ifn she’s real smart, she would want to take care of that too before she leaves. Now let me get Adam’s statement and then whatever else any of you have to add, and I’ll bring it to the judge to see what he says.”

Upstairs, Joe wanted to know what was going on. Alice went to find out and came back with Roy and Ben. Adam had looked at the stairs when Roy said he wanted to talk to Joe. Hoss had walked over to him to offer his assistance but they had to move slowly. They arrived after Roy had already filled Joe in on what they wanted to do and why. Joe had a big grin when Adam walked through the door.

“Well, older brother. It’s good to see you upright and according to Roy making sense too. Guess I like you a lot better this way.”

“Thanks, Joe. I like me better this way too. Sorry about the leg. If I had been awake, I could have told you about that tea.”

“Not your fault at all, older brother. We know who’s responsible for all this mess. I still can’t think of a reason why though. I had a lot of time to think just laying here, and it still doesn’t make any sense.”

“Joe, maybe she was so taken with our older brother here, that all she wanted was to get him inta her bed.” Hoss chuckled and Joe snickered. Adam turned his head and rubbed his neck. Nothing could ever keep his brothers down for long.

Remembering that he had the sweet tea with Mrs. Nolander as well, Joe explained the ride after he left her place. He couldn’t remember what she had said to him. Roy wrote down the part about the tea, and Joe signed his statement as Adam had done with his. They still didn’t have enough probably but they had started the legal process.

Up in the trees above the house, Maria Nolander had been watching. She had seen the woman she had hired to deliver the cookies arrive dressed as a boy. She had hoped the cookies would be eaten quickly but was disheartened when she saw Hoss Cartwright bring them outside and put them in a burn barrel with a stack of kindling. He had such a sad look on her face, she would have laughed if her failure wasn’t so infuriating. Why did Adam Cartwright have so many people looking out for him. She would have to move on to plan B she supposed. She had hoped not to have to do that, but she had watched for almost two hours and that sheriff was still there. She would need to do something drastic to keep him from going after her. She went to where her horse was tied, mounted up, and rode home with her bulging saddlebags. She had plenty of cash to buy land elsewhere or to snag husband number four. She hadn’t decided yet which way she wanted to go with that as soon as she cleaned up the mess here so it wouldn’t follow her and taint her next moves.

The next morning, Hoss was packing up Claire and Josh to take them back to their home. There was no reason to suspect there would be any trouble for them, and his whole family longed for some time in their home to relax and have fun as a family. It was always fun to be with everyone but now Adam was still recuperating, and Joe had a long recuperation ahead of him and would be staying at the main house for some time until he could move around using crutches.

The family still had not devised a plan for dealing with Mrs. Nolander and what she had tried to do to their family. Adam usually was the devious one who would come up with the seed plan to which they could all then add their ideas. And Joe was the schemer who would have all sorts of ideas. But neither of his brothers were thinking too well yet, so their father had said perhaps they should all just be very careful for a few days and wait to see what Roy could do.

By late in the morning, Roy arrived at the Ponderosa main house again. Ben was actually surprised to see him so soon. From the look on Roy’s face, he knew something serious had happened.

“Ben, I’m sorry, but I gotta question you on something that happened. Now I know Adam is in no shape to do anything and Joe’s tied to a bed more or less, but you and Hoss are still in fine fiddle.”

“Roy, what in tarnation are you talking about?”

“Ben, Mrs. Nolander’s house done burned to the ground last night. I was just over there with Clem and Paul and some others. We found a woman’s body in what was left of that house. She was burned pretty bad, but we gotta assume that Mrs. Nolander is dead. Now based on what you told me, you and your family were the only ones who had a grudge against her.”

“Roy, that is ridiculous. No one in this family including me would do anything like that.”

“Ben, I ain’t saying any of ya did anything. I’m just saying that I need to question ya. Now do you have an alibi for last night?”

“Well, of course. I was here. And Hoss was here. Heck the whole family was here last night. You know that.”

“Well Ben is there anyone else who can testify that all of ya was here last night?”

“The hand who was watching in the loft could tell you that not one of us took a horse or a carriage out last night. But no, no one else was in the house except the family.”

The loud conversation, well loud from Ben, awakened Adam from his nap and brought Aida and Joyce from the kitchen with Danny toddling behind and Mary Elizabeth cradled in Joyce’s arms. Alice was upstairs with Joe but had come to the top of the stairs to listen.

Repeating his story for the enlarged audience, Roy still had to ask if anyone knew anything about what happened. Adam had the most pertinent question which revealed more than anything that he was recovering well.

“Roy, is there some evidence that the fire was set deliberately? It’s cold out now, and most people have their fireplaces and stoves burning all day and night. Fire is always a possibility. Why are you questioning us as if there was some foul play?”

“Well, now, you see Paul was there to examine the body once everything cooled enough so we could get it out of there. He said the neck was broken. Now that coulda happened accidental like but I got to cover all the possibilities to write this up.”

“She was in the house when it burned, and there was still a body to find. Doesn’t that seem a bit odd to you, Roy. An all wooden house burns very hot I would think, and yet the body survived.”

“Well, yes, Adam, that thought did cross our minds. You got any ideas about that?”

“Well, I would be thinking that someone set that fire, and threw the body in as the fire burned down so that it could be found. Seems to me someone wanted you to think she had been murdered.”

“Now, I had that same idea, Adam. You got any idea on who you think that someone is?”

Adam actually smirked then. He hadn’t done that in a while. “Roy, you know exactly what I’m thinking, because you’re thinking it too.”

“Well, I want to know what the two of you are thinking if you wouldn’t mind sharing with all of us.” Ben was feeling a little frustrated and still hadn’t recovered completely from his earlier anger at Roy’s questions.

Joyce took Ben’s arm, and stated what she had understood from that exchange. “Ben, they think she did it. Mrs. Nolander. They think she set the fire.”

“And threw herself into the flames after she broke her neck. No, of course not. You think she killed someone else and put that person into her house so we would think she was dead, and that the law would be looking at us as likely suspects.” Seeing nods all around, Ben had the next logical question. “Well, then, what are we going to do about her?”

*****

Chapter 6

Sitting on a slight rise overlooking the Ponderosa main house, Maria Nolander was well hidden by pines. She watched that day as Hoss Cartwright left with his family. She saw Sheriff Coffee ride over and his direction indicated that he had likely come from her burned out home. She chortled inwardly thinking about the Cartwrights squirming under his questions. It was such a great job of planning on her part to hire that woman to dress as a boy and deliver those cookies. She had been waiting at Maria’s house when she arrived home. Maria had told her to sit at the table and had poured her a cup of tea. She had said she was going to count out the woman’s money but instead had waited until she was under the influence of her special concoction. Then it had been a simple matter to grab her head and twist it until she heard the bones snap. She had never killed that way before and had found it exhilarating.

Maria was thinking how much she would like to kill Adam Cartwright that way but he was too strong and too tall for her to try it. That’s when she decided a knife would be her best weapon. She began to fantasize about the blade sliding into his back meeting some resistance at first and then plunging into his internal organs as she twisted the blade to increase the pain and the damage. With none of her special brew, he would feel every inch of the blade penetrating. Although she had originally thought to shoot him from a distance whenever he ventured outdoors, now she couldn’t resist the temptation of killing him up close.

Using that concoction Maria brewed had been very satisfying to her. It gave her a sense of power and control. She had been weak and poor, dependent upon men to marry her and support her. They used her for their own needs too. But with the brew, she had turned the tables on all of them. She had learned so much from the Native Americans in several places where she had lived. They knew so much more about the properties of plants and what each could do. Her potion was getting better and better with its combination of flowers, cacti, and mushrooms from a number of places. Her first husband had lingered for days vomiting up blood and crying out for succor. She had tried to give him more of her potion, but somehow he knew that was what had done that to him and would take no more. She had made improvements on her recipe since then. Now it did more to the mind than the body, and her control over Adam Cartwright had shown just how effective that could be. She chastised herself once again for her impatience. She was a bit smug thinking of all the things she had learned to do to control a man despite his intelligence and defenses.

Interrupting Maria’s musings were a number of men riding out from the Ponderosa after lunch. They headed out laughing and talking so she assumed they must be going to work. Then she saw the sheriff leave too. Finally, Ben Cartwright was riding out as well. Earlier that morning she had seen a hand pull the loft door closed and than later leave the stable. They were relaxing and thinking there was no longer a threat. Now was her time to strike. They had seriously underestimated her and let down their guard already. There were women, an injured man, and a seriously weakened man in the house with a small Chinese cook and children. It was already early afternoon so she assumed the two children would be asleep.

Mounting up, Maria rode to the back area of the house. As she stealthily approached the house through the trees, she saw the cook entering the smoke house and she smiled. Rushing to that building, she pushed the door closed and latched it. There was a pile of wood there so she piled some of the biggest pieces against the door. Then she approached the house. Peeking in the kitchen window, she saw it was empty so that was how she entered the house. She saw a shotgun leaning against the cabinets and smiled thinking it wouldn’t do the cook much good considering where he was. She took a long knife from the counter and put her smaller knife in its sheath. She liked the look of the foot long knife and visualized it jutting out the front of Adam’s body after she plunged the full length of it into him. She peeked out the kitchen door and saw Adam sitting at the table sipping coffee and reading some documents. She thought that this was going to be even easier than she thought.

Pulling her gun for added power, Maria prepared to confront Adam. When she stepped through the kitchen door, she could see how startled he was, but he recovered quickly. She was disappointed. She would have liked that fear that flashed across his face to remain. She would see what she could do about that.

“You can’t get away with this. There are all sorts of people converging on this house right now.”

“No, you can’t fool me. I saw them all ride away, and I locked that pesky little cook in the smokehouse. There’s no one here to save you now. She lunged forward and was gratified to see Adam jump up and begin backing away. She didn’t want him to have the whole great room to run in so she jumped again making him retreat around the dining room table. He still didn’t look scared, and she found that very irritating. “Run, like the coward you are, run. Just like you did the last time you were at my place. You were scared of me. You let me touch you and fondle you, and then you ran away like a scared schoolboy afraid of a woman.”

“I didn’t freely let you do anything. You had to drug me to get near me. You disgust me. I would never willingly let you touch me.”

“All I wanted from you was a baby. If you had given me a baby, none of this would have happened. We could have been neighbors and you could have visited your child any time you wanted. You had to be so darn stubborn though. This is all your fault.”

“My fault? Everything that happened was because of you.” Thinking about what she had done, Adam asked the one question on the subject that no one had been able to understand. “Why did you want me to give you a baby?” But even as he asked the question, Adam thought he knew the answer. She wanted part of the Cartwright wealth and had formulated this plan to get some of it.

“Well I’m gonna touch you now. I’m gonna kill you, and then I’ll cut off some parts for a trophy I think. Ah, I see that got your attention. Well you have less than a minute to live. You got any last words?”

“Yes, you won’t be able to do this. There are three guns pointed at you now. Soon there will be more.”

Glancing back, Maria saw a man in a red shirt and black vest walking down the stairs, and he had a rifle trained on her. Coming across the great room were Ben Cartwright and Sheriff Roy Coffee with their pistols drawn. Just when she thought it couldn’t get much worse, a woman stepped into the kitchen doorway with a shotgun pointed across the dining room table directly at her midsection.

“You will not harm my husband again. I may not be much of a shot but no one can miss at this range. I would like nothing more than to blow you in two, you bitch.”

That was it. Maria could take no more. She had to take charge of the situation again somehow. She raised the knife over her head as she growled and almost shrieked. She thought how much she would love to plunge this knife into Adam Cartwright if it was the last thing she would do on this earth, but right then didn’t seem to be a reasonable time to try it. As she moved to take a step, all four with weapons yelled warnings at her. She looked at them and them quickly whirled back and jumped with the knife raised high. Aida fired as did Candy, Ben, and Roy. Aida’s shot blew out the window, and Maria Nolander flew out the window. All of them rushed to the window to look outside. Maria laid on her back with her eyes staring at the sky. There were bloody cuts and gashes up and down her hands and arms.

“Burn in hell, you witch.” Aida had wondered when Adam taught her to shoot if she would ever be able to shoot a person, and then if she would be able to live with it afterwards. At the moment, she felt just fine.

Candy looked at her and had only one thing to say. “Ma’am, please let me know if I have ever pissed you off, because I have to tell you, I would never do that on purpose.”

“Papa Ben, sorry about the window.”

Those comments got a slight chuckle from the others and released more of the tension. Ben gently took the shotgun from Aida’s hands. He loved all of his daughters-in-law especially because they each had such fierce devotion to his sons. Aida had proved that once again. Adam pulled her into his arms and kissed her. It seemed the nightmare was over. Joyce was upstairs with the children, and Ben went to tell her as well as Joe and Alice what had happened. Before he left, he told Candy to help Roy with the body. As he walked up the stairs, he was thinking about how trying to help a neighbor had led to all this turmoil. It wouldn’t stop the family from helping their neighbors, but perhaps next time, they ought to send at least two to do the work.

As Ben sat upstairs in Joe’s room telling Joyce, Joe, and Alice about what had happened, they all heard someone thundering up the stairs and looked to the door to see who it was. Candy appeared in the doorway, breathless and looking downright disconcerted.

“She’s gone.”

“Who’s gone?”

“That Mrs. Nolander is gone. We went to get the body, or what we thought was a body, and it was gone. There’s a little blood there, but nothing too bad. She’s must have faked being dead so we would look away. She’s gone. The men said they saw a rider going hard through the pines.”

That silenced everyone. How could she have escaped when they thought she was dead? What had happened was that Aida in her excitement of shooting had pulled the barrel of the shotgun up and hit the glass in the upper part of the window just as Maria had basically stabbed the window and jumped through it to escape. The blood they saw on her was from the glass cuts on her arms. Those would bother her immensely for a number of days but the bandages could be easily covered up by the sleeves of her dress.

That woman was far more devilish than they had imagined. How would they tell Adam and Aida? The couple had been through so much already, and they still had no peace. Ben took a deep breath and headed downstairs to tell them the trouble wasn’t over yet, but they would have some time for undoubtedly the woman was hurt at least. She would need time to recuperate as well, and they would not let their guard down so easily again.

That night the lanterns were burning outside again, and a sentry was on watch. A lamp stayed lit in the great room, and Adam and Aida went to their room upstairs. Everyone kept a firearm close at hand. What couldn’t be guarded against so easily were the memories. As Adam lay down next to Aida and reached for her, he felt her shudder. He pulled his hand back and lay on his back staring into the darkness. He made no more moves, and Aida knew that he had felt her reaction. She couldn’t help it. Memories of what he had said that woman had done to him made her feel somehow dirty for wanting to do the same things. She didn’t know what to say so she said that.

“It’s all right. Maybe tomorrow will be better.”

“No, Adam, don’t shut me out. This didn’t just happen to you although you got the worst of it. This happened to us too. I can’t just ignore everything and act like nothing happened.”

“I didn’t do anything willingly with her. I didn’t even remember anything until that poison of hers wore off.”

But Adam was remembering more and more. The memories that had been blocked in his foggy brain were cascading back. He felt humiliated that he had so little control over himself that he had let her touch him. He wanted Aida to touch him to help erase those awful memories, but there was a barrier between them now.

“Let’s just go to sleep now, and hope those memories can fade for both of us.”

And Adam rolled over on his side putting his back to his wife. This was the side of Adam that she found she disliked intently. It was a black brooding side that shut everyone out including her.

“No, I won’t. You will talk with me or you will listen, but I will not tolerate this. You want understanding, but you aren’t willing to give it.”

Rolling back over to face his wife, Adam was angry now. “Understanding? Hell, woman, I want trust. Do you believe I would have let anything like that happen if I could have stopped it? Do you think I did anything like that because I wanted to? Do you think I let myself be humiliated and embarrassed like that.”

“No, I don’t. But what do you believe? What do you think?”

Dropping his head to Aida’s chest, Adam heaved out his answer. “I am so sorry. I don’t know how I let these things happen to me. I’m supposed to be strong and smart, but that woman so easily took things from me that I can never get back. What must everyone think of me to have failed so miserably to protect myself and the ones I love?”

“We think you are a good man who was attacked by an evil woman, and didn’t get any help from us until it was almost too late. None of us can accept the blame for what that woman did and will continue to do until she is stopped.”

“We don’t know where she is and what she’s planning.”

“Yes, but we will be vigilant now until the danger has passed no matter how long it takes.”

“So you forgive me?”

“There’s nothing to forgive. You did nothing wrong. None of us did anything wrong. We may have made mistakes in judgment and we may have been misled and fooled, but that is the fault of the damn witch who orchestrated this out of greed.”

“So, what do you really think of her?”

And Aida heard the sardonic humor back in his voice and she felt his arm wrap around her. “Maybe I’ll tell you later. Right now, I think we have other things to do.” And Adam and Aida began the road to recovery in their relationship.

*****

Chapter 7

From behind, Adam felt her cool hands hover over his eyes and coax his eyelids shut before they began to massage his neck. Then her hands slipped down his chest unbuttoning his shirt and slipping inside to caress his chest. Her lips brushed across his ear and sucked at his earlobe, and then did the same on the other side before she kissed her way down his neck as her hands roamed lower and lower. Sliding around in front of him, she took his hands and placed them on her chest and moved them in circular strokes over herself. He felt her breath warm on his face then and opened his eyes to lean in to kiss her expecting Aida, but instead he saw Maria Nolander’s face inches from his. He yelled out incoherently and jerked awake as he sat up abruptly in his bed.

“Was it that dream again?” Aida had been startled awake by Adam for several nights.

“Not a dream. It’s a nightmare. I don’t know why I keep having the same one.”

“Perhaps your mind is trying to tell you something?”

“Perhaps my mind is trying to torture me.” Then suddenly Adam closed his eyes and tried to remember. She had been saying something in that dream, and it was something important. “We should go to Reno. You and I could have a lot of fun in Reno.”

“Why would you want to take me to Reno?”

“No, no, not you, Maria!”

“All right, you are making no sense at all. You want to take Maria to Reno?”

“No, in the nightmare, she said we ought to go to Reno. She said we could have a lot of fun there.”

“You think she went to Reno?”

“Maybe. It’s the first clue we’ve had. That might be why I kept having this same nightmare. My mind was telling me to remember what she said.”

“What if it’s just your active imagination at work?”

“There’s only one way to find out.”

“We’re going to Reno?”

“No, I’m going to Reno. I think Adam Just will be resurrected one last time.”

“You can’t go alone. You’re barely recovered from what she did to you.”

“We’ll talk about it tomorrow. For now, let’s try to go back to sleep.”

The next morning at breakfast, Adam explained to his father, Joyce, and Candy what he wanted to do. Joe and Alice had moved back to their house because Joe could get around well on his crutches. As expected, Ben was not happy.

“Adam, you are just recovering from nearly dying. How can you even consider going off on a fool trip like this because of something you heard in a dream.”

“Pa, I didn’t hear it in a dream. I did have a nightmare. The same one I have been having for almost a week. Aida suggested that my mind was trying to tell me something. I concentrated on trying to remember the things that happened to me, and that’s when I remembered her saying that. I think she’s in Reno. By now she may be recovered from her injuries. She’s a threat to me yet, and I need to deal with that.”

“Hoss and I will come with you.”

“Pa, she’ll recognize you and Hoss immediately.”

“Well she certainly will recognize you.”

“No, I plan to go as Adam Just. I wasn’t just lazy today. I’m letting the beard grow back. By the time I get to Reno, I’ll have three days growth. You know how my beard grows. I’ll wear the clothing that Adam Just wore too.”

“Someone has to go with you.”

“I’ll go.” Candy surprised all of them. Aida had been quiet but approved of this development. “Look, she doesn’t really know me. She saw me once. I’ll wear something other than a red shirt and black vest. I’ll borrow a hat, and if Adam has a spare duster, I’ll wear that too.”

Conceding that he could not stop Adam from going, Ben did make a good point. “You don’t have a plan. Facing this woman without a plan is foolhardy.” Everyone noticed that Ben had also conceded that they would be finding Maria Nolander in Reno, as well as accepting that they needed a plan.

The five of them started planning then. As it turned out, Ben was part of the plan, and Joyce was very worried about that. He would be going to Reno too, but not with the two younger men. Ben would go by stage a day after Adam and Candy left on horseback. They would take rooms near each other so they could confer, but Ben would take a grand suite, and the other two would share an ordinary room.

“You don’t snore like your brother, Hoss, do you?”

Adam said no, but Aida said just to roll him on his side or stomach and he would stop. At Adam’s fake glare, they all laughed.

“No, from what I’ve heard, he doesn’t snore like Hoss, but it’s loud enough if you let him sleep on his back.”

Candy didn’t know Adam that well yet. He had returned only a little more than a year earlier, and Candy had not been there before he left. Both men decided they would probably know the other a lot better by the end of this trip.

Joyce had one more suggestion. “Ben, why don’t you take Will with you? He’s been gone on that trip to Mexico for months. It’s unlikely that Maria Nolander would recognize him by sight. He can look like quite a dandy, but he’s good with a gun and he’ll watch your back too.”

If Will agreed to go, they would need to make a slight alteration in their plan, but all of them liked Joyce’s suggestion. She had one more idea. How about if you talk to Roy and he alerts the law officials in Reno to what you plan to do. That would be more to back you up if you need it. Adam wasn’t as sure of that idea, but he was overruled by the others who wanted to do it.

The rest of the day was spent in preparation and discussing their plan. Ben rode over to talk with Will to enlist his help. Candy and Adam prepared their costumes. They would look much alike by the time they reached Reno. Both were letting their beards grow, and they would wear slouch hats and dusters making it difficult even for someone who knew them well to recognize them. Adam had lost weight and that would work to their advantage too. The plan was to lure her in so the rest could swoop in and take her into custody. Then the law could deal with her, and she would no longer be a threat to anyone in the family.

Early the next morning, Adam and Candy were up early. Hop Sing served them an early breakfast and handed them a food sack. They left soon after looking like two nondescript men who traveled a lot. By the time they reached Reno with another two days of beard growth and the dust of the trail, no one would likely recognize the oldest heir to the Ponderosa and the handsome foreman of that same ranch. Late that day, Ben went to town, met Will, and they departed for Reno on the stage looking like two well dressed affluent businessmen. In the plan, Will would try to entice Maria Nolander out of hiding. Ben and the others would be there to back him up if that happened. Meanwhile Adam and Candy would also be using other means to ferret her out.

By late the next day, Ben and Will arrived in Reno, took suites in the hotel, and went to dinner together making sure not to speak in such a way as to let people know they were related. Will registered using his mother’s maiden name so no one could connect them that way. The two retired to bed relaxing after a bumpy stage trip, and confident that they had made the impression they had intended to make.

The next morning, Adam and Candy rode into town. At the livery, they saw a sign.

“Flip ya for it?”

So they flipped a coin, and Adam ended up working at the livery stable where he could observe and evaluate. Candy got to go from saloon to saloon gathering any information that he could. What had amazed Candy at first was that Adam won the bet and took the job caring for horses and mucking out the stable. As Candy started to feel the effects of beer and whisky after hours of traipsing through saloons and hitting on saloon girls to try to find information, he understood why Adam had let him have this job. Hoss had told Candy once that Adam didn’t drink much because he thought it cost him his edge and that he always liked to be in control. Especially after what had happened to Adam recently, Candy could understand why he would be reluctant to drink anything that could affect his mind. In the early evening, Adam walked up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder startling him.

“It’s a good thing I wasn’t her. You could be dead right now.”

“I thought she uses tea and cookies.”

“You forget the woman she murdered. She snapped her neck. Then she came at me with a knife. Don’t underestimate her.”

“See anything?”

“Saw Pa and Will heading over for dinner. They’ll probably head to their rooms after that. Let’s get some dinner, and then we can do the same. I’m guessing you didn’t find out anything?”

At Candy’s headshake, Adam said he expected that. She had been hurt and had likely been lying low as she recovered. It was over a week now, and as devious and evil as she was, Adam had to assume she was already working her next scheme. The biggest questions were what was it and was she doing it in Reno. Adam had earlier sent a telegram letting his wife know that all was well so far for he knew she would have trouble sleeping worrying about what Maria Nolander was doing. After dinner, Candy and Adam headed to their room. Adam asked Candy to contact his father and let him know that they were in town but hadn’t found out anything yet.

The next day proceeded much as the first except that Adam thought he spotted Maria scurrying down the street soon after he reported to his job. There were so many people, and she was dressed so differently than he had expected, that he was unable to follow her. He got a tongue lashing at the stable for leaving his post, and spent the rest of the day currying horses in the corral. That worked well for him because he had a great vantage point for watching who passed in the street. He did not see her again. Will and Ben made the rounds of banks and places of business making inquiries but not stating what they wanted to do. Ben thought Will seemed tired when he knocked on his door that morning but attributed it to the long stage ride, drinking wine with dinner, and then sleeping in a strange bed. He should have been more suspicious.

The next morning, Ben knocked on Will’s door and there was no answer. He went down to the dining room thinking that perhaps Will had already gone to breakfast, but he wasn’t there either. Risking exposure of their plan, Ben went to the room shared by Adam and Candy. Adam had already left for work, but Candy was very suspicious of the circumstances immediately. He rushed up the stairs to Will’s room. When there was no answer, he asked Ben to get a key from the desk. Ben rushed because he was getting a very bad feeling from this. As he unlocked the door and entered the room with Candy, some of his worst fears were realized. Will lay in bed with a large knife protruding from his abdomen. The room had been ransacked. A doctor was summoned, and Candy went to tell Adam the bad news but was met by the sheriff in the lobby and escorted back up to the room.

“Now, Roy Coffee told me a little about what’s been going on, Mr. Cartwright, but I have to tell you, this is the second one of these incidents this week. I’m thinking that woman you’re after is mighty close.”

Down the hall, a maid coming out of a room after cleaning it heard that statement. She quickly moved down the back stairs to the supply room. There she discarded her maid’s uniform and dressed hurriedly in her normal clothing. She pulled a bag from behind a cabinet, and then rushed to the boardinghouse where she had a room. There, she packed up her meager belongings but made sure to cover the money packed into one valise after putting a nice sum in her purse. Carrying three bags, she paid her bill and walked rapidly to the livery stable to rent a carriage which she had no intention of returning.

*****

Chapter 8

As Maria walked into the livery stable, she saw the owner bent over a box and asked how much it would be to rent a carriage and a horse. He quoted her a price to which she agreed. Then he yelled for Adam to bring in a carriage horse and to harness him to the carriage. Maria had a premonition when she heard the name Adam, and it was verified when he walked into the stable. He dropped the lead rope on the horse and drew his pistol aiming it at her midsection.

“Well, I have been looking for you.”

“Oh, no, not you. Oh, please, don’t hurt me again.”

Wondering what game the woman was playing this time, Adam was not at all prepared to be hit from behind by the owner of the livery stable. He fell to his knees dropping his pistol. He could hear what she said next but couldn’t respond.

“Oh, thank you, kind sir. He was my boyfriend until I escaped. He used to beat me and do such vile things. Now he tracked me down here. What can I do?”

“Ma’am, I’ll hitch up this carriage for you, and I’ll get the sheriff to take care of him. You can just let the carriage be, and I’ll send someone to get it. Now where are you headed?”

Knowing that she needed to hide her tracks even better, she told him Virginia City. She even offered to buy the carriage and horse, but he would hear none of it as he was being chivalrous and helping a lady in distress. Adam tried to warn the man, but he didn’t listen. He had been stripped of his weapon, and the blow to the head had robbed him of the ability to fight back for the moment. Maria wanted to kill him right then and there, but that would jeopardize her escape so she couldn’t do it. She did pull a small brown medicinal vial from her pocket and told her champion to give it to Adam to help him with the pain from his head.

“Ma’am, you are an angel to be thinking on helping him after all he done to you. Now I’ll load up your bags so you can be on your way. Don’t worry, this jasper won’t be causing you any more harm.”

Climbing into the carriage, Maria had to smile at the man. He didn’t even notice her scars but had succumbed to her story and her charm. She was quite proud of herself and wondered just where these skills could take her. She did hope the man would get that vial of her brew into Adam and remove him as an obstacle to her success. She was thinking a hard drive to Carson City, and then a stage to California. There must be many places where she could be successful there.

After being questioned by the sheriff, Candy headed to the livery stable to inform Adam of what had happened. As he walked into the stable, Candy was shocked by what he saw. With a bleeding head wound, Adam was down on all fours and struggling with the owner of the stable as the man tried to get him to drink from a small brown vial. Candy rushed forward and grabbed the man’s hand.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“It’s for his own darn good, and it’s a lot more than he deserves to get. Now let go of me cause I gotta get the sheriff for him.”

Looking down at Adam, Candy asked what had happened. Grimacing in pain, Adam told him. Then Candy informed the stable owner that he had just helped a murderer escape. The man was shocked.

“The sheriff is with her latest victim over at the hotel. The doctor is doing his best to save him.”

Adam’s chest constricted at that comment.

“Adam, it’s Will. She stabbed him in the gut. He was able to tell us a little. He ate a breakfast he thought your pa sent to his room yesterday and today. With two doses of her potion, next thing he knew he was in bed and felt a sharp pain. He fought with her or she would have gutted him like a deer. The knife was huge.”

“Candy, you have to go after her. We can’t let her kill anyone else.”

“Which way did she go?”

“She said Virginia City.” The livery owner was trying to be helpful now.

Adam didn’t accept what she had said though. “But that’s got to be a lie. I would guess Carson. She can head almost anywhere from there, and pushing hard, she could be there by tomorrow.”

Candy saddled up his horse and told the stable owner to get Adam over to the hotel. The man balked, and Candy warned him he could be charged with aiding a criminal and with assault on Adam. The man nodded and agreed to do as asked. Candy rode hard and soon spotted a carriage up ahead. Smiling to himself that he and Adam had guessed correctly, he rode to overtake her.

“Ma’am, pull up, or I’ll shoot you where you sit.”

Pulling the rig to the side, Maria was incensed.

“How dare you? You common ruffian, what do you want. I only have my clothing in those bags so there’s nothing here for you to steal.”

“No, ma’am, I don’t care what’s in those bags. You’re the bag I want. Now turn this rig around and head back to town.”

“For what possible reason would you want me to do that? I have permission to use this carriage.” Maria had a sinking feeling about all of this.

“Oh, I think you have a date with the sheriff. Let me see, murder, attempted murder, poisoning, theft, and I would guess a whole lot of other nasty stuff you have managed to do.”

“No, I don’t think so.” And before Candy could do anything, Maria took a brown vial from her pocket and drained the contents. She looked smugly at him until the pain hit and she doubled over. Within minutes, she was unconscious, and a few minutes later, Candy could detect no pulse and no breathing. He tied Scout to the back of the carriage and drove back to town with the lifeless body next to him.

By the time Candy dropped the body at the undertakers and talked to the sheriff, it was dark. He walked to the hotel wondering what the news would be. He knocked on the door of Ben’s suite, and Ben answered the door obviously relieved to see him whole and healthy. Adam was sitting in a chair holding a cloth to the back right side of his head where he had been hit.

“Joe would say it was lucky he hit you in the head.”

“Thanks, that means so much.”

“Well you must be feeling all right then. How’s Will?”

Ben answered. “He’s holding his own. We wired for Laura, and she’s on her way. Doctor told us that a little higher and to the right, and he wouldn’t be here. There’s still a risk of infection, and even without that, he faces months of difficult recuperation.”

“What about Maria?” Adam was worried that Candy had not volunteered that information.

“She’s over at the undertaker’s. She poisoned herself instead of coming back here to face hanging. It’s late so the undertaker said he’d take care of her in the morning. It’s pretty cool tonight so that shouldn’t be a problem.”

Adam frowned and Candy watched him think. Adam looked up at Candy.

“You thinking what I’m thinking?”

Later that night, Maria felt consciousness returning. She was cold, and the only light in the room came from the moon shining in one window up high on the wall. She had taken a big chance. She smiled. Those men always thought they were so smart, but she had outwitted them again. She would get a horse or whatever she could and be long gone before they came looking for her body in the morning. She began to sit up when she heard the distinct cocking of two pistols.

“Good evening, Maria. You seem so alert for a dead woman.” It was the voice of the man she thought she could love at one time and now hated and despised.

Then the door opened and Ben Cartwright stepped into the room with a lamp in his hand. Maria looked around to see Adam and the man who had apprehended her standing close to her with pistols trained on her. She screamed and reached for Adam but he raised the pistol and hit her solidly in the forehead with the butt end of it.

The sheriff stepped into the room then. “You could hit her a few more times if you want. It will make taking her to the jail that much easier.”

“No, I think that was enough. She’ll be able to think clearly for the trial and the sentencing and then that long walk up the gallows steps. And Sheriff, if you wouldn’t mind a little advice, handcuff her hands behind her back, search her thoroughly, and gag her until the trial.”

Well the first two of those the sheriff willingly did. He wanted to do the third, but people just wouldn’t tolerate that no matter what the bitch said.

*****

Epilogue

Thanksgiving was a joyous holiday that year. For the first time in weeks, Will was able to eat a normal meal. Joe had been able to ditch the crutches and was back to riding. Maria had hanged as predicted. Joe and Adam had gone to see the hanging not because they liked watching anyone hang, and especially a woman, but until they actually saw her hang, they wondered if she would somehow escape again. But there was no doubt that was the woman who had tried to kill them. She screamed vitriol at them as she was forced up the steps and continued to slander anyone within hearing until the trapdoor dropped and her neck snapped. There was no celebration of her death, but there was great feeling of peace that descended on the whole family once they knew that threat was gone. Everything returned to normal as the family looked forward to the Christmas season.

*****

Love or Pride

Chapter 1

“They’re coming, oh, Adam, they’re coming!”

Dropping his hammer, Adam had to grab Aida in his arms so that both of them didn’t topple into the forge. She had a letter in her hand, and he could guess who had sent it. At the moment though, he had his wife wrapped snugly in his arms so he kissed her. She was going to protest that she had something to tell him, but those kisses were so sweet, and he did have that shirt of his open to his waist giving her a spectacular view if she would have any time to appreciate the view before he moved in for another kiss. She ran her hands inside his shirt and he took that as permission to keep kissing her with all thought of the metal in the forge long forgotten.

“Older brother, I thought you was supposed to be shaping them horseshoes not melting them down.”

Quickly moving to disengage from Adam, Aida found herself held by his strong arms so she relaxed instead.

“Big brother, if a beautiful woman threw herself into your arms while you were working, do you mean to say, you would put her aside and go on about your work?”

“Well, now, when you put it like that, I fully understand. Can I give ya Pa’s message before I leave you to do what ever it was you was gonna do?”

With that, Adam released Aida, but she didn’t go far. He smiled and asked Hoss about the message.

“Pa’s in town, and he says we got a chance for a big contract over in Ely. Somebody done bought up a lot of land to make a big ranch, and now they need some prime breeding stock. Sounds like the price is right, but we gotta get somebody over there to negotiate a deal quick like, and Pa can’t go cause he had that meeting with the governor tomorrow.”

“I’m guessing he wants me to go then. When?”

“Well, now, you see he sent me here to ask ya if today wasn’t too soon. Pa’s afraid somebody else might get there before us otherwise. He figures if you’re pushing hard, you could be there in two days.”

“Two days! That’s too far to make it in two days. It would take me three long days of hard riding and that’s if everything went well.”

“So can I tell Pa you’re going? He wants to send a telegram out ifn you are.”

With a deep sigh, Adam nodded. There really wasn’t an easy way to get to Ely in this short a time. “Get me the particulars, and directions. I’ll be in town to talk to you two before I leave.”

As Hoss left, Adam turned back to Aida. “I didn’t forget. What’s your news?”

Looking far less excited than she was earlier, Aida told him her news. “My parents are coming. They’ll be here next Friday according to this letter. They’re on their way to San Francisco where the firm wants Daddy to set up a branch operation.”

“What’s wrong? You seemed so happy when you came rushing out here.”

“I wanted them to meet you. I wanted them to see us as a family.”

“I’ll be back. That’s eight and a half days from now. I should be back the day before they get here hopefully with a contract to make my father happy.”

Wrapping her arms around Adam’s neck, Aida pulled him down for a kiss. She was so looking forward to reconciliation with her family. She had written them a number of letters over the past year letting them know of her marriage, her move to Virginia City, and then the birth of their son. She had left out some of the unhappy times such as the run in with Maria Nolander. But now it was April, spring was bringing a fresh start to the Sierras, and hopefully a fresh start for her with her parents. The Cartwrights were family, and Ben was like a father to her, but Aida longed to have a close relationship with her mother again, and to find out all the news about her brother and sister. She very much wanted her parents to meet their grandson too. She could already tell how smart the little boy was, and he was undeniably gorgeous she thought.

“Where’s Danny?”

“Inside with Joyce. She’s knitting and he’s just fascinated with that as she takes those balls of yarn and turns them into that big throw that she’s making. I can tell he’s trying to figure out how she does it.”

“I’ll go in and pack, and then the three of us can have lunch together before I leave.”

The couple walked together to the house with both intent on what would have to be done over the next week. Adam asked Aida if she wanted her parents to stay at the Ponderosa, and she said she wasn’t sure. She would think about it. He told her to be sure to let Ben and Hop Sing know with plenty of time to prepare.

“My father always wants things just so. He wants what he expects, and isn’t very good at accepting anything that alters his vision of how things should be.”

Adam realized Aida was talking about a lot more than how the house was organized or what was put on the table for meals. As they reached the porch, he pulled Aida into an embrace.

“Whatever you need to do or get for your parents’ arrival, just go ahead. It won’t be a problem. If you want those new curtains, I’m sure Joyce will help you with them. Buy a new dress or two, and get whatever you want for Danny to wear so he looks as good as can be. I’ll be home to bathe and shave and look as presentable as I can before they arrive. All right?”

“There’s a rip in the carriage top from when we were at church and that storm blew up and sent that large branch crashing down on it.”

“I’ll talk with Pa and Hoss in town before I leave and ask if they can take care of that or any other minor repairs that need to be done so that things look very good. Maybe the garden will start blooming by then. That would be very nice.”

Seeing Aida’s worried look then, Adam was sorry he had mentioned the garden. Now she would have one more thing to worry about. He guided her to the house with one more idea to plant. “Your parents shouldn’t be worried about a carriage, or a dress, or curtains. They should only have eyes for you and how well you’re doing. And you are doing so very well, my gorgeous talented wife. You should have news from your publisher soon too about your new book. You should be proud of what you have accomplished already. Not many women could do everything you have done.”

“I’m afraid yet that my father is more concerned about what people claim or say about me than what I have actually done.”

“Perhaps then we won’t mention our anniversary date and the date of Danny’s birth.” Adam meant to be lighthearted but got the opposite reaction from Aida. “Now don’t worry so much. It’s all in the past, and everything worked out very well.”

Adam ushered her into the house determined to be more careful of what he said. Joyce saw Aida’s distressed look and worried about what happened. As Aida went to the kitchen to request an early lunch for them, Adam quickly filled Joyce in on what was happening, and then asked her to help Aida in any way she could to which she readily agreed. There was no complaining from the kitchen. Both Adam and Joyce wondered at that. Hop Sing never got upset with Aida for anything. If either of them had asked for a last minute early lunch, there would have been some imprecations and a little noise before he did what he always did, and took care of them.

Going upstairs to pack, Adam had Danny perched on his hip as the toddler babbled at him and Adam chatted and they proceeded slowly up the stairs. Joyce had to smile watching them climb the stairs. She had always thought that Adam would make a good husband and father. In fact, she had found him attractive too, but it was just that Ben had her heart first. It was nice having Adam here as her friend though for they were too close in age for her to think of him as a stepson. Aida walked up to her side then.

“I like the view too.” Aida looked at Joyce and the two of them laughed.

After lunch, Adam headed to town to meet with his father and Hoss before beginning his trip to Ely. Stages ran far less often on that route as most people preferred the longer but easier route through Salt Lake City and on to Reno. Adam warned his father and brother how concerned Aida was going to be that everything look good for her parents’ visit and asked them to help her as much as they could.

“You’ll probably have to bring her into town at least once for some shopping. I would guess that she and Joyce are already making a list of things they need.”

Ben nodded. Like his sons, he had never known that a home could ‘need’ so many things that they had never had in their homes until they had wives. Marie had wanted furniture and curtains and such but Joyce and Aida had come up with a long list of other items their home ‘just had to have’ although he did admit that the house seemed warmer with all the additions the ladies had made to its décor. He wondered how much this next list of ‘have to have’ home improvements was going to cost. Adam saw the thoughtful but worried look his father had and couldn’t resist teasing him.

“Don’t worry, Pa. If I get this contract, it’ll probably pay for most of the improvements they’re planning on making this time.” Adam and Hoss both had to laugh at Ben’s expression. Then Ben slapped Adam on the shoulder and wished him well. He and Hoss waved as Adam rode out of town.

For the next week, Aida worked off a lot of nervous energy, cleaning, sewing, and decorating as well as working outside on the flowers and roses. By Thursday, she began to relax a little because the place was looking very good, and she couldn’t think of anything else to do to make it any more presentable for her sometimes ultra-critical father. By late on Thursday, she was getting more and more upset though. Adam had not arrived home and had promised to be there. She had been counting on being with him the night before her parents arrived. She knew he would help calm her and get her mind off her worries. Instead, now she had more worries because he wasn’t home. When Ben rode in later in the afternoon, she rushed outside expecting to see Adam. Ben noticed how disappointed she was to see him and quickly guessed the cause of that.

“Aida, he wired us three days ago that the contracts were all set and he was heading home. It’s a hard ride. I think he may have been overconfident to think he could be here by now. There’s still several more hours of daylight left so don’t give up hope, but I think that you need to be ready to meet your parents without him. Joyce and I will be there with you. And Danny will be there, and he can charm the skirts off of a nun.”

Ben suddenly realized what he had said and actually blushed a little. It was from a conversation he had with Joyce the night before. At dinner, Danny had leaned over to Joyce and said, “Hi, sweetie.” and then had puckered up for a kiss. They had all laughed heartily at the toddler’s imitation of his father. Later Ben and Joyce had talked about it and Joyce had used that phrase. It did serve to lighten the mood though as Aida laughed.

“Adam is really going to enjoy hearing that about his son.”

“Let’s go inside and see what’s for dinner, and see what other antics your son is up to.”

Too many miles away to make it home and with a lame horse besides, Adam made camp along the road. He had been waiting and hoping for a stage but knew they traveled that road only about every two or three days. He hoped there would be one the next day. He knew how disappointed and probably worried this delay would make his wife but hoped he could get home the next day if a stage came through. He only had about fifty miles to go, and would have made it except his horse had hurt it’s leg and it was puffing up a little. He had to let the animal rest. So he made camp just off the road and hoped to see a stage in the morning.

*****

Chapter 2

Lying on his back on his bedroll, Adam missed his wife. He didn’t like being away from her for one night and eight nights was far too long. He thought about how she must be worrying, and he hoped his father would be able to reassure her that he was fine although his father would have no idea why he was delayed either. He found it difficult to sleep, and his horse was agitated as well which made him nervous. He didn’t know if it was the injury that was making him act that way or if he sensed a threat out there in the darkness. He barely slept at all and was feeling warm and uncomfortable too. In the early hours of the morning, he gave up and built up the fire and made some coffee. He hoped if a stage came by that there would be room in the coach and perhaps he could sleep an hour or two in there.

Very thirsty, Adam downed several cups of coffee and then drank some water. He wasn’t hungry for any breakfast even though he had adequate supplies to make himself a meal. He packed up his gear and waited hoping to see a stage heading his way. It didn’t take too long although the two hours after sunrise that he waited seemed to be an eternity.

“Well, you old outlaw, what you doing our here waylaying my stage?”

“Well, my horse came up lame and I need to beg a ride on this sorry excuse for a stagecoach that you’re driving.”

“Ya look like the sorriest kind of saddle tramp! Got any money to pay?”

“Enough, although you should hardly charge me for this. You should probably pay me just to class up the thing.”

“Ya haven’t looked at yourself lately then have you? Course a mirror’d likely break into pieces if that ugly mug came anywhere near it.”

Ernie climbed down from the coach seat to help Adam load his gear on the coach and tie his horse to the back. They continued trading insults the entire time. Adam had known Ernie since he had returned from college and Ernie was just starting out on the stage lines that were just being established at that time. Ernie never enjoyed trading insults and jabs as much with anyone as he did with Adam.

“Only got three passengers so you can park your filthy butt in the coach, and I can keep breathing the fresh air up front without some smelly cowboy sitting next to me. I hate to do that to my other passengers, but they ain’t got no say on where I put a paying passenger.”

From inside the coach, an imperious voice had a question that sounded more like a directive. “Driver, driver, are we about ready to get moving again? This unscheduled stop is going to make us late.”

“Don’t go getting your britches in a bunch! We can make up time at the next station. There’s an hour scheduled for our stop but we can get moving a lot faster than that.” Ernie rolled his eyes at Adam. “Good luck with his lordship in there. Man’s got more orders than a restaurant.”

Ernie’s voice was not hushed for he meant the man to hear his comment. Adam smiled and slapped as much dust off of himself as he could before he opened the door of the coach to climb in. There were two women and a man inside. Adam regretted that he had not had a bath in three days, but there was no helping that now. Inside, the man sat on one side and the women on the other so Adam sat next to the man who looked at him as if he was covered with vermin. The older woman was pleasant in her greeting, but the younger one mirrored the man’s response. Adam tipped his hat and then pulled it down over his face. He was tired and preferred sleep to conversation at this point so introductions weren’t necessary if his traveling companions preferred it that way.

Sleep wasn’t going to happen anytime soon though for the man next to him nudged him almost immediately.

“Your legs are intruding in my wife’s space. Please move them.”

It wasn’t a request as much as an order. Adam was ready to retort when he decided it was only going to be a short trip, and he would tolerate the boorish behavior. The man talked loudly as well which would hardly have allowed for sleep either. Adam sat up and looked out the window at the passing scenery. The man continued his litany of complaints for the next hour until they reached the way station. Adam checked the condition of his horse and found as he feared that it had worsened.

“Toby, can I leave him here? I’ll be around to pick him up sometime in the next week. I can’t force him to run behind the stage and cripple him.”

“Sure ya can. Why don’t you help Ernie with the team and then you can put him in the corral with the others? Whenever you’re ready, you can come inside and help me rustle up some grub.”

“I thought those were your jobs?”

“Well, I ain’t the one asking the favor, now am I?”

“It isn’t so much of a favor if I have to work for it now, is it?”

“Will you two ugly cusses stop your jawing. We got a schedule to keep, and we need to leave here as soon as everything’s done.”

“Toby, it’s a lot nicer around here when Ernie’s gone.”

“You got that right, Adam, you surely do.”

After helping Ernie, Adam went inside for a quick bite to eat, but Toby’s cooking wasn’t appetizing to him, so he only drank some coffee. After their quick lunch, the passengers climbed aboard for the last leg to Virginia City. It seemed the man, who had yet to introduce himself or his traveling companions, was going to be even more prickly now.

That morning on the Ponderosa, Aida had awakened very early to a lonely bed. She had remembered Valentine’s Day when Adam had promised to be home but was late. He had slipped into their bed sometime in the middle of the night. She had almost screamed in alarm until she heard that sweet voice telling her he was sorry. Then he had nuzzled her neck and she had realized he had shaved. Well there was only one reason for that in the middle of the night so she had turned toward him and kissed him.

“Welcome back. I was so disappointed you weren’t here tonight, but I am so glad you’re here now.”

“Sweetheart, I did everything I could to move that stage along other than getting out front to help the horses pull. Then I woke up Dave at the livery stable to get my horse and rode home as fast as I could which granted wasn’t very fast with the ice and snow. But the moon was beautiful and you are beautiful.”

As Adam had been talking, he had been unwrapping Aida by untying ribbons on her gown. When he finished, he pulled her to him and made sweet soft love to her in the moonlight that streamed into their room on clear nights. When they had finished, they had fallen asleep in each others arms until they heard Danny the next morning as he called for them. So last night, Aida had hoped and hoped that Adam would arrive home late and be in their bed by morning. She had awakened repeatedly and he wasn’t there. So groggy with lack of sleep, she arose and dressed expecting their son to soon be calling for them. He did that every morning and for the last week had been very upset when his father was not there. He dearly loved his grandfather but missed his father terribly. Aida knew exactly how he felt.

At the moment, Adam was feeling irritated. The man could not stop complaining apparently, and then he had said something that made Adam process everything he knew about the man and suddenly he knew whom he was.

“Why did she have to marry some damned cowboy? She could have married any number of respectable men. I should have known when she turned down the marriage I arranged for her that she would do something stupid like this.”

“We should not be talking like this in front of a stranger. This is for family only.”

“It doesn’t matter. He probably thinks there’s nothing wrong with a woman throwing her life away and marrying a cowboy and living in the man’s father’s home. She married someone who can’t even provide her with her own house!”

This had to be Aida’s father. So the woman must be her mother and the other younger woman must be her sister. He was thinking that this visit was going to be anything but pleasant when it got worse.

“Now she’s got a child with him. It’s going to be next to impossible to convince her to leave him and come with us to San Francisco.”

“Perhaps his father’s house is quite nice.” Adam just had to get into this conversation. “Many extended families even in New England share a large home.”

“Well I never met anyone from New England that was worth a Confederate dollar. They’re all so hung up on family tradition and religion you can’t get them to invest in any decent business propositions. They live on their tiny little farms and go to their quaint little churches. Bah!”

“So you don’t approve of farming or churches either?”

“Well of course I do, but I don’t want my daughter married to a farmer or a minister either. She could have done so much better for herself. She didn’t have to settle for some uneducated lout. He has quite an unsavory history too. He’s been in prison and he hunted people for money until he dragged her here.”

“Oh, I spent some time in prison myself. Then I did bounty hunting for about three years. Bounty hunters only do what lawmen do. The only difference is that they get paid better. Furthermore, they don’t have to live in one place.” He saw them all try to pull away from him then. He made sure his coat opened so they could see the pistol at his side. At that point he wished he had not shaved that morning. A scruffy as well as dusty smelly man would have scared them even more. At this point he wanted them to worry. Maybe the man would shut up.

“Well, even if we get her away from him, her reputation is ruined. She wrote those books and even under that name she used, many of our friends know it was she. I suppose I could find a respectable businessman needing a wife who might take her, but first we have to get her away from this wilderness.”

“I think her husband might not be a man to mess with on that account. He knows how to use a gun, and he has some very influential friends out here.”

“Oh, I guess I’m not surprised you would know him. You probably run with the same ruffians he does.”

“You have no idea what you’re talking about. It might be best if you stop talking now.” In that quiet voice that Adam had, those words were more a demand than a request. The man didn’t get it, but his wife did.

“Please, let’s try to be pleasant for the last few miles. We must be getting close now.”

With a sour look at Adam, the man stopped talking. His wife watched Adam with a penetrating gaze. He wondered if she had worked it out. He smiled at her, and she grinned. At that point, he knew that mother and daughter were much alike. She had needed just that one more piece of evidence to understand. Her husband reprimanded her then, and her smile faded, but the merriment was still in her eyes. Adam was thinking that she was looking forward to the stage arriving in Virginia City much more than her husband was. She leaned down and whispered in her daughter’s ear, and then she smiled too and looked at Adam with a sideways glance. The man still had his grimace, but Adam looked out the window seeing all the familiar signs that they were very close to home.

*****

Chapter 3

As the first buildings of Virginia City came into view, Adam smiled. He was looking forward to holding his wife in his arms and seeing his son as well as the rest of the family. He knew that Aida had to be worried but there had been nothing he could do to let her know. Well past the last town with a telegraph office, he had been too close to send a wire and too far to get home. He saw Aida’s mother watching him and knew she must be even more anxious than he was to see her.

At the stage depot, Aida holding Danny waited with Ben and Joyce. She was worried sick about Adam at this point, and Ben telling her not to worry wasn’t helping but making her a bit cross with him. Joyce finally told Ben that reassuring her without facts was pointless.

Danny was a bit crabby as well. Over a week without his father was making him a lot sadder than was usual for the little boy. Ben had watched Danny over the last week and how his father’s absence had affected him, and thought about how difficult it had been not only for Adam but for Hoss growing up without a mother there to provide comfort and with a father who was gone almost every day working. He knew in his heart that part of why Adam tended to be so serious about things had to have been that childhood. Hoss had had Adam, but Adam had often been alone as a small child. Danny would be like his father in many ways, but he would have a more balanced personality with all the love he received every day. He already was so willing to show love to family members with hugs, kisses, and snuggling that he enjoyed immensely.

Perhaps Danny’s open love of his father would help draw out more of that gentle and fun loving side of Adam. But for now, Ben was worried despite everything he had said to Aida. He knew that Adam would have fought any obstacle standing in the way of getting home to his family so he wondered what had caused the delay and the lack of communication as well. He prayed it was nothing serious.

As the stage pulled to a stop by the depot, the big man pushed the door open and was the first to disembark. Adam thought he was a bit rude until he realized the man did not want to have Ernie help his wife and daughter from the stage. At that point, he reassessed his position and decided the man instead was a pompous ass. Of course, he was a little worried about how Aida would take his own behavior on the stage with her family. But it was too late to worry much about that. Her heard his wife cry out ‘Papa’ and then ‘Mama’ and watched as she hugged her mother with one arm as she held Danny on her hip with the other. She didn’t see him leave the stage but jerked her head up when she heard Ben greet him. Moving from her mother immediately, she rushed to Adam who wrapped his arms around his wife and son stunning Aida’s father.

“I was so scared when you didn’t get home yesterday.”

“My horse pulled up lame yesterday when I was well past Cold Springs and not close enough to Fallon. I couldn’t send a wire and I couldn’t get home. I’m so sorry you worried.”

“It’s all right now. You’re here and you’re safe.”

Turning back to her parents and sister, Aida was smiling. “Well, I guess you’ve already met Adam then.”

Her mother responded first. “Well, in a manner of speaking. We didn’t actually know his name, but we did discuss his background.” Aida’s mother and sister smiled. They were enjoying this very much.

Red faced with anger, Aida’s father managed not to say anything although he very much wanted to. He felt that Adam had made a fool of him, and he would not forget it. There would be retribution because in his mind no cowboy was going to make a fool of him in front of his family or anywhere else and get away with it. He did manage to stay civil and even shook Adam’s hand when it was offered. Aida then introduced Ben and Joyce and of course Danny who seemed quite mystified with all the new people around to whom his mother was hugging or talking.

Reaching for his son, Adam asked Aida’s parents and sister about accommodations. “Would you care to stay at the ranch with us? We have extra rooms. Or we have made a reservation at the International House if you would prefer. We would have to get an extra room because we did not know that Francesca was coming with you.”

Darwin Hepburn answered for his family. “I think that we would prefer the International House with the more modern amenities although I doubt the establishment will be up to the standards to which we are accustomed.”

“Papa, I think I would rather stay at the Ponderosa, and as they do not have a room reserved for me at the hotel, that should work out just fine.” Francesca was not quite as independent as her sister but still spoke up when she felt strongly enough about something. Her father could not deny her without being churlish or rude so he was forced to accept her decision.

“We would certainly like to have a chance to visit with you. If it would be convenient, Aida and I would like to invite you to have dinner with us this evening. I can make reservations now if you would like.”

“That would be fine.”

Darwin wanted very much to get his daughter away from Adam and into a private conversation, but because of what he had said on the stage, he doubted that Adam would let that happen. Darwin did not respect his son-in-law but did feel a certain amount of fear of what Adam might do if crossed. Darwin was thinking he needed to re-evaluate and alter his plans. For now the most expedient thing to do was to be civil. Adam carried luggage to the hotel with his father’s help as Aida took charge of Danny. Francesca’s luggage was loaded into the carriage for the ride to the Ponderosa.

After getting Darwin and Marietta settled in their rooms, the Cartwrights and their guest climbed into the carriage for the ride home. Joyce saw how tired Adam looked and suggested he sit in the back with his wife and sister-in-law. As soon as he could, he leaned back and closed his eyes. It didn’t take long for him to fall asleep. As Adam slept, Francesca filled them in on the stage ride. Ben was ready to be a little angry with his son, but Francesca said he did nothing wrong and that her father was rude to him the moment he got on the stage, and of course Adam had no idea who they were until much later in the ride. She said her mother had figured it out and told her. Francesca said they had both enjoyed the meeting in Virginia City and seeing Darwin so upset. Aida called her Frannie, and soon everyone was. Adam started snoring softly in the corner so Aida adjusted his head to lie against her shoulder.

“What about Gianni?”

“Well, he’s married and expecting a child. He wanted to come with us, but he couldn’t with the birth of his child imminent. If all goes well, he’ll be here sometime in the next year. Well, not here, but in San Francisco and he’ll be working for Papa.”

“I thought all the children in your family had Italian names?” Ben was sure that Adam had told him that.

For a moment, both ladies were confused but cleared it up. “Gianni is not ‘Johnny’ (and she spelled it out), but ‘Gianni’ (and she spelled that). Papa does love his opera.”

“Well then he and Adam have that in common.” Aida knew that but sincerely doubted that her father would believe it at this point especially after what Frannie had said about her father’s ideas about Adam. “Now, Frannie, what about you? I had heard that you were married.”

“Well, you may find this funny or ironic or perhaps even tragic. That man that Papa arranged for you to marry? Well when you refused and left the house and then left town, Papa arranged for me to marry him.”

“What, you were only seventeen at the time?”

“Yes, and if I had been a few years older, I would have done what you did, but I didn’t. We were married except it turned out that he was already married and had been for over twenty years. Papa got the marriage annulled, and he was charged with bigamy and is currently in prison in Connecticut where he was first married.”

“That is ironic and tragic, but not at all funny. So you haven’t found any one else to call on you?”

“After that, who would want to? Papa and Mama are hoping that in San Francisco there might be a man willing to take a chance on me. I don’t know. I had thought a lot about love and romance when I was younger, but it all seems to be more of a business transaction than anything else. Now tell me about Adam. Tell me what wasn’t in that book.”

So Aida did. She told her about his building the Ponderosa with his father and brothers, how he got in trouble in Connecticut and all the problems they had because of that, and then she told her about Adam’s university education, his music, his work as an architect, and his frequent trips to San Francisco and elsewhere.

“Wow, he is anything but what Papa thinks then. He is going to be so surprised.”

“Don’t tell him anything.” Adam had awakened to hear Aida giving his life history. He had listened and she kept her promise about anything private that she knew and stuck to the public knowledge part of this life. He was okay with that, but he thought her father was a pompous snob and had no desire to do anything to dissuade him from his misconceptions. “Let him stumble around in it long enough until he embarrasses himself enough to be decent about things. What Frannie did not say was that he wants to take you away from me and take you to San Francisco and find you a proper husband.”

“Frannie, is that true?”

With an embarrassed nod, Frannie let Aida know of her father’s plan. “Mama doesn’t agree and said we should get to know your husband before passing judgment. Papa said women don’t understand about such things.”

Aida got red in the face hearing that on top of the rest. Joyce even turned around for that one. Adam had that little smile he had sometimes because he knew now that he and Aida were thinking the same. The next week could turn out to be fun. Now if he could just get some rest and get rid of his headache and his aching back.

That evening, Aida wore a pretty satin green dress Adam had recently urged her to buy, and then wore the necklace he had given her for Christmas that accented it nicely with the emeralds in it. It was cool so she wore a shawl as they climbed into the carriage for the ride to town.

Frannie had been quite impressed with everything she had seen and wondered now if Adam was wealthier than her father. She began to think that was very likely. Papa had quite a good income but had to keep working to buy all the nice things they had. It seemed the Cartwrights had a lot of wealth just in what they owned. Frannie looked forward to the evening. As Adam drove the carriage, Aida and Frannie sat in the back talking. They had a lot of catching up to do as well as talking about the Ponderosa.

“So, what can you tell me about the one they call Candy?”

Aida gave her sister an appraising look. “He’s the foreman and a great friend.” Then she looked at her sister wondering what was coming next and was correct in her assumption.

“No, I mean what about him. Is he married, for example?”

Aida laughed. “He is a charmer, isn’t he? If I wasn’t in love with Adam, I think Candy would be at the top of my list.”

That got Adam to turn around and give her a mock glare.

“Don’t go all holier than thou on me now. I’ve seen you appreciating pretty women on a number of occasions. You always have told me you were just admiring the scenery. Well let me tell you, I like scenery too.”

Adam chuckled and went back to driving. Frannie did an obvious appraisal from behind and looked at her sister. “I really do like the view too!” Then they both laughed, and Adam knew he was somehow the butt of that joke but had no idea how close he was to the truth of that.

*****

Chapter 4

As Adam and Aida entered the restaurant with Frannie, they found that her parents were already there and seated in the alcove that Adam had reserved. Adam escorted the two ladies to the table. Marietta was all smiles as she saw how Aida was dressed. It was obvious just by what she had on that there was a lot more to this Adam Cartwright than they knew. Darwin was just rude however.

“So, how many banks did you have to rob to buy that for my daughter?” It was supposed to be in jest but came off as crude.

“Just one. There’s a lot of silver and gold in the banks here.” Adam helped each lady to sit and then sat between them and across from Marietta.

“Oh, Adam, don’t mind my husband too much. He doesn’t like travel, and that stage coach for the last part of the trip was very uncomfortable.”

“Marietta, you don’t have to make excuses for me. I can handle myself just fine without your help.”

It was difficult to start a conversation after that outburst. Adam signaled the waiter over and asked for the wine to be served.

“I don’t like the women in my family to drink spirits.”

Aida very boldly took her glass and had a drink. Then she looked at her father basically daring him to say anything more on that subject. Marietta and Frannie each picked up their glasses and took a sip as neither was very used to having any alcohol. They both decided that they liked this wine though, and each took a good drink next. Darwin’s face was getting all red again.

The railroad spur line to Virginia City had recently been completed, and restaurants were able to get fresh seafood so Adam had ordered that for their meal. The Dungeness crabs were the main course with some fresh fish as well. There were a number of other dishes that were all quite tasty. Aida noted that Adam mostly pushed the food around on his plate and actually ate very little. She was concerned for he had seemed warm to her too when she hugged him. He was smiling and chatting quite a bit with her mother so she put her concerns aside for the moment. Darwin was losing control of his family and his mission here and knew it. He had to do something.

“So when can we see this little ranch of yours, or should I say your father’s ranch?”

Aida smirked and Frannie chuckled.

“I don’t see how my question was so funny.”

“Not at all, Papa. Adam and I can show you the Ponderosa tomorrow. Mama would you like to come with us?”

“I would love to, dear, but I don’t know if I have anything suitable to wear.”

“Mama, it is not a wilderness. Just wear anything that you wore while traveling here. It will be fine. Frannie, you were quite comfortable on the ride there today weren’t you?”

“Yes, Mama, and the scenery is spectacular.”

With that, Aida blushed a little and then both sisters laughed. Adam and Marietta assumed there was some hidden meaning there that they didn’t understand yet. Darwin was just glad that it had been his suggestion that they take a little tour and was happy to be back in control or so he thought. After bidding the Hepburns goodnight, Adam and the sisters returned to the Ponderosa.

As Adam and Aida prepared to go to bed, Aida was surprised that Adam made no moves to induce her to lovemaking. She had actually been looking forward to it and was disappointed. He saw her sad look and asked why with his arm around her shoulders. She did have a few other things she wanted to talk about with him as well.

“I’m a little upset with you about how you were with my father.”

“He was insulting and talking about you like a commodity. I couldn’t tolerate that.”

“Yes, but then you were a bit belligerent with him. Do you have any idea how that makes me feel to have my husband and my father pitted against each other?”

“He wants to take you with him to San Francisco. He thinks he can procure a more acceptable husband for you.”

“Do you think that there is anything that he could do to get me away from you? I love you more than I thought I could love anyone. We have a beautiful son together and have made a wonderful home here. You show me respect and encourage me in my writing. There is no more suitable husband for me anywhere. Now, could you please be more civil to my father. Let him make a fool of himself if he wishes but please don’t do anything to encourage it. He has a long memory, and I don’t want this between us forever. You have shaken him up just by being what you are. His preconceived notions are all falling apart. My guess is that he has no idea what to think now.”

“You are a very smart lady, and I am so lucky to have you as my wife. I will try to do as you asked. Now is there anything else bothering you?”

“I thought you would want me tonight, but you haven’t done much more than hug me since you got back.”

“I’m sorry. I do want you, but I’m feeling a little under the weather. I had hoped to sleep well tonight and then tomorrow morning we could do a proper welcome home.”

“What’s wrong? I noticed you have hardly eaten anything and you seem quite warm.”

“I have a headache and the sight and smell of food makes me nauseated. Even my back hurts but that’s probably from sleeping on the ground for a couple of nights. I’m very tired, but I’ll be fine with some rest. It was a pretty grueling eight days.”

“If you’re not fine by tomorrow, then you ought to see Paul when we go to town to pick up my parents.”

“I don’t need to see Paul. I’ll be fine.”

With that, Adam slid under the covers and closed his eyes as soon as his head was on his pillow. Aida turned down the lamp and crawled in beside him feeling apprehensive. She suspected he had not told her everything, and he did feel very warm. During the night, she was aware of two times that he got up to go to the water closet next to their room. She suspected he might have gotten up more than that because he always tried to be very quiet and cautious when getting up in the night so as not to wake her. In the morning, she saw that Adam was pale and sweating.

“You do need to see Paul.”

“If I can get up and move around, I don’t need Paul. Now just drop it, please.”

At breakfast, Adam chewed on some dry toast and drank coffee, but when Hop Sing brought out plates of food, he excused himself to go do some chores. The others at the table waited for the front door to close before asking Aida what was wrong.

“He’s not feeling well. I think he has a fever, and he says he has a headache and a backache. You saw for yourself that he can’t eat and can’t stand being around food.”

“He should see Paul when he goes to town.”

“Papa Ben, that’s what I told him, but better than anyone, you know how he is. He won’t go until he topples over.”

“But he may be putting his family and his guests at risk. I’ll go talk with him.”

As Ben walked to the stable, it was very quiet. As he got inside, he could see why. Adam sat bent over on a bale of hay holding his head in his hands. It was clear that he had lost what little breakfast he had eaten. He glanced up to see his father and sighed deeply before nodding.

“I’ll pick up the Hepburns and give them the grand tour. You need to go with Aida and see Paul.”

In town, Adam drove the small carriage to Dr. Martin’s office as Ben drove the larger carriage to the hotel. The Hepburns had been waiting on the veranda of the hotel and Aida waved to them as she and Adam drove past them. When Ben pulled up, Marietta wanted to know what was wrong. She was afraid something was wrong with her daughter but didn’t feel any better knowing that Adam was ill. Darwin though just didn’t know to leave it alone. He muttered a rude comment.

“Well if he’s sick enough, he could die and that could take care of a lot of my problems here.”

Grabbing Darwin by the lapels of his coat, Ben threw him up against the carriage with a fury that few had seen and there was no one who had experienced it who would ever want it repeated.

“My son has been remarkably restrained with you. I suspect he would have beaten you to a bloody pulp if not for his love for your daughter and her obvious love for you. But I have no such qualms. You say one more nasty thing about my son or do anything to threaten his marriage or upset his wife, and I will teach you some manners that apparently your parents failed to instill in you. Have I made myself clear?”

Darwin nodded but he was stunned by being treated that way. Roy Coffee walked over to see what the issue was.

“Sheriff, this man assaulted me. I want him arrested.”

“Now Ben Cartwright doesn’t do anything without being provoked. Ben, would you care to tell me what this jasper did?”

“Adam is ill, and he said he thought it best if he would die. He has made it clear he would like to break up Adam’s marriage so he can take his daughter with him to San Francisco.”

“Well, I would think that justifies a little talking to like I jest seen. Now Ben were you planning to do any bodily harm to this man?”

“Not at this time.”

“Well then, I guess I don’t see a problem. Well other than does he know how many friends Adam has here and in San Francisco?”

“No, Roy, he doesn’t. He’s as ignorant as any greenhorn traveler I have ever met. I was planning to give him and his wife and daughter a tour of the Ponderosa. I’m not sure that they still want to go.”

“Mr. Cartwright, I assuredly do wish to have that tour. My daughter has told me many things about the Ponderosa and I would like to see them for myself if you don’t mind. Darwin can stay here or come along if you’ll permit it.”

“Please call me Ben, and I would be most delighted to give you and your daughter the tour my son promised you. My cook, Hop Sing, packed a wonderful lunch and it would be a shame to let it go to waste. We can picnic by the lake if you like.”

“That would be delightful. May I sit up front where I can see everything?”

Ben helped Marietta to the front seat, and then helped Frannie into the back. Glowering but cowed, Darwin climbed in the back. Ben headed out of town as Roy waved to them.

At the doctor’s office, Paul had Adam lying on an examining table as he asked him questions. “Does that hurt? And don’t deny it just to be contrary or I’ll press hard enough until I can see your reaction. Now what’s it going to be?”

“Yes, that hurt a little. But not until you pressed on the side like that and then lower.”

“Have you had loose bowels in addition to what you told me already?”

Embarrassed a bit by that, Adam nodded as Aida stood to the side and waited.

“You can sit up now. Have you been traveling recently?”

“I got home yesterday from an eight day trip to Ely.”

“Camp along the way and get your water from a stream or pond?”

At Adam’s nod, Paul pursed his lips. “I think you have something I have seen in travelers before. It seems to be something in the water.”

“It’s not typhus is it?”

“No, I don’t think so. I think your symptoms are a digestive tract problem. Now are you nauseated if you are not eating or near food?”

Adam shook his head so Paul continued. “That fits. The headache and muscle aches are probably from being dehydrated. People who get nauseated by food often don’t drink either. Now for the next day, don’t eat anything but I want you to drink as much as you are able to. You can have some thin broth but nothing solid. If anything seems nauseous to you, don’t drink that. After a day, try some very basic food like dry toast but not too much. If that goes down all right, try a little more a few hours later. Don’t have anything like meat or anything fried for the rest of the week.”

“A week! How can I work if I don’t eat?”

Well the next part of my prescription is that you do no hard work. Maybe something very light but no riding or anything requiring a lot of energy like that or at least not much of that. You will be feeling a bit weak and perhaps a little dizzy. Most people who have this recover fully in a week or two.”

“So are you saying that small meals would be better every few hours rather than a full meal?”

“Exactly, Aida, when he starts eating again, his system will not tolerate a full meal or heavy foods for a while. As the week goes on, he can eat more and a greater variety but take it slow or he could end up right back where he is now.”

“Can anyone catch it from him?”

“From my experience, no. Just follow good cleanliness and it shouldn’t be a problem.”

By early afternoon, Adam was already feeling better. Aida had told Hop Sing what the doctor had said, and Hop Sing had teas and cool drinks ready for Adam whenever Aida went to the kitchen. With the increase in fluid intake, Adam’s headache went away and the muscle aches and pains were rapidly diminishing. When Ben pulled the carriage into the yard and saw Aida and Adam sitting on the porch with Danny, he sighed in relief. He helped Marietta and Frannie from the carriage and the ladies immediately went to the couple to see how Adam was doing. He assured them he was feeling better. Darwin walked over to hear that.

“That’s very good. I’m sure that has made my daughter very happy. And that’s all I ever really wanted.”

It was a big concession and everyone understood that. Adam simply said thank you.

*****

Chapter 5

“Say, Adam, would you ever consider moving Aida and Danny out to San Francisco to live? I’m sure I could get you a job with my firm or you could surely find a firm to hire you as an architect even if you lack experience.” Darwin was trying but still didn’t fully understand the situation. He took how things looked on the surface and made assumptions. Ben had a smirk on his face with that one as Joe and Hoss fought the giggles.

“Mr. Hepburn, I already have a consulting job with an architectural firm in San Francisco. I take quite a few trips there. I seem to have a knack for spotting flaws in a design so they often call on me to go over plans for large projects before they get started. I use those trips to meet with my broker too.”

“You have a broker! For what?”

“I have investments as does the Ponderosa. With such a volatile economy, frequent adjustments need to be made in our investments. If you like, I could give you a letter of introduction to him.”

“I’m sure that won’t be necessary. I’ll just meet with him if I choose to do business with him.”

“Well, that might not be possible. He only accepts clients on recommendations of current clients or close friends.”

“Papa, he and Adam are friends too. They went to college together. We stayed at his home on one of our trips there.”

Darwin was having a difficult time accepting that the cowboy his daughter married had gone to college and now to find that he had more influential friends than he had was downright disconcerting. Adam had been very kind and polite to him after Aida’s talk, but Darwin continued to try to find fault or lack of merit in him. Darwin and Marietta had plans to leave the next day, and Adam knew there was going to be another argument before they left. Fortunately he was not part of that one, but he waited for his wife or Frannie to bring it up. After they finished dessert, all of them retired to the great room. Hoss and Joe and their wives were there too as the family gathered to give a warm dinner party for the Hepburns.

On this last night of the visit, Aida was being very solicitous of her father. Adam noticed the change and knew she must be getting ready to tell him the news. Aida had been cool to her father ever since she had heard what he said when he learned that Adam was ill. Ben had not told her, but Frannie thought she had a right to know. Now that Adam was feeling almost well again, Aida was in a more generous mood and needed her father to listen to her. Adam watched as she took a deep breath, and he thought ‘she’s going to do it’ and he was correct.

“Papa, when you leave tomorrow, there’s one little change that you may not like.”

Darwin started to get very nervous at that point but had to ask. “What is it that I won’t like?”

“Frannie wants to stay here for a while. She and I have so much to catch up on because we haven’t seen each other for so long. And Danny adores her and we want to have some time together.” Just that morning, Frannie had awakened to see two small hazel eyes gazing at her from just over the side of her bed. She had asked what he wanted, and Danny had said he was cold. She found he was also wet, and had walked him back to his room to change him and find a dry gown. Then when she went to put him in his bed, she found it was damp too so she took him back to her bed where the two snuggled in to sleep. That’s where Aida found them about two hours later when she was searching for her son and called out his name only to have her sister summon her to her room. That wasn’t the only reason she wanted to stay of course. Candy’s presence at the dinner table as well as how they looked at each other had made that obvious to anyone who paid attention.

Adam smiled and waited for the reaction. He was happy he wasn’t in the crosshairs this time, and smiled even more as he saw Candy squirm. He felt the chuckle in his wife as she sat by his side. Aida had opened the door, but now it was up to Frannie to handle the rest. Frannie was learning how to be more independent as she had watched her sister in action for the past week.

Darwin’s face got all red again. That had happened quite a lot recently. Adam was thinking that could be a big disadvantage in business and now had another clue why Darwin had not advanced further in his firm, and why at his age, he was the one sent west to set up a branch office. Darwin held his wife’s hand so tightly that she pulled it from his grasp. Then he had his answer surprising all of them and most probably himself.

“She can stay. But she can stay only if Adam assumes full legal and financial responsibility for her while she is here.”

Saluting Darwin on that one, Adam had to admire his quick thinking. If Frannie decided to stay and marry a cowboy, Adam would be the one to ensure that she lived in a manner to which she was accustomed. He knew he had just been outmaneuvered in a match from which he had thought he was removed. He had to agree. Aida would accept nothing less than that. He expected he would exact some payment for this one, and began to think about how she could make it up to him. So despite being forced into the only answer Darwin wanted, Adam had to smile.

“Of course, I will be happy to accept that.”

Ben served sherry cordials, and Darwin said nothing about his wife and daughters having them. He had made some progress but had also scored a big win on Adam. He decided he was going to like this son-in-law for the challenge that he was. He had not given up on his idea to have Adam and Aida move to San Francisco, but he knew now that he had to make it a far sweeter deal than he had thought would work originally. Marietta saw his expression and began to worry. She never liked it when Darwin thought he could best someone. He rarely succeeded, and she knew that Adam was far too clever for her husband but that her husband could not admit that to himself.

“Do you still want to walk her down the aisle when she gets married?”

Candy’s eyes got very big, and Darwin turned red again. Aida poked Adam in the side with her elbow but not too hard for it was funny. Hoss slapped Candy on the back, and then almost everyone laughed. With that it was time to call it an evening. Candy did volunteer to drive the Hepburns into town with Frannie riding along. There were many compliments given as everyone said their goodbyes. Aida promised that she and Adam would bring Danny and Frannie to town in the morning to have breakfast with her parents before they left.

Once Adam and Aida got to their bedroom, it was late for Adam had to wait up for Frannie to come back, and the trip took far longer than it usually did. Once he had his wife in the privacy of their room though he had a request.

“I am feeling very much better today. I was wondering if you would like to give me a thorough exam to make sure I am as physically fit as I think I am now.”

“So you would like me to look you over and make sure that everything is normal?”

“Yes, I want you to check on everything.”

“Are you sure that’s necessary? I saw you chopping wood this afternoon, and you looked mighty fine.”

“I saw you looking. I saw your sister and mother looking too, and then you were all laughing. What is it with the women in your family that you find me so amusing?”

“Oh that’s not it. It’s just the things my sister says when she sees you.”

A little afraid to ask, Adam had to ask anyway.

“I think we should just get to your examination. I am sure you will find it much more pleasurable than conversation. Since Aida was removing her gown at the same time she was talking, Adam forgot what he had asked and agreed to her request.

“Now let’s see. First I think I should check your lips. For that I need to use my lips.” Aida kissed Adam, and he kissed back, and after quite a nice time of kissing, she had to stop. “Now my preliminary exam shows that your lips are in good condition and your tongue too for that matter. However I want to do a second examination just to be sure. By the way, your hands seem to be doing quite well too and seem fully recovered.”

For the first time in two weeks, they made slow sweet love to each other and fell asleep in each other’s arms. In the morning as dawn was breaking, Adam pushed himself up on one elbow and looked down at his wife whom he thought had been sleeping peacefully by his side. He leaned down and kissed her nose, then her cheek, and then her forehead.

“If you’re planning on going that slow, we won’t be done by the time Danny starts hollering for us.”

With a smile, Adam let her know he was willing to speed up the process. There wasn’t time to snuggle for they needed to be in town early to have breakfast with her parents before they left. Once they were dressed, they awakened Frannie who seemed very tired and got a smirk from Adam. He had a hunch he knew why she was so tired. When he went out to the stable to do the chores that he needed to do and to hitch up the carriage, he saw Candy walking toward the necessary and he was yawning which confirmed Adam’s theory. He yelled out to Candy and asked if he wanted to go to town for breakfast with them but he declined. Well Adam thought that under the circumstances, he wouldn’t want Darwin’s scrutiny either.

In town for breakfast, Darwin said that Marietta wanted to see Aida up in their room. A bit apprehensive, Aida went up the stairs to the second floor suite her parents were staying in. She knocked and her mother opened the door. She was smiling so Aida knew then that there was nothing wrong.

“Aida, dear, I wanted to talk with you privately before we left. Now you and I didn’t see each other for quite a while. I feel terrible about that but I don’t know how I could have handled it differently, but you have created a wonderful life for yourself. I want you to know how happy and relieved I am.”

“Relieved?”

“Well dear, I did keep track of you and I noticed your wedding announcement and then a scant seven months later there was a child. Now he is a beautiful child and Adam is a wonderful husband. He adores you. I see it in his eyes when he’s watching you. But I had feared that a man had taken advantage of you. Meeting him, I realized that the two of you were in deeply love and that’s why you got married. However, Darwin has not yet noticed the dates and their significance. Living so close here and in contact as I hope we will be, I wanted to warn you and I know you know how he will react when he finds out.”

“Mama, that’s history. Will he really be that upset?”

“Yes, he worries more about what other people think than he should. He is a very proud man and has let that get in the way of loving his family sometimes. You know that with how he treated you. Now letting Frannie stay here with you is a concession I didn’t think he would make, but I fear he is still scheming. Let Adam know to watch for anything unusual. I will do my best to keep him in line, but you must know how difficult that is.”

“But you are happy for me, aren’t you?”

“Deliriously happy for you. Your husband and son are wonderful, and both so handsome. Now I do hope you will visit us in San Francisco as soon as we can buy a house. Although Darwin doubts it, I think Adam’s contacts there could help him a great deal.”

“We will visit as soon as we can, Mama. Thank you for accepting me and my family.”

“There never was any other option for me. You’re my daughter and I love you.”

The two hugged and then left to join the others who were undoubtedly waiting for them in the dining room. As they walked in, Danny was entertaining a number of people by calling the women ‘Sweetie’ which they found adorable. After breakfast, Adam and Aida waited with Danny and Frannie for the train to leave. Then they headed back to the ranch. Adam was expected to start doing a full workload again, and he had plans to meet with Candy to find out what had happened while he was recuperating and entertaining his wife’s family. Frannie joined Joyce and Aida as they began to work on some projects in the house as Adam saddled up Sport to ride out to meet Candy.

Candy had seem distracted as he and Adam rode, and Candy updated him on how things had been going on the ranch. Finally, Candy pulled up his horse and asked Adam if he could ask him a question.

“I think you just did.”

“Don’t start that with me. I know you do it just to irritate Joe and get him to act a little crazy, but I ain’t Joe. I just won’t talk with you if you start in on me like that. Now we been through a few things together and I respect your opinion. So what I got to ask you is, can you fall in love in a week?”

“I think so and in fact probably in less time than that.”

“Well what about you and Aida? Was it that fast?”

“Faster. I met her on a train, and by the end of that day, I was in love. Now don’t get me wrong, but it took me a couple of months to be sure that’s what it was.”

“So, if I told you that I think I’m in love with Frannie, you wouldn’t be surprised?”

“Not at all, but do you really know what you’re getting into here? Her father is a pompous ass who will probably do just about anything he can to keep the two of you apart.”

“Whoa, you really don’t pull any punches, do you? Hoss has always said that about you. You’ll say what’s on your mind, and let things fall where they may.”

“Well, and I do have a few memories of being punched in the face by my brothers for that very reason, so I don’t think they necessarily think it’s a good trait.”

“But I think they’re really sorry about that. Every time they talk about those situations, they say you were only trying to help.”

“Wish they would have thought so at the time. Would have been a lot easier on my jaw.”

“Well, that’s why I asked you though. I needed to know what you thought, and I knew you would tell me.”

“So, have I helped you make a decision?”

“Yes, indeed, you have.”

“Well, you going to tell me what you’re going to do?”

Candy wheeled his horse around to ride for the ranch house. “I’ll tell you after I find out if she says yes or no.”

Sighing deeply, Adam thought about how interesting and challenging these next couple of months might be. Then he smiled and turned to ride back too. Life had certainly been interesting since he had taken that seat next to a pretty young woman on a train bound for Denver.

*****

Epilogue

At dinner that evening, Adam invited Candy to eat with them. Aida said he was throwing them together, but Adam retorted that it was far too late for that. Then he gave a brief rundown of his conversation with Candy and made her swear to him that she would not tell her sister under any circumstances. At dinner, Adam noted that Aida pushed her food around without really eating much, and he started to get very worried. When she excused herself to go outside and get some air, he followed her, and as he suspected, she was retching into the weeds near the corral.

“I thought Paul said you couldn’t get it from me. I am so sorry.”

Aida caught her breath and asked for some clear water to rinse her mouth. Adam brought her a cup of water from the well. After she rinsed a few times and then drank some of the water she had something to say. “I did get it from you, but I am not ill.” She waited patiently as he processed what she said, and knew that he got it when he got a big grin and wrapped his arms around her.

“Are you happy?”

“Sweetheart, I am ecstatic. How about you?”

“It was sooner than I had hoped, but it is exactly what I wanted. I was going to tell you sooner but you were going on that trip, and then you were so ill, and my family was here.”

“How soon?”

“About seven months I would think. Let’s not tell anyone until I see Paul and he confirms it.”

Adam wrapped his arms around his wife and held her close under the waxing moon.

*****

The Christmas Trip

What would he do? Aida wondered as she readied herself for bed. Her husband was angry but as much at himself as he was at her. She never knew how he would be after an argument. Sometimes contrite and gentle, he would sensuously seduce her and their lovemaking would be warm and soothing making them feel like each was part of the whole. Other times he was lustful and energetic using his talents to overwhelm her defenses until all she wanted was to have him as he took her with energetic lovemaking and she craved the physical release that he could give her. Then there were those black moods when he shut himself away from her and worked through his anger and regrets without including her in his self examination and hurting her as much as whatever had come between them.

Aida hoped so much for the lustful overpowering man and dressed provocatively hoping to incite that passion in him. She would settle willingly for the gentle sensuous love for that meant he was so remorseful he couldn’t take a chance on hurting her physically. What she feared was that dark Adam who pushed her away emotionally and let her lay quietly on her side of the bed until morning when exhausted and contrite after a fitful night, he would turn to her and reach for her with a look of helplessness that bespoke more than words how he feared losing her because of his behavior.

Downstairs Adam finished calculating the costs of contracts he needed to deliver. The weather was likely to be miserable, and he didn’t look forward at all to the trip that was coming. What he did not understand was how Aida has insisted she should come along. The trip would be hazardous as it was, and with worrying about her safety and well-being, Adam was sure the trip would take even more time. The very last thing he wanted to do was be stranded in Carson City for the Christmas holiday. He had missed so many of those with his family, and this one would be more special than most for it was his son’s first birthday as well.

Everything had been going so well, he should have known trouble was going to rear up. First his father announced that it was too late to mail those contracts to buyers in Carson, and someone would have to take them there. He knew immediately whom his father meant by that, and that upset him. Then Aida had stated that she wanted to go along to make some last minute purchases for Christmas. He and she had argued in front of Ben and Joyce that they had never done before, well at least that openly.

Of course, Ben and Joyce had sided with Aida saying how wonderful the scenery would be with that light coating of snow and how wonderful the shopping in Carson would be. They argued that as busy as the last year had been, Adam and Aida had rarely had time to themselves and seldom even had time for a dinner in town. Joyce had gushed about how romantic it would be, but she wasn’t fooling Adam at all. She wanted the house to herself so she and Ben could have some romantic time themselves while he was driving a carriage through ice and snow and who knows what else.

Then Adam had stormed out of the house to go do chores, but what he really wanted was time to himself away from the badgering. Once he had time to think about it, he decided it wouldn’t really be that bad to have his wife to himself for a short trip. The deliveries of the contracts and the bargaining to seal the deals would not take much time and they could shop and then have a hotel room all to themselves. Danny had recently been weaned and wouldn’t need to be with them. By the time he decided all that of course, he had worked himself into a real sweat and needed time in the washroom to clean up. As he walked into the great room, a single lamp was burning and the fire had been banked for the night. He needed to ready the contracts and information so they would be ready to go first thing in the morning.

When he finished, Adam decided that the only thing to do was to tell Aida that she would be going with him to Carson. Walking slowly up the stairs, Adam wondered which Aida he would find. Would she be the shy and quiet lover he had first known who had let him take the lead, touching her and kissing her until he couldn’t help himself as she wrapped her arms around his neck hanging on and trusting him implicitly. Or would she be cool and standoffish and make him regret marrying her until he thought about their life together and all the blessings she had brought to him as he found sleep elusive. They would make slow love in the light of dawn as he would pull her to him and beg her forgiveness, and then she would lean forward kissing him and telling him how much she loved him. Sometimes they would make love a second time arriving late to the breakfast table to knowing glances and Hop Sing’s complaints that the food was cold.

And sometimes it was like tonight. When Adam opened the door, Aida was sitting at her dressing table brushing out her hair. She had on her low cut gown that she only wore when she wanted him to love her robustly. She stood and he saw she had only tied the top ribbon. The gown gaped open. Aida looked at him with her lips slightly parted, and he walked to her crushing her to him and kissing her hard and deep. Then he picked her up and carried her to the bed. Setting her atop the covers, he opened the ribbon she had tied and looked at her body as he quickly unbuttoned his shirt and removed it. She watched every thing he did with lust in her eyes. He slipped off his boots and then his pants as quickly as he could. He settled onto the bed next to her and pulled her to him. The lovemaking was robust and energetic until he rolled to her side and pulled her to him for another deep kiss. There were no words as they fell asleep wrapped in each other’s embrace.

In the morning, Adam realized he had not told Aida that she could come on the trip with him. He gently awakened her with kisses. She looked up at him and smiled.

“Am I going with you to Carson?”

“Yes, you are. It’s just that this is such a difficult trip. I’m afraid something could happen to you.”

“Adam, I trust you. You know that. You will always do your best for me, and that’s all that matters. We never know what can happen in life, but I very much want to spend the next two days with you.”

The decision was made, and all that was left to do was pack. They wouldn’t need much for only two days travel. Then they went down to breakfast and to tell Ben and Joyce that they were going. Aida went to get Danny from his room and found he was already gone. Ben must have taken him downstairs. The two seemed to like the quiet time they had together in the mornings when Adam and Aida would find them in the chair in front of the fireplace.

Candles, a lantern, extra blankets, a tarp, lots of food, and even some firewood were packed in the back of the carriage and in the boot by Hop Sing. That he did not approve of Ben sending his eldest son on a trip at this time of year was all too clear. He wished Adam and Aida good weather and good luck on their short trip, and after a disdainful look at Ben, he walked back into the house.

Once again, Ben asked Adam if he had enough cash in his wallet, and were the contracts safely stored. Once again, he was reassured by Adam that all was well. Adam and Aida had come down to breakfast wondering what the reception would be. Both Ben and Joyce greeted them like there had been no major disagreement the night before. Aida looked at Adam and gave him one of her most smug looks. She had said that he yelled out loud enough the night before that anyone would know what they had been doing, and that she was sure Ben and Joyce would be well aware that they had made up.

Now in the carriage, Adam and Aida headed for Carson City and two days with just the two of them. They had not really had a chance to have an outing like this for a very long time where romance was the object. By the time they had arrived on the Ponderosa, Aida was well along in her pregnancy, and Adam had become a gentle lover. He had not been adventurous and energetic in their private time as he had when they had first been together. Both were looking forward to this trip despite the cold, but found there was one huge advantage. A large thick blanket covered the two of them from the waist to their feet.

As they traveled, they were able to snuggle under the blanket, and Adam promised her that the first thing they would do in Carson would be to spend some romantic time together. With what Adam had said to her, Aida found that the trip seemed to take forever this time. They had traveled this road many times but this time she couldn’t wait to get to Carson so the trip seemed so much longer.

Once Adam registered at the hotel in Carson, he told Aida that they ought to go up to their room to freshen up before heading out to run errands and shop. She smiled knowing he had something planned. Once in the room, he grabbed her and kissed her deeply. He stood holding her tightly to him as his tongue danced in her mouth. Then he pushed her back to the bed and laid down with her never releasing his grip on her. He reached up with one hand and unbuttoned the top two buttons of her dress. He kissed and caressed her as the two of them took a lot of time letting each other know how much they loved each other. Smiling at her as he kissed her when they finished, Adam asked if she would mind doing a little business and then shopping. He also said he thought they ought to find a fine restaurant and have a romantic dinner. They had fun for the rest of the day, talking and laughing as they ran errands, shopped, and then found a very nice restaurant where they got a private booth and tried some dishes that were new to them.

Once back in the room, they made slow sensuous love to each other and fell into a most restful sleep. The next morning, snow was falling. They packed everything up as quickly as they could, stopped in a couple of shops to pick up items they had thought about buying the day before, and then headed for home. Adam told her she had to behave herself because they needed to get home before too much snow had fallen. She asked what he would do if she was bad, and he said he would do whatever she wanted if she would just be good.

The snow started to get heavier and heavier as they traveled. Adam wished they had just stayed in Carson. However it wasn’t too bad until the wind picked up. He knew then that they would never make it back to the ranch until the storm had passed. Thinking about all the possibilities they had for shelter, he turned the carriage off the road at the crossroads and headed through a passage between two groves of trees. It was the line shack that was furthest from the ranch house and generally ramshackle, but it would be sufficient for a day or two or at least he hoped it would be sound enough. If not, they would have to create some kind of shelter there even if he had to rig a lean to. They couldn’t stay out in this weather very long without risking their lives.

Once Adam saw the cabin appear almost like magic before them, he was relieved. The cabin roof was still there, and the door and the windows appeared to be closed. One never knew what condition this little used line shack might be in during the winter. He helped Aida from the carriage and carried in all of the supplies Hop Sing had packed away for them. Aida quickly checked the chimney for its draft and then started a fire. Adam went outside to take the horses behind the shack where they could have some shelter. He was surprised to find some hay stacked there. Even though the mice had made inroads, there was plenty there yet for the horses. He would melt some snow for them later so they could drink.

Hurrying back inside, Adam thought that he would need a rope line to venture outside again so he grabbed an armload of firewood before going inside. Aida was cleaning up the mouse nests and cobwebs inside, and had some water already heating by the fireplace. There was a cold draft coming from the door which faced directly into the wind. Adam looked into the supplies in the trunk that was in every line cabin and found a canvas tarp which he used to cover the door and its leaks. It would have to be removed every time they wanted to go outside but for now it would keep the place warmer. They used the water to wet a rag and wipe the dust from the table, chairs, and the single cot in the cabin. They found a kettle, a pot, and a coffeepot. They had no coffee but they could drink hot water to help stay warm. The food supplies that Hop Sing had insisted on packing for them were truly appreciated.

“That cot looks rather small.”

Adam looked at her with a smug look like only he could do. “We’ll just have to spoon very tight so we both fit. We need to stay warm tonight, and body heat will be essential.”

Aida laughed as he wiggled his eyebrows in a parody of a lustful look. There was something she had wanted to talk with him about for quite a while, and there had never seemed to be a good time to do it. Locked away in the privacy of this cabin, it seemed a good time to bring it up.

“Adam, why me?”

“Well, you’re here because we’re married, and we can sleep in the same bed without anyone being concerned. I would think that was obvious.”

“No, I mean, why did you pick me. Of all the women you must have met, why did you pick me?”

Adam reached across the table and took her hands in his. “You were so open and trusting. I never have understood how you could trust me so implicitly right from the start, but you did. You listened, you talked, you laughed. You accepted me as I was. You have never asked me to change nor expected me to change. It was all I ever wanted from a woman. I think somehow, we were meant to be together. I don’t put much stock usually in fate, but how we met has tested my ideas about that. Now it’s your turn. Why did you trust me when we first met? I had little to fear from you, but you took a big risk coming with me.”

“I’m not sure I can explain it. There was something about you. Your eyes made you look so hurt and vulnerable, but your manner was so self assured and confident. You spoke so eloquently of justice, the west, and great literature. You didn’t look at all concerned that you were sitting with a woman well past the age when most women marry and that I wrote books for a living. You just said to me that there must be a fascinating story behind all of that. You were an amazing amalgam of all these traits that seemed sometimes incongruous. A bounty hunter who loved Shakespeare with those calluses on your hands and beautiful words just enchanted me.”

“That’s it? My lord, woman, you could have been badly hurt going with the wrong man.”

“No, you see, I never had. Many men tried, but you didn’t. You let me make my own decision. When I got off the train behind you with my valise, you turned and grinned at me like a naughty schoolboy. I was very scared actually until I saw that smile. Then you showed me to a nice hotel, and we continued our conversations and it was wonderful.”

“If I recall correctly, we did a helluva lot more than have conversations.”

“Yes, and you were so kind and gentle with me. I can never tell you enough how important that was to me especially after what happened in my past. Without knowing any of that, you were still so considerate of how I felt. Of course, I might have been a little worried if I knew then that you followed me to Abilene.”

“All out of love, sweetheart, it was all done for love. But now I think we need to melt some snow for the horses so I can give them both a good drink. It looks like we’re spending the night.”

The next morning, wrapped tightly in their blankets, Adam and Aida heard a hail from outside. It was Hoss of course and he was announcing his arrival and giving them time to get decent if they had to. Both were fully dressed though as a defense against the cold. Adam pulled the canvas tarp from the door, and stepped out to greet his brother.

“Kinda thought if you was on your way home, you wouldn’t have gotten much further than this. That storm kicked up real sudden like yesterday afternoon. Pa’s been worried sick as you can imagine, and there’s one lonely little boy a waiting on ya too.”

Squinting into the bright sunlight, Adam looked out over the snowdrifts. “Not so sure the carriage can make it through the snow. We’re quite a distance from the road here.”

“That’s no problem. Pa and Joyce are out on the road in the sleigh. I’ll just signal them to come this way.”

Hoss fired off three shots, and within about fifteen minutes, the sleigh arrived. Sitting on Joyce’s lap was Danny. As soon as he saw his parents, he spread his arms wide and called for them.

Adam reached up to take his son from Joyce and hugged him as Danny wrapped his arms around his father’s neck. Adam looked up at his father and Joyce then with a questioning look which Joyce answered.

“He missed the two of you so much. He hardly slept last night. We made a mistake yesterday and said you were coming home. So when you weren’t there by bedtime, he was in tears. When we wanted to leave this morning, he hollered and put up such a fuss, we didn’t want to saddle Hop Sing with him when Hop Sing has so much work to do today. So here you have him. A one year old toddler on a rescue mission.”

Aida had been rubbing Danny’s back and he leaned toward her until Adam handed him to his mother. Danny wrapped his arms around his mother and buried his face in her neck. A couple of tears slid down her face at his reaction to their return. Adam helped her up into the sleigh, and Joyce pulled a heavy quilt up to cover them as they snuggled in the back. Adam retrieved their valises and purchases and loaded all of it into the sleigh at Aida’s feet. Then he went into the cabin to douse the fire and straighten everything up as Hoss got the two carriage horses from behind the cabin. They would let the carriage stay here until the weather improved and some of the snow melted. Hoss rode out leading the two carriage horses as Adam climbed into the sleigh to sit with his wife and son. Soon they were headed home. They met Joe and a few others on the road. Ben told them they could go ahead and get a couple of trees for the whole family was accounted for.

The next day was Christmas Eve and the day was spent decorating and preparing for the big family celebration. Hop Sing had prepared many fine dishes and baked goods before departing for Virginia City and his family celebration there with cousins who had recently converted to Christianity and found the Christmas holiday a joyous occasion. Joyce and Aida loved it too because it meant that from now on, they had free rein in the kitchen on Sundays and every holiday. They had been working with Hop Sing in the preparation of meals but wanted to do some experimenting which Hop Sing would not allow. He wanted a recipe before cooking any dish. This way the ladies could try things out, and write down the recipes for the concoctions that their men found appealing. Christmas dinner though would be traditional, and Claire and Alice were in the kitchen helping as well.

Sitting on a chair, Claire closed her eyes and sighed. The others asked if she was feeling all right, and Claire responded that she hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before. They asked if Josh had had trouble sleeping, and she said that wasn’t the boy who had pestered her. Her sly grin made them all laugh as she said Hoss had big appetites and wasn’t easily satisfied. Alice blushed a little at that, and she had to admit that she was weaning Mary Elizabeth, and Joe found the extra time he had with her at night very enjoyable. Joyce laughed and looking at Aida asked if the minister had let her sleep. That got the other ladies to ask what the heck she was talking about. Joyce said she and Ben heard Adam calling on the Almighty and thanking Him so often that they had privately started referring to him as the minister. Claire and Alice looked at them in surprise at that comment, but Aida just nodded for she knew better than to say anything about their life because of how much Adam valued his privacy. She would have to find a way to tell him about the minister thing though. He wouldn’t be happy.

As the ladies placed the hot dishes on the table and called the family to dinner, Adam was curious about the strange looks he was getting from Claire and Alice. He sat next to Aida for dinner and held Danny on his lap. He looked at Aida to see if she could offer him any insight but she mouthed later and turned to putting food on his plate and on a smaller plate for Danny. Ben asked who would like to say grace, and Claire said it would seem most appropriate if Adam did, and then all four ladies blushed. Adam and his brothers wondered at that comment, but Ben had a fairly good idea at that point. He suspected that Joyce had been sharing some tales with the daughters-in-law as they all worked in the kitchen. He was going to have to have a long talk with her about telling tales on Adam. Then he thought he would have to console her with some fine loving, and was so lost in his thoughts that Joyce had to remind him that Adam was about to say grace. Alice almost started laughing when Adam said they should thank the Almighty for their bounty. Adam started to get a sneaking suspicion then that the joke was on him. Hoss and Joe were anxious to talk to their wives and find out the whole story.

That night, Aida was in the uncomfortable position of having to explain to Adam what all the humor was about, and as expected, he wasn’t at all happy about it. She wasn’t sure if he would make love to her after she told him what had been said.

Aida need not have worried. Adam’s desire for her was strong regardless of circumstances. They made slow sensuous love but Adam was uncharacteristically quiet. Then she asked the question as to why he had been so quiet, but even as she asked it, she knew the answer. He didn’t want to be overheard. Hoss and Joe and their wives were staying overnight because of the holiday, and he thought his father and Joyce had already heard far too much. The next morning at breakfast, Hoss and Joe snickered when Adam and Aida came down the stairs. They asked Adam to say grace again, and when he gave thanks for all the gifts they had received, all the ladies said ‘Amen’ quite loudly. Soon all the adults were laughing. Adam leaned over and gave Aida a passionate kiss that silenced the snickering.

“Merry Christmas, sweetheart!”

*****

Deceit and Mistakes

Chapter 1

“Joyce, you need to tell him. It isn’t right for you to keep this from him.”

“Adam, I can’t tell him. He’s been so hurt by this in the past. What if it turns out not to be anything? Maybe it will go nowhere.”

“Well, if it was Aida, I would want to know. And I’m uncomfortable keeping it all a secret too. I’ve told lies to cover up the trips to town. I’m just not happy having to do that. Any man would want to know no matter the consequences.”

“I think your father has sensed something is wrong. He’s been asking questions. And he has been acting differently with me.”

“Well then all the better for us to get this out in the open. He’s been pretty testy with me too. Seems I can’t do anything to his satisfaction lately.”

“Maybe you’re right. I just don’t know when the best time to talk would be. You will still go with me to town today, won’t you?”

Sighing deeply, Adam agreed. The furrows above his eyes though showed his concern over what had developed out of a simple trip to town just two weeks before. Now he was mired in these lies and had not been able to broach the subject even with Aida because Joyce insisted he swear to keep it all secret. He continued to place the harness on the carriage horse so he could give Joyce one more ride to town. Then later today he was leaving for a meeting in Sacramento and wouldn’t be back for five days. He had hoped to spend the day with Aida and Danny, but that wasn’t going to happen.

Unfortunately Joyce was completely correct about one thing. Ben was getting suspicious and had followed her out of the house when she said she was going to the stable. He overheard the conversation and it validated his worst fear. His son was having an affair with his wife. He wasn’t able to draw any other conclusion from the words he had heard and the lies he knew they had told.

Walking slowly back to the house, Ben wondered what he could do to keep his son away from his wife. Adam would be gone for five days. At least during that time, perhaps he could come up with a way to deal with this.

On the way to town, Adam did tell Joyce one thing. “I am going to tell Aida. I made a promise to her when we married that I would tell her the truth and not hold back. I have to tell her before I leave on this trip. I know you made me swear to keep this secret, but it’s more important to me to be honest.”

“All right. But please ask her to not tell anyone. I need to find a way to tell Ben this and I don’t know how I’m going to do that yet.”

“Maybe just blurt it out? Sometimes the hardest part if just getting started. Then the two of you can talk and decide what to do next.”

“You’re probably right, but I’m just so afraid to tell him.”

“More afraid than you are about doing this without him?”

“I would like you to be there when I tell him. You can help me if I get all upset and can’t talk.”

“Joyce, that would mean you would wait another five days to tell him. Do you think that’s wise?”

“It’s the best course of action I can see now.”

“Of course, I’ll be there to help you. That’s what friends are for. But please, if there’s an opportunity before then, go ahead and tell him.”

“Thank you, Adam. You have been wonderful to me. I can’t tell you how much that means to me.”

Acknowledging her thanks, Adam dropped her at her appointment as he went to the bank and the lawyer’s office before picking up the mail. Then he planned to look things over and go home to review the documents with his father before coming back later that day to catch the afternoon train. He would ride the spur line until he got to the main line and then get a ticket for Sacramento. He saw Joyce waiting for him and pulled the carriage to a halt.

“Any news?”

“No change. I think my plan of waiting until you’re back to talk with him will be the best.”

“Well I plan to tell Aida when I get back home. I want to clear the air with her. Then I need to go over these contracts with Pa before I head back here later.”

On the Ponderosa, Aida and Frannie were coming back from an excursion in the surrey. They had been to see Alice and then to see Claire. Danny was with them and sleeping behind the seat wrapped in a blanket. In between houses, the ladies had dropped by the branding to drop off lunch for the men, and of course for Frannie to have a chance to have lunch with Candy. Aida was not looking forward to trying to explain this to her father. The two were fast becoming romantically involved. Everyone on the ranch though it was a good match in personality. However Adam, Aida, and Frannie had already discussed what Darwin might do when he found out. Darwin had probably suspected that his daughter might have a dalliance with Candy, but in his mind it was unlikely that he could conceive of his daughter falling in love with a true cowboy. He had accepted Adam when he understood he was a landowner and had wealth. But Candy had neither. The two ladies talked about that as they drove back to the Ponderosa.

“Adam’s going away for five days. I would have thought the two of you would spend this day together.”

“He had to drive Joyce to town. He said he had promised her.”

“They’re spending an awful lot of time together. Doesn’t that bother you?”

“Well, I was a little bothered today, but no if you’re thinking I’m suspicious of the two of them. He has been very loving to me all through our marriage and nothing has changed. There is something going on though, and I do wish Adam would tell me.”

“He is very loving; that’s true. He’s always touching you.” At Aida’s surprised look, Frannie had to amend the statement. “No, nothing objectionable. He just takes your elbow when you walk to dinner. He puts his hand on your shoulder when you walk outside with him. He’ll sit right next to you on the settee and he puts his arm up on the back of it behind you so he can sit real close. He wraps an arm around your waist when you two walk upstairs at night. I mean, I wouldn’t mind having a man who wanted to be close to me like that.”

“Oh, I think there is a man who would be willing to do that for you.”

“Yes, but we aren’t that far along in our relationship. I did say yes though to him escorting me to a few social events while I’m here and perhaps a picnic and a ride together. I’m glad he didn’t rush into asking to court me or something. This is very nice because we can get to know one another.”

“And what do you think so far?”

“I think I wouldn’t mind if he decided he did want to court me. I certainly wouldn’t say no. What do you think Adam will say about that if it happens?”

“Oh, it’s not Adam you have to worry about. He likes Candy. But Papa!”

“I know. It’s going to be a big mess, isn’t it?”

“That would be a mild way to describe how he will react. I think if it happens, you better be in Nevada and he better still be in California. Otherwise he might take you away bodily and lock you in a bedroom.”

“You think it would be that bad?”

“Frannie, because Papa thought Adam was a cowboy, he was going to try to break up my marriage to Adam even though we had been married over a year and had a son. Candy actually is a cowboy, so yes, he will be apoplectic.”

“What? I wish you writers could use words us ordinary folk would understand.”

Well-educated and well-read Frannie was grinning as she said it, and she and Aida broke into laughter that woke Danny. Aida pulled the surrey to a halt in order to pick up her crying son who clung to her. He didn’t like waking up in strange surroundings and this was one of the strangest he had experienced.

“Can you take the reins?”

“No, but if you settle him down, I’ll hold him. I’d like to.”

“You’re going to make a great mother some day.”

“How long do you think I can stay here with you before Papa insists I join them in San Francisco?”

“Oh, I don’t think Ben minds you being her at all, and Adam and I and especially Danny very much enjoy having you here. Adam does need more challenges in his chess game. He admits he’s been getting careless in his play because he didn’t have enough of a challenge playing. His father and Candy can put up a pretty good fight but he wins too often. That makes it too easy for him.”

“I didn’t know Candy played chess.”

“Oh, yes, just like Adam, he has a board set up all the time so he can study moves. You should challenge him to a game or two or three.”

“I will. Now about Ben; he seems to be upset with Adam recently. Is it because Adam said it was all right for me to stay here? I don’t want to make trouble between them.”

“I don’t know what is going on. Adam has sensed the tension. He said it seems he can’t do anything the way his father wants it lately. I think he’s rather glad to be going away for five days for that reason, although there are other things he will miss.” And even though Aida tried to be smug when she said it, she had to blush which caused her sister to laugh.

There was no laughter in the carriage as Adam drove Joyce home. She was quiet for most of the ride thinking about what was happening. Adam had his mind on the contracts and was quiet too. He stopped the carriage in the yard and hopped down to help Joyce out of the carriage. Before he could, Ben was outside.

“I’ll help my wife down, if you don’t mind.”

That statement should have been something Joyce enjoyed hearing, but just like a lot of things lately, there was irritation in his voice and no smile on his face. Adam just took the lead on the horse and began walking to the stable. Once he had the horse unhitched and the tack put away, he grabbed the contracts and mail, took a deep breath, and walked inside to talk with his father. Ben told Adam to handle the contracts himself.

“At your age, you shouldn’t need to be wet-nursed through the process. Just get the deal done. We need those contracts so we can buy some equipment we need for the lumber mill and another team of draft horses to haul timber to the mill.”

Somehow Adam held his tongue surprising Aida and his father. It was clear that Ben was itching for a fight, and Adam wanted to avoid that. He asked Frannie to entertain Danny for he said he had to talk to Aida whom he asked to walk upstairs with him.

“What is going on with your father?”

“I don’t know, but I’m seriously thinking we ought to build our own house. The tension has been too much lately. But I do have something to explain to you.”

In their bedroom, Adam closed the door and asked Aida to sit next to him on the bed. “I don’t want to have to talk loud enough to be overheard.” Then he explained what was going on with Joyce and why she was reluctant to tell Ben. “Now I apologize for not telling you the truth sooner, but Joyce made me swear not to tell anyone. I had to tell you before I left though because the guilt was eating me up.”

“Can I talk to Joyce about it?”

“I think she would like that. I have encouraged her to tell Pa, but she wants me there to help her do it, and I have to leave in less than an hour.”

“Well, is there time for me to give you a proper goodbye? I had hoped to do that this morning, but you had to get Joyce to town.”

“Oh, I would welcome whatever you have in mind for the next hour.”

Wrapping his arms around Aida, Adam fell back on the bed taking her with him. Soon there was clothing being discarded and kissing and touching. Entwined on the bed, they made love and then held each other.

“I hate to do this, but I need to get dressed and leave now.”

“I knew you would, but I wanted a memory to sustain me for the next five days.”

Once Adam and Aida were dressed, he grabbed a small valise. Downstairs he tucked the contracts in it, and then went to saddle his horse. Aida took Danny from Frannie and followed him to the stable so that both of them could say goodbye. The five days passed much faster for Aida and Danny than they did for Adam. Aida and Danny had Frannie as well as Ben and Joyce to help fill their time with activities. Both of them only felt lonely at night when Adam’s absence was the most pronounced.

Five days later Adam arrived home with bad news. He walked in the house arriving home earlier than anyone had expected. His father was at his desk but Aida and the others were gone. He told his father the bad news, and Ben exploded.

“We needed those contracts. Surely you could have done something.”

“To get the first contract, I would have had to bid at cost. There was no profit there and if anything went wrong, we would have lost money. The other contract required a deadline we could not meet. Pa, these were not good business deals for the Ponderosa.”

“Or did you just want to avoid the hard work involved in meeting the demands of a difficult contract. We work hard around here for profits or have you forgotten that?”

Dropping his head, Adam massaged his forehead with one hand. He had nothing to say that would make anything better and a lot he could say that would make things worse. He chose to turn to leave.

“Oh, run away then. Go hide from your responsibilities and make up excuses.”

Adam almost turned back at that point but thought he might just hit his father if he said anything more like that so he continued to the door and outside. He needed to put Sport in the stable anyway. He was there when a hand came in to tell them about a problem with some steers. He walked inside with them to see what his father wanted done because at this point he didn’t want to do anything that would make him angrier.

“Mr. Cartwright, some cattle may have gotten into some jimson weed up near those box canyons in the upper northwest pasture. Sam tried to herd some of them there but one of em charged his horse. He got bucked off and one of them steers charged him and tried to gore him.”

“Is he all right?”

“Yeah, he scrambled up one of them boulders there and stayed there until we could get his horse and take em back to em.”

“Adam, go take care of it.”

“There aren’t any hands available right now.”

“Well, can’t you handle it? You messed up the contract negotiations. You ought to be willing to do some ordinary work here.”

Still unwilling to have a fight with his father, Adam turned silently and stormed outdoors.

“Mister Adam, it ain’t right for you to go up there alone. Cattle on jimson can be awful nasty. You just never know what they’re a gonna do.”

“I’ll be fine. If it’s more than I can handle, I’ll leave and we can take some men up there tomorrow to deal with it.”

“Well, good, cause that’s probably what you’re gonna have to do. I’d go with you but we’re already short-handed moving those cattle we already got. The guys are gonna be expecting me back there to help.”

“No problem, Sam. See ya later.”

Adam rode out a bit distracted because of the conversations with his father. Somehow he had angered his father but didn’t know what it was that he had done. They would have to have this out at some point, but he wasn’t looking forward to that at all. They had not had an argument since he had returned after an eight-year absence, but he knew that soon would no longer be true.

Later that afternoon when Hoss, Joe, and all the hands came back, Hoss and Joe saw Sport in the stable so they went inside to talk with him but found their father had sent him out alone to deal with the cattle that had eaten some jimson weed.

“Pa, that’s crazy. That’s at least a three-person job. It’s downright dangerous for one man to try to do alone.”

“Hoss, are you questioning my authority on this ranch too?”

“No, Pa, I’m questioning why you would send Adam out on a job like that alone and just after he got back home after being gone five days.”

“Well he failed to get those contracts!”

“Did he tell you why?”

“Oh, he had some excuses.”

“Pa, Adam don’t make excuses. If he told ya something, then that’s what happened.”

“Your brother isn’t as honest as you seem to think.”

“Pa, what’s going on with you?”

“I would like to know that too.” Aida had just walked in with Joyce and everything about Aida showed how angry and worried she was. “Candy just told me that you sent Adam by himself to do some dangerous work. Now everyone else is back, but Adam isn’t. What are you going to do about that?”

Thunder rattled the house then. Worry turned to fear.

*****

Chapter 2

Frannie handed Danny to Joyce and then headed out to the porch. Aida stood wrapped in her shawl watching the rain pouring down and the wind blowing as lightning lit up the sky. Aida had her arms held tightly to her, but when she saw her sister, she reached out for a hug.

“What is going on in this family?”

“Frannie, a secret has caused this. There should not be secrets for just this reason. People don’t understand what’s going on and draw all the wrong conclusions. Now Adam is out there alone, and we don’t know if he needs help or not. I hope he sought shelter like Hoss said, but I’m afraid.”

“Who’s holding the secret?”

“I am.” Joyce walked outside. “Frannie could you come inside and take care of Danny for a while? Aida, would you come in and give me some support when I tell Ben my secret?”

Putting her arms around Joyce, Aida looked at her and nodded. It was long past the time to do this. They walked inside together.

“Ben, I have something I need to tell you.”

Feeling his chest constrict, Ben turned to face his wife. He was puzzled why Aida was arm in arm with her and looking pleased. Joyce asked him to sit by the fireplace. Aida sat in the blue chair that Adam usually sat in without seeming to realize the irony of that. Ben and Joyce sat on the settee.

“Ben, I think you’re angry with Adam because he’s been escorting me to town. You shouldn’t be. I put him in a terrible position. He saw me in town one day, and he knew that there was a problem. I swore him to secrecy so he was the only one I could trust to take me to town. He already knew and he wouldn’t tell you.”

“What’s going on? Tell me what?”

“Ben, I, ah, oh hell, Ben I have a tumor.”

Feeling like all the blood had drained from his head, Ben felt dizzy but quickly had questions. “How serious is it? Where is it? What has Paul said?”

“It is a growth in my lower right side. Paul has been consulting with physicians in San Francisco. He wants me to go there for surgery. His opinion is that this may be just a growth, but there is the risk of course that it is something far more dangerous. So even though the surgery is a risk, he thinks waiting is a greater risk. Well, Adam was right. He said just to blurt it out, and it would all be out in a hurry.”

“Adam knew?”

“Yes but I wouldn’t let him say anything. He was a great friend. He told me right from the first day that I needed to tell you. I was afraid to do that.”

“But why would you be afraid to tell me if Adam knew, and I would assume Aida knew too because she doesn’t look surprised.”

“Ben, you lost three wives. I thought you would be very upset if you knew that I had this.”

“Joyce, oh, Joyce; yes, I lost three wives but one was killed by an arrow and another by falling from a horse. If I were frozen by those events, I just wouldn’t let you leave the house. We need to go to San Francisco as soon as possible.”

Standing, Aida said she was going upstairs to see to her son because Joyce didn’t need her emotional support any more. She had a parting shot though.

“Perhaps you can think of what you’ll say to Adam when he gets home.”

For a moment, Ben had forgotten that Adam was stranded out in this storm, and that Ben was the reason for it. “I am so sorry. I have no excuse. I will make sure we head out as early as we can in the morning to find him. Aida, he’s very smart. I’m sure he would have sought shelter when he saw that storm blowing in.”

Almost in tears, Aida nodded and continued up the stairs. She knew she wouldn’t sleep much this night. Hoss and Joe had assured her of the same before donning their slickers and heading to their homes earlier that evening. Of course, they had each let Ben know they did not approve of his decisions and walked out still angry at their father. Aida knew they would head out looking for him as soon as they could, but the rain was still coming down and it was dark. At least the lightning had stopped. She would put Danny in his bed now, and then she would wait. She expected that Frannie would wait with her. It was the greatest benefit of having her sister here. She was not alone any more when Adam was gone.

Downstairs, Ben was being questioned by Joyce who wanted to know why he had been so ornery with Adam. He told her about the conversation he had overheard and then she was doubly angry.

“If you heard us talking and didn’t understand, that would have been a perfect time to ask me a few questions. I have been trying to think of a way to bring this up with you for a week. It would have been a lot easier if you had just asked. Now, the thing that really makes me angry though is that you would think that of me and think that of Adam. What is the matter with you?”

Hanging his head, Ben had a hard time admitting what the problem had been although it was clear to him what it was. “You are so much younger than I am and so beautiful. My jealousy got in the way of my thinking.”

“Ben we have been married long enough for you to know how much I love you. You knew me long before then as a friend, and even though I had every reason to be unfaithful to my husband, you know that for all those years I was a faithful wife. Why would you think that now I would be something different?”

“I guess that I was looking at turning sixty-five on my next birthday and I was feeling old. Adam does the contract negotiations and most of the arrangements with the banks and brokers, Joe handles the horse business, Hoss and Candy handle most of the cattle issues with Adam and Joe helping. There really is no need for me here any more.”

“You are the head of this family and this Ponderosa. You have shared the responsibility with your sons as you should. Now trust them, and trust me. We all love you.”

“I know, but.”

“But what? You’re going to have to swallow your pride tomorrow at least and apologize profusely to one son and explain to all of them what a fool you have been?”

“Well, lady, you don’t pull any punches, now, do you?”

“I thought you told me you wanted me to be honest with you about everything?”

“I did. It’s just hard facing it. What about you? Didn’t you realize that your secretive behavior is what made me so ornery?”

“I guess I was so focused on my problem, I wasn’t thinking too clearly. But I also don’t think it is fair to blame me for how you acted.”

“You’re right. I am sorry for that too. It was my fault and mine alone. I should be more concerned about your health and about Adam’s safety tonight than I am about being embarrassed.”

“Let’s go to bed. You need to be up early tomorrow.”

When Aida heard Ben and Joyce go to their room, she grabbed a robe and headed downstairs. Frannie had fallen asleep on the bed, and Aida couldn’t sleep at all. She would wait for a while downstairs and keep the fire burning warmly. She suspected that when Adam did get home, he would welcome a warm fire. She hoped it would still be this night, but realistically she knew he would not likely be home until morning. She bowed her head and prayed for his safety.

Put in the pasture, Adam could swear he heard his wife’s voice. He was sheltered just a little under some pines. As well as he could tell, he was short ride from home, but just before the storm hit, the pony he was riding had thrown a shoe. He couldn’t risk crippling the animal just to get home to where it was warm and dry so he used the horse for some warmth and the trees for some shelter and waited. The lightning had stopped and the rain was diminishing rapidly. He hated walking but he had no gear to make a camp and there was nothing dry to burn anyway. He picked up the reins of the horse and began walking. He guessed it was near ten, and that it would take him two or three hours to walk the rest of the way. He began to slog through the mud and re-evaluated his earlier estimate. It was likely going to be three or four hours of walking at this pace.

At about one in the morning, Adam finally stumbled into the yard. He opened the stable, and then realized he had no matches to light the lantern. He walked toward the house to get the one burning on the porch, and Candy came out of the bunkhouse annex. As foreman, Candy had a room all to himself. Adam had seen the light on but didn’t want to bother him.

“I’ll take care of your horse, Adam. Your family is worried sick about you.”

“Thank you, Candy, thank you. The pony is missing a shoe. I’ll take care of it tomorrow.”

“I’ll have her all cleaned up for you.”

Nodding in appreciation, Adam walked to the porch expecting the door to be locked. It wasn’t which surprised him but then he realized Candy was awake and would have noticed anyone going to the front door. As he opened the front door, Aida awakened from the fitful sleep she was getting on the settee. She rushed to Adam and hugged him despite the damp clothing and the smell.

“I missed you so much. Let me help you get out of these wet clothes so you can warm up.”

“They’re not just wet. I slipped and fell in the pasture, and I think I fell in more than just mud.”

“What happened? Hoss and Joe both said you would have gone to a line shack.”

“I would have if I had been further out, but I saw the storm coming and decided that was no time to deal with cattle that had been eating jimson weed, so I rode for home until my pony threw a shoe. Then about all I could do was look for some shelter in the trees and wait it out. I didn’t feel that cold much because first I had the horse for warmth, and then it was hard work walking in all that mud and wet grass. But the temperature really dropped in the last hour or so, and I’m freezing now.”

Suddenly Hop Sing appeared at the corner. “Hot water in kitchen for you. Wash then eat.”

“Thank you, Hop Sing. I’m afraid my clothes are filthy. Can I just put them in the washroom?”

“Put in soapy water after wash. I go bed now. You be quiet.”

“We will. Thank you again.”

Upstairs, Frannie as well as Ben and Joyce had heard some commotion and voices downstairs. As they exited their room, Ben and Joyce were met by Frannie. She was heading to her room. “It’s Adam. He’s home and safe, but I think you ought to give them their privacy. Aida is helping him out of his wet clothing right at the front door.” With that, Frannie went in her bedroom and closed the door.

“She’s right. Let’s go back to bed. You can talk with him in the morning. He’s got Aida, and that’s who he needs right now.”

Downstairs, Adam had finished stripping off the wet clothing and walked to the kitchen to wash himself. Aida grabbed a blanket she had been using on the settee and followed him into the kitchen. He washed as she watched. They did not talk so they would not bother Hop Sing any more than they already had. Aida poured each of them a cup of tea that was on the stove. Adam finished washing and placed his dirty clothing in the bucket of soapy water. He had left his hat, belt, boots, and gun belt by the front door. He would have to do something with them in the morning. He and Aida went out to sit by the fire as he ate the plate of food that had been in the warmer. Then he wrapped his arms around his wife and asked her what she had been up to while he was gone. He was relieved to learn that Joyce had finally told Ben what the problem was. He and Aida talked about his father’s behavior and wondered why he had not trusted either Adam or Joyce. But that was a topic for another day. Adam closed his eyes as he held his wife.

“”Let’s get you to bed. You can sleep as late as you want if you’re in our bed. Here, you’ll be up by dawn.”

Feeling warmer finally and wrapped only in a blanket, Adam let Aida lead him up the stairs to bed. Once they were in their room, Aida pulled the covers back and had Adam slide in first. Then she slid in beside him and they spooned. He still felt a bit cold to her but much warmer than he had when he had first come through that door. She smiled in relief and closed her eyes. She was thinking they could handle anything as long as they were together.

In the morning, Aida awoke first. She slid out of bed quietly and dressed. When she left the room, Adam had not stirred yet. She checked in Danny’s room, but as expected, he was already gone. Frannie or Ben often went to him in the morning as both enjoyed time with him. When she reached the top of the stairs and looked down, her anger from the previous night boiled up again. Ben was sitting in front of the fireplace oiling Adam’s leather belt, holster, and boots. He already had his pistol in pieces sitting on an oilcloth. He looked up as Aida walked down the stairs.

“Good morning. I assume Adam is still sleeping?”

“Yes, he’s exhausted. He had to walk home when his horse threw a shoe.”

“I imagine he is as angry with me as you are. I can tell just from your voice. Aida, I am truly sorry. There is in fact no fool like an old fool.”

Not wanting to get into that conversation, Aida changed the subject. “Now that you know, what are your plans?”

“We talked and decided to go to San Francisco today. There is no reason to delay. We’ll stay there as long as necessary. I’m leaving the ranch business entirely in the hands of my boys. I hope that Adam will take over the paperwork, and Hoss and Joe will have to step up to help. I know it’s a lot to ask, but Joyce comes first at this point.”

“It is a lot to ask, but your sons will certainly do it. Is there anything I can do?”

“Just continue to take good care of my son and my grandson. Do you want us to contact your parents when we’re in San Francisco?”

“I was writing them a letter. I’ll finish it if I can find the time, and send it with you. My father won’t be happy when he reads it so skedaddle out of their home before that happens.” Aida smiled then. She was telling her parents that Frannie would stay at least through the summer on the ranch. She knew her father would not be happy because he had to know that Candy had shown quite a lot of interest in Frannie, and now they would have plenty of time to see if there was a future for them. She also knew her father would be too busy setting up the branch office for his firm and organizing his home to have time to visit Nevada. She did worry a bit about her devious father’s plans but put it out of her mind when she heard Adam coughing upstairs.

*****

Chapter 3

“I oiled your leather items because it was my fault they were in that condition. Adam, there is no way that I can apologize enough. I’m sure that Aida has explained everything she heard, but I have to tell you, I told Joyce it was jealousy and my own insecurity that made me act with such disregard for both of you. I was a fool. I hope that you can find it in your heart to forgive me.”

Earlier Adam had come downstairs despite his wife’s insistence that he ought to stay in bed. He was congested and feverish, but knowing that his father and Joyce were leaving that day, he dressed and wanted to talk with them before they left.

“Pa, mainly I am terribly disappointed. How many times do we have to have this conversation? What would you have said to me when I was young if I kept doing the same wrong thing over and over again.”

“I am not a boy. You’re talking to me as if I am the child and you are the parent.”

“Well if the shoe fits.”

“Ben, this is not how to resolve this. You need to apologize, and you need to let Adam express himself. He has earned that right. Your embarrassment over your actions is no excuse to be rude to him again especially after what he went through last night.” Joyce was getting a little angry again herself. She had forgiven him the night before but didn’t think he sounded that remorseful any more.

“Yeah, Pa, Joe and me were ready to lay it on ya too this morning except we figure Joyce and Aida did a bit of that already. You always told us we had to take our medicine when we earned it, and Pa, ya done earned this one.”

“You’re right. All of you are right. It is just such a difficult thing to do.”

“We always thought so too, Pa. Hoss and I were talking about that outside. If we let ourselves hurt someone like you hurt your wife and your son, well you would expect us to face it like men. And don’t give me a look like that. You know exactly what I mean.”

Glad that his family was sticking up for him and also very glad he didn’t have to try to talk any more, Adam leaned back in his chair and waited for the eruption. There wasn’t one.

“I do trust you. I respect each of you too. I made a mistake. A very big one. I hope everyone can forgive me. Now I’m taking Joyce to San Francisco. We’re leaving as soon as we can pack and get someone to drive us to town. I’ll trust the three of you to decide who will handle the Ponderosa while I’m gone. I may be gone for quite a while.”

All three sons nodded, and then gave Joyce a hug except for Adam who stayed seated. She understood. He didn’t want to expose her to anything more. Within an hour, Ben and Joyce were on their way, and the brothers sat down to start discussing ranch business. Frannie had gone to get Candy and they waited to divide responsibilities until he arrived. It took just a bit longer than they expected, but Adam smiled when Joe mentioned that. In Candy’s room, there was a necessary conversation taking place as Candy and Frannie were honest and wanted to see where their relationship was headed.

“Oh, you do play chess well.” Frannie was looking over Candy’s chessboard and recognized the gambit he had set up to study. She was in his room because she had gone to tell him what was going to happen and to let him know that Hoss had said he should stay there for now. There was going to be a big meeting with the brothers as soon as they got Ben and Joyce on their way. He had invited her in as he finished his breakfast and she drank the cup of coffee she had carried with her. She had not been in his room before, and she was impressed by what she saw. There were many books and of course the chessboard, but there were also some pieces of western art, and the whole room was attractive, neat, clean, and organized just like the man. He also had that gorgeous smile that made her knees go weak. She always wanted to run her fingers through his hair especially when he put his hat on and those locks dangled over his forehead. She hadn’t touched him yet, but she was yearning to do that. Candy had been a perfect gentleman with her, and there were times she wished he wasn’t so nice and respectful. This was one of those times.

“Penny for your thoughts?”

Startled out of her reverie, Frannie blushed a little making Candy wonder what she had been thinking. Then he thought about her sitting in his room, and he smiled thinking perhaps he did have some inkling about what she was thinking.

“Wait here, would you, while I go send the men off for the day? It’ll take but just a minute or two. Before you leave, there’s something I want to discuss with you.”

Frannie was a bit nervous about that statement but answered in the affirmative. Once Candy came back, he wasted no time.

“Adam told me that your father will do anything he can to keep us apart. What I need to know is how you feel about that.”

Frannie looked down as she thought and sighed deeply which now made Candy nervous until she started to talk.

“When I was young, my father arranged a marriage for me. I thought he was my father and a man so he would know what was best for me. Well that man was already married. The marriage was annulled but I will never get back what I lost. It proved to me that my father was fallible, but I didn’t know how to deal with that concept. My mother is very smart and also very traditional. She follows the Bible literally in its admonition to wives to obey their husbands. I know she enjoys seeing Aida get the best of him, and she was delighted to find that Adam was not at all what my father had assumed. Being here, I’ve seen how happy Aida is because she followed her own mind and her own heart.”

“She’s very lucky to have found Adam. There aren’t that many men who would be willing to let their wives have an income after marriage. Of course, he is even luckier for having found her. But what I need to know is what is in your heart?”

“I want to stay here. I’m happier here than I have ever been anywhere. I will defy my father if he tries to make me move to California and live with him. Adam has agreed to help me if I want to stay no matter what happens between us.”

“You’ve talked to Adam about me?”

“Yes, and don’t look so worried. He likes you, and said he thought if we could make this work, that both of us could be very happy.”

Smiling then, Candy was happy for Frannie was showing some real spirit, and he liked that in a woman. “I’m going to be very busy in the next few weeks or even months, but when I’m free, I would like to spend time with you.”

“Candy, I would like that very much. Do you think you could teach me to use the carriage? If I could drive it, then I could help out more around here.”

Wrapping his arms around Frannie’s waist, Candy leaned down and kissed her on the lips. He had kissed her cheek before and had hugged her, but this is what Frannie had been hoping would happen and waiting for it. He leaned back to judge her reaction and smiled when he saw that she smiled.

“You do have the most gorgeous smile. I like that you smile often too. Makes me more sure of myself around you. Perhaps we could have a chess match this evening after dinner?”

“Frannie, why do I get the feeling that you think you will beat me?”

“Oh, probably because I do. You might surprise me though. Aida says you’re quite good.”

“Yes, I played her and she beat me. That’s when I started studying gambits. But I need to go to the house now. They’re probably waiting for me and discussing work assignments. If I’m not there, I’m bound to get all the dirty jobs no one else wants to do.”

“They would do that to you? I thought they liked you?”

“Oh, they do, but it’s the same thing they would do to each other if they had the chance. It’s just how things get done by men.”

“I think Adam is getting really sick after being out last night. Why don’t you offer to help him and then he’ll be willing to have your back against the other two?”

“Lady, you are a real asset. Thank you. I may do that.” With another quick kiss, Candy released Frannie, and the two of them walked to the main house together.

Coughing softly, Adam was sitting at the desk. Hoss was sitting in a chair he had pulled up to the front of the desk, and Joe was perched on a corner of the desk looking over Adam’s shoulder. Candy pulled a chair next to Hoss and sat down.

“Candy, Hoss says we’re shorthanded. Any ideas on what happened to make some of our hands quit?”

“Well when that railroad company was recruiting men to work, they said they’d pay ten dollars a week. We pay thirty a month, so some hands quit and there’s some grumbling by the others as well.”

“Don’t the hands realize that with the bonuses we pay for roundup and drives, that they make more than that? We also provide all their meals, housing, and buy basic supplies like ammunition too.”

Hoss was surprised because he didn’t know that. “Really?”

“Yes, with the railroad, the workers can earn five hundred twenty in a year. If they work year round for us, they make about five hundred and sixty. On the railroad, if the weather is bad and they can’t work, they don’t get paid. We carry our permanent hands through the winter on mostly light duty. The railroad also only provides the noon meal and tents for housing. Here they get three meals, and a solid bunkhouse to live in. On the railroad, they’re expected to work seven days a week for that pay. Our men get many Sundays off and the others are light duty except during roundup and on drives. In the winter, lots of them get Saturday off too.”

Hoss was going to tell Adam he needed to explain that to the hands except Adam started a coughing fit and couldn’t stop. Hop Sing heard and soon had a cup of tea for him. Aida was more direct as she came over from the settee and put a hand on his forehead.

“You should be in bed. Your fever is higher than it was earlier this morning, and your cough is getting worse.”

Expecting Adam to have a sharp retort for that, the others were surprised when all he did was grimace. It was a sign that he was very ill. He was only compliant when he had to admit to himself that he was sick. All he said to Aida was that he would lie down when the meeting was over. His voice was very hoarse after all the coughing, so Joe took over.

“Well, we need to see what we can do to get that information out there. Maybe we can write it up for our hands so no more of them quit, and then we can bring it to town when we’re trying to hire. Maybe we can get a few more men to sign on.”

“Joe, some of them homesteaders who have their crops in might be available for the summer. They could do fence repairs and clear that brush away from some of our watering holes.”

“Hoss, that’s a good idea. Can you take care of that? I’ll go to town and see if I can’t find a few more men to work. Candy if we write this up, can you handle any questions the hands have about it?”

As Hoss and Candy nodded in agreement, Adam continued to sip his tea and let Joe do the talking as they apportioned out the workload.

“Adam, can you handle the contracts? I know you’re not well, but it’s mostly paperwork.”

When Adam nodded, Candy said he would help him as much as he could. That was a relief to both Hoss and Joe who much preferred working outside to sitting at that desk. By noon, the four had organized the workload and responsibilities. Adam declined lunch and headed upstairs to go back to bed. The rest of them sat down to a lunch of hot ham sandwiches and potato salad. As they finished, Hop Sing came out to say he had soup ready for Adam whenever he awakened.

“With potato. I know he no like rice.”

Assuring Hop Sing that she would let him know when Adam was awake, Aida was still very worried. That Adam had so willingly gone back to bed was a bad sign because it meant he knew he was quite ill. His brothers were worried about him for the same reason, and all three were worried about Joyce. In both cases, everyone was frustrated because all they could do was wait which made them feel so helpless.

By early afternoon, Adam was downstairs and asked Hop Sing to draw a hot bath for him. After he had been soaking in there for an hour, Aida went in and found that he had fallen asleep in the tub. She woke him and got him to get out and dressed before he was chilled. Then he ate a bowl of soup which made both Hop Sing and Aida relax a bit.

“It’s just a cold, but I was so tired after traveling and then being out and cold much of the night, I was exhausted. I feel a lot better now even if I don’t sound any better. I’m just going to sit at the desk and look over what needs to be done.”

That only lasted a short time until they heard a horse in the yard. It was too early for Joe, Hoss, or Candy to be back. Adam stood and looked out the window to see Barney Fuller.

Barney Fuller rode into the yard at the Ponderosa like he owned the place. Of course, Barney went everywhere like that. He tied his horse to the hitching rail and walked to the front door. Aida opened the door to his knock and invited him in. She had to wonder, after everything she had heard about this man, why he was there. The answers came as soon as he saw Adam.

“Well, I picked up my mail this morning and there was an interesting letter. I took the liberty of picking up your mail as well assuming that you got the same letter and it’s there.”

Taking the mail from Barney, Adam grabbed the letter he assumed was the one Barney had mentioned and tore it open. He read quickly and then looked up at Barney as if to ask what he wanted.

“Now, Adam, you and me and your father, have butted heads over contracts as far back as we can remember. I will do any underhanded trick or push my men as hard as possible to beat you and your father out of a contract. But I don’t like it at all when some outsider comes in here and tries to do that to both of us. I assume that you didn’t bid on that original offer. I didn’t either. That deadline was impossible. Now they moved the deadline back a week, but I still don’t want to take the chance on it. The penalties are too severe.”

Adam waited and when Barney said no more, he had to ask. “Why are you here then? It’s not to discuss a bid that neither of us can afford to make.”

“From that voice of yours, it sounds like you don’t know when to get in out of the rain. You gonna be able to work on this?”

“Depends on what ‘this’ is.”

“I thought you’d see it right off. Adam, if we work together on this contract, that deadline won’t matter. We can easily provide all the timbers they need and have time to spare. There’s nothing in their solicitation that says we can’t work out a bid together.”

“Barney, what makes you think I would trust you on something this big?”

“Because you know all I want to do is make money. If I did anything to impede your operation, it would cost me money. I’ll even let you draw up the bid and the contracts tying our businesses together for this one deal. I know I can trust you. Everybody trusts you. But we have to get the offer in the works in the next day or two or we’ll lose too much time. Heck, I can even get my operation started up today producing for this bid if you agree to work with me. We’re going to need more teams to pull the freight wagons, and we could buy those too splitting the cost evenly.”

“I’ll draw up a bid and contract, but I need to have my brothers’ approval before I sign anything. This is too big a risk to do it without talking with them.”

“That’s fine. Can I ride back here later today to see what the final decision is? There’s a lot of money here. I hope you impress that on your brothers.”

“I will. I will let them know all of the risks and rewards associated with this endeavor.”

“That’s fine. I’ll talk with you later today then.”

“One change though. Meet my at our lawyer’s office. If we’re going to do this, he needs to draw up the contracts, and then we can sign.”

“Fine with me. Can you be there by five?”

“Six would be better.”

Agreeing to that, Barney left feeling very confident. An ill Adam was unlikely to make an ironclad contract, and Barney would look for ways to come out ahead in this deal once they knew that their cooperation would ensure that they could make all their deliveries before the deadline. He was rather proud of himself for what he had managed to accomplish in just one day.

Hoss and Joe did not return by late afternoon as expected. Adam had hammered out the details of what he thought would make a good contract. He finally asked Aida to drive with him into town. There he met with the lawyer and asked him to draw up some contracts after the lawyer gave him some advice on a couple of points. Barney arrived before six, and he and Adam discussed contract provisions using Adam’s notes. Barney agreed that they could have a deal together, and then he signed the contracts placed on the table by the lawyer who asked him if he wanted to read the contracts over. He declined saying he trusted Adam. When Adam got home, Hoss and Joe were waiting for him as Adam had asked Frannie to give them that message. Joe was angry and Hoss was confused when Adam told them what he had done.

“You what? You know as well as I do that Barney Fuller cannot be trusted. What if he decides to use those horses just when we need them?”

“Then we’ll exercise our contractual option to buy out his half of the ownership for half the original purchase price.”

Pausing briefly to let that sink in, Joe chuckled. “I’m sorry. I should have known better. Like Pa always says: you have your mother’s intelligence, and at least a little of your grandfather Stoddard’s deviousness. How did Barney ever let you put that in the contract?”

“Well he may have been in too much of a hurry when he signed the final version and just assumed it was the same as the rough draft I discussed with him before he signed. It also says all payments are to be made to the Ponderosa, and that it is our contractual obligations to pay Fuller Enterprises for their exact share of the lumber delivered on time. If the deadline is not met, then Fuller Enterprises will pay the penalties.”

“I reiterate my earlier statement. Well done, oldest brother!”

“Dadburnit, Adam, if you can do that when you’re feeling poorly, then remind me never to try to negotiate with you when you’re healthy.”

His brothers’ praise warmed Adam as much as the hot bath and the warm soup had. He went to bed that night and slept very well.

*****

Chapter 4

“You are a deceitful cur. How dare you trick me into signing those contracts?”

“Barney, you said you trusted me. You don’t trust me now to pay you fairly for the deliveries you make?”

“Of course, I know you’ll pay fairly, but damn it, it wasn’t right to put those other things in there that I didn’t know about.”

“Didn’t the lawyer encourage you to read the contracts before you signed them?”

“You know he did. That doesn’t change anything. Your father never did anything that underhanded when I worked with him.”

“I am not my father. You thought to take advantage of me when I was sick. It didn’t work. Now is there anything else you want to discuss because my wife is waiting for me? I hate to be late for church. Coming in?”

Turning away in disgust, Barney stormed off. Aida waited for Adam to reach her side.

“Have you made an enemy?”

“No more than he ever was before. He thought he had pulled a fast one on me, but he didn’t. It won’t stop him from trying.”

“You enjoy that, don’t you?”

“A little. What I like even more is that both sides will make a lot of money from this contract, and we can buy the new equipment we need, and have some draft horses we wanted too. I won’t cheat Barney, and he knows that. He’s upset because he won’t be able to cheat us, this time. I hope.”

The next week held no surprises except that there was no word from San Francisco other than to say they had arrived safely and were consulting with the doctors. It seemed ominous especially when that was all the information they had. Adam gradually recovered and worked around the house which made his son and wife very happy. Frannie was especially enjoying the week as Candy was often there to see if Adam needed any help, and somehow his trips home to do that seemed to coincide with lunch on a daily basis. In the evenings, Frannie and Candy played chess, talked, or strolled in the cool air.

On Saturday, Candy asked if he could take the day to teach Frannie how to handle a carriage horse and then take her on a picnic. Adam enjoyed playing the guardian, and sternly asked Candy if his intentions were honorable. Aida hit him in the arm for that.

“You’re embarrassing your friend.”

“I know and I was enjoying it quite a lot until you slammed your fist into my arm.”

“Oh, I did not ‘slam’ my fist into you. That was a little love tap.”

“Well, we’ll see when the bruise develops just how hard your little love taps are.”

During the mock argument, Candy and Frannie slipped outside and chuckled as they walked to the carriage. Adam and Aida were a great couple to serve as role models in a relationship.

Grabbing Frannie at the waist to help her up into the carriage, Candy held her quite a while before he did that kissing her lightly first. Then he climbed up beside her, and once they were clear of the yard, he handed over the reins and started her lesson. By Monday morning, Candy announced that Frannie could drive the carriage well enough that she ought to be able to bring lunch out to the crew.

With Danny in Frannie’s care, Adam and Aida were going into town so that Aida could do some shopping, but Adam had to hire some men for the lumber and timber operations. He would likely be up at those camps the rest of the week with the new men. They told Frannie to give Danny an early lunch so that he would nap, and then she could drive lunch out to the men. That’s where she was when Adam and Aida rushed home. They had received a telegram from Darwin that Marietta was gravely ill. Aida and her sister packed bags as Adam rode out to talk with Candy and his brothers. He came back with Candy whom he sent in to pack as well. Then he went into the house.

“Aida, Candy is going with you. I can’t leave for at least two days. I know this is rather sudden to throw him into the mix with your father, but we talked, and he wants to do it. I’ll take care of what I need to do, and get Danny to either Claire or Alice for care. Then I’ll join you.”

Rushing into Adam’s arms, Aida was near tears. She had hoped to have Adam’s support but knew he was caught in a dilemma with his father gone. At least Frannie would have Candy’s support.

“Why do you look even more worried than I feel?”

“Because I wonder if Darwin could be so cruel as to trick you and Frannie with this. He got your letter almost two weeks ago, and now suddenly your mother is gravely ill. It just seems too coincidental.”

“My father couldn’t be that nasty.” But even as she said it, Aida had to wonder if perhaps he could. She would have to be very careful. “Does Candy know what you suspect?”

“Yes, we discussed it, and he knows that’s the main reason I want him to go with you. I sincerely wish I could be there, but you know I will be with you as soon as possible. I’ll wire for reservations at the same hotel where Pa and Joyce are staying, and I’ll set up a line of credit at our bank there for you. I’ve written down the names of some friends that you can call on for help if you need it. You’ve met them, but these are addresses at home and at their businesses. Send me a telegram when you get there.”

“I will. Are you going to drive me to town?”

“Yes, so we don’t have to say goodbye here. I need to get a lot done in town, and then tomorrow morning, I’ll get Danny taken care of before I head up to the camps.”

By the time Adam had driven the group to town, there was a telegram from Ben waiting for them. Joyce had had her surgery and it said all was well which was a huge relief to all of them. Adam kissed his wife goodbye and headed to the telegraph office to begin his errands.

In San Francisco, Ben was sitting by Joyce’s side. The doctor was explaining that she had a large abdominal wall tumor. He said it had been encapsulated and was so large, it was pressing on other organs and nerves, and that had caused her symptoms.

“So the pain in my side and numbness in my leg should be gone now?”

“Yes, I would certainly hope so. Now there is the risk of infection even though we were very careful. You also lost a lot of blood during the surgery. My recommendation is that you rest for at least six weeks before even thinking of trying to travel home. Rest and good food should have you feeling a lot better before that, but you need to keep in mind what we did and stay cautious about movement. I’ll take the stitches out in a week. Now you can stay in the hospital here, or we can have you transported tomorrow to a home or hotel for the rest of your stay.”

“I have a room at the hotel. I could change that to a suite.”

The doctor nodded that that was acceptable and left. The next day, very carefully, Joyce was moved by stretcher in a hospital wagon to the hotel. Ben hired a nurse to be there during the day to see to her care for the first week. He had purchased books, a chess set, and some sewing and knitting supplies so that if Joyce wanted some entertainment, it was there. They were comfortably relaxing in their suite when Adam’s telegram was delivered. The next day, Aida, Frannie, and Candy arrived.

As soon as the luggage was in the suite, Aida and Frannie wanted to head to their parents’ home. Candy asked them to at least say hello to Ben and Joyce to tell them what had happened. Ben was quite surprised because when they arrived in the city and saw the Hepburns, Marietta had seemed in fine health. Aida and Candy both thought about Adam’s warning then. Ben saw the look and asked them what was going on so they told him. Candy went with the two sisters as they went downstairs to get a hansom to take them to see their mother.

At the Hepburn home, the housekeeper answered the door and said that yes Mrs. Hepburn was ill, but seemed puzzled when the sisters asked what the doctor had said. She told them it was the last room in the hallway upstairs. As Aida and Frannie reached the end of the hall, they heard their mother coughing. She was overjoyed to see them, and then she asked them what they were doing in the city. She also said she was sorry that she had a cold and could not go sightseeing with them. At that point, Aida knew exactly what her father had done, but now she needed to know why.

“Papa sent us a telegram that you were gravely ill.”

“Now why would he do that?” Marietta paused and then frowned. She did know why he had done it. “He could have just asked you to visit. That man drives me to distraction sometimes. Now I wonder what he is up to. I haven’t been out of this room in three days so he’s had plenty of time to plot. Oh, girls, I am so sorry although I must say I am overjoyed to see you.”

“I need to go send another telegram to Adam. I sent one to tell him we arrived, but now I need to send one to tell him you are not gravely ill. He’ll know what that means.”

Aida left, and Frannie stayed to visit with her mother and tell her all about Candy. After about thirty minutes, there was a hansom there at the house with a message that Frannie was to go meet Aida at the hotel. She bid her mother goodbye and left in the hansom. Hours later, Aida and Candy returned to the Hepburn home to confront Darwin. When they arrived, they were surprised that Frannie was not there.

“But I didn’t send a message. I went to the hotel to tell Candy what happened, and then we told Ben and Joyce. Then we came directly here.”

“Your sister is going to marry a respectable man.” Darwin walked into the bedroom where Candy and Aida were sitting with Marietta.

“Oh, Darwin, what have you done now?”

“I have arranged for Francesca to marry the son of a wealthy businessman in town. His son is in the import-export business and currently living in New Orleans. She is headed to a ship that will take her there and she will have a respectable life.”

“You son of a bitch!” Candy slammed Darwin Hepburn up against the wall. “If anything happens to her, I will put a bullet right there.” Candy poked a finger in the center of Darwin’s head. “Now where is she exactly?”

Darwin did not answer, so Candy drew his pistol and placed the barrel up against the underside of Darwin’s chin forcing his head up. “Now tell me!” And Darwin’s resolve broke. He was not a brave man.

“His name is Mann. He has an import business here.”

“How did he know about Frannie?”

“He saw the portrait of my daughters that is in my office.”

“What do you get out of this?”

“He will give me a number of contracts.”

“You claim to be a respectable man, but you just sold your daughter to a man who buys women. You do know what that makes you, don’t you?”

Releasing Darwin, Candy let him fall to the floor. He apologized to Marietta, and then guided Aida out of the house. He hailed a hansom, and the two of them returned to the hotel to get that list of contacts Adam had provided. Then they headed over to see the most important man on the list, a U.S. Marshal. The news they got from him was nearly devastating.

“Charles Mann has sent a number of young women out of this city on ships. Some to go to school, some for opportunities in music, and some to marry his son or other young wealthy men. When the families haven’t heard from them, they have contacted the authorities. We always get the case when it is a cold trail. None of these women has ever been heard from again. We suspect he has been selling them as wives or concubines in other countries. The young women are always very beautiful and often come from affluent families. And Mr. Mann spends well in excess of what he could earn in the modest business he owns.”

“So they’re well educated and refined. They would make good wives or concubines and he could get a small fortune for each one.”

“That’s our thought, but we’ve never had a case where we could actually follow a trail. Now I need you to help. I have deputies here and I can call on other people to help. Did he say when she was to leave?” When they shook their heads no, he continued. “If she was to leave today, there’s probably nothing we can do. But most ships leave with the tides and high tide is tomorrow morning. There looked to be a storm brewing over the ocean, so we may have twelve hours or more. We need to get moving on this.”

*****

Chapter 5

The next morning, rain was pelting the windows of the hotel. Aida and Candy were up early, and joined Ben in his suite for breakfast. They had been out late the night before giving a description of Frannie and what she was wearing. Aida was pale and ate very little. Ben and Candy did not yet know about her pregnancy or they would likely have insisted she stay in the hotel and rest. Instead, Candy agreed to take her to a telegraph office so she could send another telegram to Adam only this time it would be marked urgent. He had likely just gotten back home and might already be on his way to San Francisco.

In fact, Adam boarded the train for the first part of the trip about the time that Aida was sending a telegram so it just missed him. He would be in the city by the next day. Aida hoped that he arrived in time to help them for she felt completely overwhelmed by the situation. When Aida and Candy returned to the hotel, Ben suggested that they contact the Pinkerton detective agency for help. Candy went out to do that. Both he and Ben could see how exhausted Aida was so they insisted she rest.

“But I want to go see my mother. She must be going out of her mind with worry.”

“You are not going anywhere unescorted. Adam would have my neck if I let his wife come to any harm. I can’t leave Joyce, so you need to stay here until Candy returns. If you wish, invite your mother to come stay here with us. She’ll be able to be with you, and she will know everything we know.”

“I may do that.”

“She would probably appreciate the time away from your father at this point. I just do not understand your father. He puts his desire for wealth above the value of his children. It just is not acceptable.”

Unable to come up with an answer to that question nor any explanation, Aida excused herself to go to her room to rest. She knew that she needed to do that. She had noticed spotting that morning, and was becoming very afraid of what might happen. Before her nap, she checked again but found no spotting which was a great relief. About two hours later, there was a knock on her door. Candy wanted to go tell Marietta what had happened and invite her back to the hotel to be with them. Marietta was very relieved to be able to be with them although she was terribly dismayed of course by all that had happened and could still happen. She said Darwin was drinking in his study with the door closed, and she didn’t know what to do.

“It’s a coward’s way out. Just let him drink. He’s no use to any of us now anyway.” Candy was blunt, but his heart was breaking and he knew whose fault that was.

Once Marietta had packed a bag, Candy and Aida escorted her to the hotel. Ben agreed that he would stay at the hotel to watch over the ladies. He had already given Joyce a short explanation because she had wondered at all the commotion outside her bedroom door. The nurse stayed in the bedroom with her, and they read and Joyce did some knitting as well, but mostly she slept. The storm that was raging outside had made their travel difficult but reassured them that Frannie could not have left the city by ship. They hoped the storm would last until they could find her. They got good news by late afternoon, and Adam arrived at the hotel.

“How did you get here so fast?”

“I called in every favor I could. I knew as soon as you sent me the news that Marietta was not gravely ill, that Darwin was doing something stupid. From the looks of everyone here, I can see that is true. Where’s Frannie?”

So Aida and Candy filled Adam in on everything that had happened. They also had just received news that some of Mann’s employees had been seen on the docks and there were now men from the Marshals service around the warehouse where they had gone. There was a help wanted sign on the door so the plan was to have a couple of their men sign up to work there. That would get them closer to the scene and get some help on the inside if they chose to raid the place. Adam had not shaved in days, and his clothes were rumpled. Dressed in those dark clothes made him look a bit sinister. He could look more that way if he wanted. Candy also had not shaved that day, and he had dirty clothing he could don. The two of them volunteered to try to get hired at that warehouse.

“Why do you always have to be the hero? Do you know how scared I’m going to be while you’re gone?” Aida was worried for her sister and now would have to worry about her husband as well.

Candy, Marietta, and Ben excused themselves to give the couple some privacy.

“Wouldn’t you like your sister to see a friendly face as soon as possible? She’s in great danger right now. If they can’t ship her out, then she becomes a witness against them. They can’t let that happen.” Aida grew very pale, and Adam helped her sit. “That’s why Candy and I have to do this. We’ll be as careful as we can. Please try to understand.”

“I do understand. I just hate the idea.”

Holding Aida close to him, Adam said nothing more. He reassured her with his closeness and his kisses, but he knew there was nothing he could say that would help. Quietly he released her, grabbed his hat and coat, and stepped outside to join Candy. The two of them would have to find shoes to replace their boots and hats to replace the cowboy hats. Other than that, their clothing would work. Once they were at the Marshals’ office, they were given weapons that they could secure on themselves that looked more like what men on the docks would wear. The pistol rigs stood out too much. Once appropriately attired and armed, they walked through the rain to the warehouse. Men looking for work wouldn’t have the money for a hansom, and they needed to look the part.

As Candy and Adam walked to the warehouse, they had the feeling they were being watched. But the big question was whether the watchers were their side or the other side or both. They had no answers. Once they were outside the warehouse, they pounded on the door. A man cracked the door open and asked what they wanted as he looked them over. With their answer, he swung the door open wide enough for them to enter.

“So what are you doing looking for work here?”

“We were in the gold fields and didn’t do too well there.”

The man scrutinized them carefully. “Let me guess. You weren’t looking to find gold by working, were you? You armed?”

Both Adam and Candy nodded. The man asked them to hand over their weapons and both got very defensive. “I ain’t giving up my gun for nobody. You’d as likely turn us in as anything.”

The man found Candy’s statement amusing. “It’s what I guessed. You two need some money and a place to lay low for a while. Well I got an even better plan. We got some cargo that needs protecting. It’ll move out of here as soon as this blasted storm ends. You interested in leaving town and getting paid to do it?”

It was exactly what they had been hoping for so both men nodded. Adam had a question though. “Where we going? I don’t want to end up anywhere east of here.”

“Well, it ain’t no business of yours, but I can tell you have reason to be worried. It ain’t east, and that’s all ya need to know. We was gonna ship some cargo out of here by ship, but the damn storm makes that impossible so we’re going overland. You boys know how to handle a team?”

“Done it a few times. Not a problem.” Candy was hanging in the background just a little and letting Adam do the talking just in case they had seen him with Aida or at the Hepburn home.

“Your friend don’t talk much.”

“If we get paid to talk, he’ll talk all you want. He’s kinda shy otherwise. Not too bright either, but he’ll do as he’s told.”

Candy was thinking Adam was going pay for those remarks at some point. The man directed them into the warehouse and to an area where they could see some light. When they got there, both of them had to use all the inner strength they had. Frannie was bound, blindfolded, and gagged. There was a large trunk, and one man was laying a blanket in the bottom of it. Apparently they were going to put her inside it and haul her out of the city that way. Adam and Candy said nothing afraid that Frannie might react to their voices. When asked if they had a problem with hauling this cargo, Adam just shrugged as if it was no big deal. He walked forward to where the horses were and checked over the harness as two men lifted Frannie into the trunk and closed it. Then they signaled Candy over to help them load it. One man climbed in the wagon and pulled a tarp over him and the trunk. Then Adam, Candy, and three other men were ordered to take the wagon to an address just outside the city. Adam and Candy were to drive the wagon, and the other three were to ride as guards: one ahead and two behind.

As Adam and Candy drove the wagon, they whispered to each other asking what they could do. Adam said they had to wait for the marshals to show their hand. It was too risky for them to try something with just the two of them against four others and Frannie helpless in the trunk. As they neared the outskirts of the city, the man in front told them to stop the wagon. One of the two men behind them called out to ask why but suddenly was very quiet. Adam looked behind and one man was holding a gun on the other. Then he looked to the front and the man took off his hat and showed them the deputy marshal’s badge that was inside the crown of the hat. He grinned and pointed at the back of the wagon. The man in the back threw back the tarp to ask what was going on and found three pistols aimed at him. He drew his pistol to aim it at the trunk but never finished the move before three shots threw him over the side of the wagon into the mud where his blood mingled with water and flowed away in a reddish stream.

Climbing over the seat and into the back, Candy opened the trunk. Frannie was terrified but once she realized it was Candy, she closed her eyes and fainted.

“She fainted!”

“You really do need to do something about your looks. You scared the poor girl.”

“Adam, don’t start with me. I already owe you for back at the warehouse.”

“What? Oh, yeah. That was fun. Well get her out of there. She’s going to be a lot less concerned about the rain than being trapped in there tied up like a goose for Christmas dinner.”

As Adam talked to the deputy marshals who put wrist cuffs on the surviving thug, they discussed what they would do next.

“We want the wagon to make the ‘delivery’. It just won’t be the one they were expecting. We should have some additional law enforcement showing up here shortly. We’ll head to the address for this delivery. Your job is done. Now, you need to get that lady home to the rest of her family. You can take the two horses if you think she won’t mind riding with one of you.”

“Oh, I don’t think she’ll mind at all.”

Adam smirked and the two deputy marshals smiled because as soon as Candy freed Frannie, she threw herself into his arms and kissed him long and hard. Mounting up on the two horses, Adam and Candy with Frannie seated in front of him rode back to their hotel. When they walked into the hotel lobby, employees told them they were not welcome there until Adam introduced himself and said they needed lots of hot water for baths and lots of towels and a robe for each of them. He gave them a room number and handed over enough tip money to ensure that everything would be delivered soon.

When they arrived at the suite upstairs, Adam knocked and Ben answered the door. Frannie rushed inside to hug Aida and her mother, and then yelled out Gianni and hugged him too. Aida walked to Adam and wrapped her arms around his waist as she buried her face in his chest. She was so glad he was safe. Frannie addressed her brother.

“When did you get here?”

“We arrived today. I went to Papa’s house. He was drinking and told us to come here. Once we were here, Aida told us everything. I am so happy that you are safe. Now introduce me to your young man.”

“Gianni, you’re talking like you’re my father. Candy is older than you, young man.”

Introductions were made, and then Adam and Candy excused themselves to go get cleaned up. Frannie wondered where she could go and her mother took her to her room saying they could share a room.

“Aren’t you going home, Mama?”

“Not right away if at all. I’ve been talking with Aida about that. She said she was sure I would be welcome on the Ponderosa.”

“Mama, that would be wonderful.”

“Frannie, I told Aida that I am not cut out to live on a ranch. I would love to be near the two of you but I need to live in a city. I have never lived anywhere but a city, and I truly am not ready to start over.”

“Now that Gianni is here, perhaps you could live with him?”

“He has offered, but my suggestion is that he buy a house near where I live. Then we will be close but he will have his privacy too.”

“Where will you live?”

“I truly do not know. Aida and Gianni said they would come with me to see your father. Some things will have to change if he expects me to stay with him. I will not divorce him, but after all the things he has done, I cannot accept his edicts any longer. I should have stopped accepting his authority long ago, but I was raised to obey my husband and respect a man’s authority.”

Frannie and Marietta retired for the night. Candy relaxed in the bath and then did the same. Adam fell asleep in the bath, and Aida had to wake him. When he stepped out, she offered to help dry him so he could go to bed and get some sleep.

“Lady, if you’re drying me off, there won’t be any sleeping for a while.”

“Well, cowboy, I think I might like that. I have missed you.”

“Come ‘ere.”

For the next hour or so, Adam reminded Aida of why she hated him to be gone for even one night. He started with gentle kisses as he often did, and then she would ask for more, and he would do more until she had to have more, and eventually they would be making love. She knew he was seducing her every time, and every time she was more than willing to let him. When they finished, he pulled her into him spoon fashion wrapping his arm around her and holding her close. She knew she was going to have some of those whisker burns again tomorrow, but it had certainly been worth it.

*****

Chapter 6

In the morning, Aida did have some whisker burns. Adam was up first as was his usual habit. He shaved, and when Aida awoke, he spread healing salve on the whisker burns he had inflicted the day before. Those tissues were sensitive. There was a knock on the door, and then they heard Candy and Frannie ask them to join them for breakfast.

“Are you hungry?”

Adam nodded. He was very hungry. “Famished! Can you dress fast enough to join them in the restaurant downstairs?”

“If someone keeps his hands to himself, I can.”

Adam yelled out an answer. “We’ll meet you downstairs as soon as Aida can get dressed.”

Later as the two couples exited the restaurant, they saw the U.S. Marshal who had worked with them. Candy hailed him and he walked over greeting Adam warmly.

“I never thought my old partner would end up married. How did you ever capture this beautiful woman?”

Blushing a little at the man’s praise and appraising look, Aida wondered why she had never heard of this man before. He saw her quizzical look and correctly surmised her question.

“I was a deputy marshal in Abilene. I was the one who often fed information to Adam here. There were murderers who we could never apprehend. He would get them, but he would follow the law and bring them to justice. Now he’s giving me tips.”

“Tom, you must have been after Mann well before we arrived here. You already had two men on the inside.” Adam knew that the ease of their rescue operation was entirely due to the advance work of men from the marshals’ office.

“Not just two. The man who hired you was also working with the marshals’ office although he was doing it for money. I wasn’t working that case until you showed up. In fact I didn’t know anything about the case until Candy appeared with Aida at my door asking for help. The men who were on the case said they were always a step behind him, and that’s why they got some men on the inside. They gave me the rundown on the case that I explained to Candy and Aida. With your help, this time they were caught directly in the action.” Tom looked apprehensive though.

Adam had to ask. “What is it you aren’t telling us?”

With a deep sigh, Marshall Tom Manson answered. “We didn’t get Charles Mann. Somehow he was tipped off. He’s gone, and we have no idea where he is or what he’s planning to do next.”

That statement sobered the group, and after thanking Tom for the update, they headed upstairs to let the others know what had happened. Soon, the Hepburn siblings and their mother went with Adam and Candy to confront Darwin. When they reached the home and got to the front porch, the door was ajar. Adam told Gianni to get the women back to the sidewalk as he and Candy drew pistols and edged inside. Shortly after that, Candy came out and retched up his breakfast over the porch railing. Adam walked out and pulled the door closed.

“We need to summon the police.”

“Adam, what’s happened? Where is my father?” Aida had turned pale, and based on Adam’s look, knew the answer before Adam said anything. Marietta was distraught as she too expected the worst.

“I’m so sorry, but your father has been murdered.”

“Oh, my God, he was murdered? How do you know that?”

Adam hoped there would not be too many more questions. “It is obvious by the body. There’s no doubt. Now why don’t you take your mother and sisters back to the hotel? You need to let your wife and my father know what has happened. Candy and I can stay here and talk to the police and tell them anything we know.” Adam and Candy hailed a hansom and sent the Hepburns back to the hotel.

Hours later, Adam and Candy returned to the hotel. The police had their statements, had collected evidence, and had consulted with the marshals’ office. Adam had made arrangements to have the house cleaned, and for the body to be picked up by the undertaker who had a business near that neighborhood. Unfortunately when they returned, the family had a lot of questions and wanted answers. Joyce was sitting with the group, and when Adam warned his father that the details were gruesome, Ben took Joyce into their bedroom staying with her and closing the door firmly. Gianni’s wife left too going back to their room with the baby.

Taking a deep breath, Adam told them as much as he thought they needed to know and hoped they would not ask any questions. “The main suspect in this murder is Charles Mann. It is believed that he entered the home late last night. Darwin was stabbed multiple times but it is believed he may have been unconscious from drink when it happened. Then the murderer apparently went to his closet and slashed all of his clothing. There is evidence that he shaved off his beard. We do not know what Charles Mann looks like now. Anything of value in the house is gone and is presumably to be sold to give him money for his escape.”

“Adam, why did Candy throw up when he left the house? A man such as Candy surely must have seen a dead man before. What was it about my husband’s death that was so gruesome a man like Candy lost his breakfast?”

“Marietta, do you really want you and your family to have horrible images as the last memories you have of him?”

“I need to know the truth. I need to know what we might be facing.”

Dropping his head, Adam blew air out and then looked up at Candy who nodded. “Darwin was disemboweled. There was a tremendous amount of blood and such. He was sitting in his chair as if he allowed it to happen without a struggle. It was a sight that was enough to make anyone lose their last meal.”

“There’s more, isn’t there?”

Nodding but not saying any more, Adam waited.

“Then whoever did this to my husband is a truly evil man?”

“Yes. We have to be careful. None of you should go anywhere unescorted. We have no idea if this was the extent of the vengeance he will seek.” Immediately Gianni left to go to be with his wife and child.

“It seems to me that you and Candy are at greater risk than any of us.”

“Perhaps. We just don’t know who we’re facing. Only Darwin ever met with the man.”

Over the next two days, there was a funeral and Marietta and Gianni with his family moved back into the house. Adam had a locksmith install much better locks, and he made sure that Gianni had a weapon to use. Joyce was getting stronger each day, but she was not yet ready to make the trip home. One day while Aida and Frannie were sitting in the bedroom visiting and knitting with Joyce, Ben sat down with Adam and Candy to talk about what they would do next.

“So Gianni and his mother have given their blessing?”

Candy almost blushed when answering. “Yes, I asked her after she woke up in that wagon. It made me realize how crazy I would be if she wasn’t with me. Her mother and Gianni both have approved, and also have given their blessing to her to come back to the Ponderosa. I hope that’s all right with you, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Of course, it is. Aida will certainly enjoy spending time with her sister. Now, I want you and Adam to pick out a nice place for a house for the two of you. We’ll pay for it’s construction. Adam has agreed to design it and oversee the construction.”

“Oh, that’s too much.”

“Not at all. We have agreed that will be the wedding present to you and Frannie from our family. Adam has told Aida and Frannie to go ahead and plan the wedding so if you have anything you really want to happen that day, you better let those ladies know before they have everything set.”

“Well I don’t want to wear a fancy suit.”

“Tell them soon. Aida didn’t get a fancy wedding from me. I think she’s planning to make up for it planning yours. At least I eventually shaved the beard and cut my hair.” Adam was grinning, but Candy looked pensive. “Candy, we didn’t mean to make you worry. It’s your wedding. You should be happy.”

“Adam, I’ve just been thinking about some things.”

Waiting for more, Adam was surprised by the line of reasoning Candy divulged.

“Why would Charles Mann take revenge on Darwin? He didn’t do anything to Mann. We did. The only thing that Darwin could do was to identify the man. Now if he wanted revenge, it should have been to attack the two of us, but no one has made any effort to harm us.”

“I know. I’ve been thinking along those same lines. Tom said no one knew what Charles Mann looks like except how could he move about the city and run a business without anyone ever seeing him.”

Ben had a thought. “Unless Charles Mann is a cover identity for someone else who can move freely throughout the city because he’s known by another name and has another job.”

“Adam, when you knew Tom Manson in Abilene, did he look like he does now?”

“Yes, just like that except a little younger.”

“Well, when I met him and worked with him, he had a full beard. Then the next morning after he found out you were here, and that the operation against Mann’s operation was going to happen, he shows up here clean-shaven. I still recognized him because of the clothes and the badge.”

“And Charles Mann shaved in Darwin’s house after he butchered him making it look like he was taking revenge when he was really eliminating the person who knew him as Charles Mann.”

“It would be interesting to know why Tom left Abilene. I think I have a couple of telegrams to send.” Adam grabbed his hat and holster, and Candy said he would go with him while Ben again stayed to protect the women. By the next morning, they had replies. “Marshals have sent replies. I worked with some of these people to bring in murderers they really wanted to see locked up. Bill in Newton and Bill in Abilene as well as Tom in Abilene all say he was let go for suspicion of having too close a tie to some criminals. His full name is Thomas Charles Manson.”

“Well, Adam, now what do we do?”

Thoughtful, Adam rubbed his forehead. “I think we talk to the sheriff and see what he wants to do if anything. Tom is probably going to be lying low for a while. It will be up to the law to watch him and wait for their opportunity. All we have is supposition and no evidence of anything. Don’t look at me like that. I agree with you. It is highly suspicious but hardly something that we can do anything about at this point. We need to pack up our ladies and get them out of here though. Let’s go home to the ranch where we have a lot of people who will look out for our ladies.”

So Ben stayed with Joyce in San Francisco for another week until she demanded they head home. On the Ponderosa by that time, Adam and Candy had found a suitable building site and agreed on a house plan. The ladies were busy planning a wedding, and Charles Mann and Tom Manson became faded memories.

The only concern for Adam and Aida was that she continued to have spotting during the trip home and then when she was home. Finally Adam insisted she see the doctor. They drove to town after being home only about two weeks. Doctor Martin told them she was at a high risk for a miscarriage, and that all they could do was wait although rest for Aida and avoiding any strenuous activity might help. They would have to wait and see what happened.

*****

Chapter 7

Marietta sat on the porch and listened to her daughters talking. She missed her husband. She missed living in the city. The sound of her daughters laughing and talking together as well as the opportunity to spend so much time with Danny made her happy though. Ben and Joyce were expected home within a day or two, and with everything calmed down, Marietta was thinking perhaps it was time for her to leave. The house would be full of people, and she felt like an outsider.

“Mama, what are you thinking? You look so sad.” Aida was concerned that her mother’s grief hadn’t been expressed fully and might yet cause her mother to break down.

“I was thinking that it’s probably time for me to think about going back to the city. Gianni and his family are settled in now. He wanted me to stay with them right away, but I wanted to see my daughters safely settled in at their home.”

“But Mama, I want you here for the wedding.” Frannie didn’t want her mother to leave.

“Your wedding isn’t for two more months. You and Aida have so much work left to do for that, and I promise to be back to see you married to your young man.”

“That’s it. Aida and I need you to help us with the wedding. Candy keeps saying to keep it small and simple. Adam always backs him up. You’re the extra vote we need to make this wedding special. Please say you’ll stay until the wedding?”

“I’m not sure the Cartwright hospitality that was so gallantly offered was meant for more than two months.”

“Oh yes, it was.” Adam walked up to the ladies. So intent on the conversation, none of them had seen him ride in. “Marietta, you are my mother-in-law, and as such, you are part of my family. There is no limit to how long family is welcome. Are you comfortable in your room?”

“Oh, very much so. You have been a most gracious host, but I miss the city too.”

Understanding that, Adam had an offer. “In two weeks, I need to travel to San Francisco on business. I could escort you then if you promise that you and Gianni will be back here for the wedding.”

“Adam, that is lovely. Yes, I promise, and I am very grateful for the offer.”

“Now, I need to get some work done inside, if you’ll excuse me.” Aida followed Adam as he went into the house and sat at the desk. He spread some contracts out on the desktop and began jotting down items.

“I don’t remember you saying you had to go to San Francisco.”

“That’s because I didn’t.”

“When were you going to tell me then?”

“I thought I just did.”

“You can be so maddening. Why do you need to go to San Francisco, and why am I hearing about it now and not sooner?”

“Because I just decided now that I had to go so I could escort your mother safely to her home. Is that good enough for an explanation, or do you have to punish me for being a bad boy?”

“What kind of punishment do you think you deserve for this behavior?”

“I think I should be taken to my bedroom and not allowed out until I have pleased my wife enough that she is smiling again.”

Aida had to fight the smile then. “Very well. That’s what you shall do, but not until tonight. I’ll tell you when.”

“Very well, my lady. I await your command. Meanwhile, I do have some contracts that I need to review to make sure we meet all the deadlines.”

“Don’t you have time for even a little interruption?”

“It depends on what the interruption will be.”

By then Aida was next to him and leaned down to kiss him. Her tongue naturally seemed to want to enter his mouth, and he didn’t object at all. Soon she was sitting on his lap as all thoughts of contracts had fled. Luckily Adam heard the front door open and broke the kiss. Hoss walked to the desk well aware when he saw them that he had interrupted something.

“Dang, you two need to put a sign out so a man knows it’s safe to enter the house.”

Aida stood, and smiled before she left the two men to attend to their business. Hoss shook his head.

“You sure got the right one for you. Not much ever seems to bother her.”

“You needed something?”

“Yeah, Josh isn’t feeling well, and I need to stay home with him.”

“Is Claire all right?”

“She’s not feeling too good either. I guess they both got the same thing, but Josh is a lot sicker than Claire. So for a coupla days, you need to get along without me.”

“Go take care of your family. Joe and I can handle things.”

“Joe’s got that horse auction to go to. He ain’t gonna be around much for the next week.”

“All right, I’ll handle things. Candy can help. And don’t tell me he’s busy.”

“Well other than chasing after his fiancée, nope, so I think he can help you out all you need. You still planning on going up to the lumber camp?”

“I have to go. Candy hasn’t done much with that part of our operation. It’ll go better if I handle that part. Candy will have to set the work schedules for the cattle and horse operations every day until I get back. I’m making lists of things we need to get done.”

That evening after dinner, Adam and Candy spent a lot of time working out a schedule for work to be done especially for the few days that Adam would be gone. They expected Ben to be home within a day or two. He would probably be quite happy that he was needed as soon as he arrived.

“Your Pa is gonna be pretty darn happy when he finds out we need him here.”

“I’m sure he will be. I’m glad you’ll be the one to tell him. I’ve have quite enough of his lectures over the years about the sticks.”

“The sticks?”

So Adam showed him the trick that Ben had used to emphasize to all three of his sons that they were stronger together. He took four pieces of kindling and handed them to Candy telling him to break them with his hands. Of course he couldn’t, so Adam handed him one, which he broke easily. “Pa always said that four of us together were too strong to break, but alone anyone can be broken.” Suddenly Adam had a flashback to prison and how he had nearly lost his mind by being alone. Candy saw the change come over him.

“You feeling all right?”

“Yes, it’s nothing. Now, let’s finish up this schedule. If I want to make an early start tomorrow, I need to have this done soon so I can get a good night’s sleep.”

Aida hadn’t seen the look that Adam had when he had the flashback so she simply snickered. Candy remained concerned but knew that Adam wasn’t going to talk about it. The two of them finished the paperwork, and then Adam suggested to Aida that he wanted to get to bed early. She smiled and put her sewing aside. Adam wrapped his arm around her waist and the two headed up the stairs. Frannie waited until they were gone to talk to Candy.

“What happened? You sounded very concerned.”

“We were talking and he suddenly got pale and looked like he was a thousand miles away.”

“Maybe a few thousand miles away. I thought I saw it too. Aida said that Adam has admitted to her that prison almost broke him. He was in isolation for five years, and it took quite a toll on him. I bet he was thinking about that when he talked about how one could be broken when he didn’t have the others there to back him up.”

“Five years in isolation? What did he do?”

So Frannie told Candy about how Adam had been tricked into an affair with a good friend’s wife, and how she set him up to kill her husband. It was in self-defense but her testimony and Adam’s strong sense of guilt had caused him to be locked up for five years. She did mention that the judge who was out to see him punished was the dead man’s father, so she told him too about the time in Denver when he got locked up again and how Aida said it made him act like it had been five years instead of days until he was released.

“I remember men like that from being in the Army. A gunshot or cannon fire had them back in a bloody battle from their past. It was difficult sometimes to get them to focus on the present. Usually they were allowed to leave the Army. It’s too dangerous for everybody when someone can just fall back into their memories like that.”

Up in their bedroom, Adam and Aida spent some time making love. It was unusually intense. Aida hadn’t seen that type of reaction in Adam for quite some time. It usually meant he was upset about something. As they lay together in the dark, she had to ask.

“What’s wrong? And don’t tell me it’s nothing or that everything is fine. The way you made love with me tells me that you’re upset about something.”

“I don’t know what’s wrong. I was talking with Candy, and suddenly, I felt trapped. I had to breathe deeply and calm myself.”

“What were you talking about when it happened?”

“Why does that matter?”

“You know why it matters or you wouldn’t have tried to evade my question like that. Now what were you talking about when you felt that way?”

“The sticks.”

“The sticks?”

So once more Adam told the story about the four sticks and the one stick that could be broken except he didn’t have the emotional reaction he had when he had told the story to Candy. Aida rested and thought for a bit.

“Were you thinking about prison when Candy broke the one stick?” She felt Adam tighten his embrace just a bit, but it was enough of an answer. “You didn’t break, you know. You were bent and hurt, but you never broke. Keep that in mind. You showed remarkable strength, and you came out of it a strong man.” She didn’t need any light to know that he had closed his eyes at that statement. She leaned toward him and kissed him before brushing her lips over those closed eyelids. “I love you. I respect and admire you like no other. You are the bravest man I know.”

Pulling her close, Adam reciprocated the kisses before whispering in her ear. “Thank you. I love you more than my life. I would do anything for you.”

“I know you mean to reassure me, but when you say that, it scares me. Just love me and do all those things you’re so good at doing, and I’ll continue to be the happiest woman in all of the west.”

“All right, that’s a deal. Now I really do need to get some sleep. You have a big morning in front of you too.”

“I do?”

“Yes, I’m going to be gone for several days. You want to give me a proper send-off in the morning, don’t you?” The familiar teasing tone was back, and Aida relaxed. A kiss was her only answer to his question, and she not only heard his chuckle but felt the deep rumble in his chest as she snuggled into his arms.

The next morning, they weren’t even late for breakfast which surprised everyone except they did note the rosy glow in Aida’s cheeks and how relaxed Adam was. Within an hour, Adam was on his way up to the timber camps. As he rode away, Tom Manson watched from the hillside where he had been camping for several days. He mounted up and followed his quarry.

*****

Chapter 8

With his mind on what he had to accomplish at the timber camps, Adam didn’t notice anything unusual. His instincts from being a bounty hunter though kicked in and he felt uneasy as the morning progressed. He started to check his backtrail and watch the ridges around him. Somehow he sensed that something wasn’t right but couldn’t determine what it was. Several times he turned and waited to see if he could discern movement. What he didn’t know was that the man following him had the same training and had waited for this moment for days practicing in his mind how he would do what he wanted to do. When Adam stopped for water, he bent to fill his canteen with water from a fast moving mountain stream. It was what Manson needed. The sound of the water was enough to cover the last of his approach.

“Don’t move!”

Adam froze with the canteen in his right hand. Even if he would have had a clear shot by turning and firing, he would have to drop the canteen and pull back before he could even draw. It was likely that his nemesis already had his gun drawn so there was nothing he could do. If Tom had wanted him dead, he would have fired already so there was still some hope.

“That’s right, bounty hunter. Thinking it through? No, I don’t want you dead. If I killed you, your family would hound me to death. No, I just want you out of the way. That little lady was already bought and paid for. You ruined my business. I have no credibility now unless I can make delivery. Then they’ll see that I can still be trusted to do what they want, and the money will start flowing in again. Now, unbuckle that gunbelt with your left hand. You can keep the canteen in your right while you do it. Move slow and easy and no one has to get shot.”

Unbuckling his gunbelt with his left hand, Adam let it drop to the ground. He kept his right hand out in front of him holding the canteen. He knew where his pistol was and hoped to throw the canteen if Manson gave him a chance.

“Thinking about your odds, aren’t you? Don’t try it. If I have to, I’ll shoot, but I won’t kill you if I can help it. Now drop the canteen and move away from the pistol. Move to your right and lay face down.” Adam complied. He heard movement and from the sounds he could hear, he assumed that Tom had picked up his pistol and taken his rifle from his saddle scabbard. He heard the sound of his canteen being slung across the saddle.

“Put your hands behind your back.”

A rope was tied from elbow to elbow and then around and around his middle and knotted over his stomach effectively tying his arms at his sides. He wouldn’t be able to reach the ropes to untie them. Adam wondered what Tom was going to do with him. He wouldn’t be able to get on his horse the way he was tied. He didn’t have to wonder for long.

“Move to your right and push through that brush. I scouted out this location a couple of days ago. It was so nice of you to ride in this direction. I thought I was going to have to drag you here from miles away. This worked out very well for me, but not so well for you.”

As they moved deeper into the trees, Adam could see the roof of an old abandoned structure. “You must have had a timber camp here a long time ago. Luckily for me, the storage shed is still there. It’s going to be your home for a bit.” Adam was already thinking that he would be able to get out of that old shed within hours. The wood would have deteriorated significantly and once he was sure Tom had ridden away, he would be able to kick a hole in the side. He was fairly sure of that so he cooperated.

Once Tom shoved him into the shack, he turned expecting him to shut the door and latch it. Instead he was met with a blow to the shoulder and then was hit repeatedly. Unable to protect himself other than to curl into the fetal position, he didn’t think any bones were broken but couldn’t be sure. As he lay in agony on his side unable to do anything for himself and finding even breathing to be painful, he heard Tom breathing hard and then laughing at him.

“I said I wouldn’t kill you, but you cost me so there was a price to pay for that. Nobody crosses me up like that and gets away with it. Come after me, and that could happen to that pretty little wife of yours or maybe your son. You hear me, bounty hunter?” When Adam didn’t immediately answer, Tom kicked him in the leg. Adam quickly mumbled yes as well as he could through swollen lips. He heard Tom pull the door closed then and pile something against it. He tried to move his legs and pain shot up from his ankles to his back. He wouldn’t be able to kick his way out until that pain diminished.

As Adam lay in agony in the abandoned supply shack, Tom Manson took up his observation post above the house and watched. If the men left the house long enough, he would move in for his victim. Otherwise he might have to wait a couple of days until they realized Adam was missing and set out to look for him. At some point, it would only be the Chinese cook and women in the house. Those were the odds that Tom wanted.

At the main house on the Ponderosa, no one knew that anything was amiss. Candy was in and out all day managing the things that he and Adam had agreed must be done first. Then he sent Hop Sing into town with the wagon to pick up Ben and Joyce who were supposed to arrive on the noon stage. Dinner was already cooking and Frannie and Aida took care of watching over everything and getting the dining table ready for the welcome home dinner. Marietta watched over Danny as he slept. When the sound of the carriage announced the arrival of Ben and his wife, all rushed outside.

Up on the hill, Tom got a good idea of who was in the house. He noted how stiffly Joyce walked correctly surmising that she was not completely well. Ben’s arrival was a concern but not as much as when Hoss arrived. Tom had seen him leave two days earlier assuming he was going away for a bit. Instead it appeared he had been there all along. Tom realized he was going to need to be a lot more observant and careful about making assumptions. Three men was definitely too many to confront especially with the four women as wild cards and that Chinese cook in the kitchen. All he could hope was that all three men would ride out when they found out the oldest son was missing. He assumed that would be at least another day. In fact it was a day and a half later when he saw a man dressed as a logger riding toward the main house. He smiled in anticipation.

In the house, there was surprise and then worry. Ben voiced his frustration first. “What do you mean that you’re waiting for instructions? Adam rode up there two days ago to get the crews working on what we needed done. Didn’t he tell you what you needed to do?”

“Ain’t seen hide or hair of ‘im, Mr. Cartwright. We’ve been doing our best guesses as to what we should be doing. We jes been waiting on somebody coming up to tell us the plan.”

“Where’s Adam, then?” Aida couldn’t quite keep the panic out of her voice.

“I never seen him ma’am. I never seen any sign of ‘im and I come by here using the usual route. I ain’t got no idea where he is.”

“Jobe, ride back to the timber camp and look around for Adam. Candy, go get Hoss. We need him to follow any tracks we find. I’ll go tell Hop Sing we need supplies. I want to ride out of here as soon as possible.”

Up in the abandoned timber camp supply shack, Adam had grown weak with dehydration, pain, and the cold temperatures at night and the stifling warmth of the days. He had seen two sunsets and a sunrise, but by the second sunrise, he was no longer aware of where he was. He was existing in a primal level of pain, discomfort, and thirst. By the day before, he had worked out a theory in his mind as to why he had been abandoned in this shack but could no longer remember what it was. He had also expected that help would soon be there for him but had forgotten that too as his physical needs overwhelmed his intellect. When the search party called out his name, he didn’t hear them, and even if he had, he would have been unable to respond.

Hoss had led the searchers within a half-mile of Adam’s location but he had veered off the path toward a stream and no one could find any kind of tracks in the pine needles and scrub brush two days later. All the men could do was spread out and look for anything unusual. There was Ben and Candy with Hoss as well as six hands they had come across working with the herd in a high pasture. Several men had passed by the abandoned shack and not looked in the dilapidated building. They expected to see Sport wherever Adam was. Hoss walked that way with Candy and almost passed by for the same reason until he saw the wood piled against the door.

“Candy, why would anyone block the door of an old shack like that?” Hoss moved to the wood and began tossing it away causing Candy to have to dance out of the way. Hoss pulled the door open and stepped into the darkness. “Oh, Lordy. Candy, call everybody here.” Hoss knelt by Adam’s side and pulled his pocket knife to slice through the ropes binding his brother. Then he held his hand by his mouth and nose hoping to feel that Adam was breathing even as he held his own breath. The warmth on his hand was a great relief. He was alive. Very carefully, Hoss slid his arms under his brother and picked him up. He stepped from the old shack just as Ben arrived.

“Oh, my God, is he?”

“He’s alive, Pa. He’s hurt, but he’s alive. Somebody gimme some water.”

Ben dropped to his knees and held Adam head on his thigh. When Hoss got the canteen and tipped it to Adam’s lips, he moaned and tried to grab the canteen.

“Easy now, older brother. You take a mouthful and spit it out if ya can. The you can have more.”

Adam swallowed instead. Hoss waited to see if he could keep the water down. After a few minutes, he gave him another swallow. He did that about a dozen times as all the men watched.

“Hoss, wet this handkerchief for me. I want to clean up his face. He probably can’t even open his eyes with that much stuff crusted over them.”

Hoss poured water over Adam’s face then before wetting the handkerchief so that Ben could wipe his son’s face. He cleaned away the grit and dried blood by his eyes and was relieved when Adam opened his eyes then.

“Son, who did this to you?”

“Pa?” Adam’s croak was barely recognizable except everyone there knew what he must have said.

“Yes, Adam, it’s your Pa. Now can you tell me who did this to you?”

“Water?”

Hoss tipped the canteen to Adam’s mouth once more letting him drink. Then he pulled it away so that Ben could ask again. Adam seemed to have trouble focusing and it was at least ten minutes before he suddenly seemed startled. Ben leaned down to try to hear what he was saying. Adam had to repeat his croaking sounds several times before Ben understood. Shocked he looked up at the others focusing on Candy.

“He said it was Tom Manson, and he wants Frannie. He left Adam here to draw us away from the house.”

Candy was on his horse and riding hard before anyone else thought of what they should do. Ben looked at Hoss. “Leave one man, a blanket, and the food here with me. Send a wagon when you can. Hurry.”

Hoss handed his canteen to Ben before rushing to Chubb. He dropped the food sack and a blanket and told the youngest of the men to stay. He asked all the others to ride hard with him. Undoubtedly Tom Manson would have used this morning to try to take Frannie. Hoss feared what they would find when they got back to the house. He knew his father had to be worried about Joyce, but he had to stay to care for Adam.

*****

Chapter 9

Pandemonium had reigned at the main house for a time until Aida got Hop Sing untied. He took charge and told everyone what had to be done. Joyce was told to lie down so she wouldn’t faint. Aida was told to hold a compress to her mother’s arm as Hop Sing got what he needed to bandage a shallow wound from a bullet that had struck Marietta in the arm. Aida was barely holding it together, and her mother was already a wreck and wanted Aida to ride after the men so they could ride after Manson and get Frannie back. Danny had been hysterical and crying because of the gunshot, the shouts, and then the women screaming. Aida was doing her best to calm her son even as she helped her mother but wasn’t calm herself which her son sensed. There was another near panic when Candy rode into the yard at breakneck speed and ran into the house through the front door that was still standing wide open. Everyone tried to talk at once then.

“Hold it. Hold it. I can’t understand when you’re all talking.” Looking over the group, Candy focused on Joyce. “Can you tell me what happened here?”

“A man, who must be this Charles Mann, entered from the kitchen where he had already tied up Hop Sing. He held a gun on us and told us he was taking Frannie with him. He said he didn’t want to kill anyone, but he wasn’t against the idea of hurting anyone. He pulled Frannie to go with him, and that’s when Marietta got shot. She tried to grab Frannie to prevent her from going with him, and he shot her. He yelled then and said the next one was in her head before he backed up with Frannie and said we could help Marietta. When we rushed to help her, he pushed Frannie out the door, and they rode off.”

“Candy, he had Sport. Where’s Adam, and why did he have Adam’s horse?” Aida could barely get the words out.

“We found Adam. He’s banged up some, but he’s alive.”

“How banged up?” Knowing he was alive helped, but then Aida needed to know more.

“He was beaten, and then he was left tied up with no food and no water. Ben’s with him, but right now, I have to follow them.”

“Candy, he said if anyone follows, he’d kill her.”

That made Candy pause unsure of what to do. “I’ll wait for Hoss to get here with some of the men. We’ll decide what to do then.”

The sound of horses riding in preceded Hoss’ call to Candy if it was all right to enter the house. Candy told him to come in, and then Hoss had to have everything explained to him as well.

“Candy, by now, they’re on the main road. We’d never find em anyway. Let’s follow only to try to see where he’s taking her cause we don’t want to put her life in any danger. Then we need to talk with Roy and get a posse going.”

After sending of the men with a wagon to retrieve Adam, Hoss led Candy and the other men on the trail of Manson and Frannie. He told the men to hang back and wait for his signal if he needed them. Candy rode beside him because Hoss knew there was no way to hold him back. After a while of watching, Candy had to ask him what he was doing.

“Well, with all the tracks in the road, it’s hard to mark where two stand out. But Adam likes a horse with spirit and Sport’s got plenty of that. He doesn’t like being led, and he especially doesn’t like a stranger on his back. He’ll be dancing plenty and snorting. That makes him hard to lead but also leaves a trail like no other. There’ll be tracks showing him moving around instead of just going in a straight line like most horses like to do.” Then Hoss pointed out a spot where Sport must have made it difficult for Manson. They followed and watched for the signs showing that they had left the road. It took some time because the first clue was when Hoss couldn’t find any tracks that were distinctive enough to be Sport.

“They must have left the road somewhere in the last mile. I’ll send one of the men to get Roy now. We’re gonna have a trail to follow soon.”

After sending one of the men to town to tell Roy what had happened, Hoss began backtracking the previous mile until he found where the two horses had left the road.

“He knows a lot about tracking. He left here where the gravel from the stream overflowing the road won’t show tracks so easy. Then he’ll be in that pasture where we’ve been grazing a herd. Won’t be easy to follow him there either with all the cattle tracks all over.”

“You saying you can’t do it?”

“Nope, just saying he probably thinks I can’t.” It did take Hoss nearly an hour to find where the pair had exited the pasture. He had changed direction and was headed due south. They followed the trail that was easier to find for a while. When they pulled up on a rise above the small McPherson ranch, they rode down without waiting to find a trail. There were obvious signs that trouble had occurred there. Mrs. McPherson was kneeling next to a man on the ground. By all appearances, it had to be her husband who was a very large man. They pulled up and dismounted next to her. Davis had his eyes squeezed shut as his wife held a wad of cloth to his shoulder slowing the bleeding.

“Hoss, I’m so glad to see you. A man up and shot my Davis without a warning. Then he headed into our barn and harnessed up our horse to the buckboard and rode off. He left two horses. I sent my James on one of them to fetch the doctor. Hoss, could you and your men carry Davis into the house? James and I just weren’t strong enough to do it.”

“Yes, ma’am, we can do that for ya. Ma’am, did he have a woman with him?”

“Yes, he did, and she looked so pitiful. He had her hands tied, and then he gagged her before he drove off. By then, she was just laying in the back not moving.”

“Hoss, McPherson raises horses. Why would he take a buckboard with all these fresh horses to use?”

“Candy, a woman being taken against her will looks kinda obvious tied up on a horse. Laying in back of a wagon, he could cover her with a blanket or a tarp, and no one would even know she was there. Now he can try to blend in with normal traffic on the road.”

“All right, then. Why the buckboard and not the carriage?”

“I’m guessing he means to travel over some rough ground.”

“So he’s heading south.”

“Yup, that’s what I was thinking too.”

After the men had gotten Davis into the house and got a sack of food from his grateful wife, the group headed out led by Hoss who was moving a lot faster because it was rather easy to follow the wagon tracks. Dusk stopped them. They had to make camp although Candy had wanted to keep going. Hoss convinced him they had to wait for more light.

“But he could be all the way to Cleaver by now if he got to the road before it got too dark.”

“Yup, you might be right, but I don’t think he got that far with a wagon. But ifn he did, we wouldn’t find him now anyway. More than likely though, he’s camped up ahead. In the morning, we’ll ride for Cleaver as soon as there’s enough light. We’ll get him, Candy. We will. I promise.”

“But will be get him before he hurts her?”

“From the sounds of it, he won’t hurt her. He wants to deliver her as he said he would. He won’t hurt her unless he thinks he has no other way out. We have to catch him by surprise, and blundering into town tonight would show our hand too much. Get some sleep. We’ll be heading out early.”

On the Ponderosa, Adam was settled into his bed with Aida at his side. He looked down at her and saw the worried expression. “You know I have to go. I’m the only one who knows what he looks like.”

“I know, but I hate it. I hate seeing you hurt, and now you’re hurt and going into danger. Why does it always have to be so difficult?”

With no answer to that, Adam pulled her closer, but that hurt so he couldn’t suppress the groan. Pulling away from him, Aida sat up and reached for the lamp to turn it down. She lay back against the pillow. She knew sleep would be difficult for her so she was determined to try to help Adam rest. She leaned over and kissed his lips very gently.

“Thank you, sweetheart. I know this must be terribly difficult for you, but your sister is very important too. We’ll get her back, and I will do my very best to see that no one from the Ponderosa gets hurt. I’ll let Hoss and Candy have the lead. I’ll only be there to help as needed. You know Pa won’t let me do any more than that.”

“I know. He’s going to have a difficult enough time saying goodbye to Joyce. He’s been with her every day for weeks now, and he’s still very worried about her. She seems much better to me though even if she hasn’t got her strength back yet.”

“Pa has to fuss over those he loves. He can’t help it. He held my head on his lap all the way back to the house even though there was a blanket he could have rolled up and put under my head. I slept for most of the trip, but when I woke, he was there. I told him he didn’t have to do that, and he said it had been a long time since he could do it so I wasn’t to deny him.” Adam smiled a bit at the memory. Even Aida had to relax a bit with that image. They were quiet then and fell asleep only to be awakened before dawn by Ben. They wanted to get going at first light so they needed to dress and get ready in the dark.

One of the hands had come back with Sport and the other horse and to tell them where Hoss and Candy were headed. They planned to head south in a straight line and try to meet up with the others outside of Cleaver if Adam was able to ride fast enough. His injuries would not interfere with his abilities, but the pain of them might do just that. After kissing their wives goodbye, father and son headed south at a good pace. After a few hours, Ben could see how much the pain was affecting Adam, but when he asked if he wanted to slow the pace, he had only one answer each time.

“We’ll slow down at Cleaver.” Then he would kick his horse to urge him onward. He didn’t have Sport because the horse was too tired from being pushed so hard the day before by Manson. He was riding a horse that was recently broken and needed a lot of direction, but the horse was strong and fast. Finally they saw Cleaver in the distance and slowed. Adam sighed deeply, and Ben called a halt.

“You’re exhausted. You wait here. I’ll go see if I can find the others.”

Adam wanted to say he was fine and could ride further, but he knew he couldn’t. He nodded and sat down in some long grass holding the reins to his horse in one hand and his canteen in the other. Once Ben rode off, he released the reins so the horse could graze while he lay back in the grass and closed his eyes. He must have fallen asleep almost immediately for when four riders came up to him, he didn’t even notice.

“Hoss, you just can’t get rid of him. He follows us everywhere we go.”

“I know. We kinda figured we’d see him sooner or later today.”

“Didn’t expect him to be sleeping though. Man gets old, I guess he needs more sleep.”

Sitting up, Adam scowled at his brother and friend. “I am not old. But we thought you might be ahead of us. Pa rode toward Cleaver to see if he could find you.”

There was no need to ask why Adam hadn’t gone with him. He struggled just to stand and tie off his canteen to the saddle. When he mounted up, both Hoss and Candy gave involuntary grimaces as they noted how stiff he was and that he closed his eyes when he settled in the saddle as if to allow the pain to die down before he had to say or do anything else. Hoss simply waited until Adam looked at him. “Ready?” Adam nodded and the men followed Ben to Cleaver. Somehow, they all suspected the confrontation would take place there.

*****

Chapter 10

“Candy and Adam need to keep out of sight. Tom will recognize Adam, and he might recognize Candy. With the rest of us, he may know who we are, but he knows we don’t know him. He could walk right on by us, and we’d never know.”

“Good idea, Hoss. I’ll get us a room at the hotel. Adam and Candy can come in the back way. We’ll watch out the windows as the three of you work your way through town. Even if you don’t know him, it’s likely to make him nervous and he’ll probably want to get out of here. We’ll see him then hopefully and make a move on him.”

Hoss and the others nodded. It was the best plan they had. Soon Ben was riding up to the little hotel in the town as Hoss and the two hands began to walk down the street from one end of town to the other. There were a number of wagons in town so there was no way of knowing which one might be Manson’s or even if he was still there. At the general store, there were supplies being loaded onto several wagons. Hoss took a seat on a bench across the street from there as the other two kept on walking.

Inside the store, Manson saw Hoss across the street and got nervous. He moved to the door and didn’t see anyone else he recognized although there was a buckskin horse tied in front of the hotel, and it hadn’t been there earlier. He saw more horses but didn’t recognize any of them. Very quickly then he moved to Frannie’s side. She was standing in a drug-induced stupor waiting for him. He pulled down the bonnet he had purchased for her until it shaded her face. He wrapped an arm around her and told her to look down. She did. Then he pulled his own hat lower and pulled on the barn coat he had purchased. To almost all observers, the two of them would look like a farm couple in town buying supplies for the farm instead of supplies for a journey. Outside, he pushed Frannie to climb up into the seat of the buckboard. She had trouble and he had to look up to help her.

From the hotel window, Adam spotted him. “There he is, Pa. He’s helping Frannie into that wagon.”

Looking out, Ben saw what looked like an older couple climbing into their farm wagon. “Adam, are you sure?”

Exasperated, Adam looked to Candy. “It’s them. Go get Hoss and the others to help you.”

Momentarily shocked that Adam had bypassed him and given instructions to Candy, Ben quickly recovered his composure and his good sense. Adam had recognized Bill Enders when he was wearing a mask. Certainly he ought to trust Adam’s observation that the couple down there in the street was Tom Manson and Frannie. He followed Candy out the door saying only one quick sorry before he left. Adam watched from the window as Candy alerted Hoss and the others who quickly converged on the wagon. Seeing them move toward him, Manson grabbed Frannie to use as a shield as he pulled his pistol. He backed toward the hotel and away from the five men. Adam watched for just a few more seconds before removing his boots and drawing his pistol. Down in the street, Candy tried to get Tom to let Frannie go.

“We don’t care about you. We just want the girl.” Candy was pleading. He would let Manson go if it meant that Frannie would be safe.

“Well, you see, first of all, I don’t believe you. Second, I need her. Without her, my business is done. I made quite a bit of money with it, but I spend a lot too. She is my ticket to a fortune, so you see, I can’t let her go. She’ll be well taken care of. The man who bought her is very wealthy.”

“You’re no better than a slaver. You can still walk out of this town alive if you let her go.”

“If you try to do anything, I’ll shoot her first. Remember that. Now, I’m going to put her on a horse here and we’re going to ride out of town. If any of you follow me, I’ll put a bullet in her brain. Is that clear?”

“It’s clear, but my friend Adam Cartwright has other plans for you. He’s standing right behind you, and you won’t go two feet with Frannie.”

“Well, young man, I hope you never play poker. You don’t bluff very well. I left your friend Adam in no condition to ride much less threaten me.”

In his stocking feet, Adam silently stepped up behind Manson and pressed his pistol into Manson’s lower back. Manson almost shuddered when he heard that deep baritone voice. “If you try to hurt her, I’ll splinter your backbone. You’ll be pissing yourself until the end of your life and wishing you could still walk.”

Manson froze for only a few seconds. He whirled and pushed Frannie into Adam and attempted to flee as he fired several shots at the men in the street. One shot was returned immediately, and Manson fell on his face in the street. Candy looked over to see Adam with his right arm extended out over Frannie’s head as his left arm cradled the girl. He had fired point blank into Manson killing him instantly.

“Candy, you better come grab her before I drop her.”

“Don’t drop her. I’ll never forgive you if you do.” Candy was quickly there to take Frannie as Ben and Hoss helped Adam to a chair.

“You were supposed to stay in the room.” Ben was worried but relieved to find that Adam wasn’t wounded. He had ducked for cover when Manson fired and had not seen Adam shoot the man. None of them had.

“After all this, that’s what you have to say to me, Pa?”

“No, I’m sorry. Thank God, you’re all right and so is Frannie. How did you manage that?”

“A few years as a bounty hunter kind of hone your fighting skills. Manson should have known that.” Adam looked over at Manson’s body lying in the street. He had killed others and seen their lifeless bodies afterwards. He had never had the sense of satisfaction that he had this time. He could hear Candy soothing Frannie, and he nodded. Things were put right again. Sitting on the wooden sidewalk, Candy looked up at Adam as he leaned back into a chair.

“What’s wrong with her? She doesn’t seem to know me and yet she seems so happy to see me.”

“She’s probably been drugged. That and the shock of what she’s had to endure and the fear of what might await her has shaken her up some. Give her time. I’ve seen others who shake it off after a few hours of tender loving care. Do you think you’re up to it?” Adam grinned then as Candy shook his head.

The sheriff was there by then and asked them what had happened. He took their statements, but told them not to leave town until he could wire Virginia City for some verification. He didn’t have to do that though for Sheriff Roy Coffee and his posse rode into town. Ben took rooms in the hotel for everyone even allowing Candy to stay with Frannie although he insisted that Adam be in that room too. Candy sat in a chair by Frannie’s side as she slept. He held her hand all through the night so she would know she was not alone. Still uncomfortable from his injuries, Adam slept fitfully in the other bed.

In the morning, Ben had Candy drive the wagon that Manson had stolen from the McPherson ranch. He told Adam to rest in the back. Adam would have argued about that except the thought of bouncing in the saddle for a full day wasn’t at all appealing. He threw his saddle in the back of the wagon, spread out his bedroll, and reclined telling Candy to avoid the bumps in the road. Adam closed his eyes as Frannie settled on the seat next to Candy. She had awakened aware of her surroundings but still stressed out by what had happened. Riding next to Candy and finding out what had been done on her behalf calmed her. She had to be told that Manson was dead because she didn’t recall anything that had happened the day before.

That night, they camped only a half-day’s ride from home. Traveling with the wagon had slowed their travel. Adam moved his bedroll under the wagon so that Frannie and Candy could put their bedrolls in the wagon and sleep side by side where she felt safe. Adam grinned as he lay beneath the wagon. He was sure he heard the sounds of kissing, and there certainly was quite a bit of whispering. He kicked the bottom of the wagon.

“Hey, you two, you’re not married yet. Get some sleep.”

“Adam, don’t you start with me. You know you’re not up to fighting me right now.”
“I know, but I am the girl’s chaperone, so behave yourself.” There were snickers and chuckles from the other men, and Candy knew he had lost this round.

“Adam, I owe you one, and you know exactly what I mean.” Unable to kiss Frannie with Adam so close, Candy pulled her into a spoon position with him and draped both blankets over them. She felt so good pressed up against him, he knew he might have a difficult time falling asleep but wouldn’t change this position for the world. He had his love back and soon she would be his wife. In his heart and mind, nothing was going to change that.

The next morning, Adam, who had reached into the wagon to shake Candy’s shoulder, awakened him. “Breakfast is cooking. You might want to wake Frannie to see if she wants to clean up before breakfast. We’ll be heading out as soon as everyone is done eating. There’s something you need to think about too. Do you want to take the wagon to the McPherson ranch or head directly to the Ponderosa? I think we ought to take the horses and ride home. Marietta and Aida must be sick with worry by now.”

Frannie was awake and thinking clearly. “I want to go directly home if that’s all right with you, Candy.”

“Well, Adam would say something like ‘your wish is my command, my lady’, but I’ll just say it plain. Yes, that’s a good idea.”

By the middle of the day, they arrived at the Ponderosa. Stiff and sore, Adam swung down from his horse grateful that the ride was finally over. Frannie too was a bit stiff as she was unaccustomed to riding that long. The door to the ranch house was flung open as Aida and the others rushed out to greet the men and see if they had been successful. Aida had Danny in her arms and the two of them hugged Adam and pulled him into the house where they all sat on the settee with Danny on Adam’s lap and Aida with her arms wrapped through his arm. Marietta was almost overcome with crying and laughing seeing her daughter safe. She thanked every one of the men with a hug and a kiss before walking inside with her daughter. Candy seemed unsure of what to do until Hoss pushed him into the house ahead of him. Ben hugged Joyce and kissed her before following the others into the house. Claire kissed Hoss and welcomed him home too. Then the whole story had to be told. It took quite a while to get all the details in. No one was sorry to hear that Manson was dead. A lot of young women would be much safer with him gone.

Dinner was a festive occasion with everyone back safely. Aida could see though that Adam was tired. He really hadn’t been in any shape to take on what he had done. He needed some rest. She asked Hop Sing to prepare a bath for him. Hop Sing had seen the same signs that Aida had and never complained about the extra work. Danny wanted to join Adam in the bath, and Aida thought it would be good for both of them so she got their robes and waited for them to finish. Then she told them they were going to bed. Danny wasn’t at all surprised, but Adam raised an eyebrow.

“You’re exhausted and don’t even try to deny it. You need to sleep.” That he offered no argument was proof enough that he knew she was correct. Adam fell asleep almost as soon as he slid into the bed. By the time Aida had tucked Danny into his bed, she returned to find that Adam was sound asleep. She closed the door and headed downstairs. There had been a look about her sister that had her worried. She wanted to talk with her before she went to bed as well. In Frannie’s bedroom a short time later, Aida was very direct.

“You look worried about something. Manson is dead, our men are safe, and you’re home so it has to be something else.”

Frannie didn’t even try to deny it. “Aida, how can you be sure if a man has been with you, you know, doing what he wants with you?”

Aida thought for a moment. “You think that Manson took you while you were drugged?”

Frannie nodded and the tears fell. Aida moved to her side and wrapped her arms around her. “Honey, it’s not your fault. How could it be? You were drugged, and you don’t even remember if it happened or not.”

“I’m fairly sure it did. Oh, Aida, what if I’m with child, with his child?”
“It’s not too likely if it was only once.”

“How can I ever tell Candy about this? What will he say if I’m with child? Will he still want to marry me?”

*****

Chapter 11

For two weeks, Candy was concerned that what had happened had changed his relationship with Frannie although at times, she was as loving to him as she had been before it happened. At other times, she was a bit cool toward him and looked worried. Candy sought out Adam’s advice eventually assuming that as sisters, Aida and Frannie might have some of the same characteristics. Aida had confided in Adam after Frannie had told her what she feared had happened. Adam listened as Candy expressed his concerns.

“Sometimes, she seems to be pushing me away. Then the next time we’re together, it’s like nothing happened. She cries sometimes for the simplest reasons. Last night, we played a chess match. She lost. It’s not the first time although she wins a lot more than she loses. She started crying, and when I asked her what was wrong, she said nothing. Now I know it’s not nothing, but how do I get her to talk with me?”

“She had a very traumatic experience. She’s still recovering. Be there for her and continue to try to get her to talk about what happened. She may be holding some things back thinking you would rather not know. Talk about how important honesty and trust are for a couple in love.”

“Do you and Aida talk about everything?”

“She knows more about me than any other person in this world. I have honestly answered every question she has asked me although not always right away. Sometimes I have to think about it for a while, but I tell her that too. I tell her that I’ll answer her question when I’ve thought through the answer. And she never forgets.” Adam chuckled a bit because on occasion he had thought to evade her questions that way. It never worked.

That night, Candy asked Frannie to walk with him as he did every night. This time though he had a lot more on his mind than hugging and kissing. He wanted honesty and planned to ask her what she was hiding. It was one of those nights when Frannie was cool and seemed lost in another place.

“Frannie, I’ve been meaning to say something to you for a couple of weeks. I didn’t know how to say it, but I talked it over with Adam today, and he said to be honest. Honesty is very important in any relationship, don’t you think?”

All Frannie could think was that Candy was breaking off their engagement. Tears began to flow, but his reaction confused her. Candy pulled her close and caressed her back telling her not to cry and that everything would be fine. Once she got some emotional control back, she had to ask.

“What were you going to ask me then? I thought you wanted to break off our engagement.”

“Oh, never. I found the gal for me, and I can tell you, she’s not going anywhere. No, that’s not it at all. I thought perhaps I had done something wrong. Sometimes you act so cool to me it makes me wonder what I did. Please, honesty and trust are the things we need to build our future. Tell me what’s wrong. Please?”

The tears flowed again, but this time, it was because Candy was being so sweet with her. She leaned on his shoulder and cried. He held her and waited. He knew it had to be something very serious to make her so emotional. As he waited and thought about what had happened two weeks earlier, he had a sudden chilling thought. If it was true, it would explain everything.

“Did Manson hurt you? Did he do more than drug you and force you to go with him?” As Frannie stiffened in his arms but cried more, Candy knew. “That bastard. I’d kill him again if Adam hadn’t done if for us. Damn him.”

“Oh, Candy, what if I’m with child? I would be so ashamed. I don’t know where I’d go.”

“Whoa, wait a minute. You wouldn’t be going anywhere. If you’re with child, then that child will be mine when we marry. If it’s all right with the Cartwrights, it sure sits all right with me.”

“What do you mean if it’s all right with the Cartwrights? What do they have to do with this?”

So Candy explained what Joe had told him about how all three of the sons married women who were already with child, but Ben couldn’t say too much because he had married Marie when she was already carrying Joseph. “Sweetie, that happens a lot out here. Life passes so quickly sometimes, that waiting just doesn’t seem that important. You have to grab love when you get a chance.”

“But none of those women was carrying another man’s child.”

“Do you think it would have made a bit of difference to any of those men in there? You did nothing wrong. That babe, if there is one, did nothing wrong. All you deserve is love, and I’ve got enough for you and for any baby we have. What should we name him?”

“I like the sound of Matthew.”

“Matt, hmm, sounds like something you’d walk all over.”

“Arthur was my grandfather’s name.”

“Art, hmm, we’d have to hang him on the wall for everyone to admire.”

Frannie punched him in the arm for that one, but then supplied other names for him to impart a funny line. By the time they reached the house again, they were laughing at the inanity of it all. Everyone relaxed as they entered. Whatever storm had been brewing in their relationship was resolved. Adam and Aida looked at each other and smiled. It looked like there was no problem with the upcoming wedding.

A week later, Aida and Frannie went to town for the final fittings for their dresses for the wedding. Aida had gained a bit more weight in her pregnancy and wanted to be sure that the dress would fit properly and at least camouflage her condition a bit at least. Aida had talked Frannie into seeing Doctor Martin too. Aida saw him every few weeks because of her pregnancy and assured Frannie that he could be completely discreet. No one would think anything of Frannie accompanying Aida to see the doctor so they didn’t need to fear the startup of some nasty rumors. After Paul examined Aida, he had good news.

“Everything looks normal now. I know I was worried with everything I heard about what happened with Adam being hurt and Frannie being kidnapped. But you got through the crises quite well and all looks very good. Any spotting?”

“Not since my last check-up. That’s good, isn’t it?”

“That’s very good. Now take it easy for these last months with no extra exertion, no riding, and you and Adam need to be gentle with each other.”

Understanding quite well what he meant with the last part, Aida nodded as Frannie blushed for she had understood it as well. Then Paul did an examination of Frannie and explained the results to her. The two sisters had a lot of talking to do as they drove back to the Ponderosa. Adam and Candy were waiting for them. Oh, they made it look like they were working on a wagon in the yard, but they had been working on it when the ladies left, so both women knew they were actually waiting for them. Adam helped Aida from the carriage as Candy helped Frannie down. Both ladies were grinning. Aida spoke first before Frannie could blurt out her news.

“I’m fine. Paul said the danger of miscarriage seems to have passed, and as long as we’re careful, we should have another baby in a few months.”

“And I’m not, and we won’t.”

Both men hugged their ladies respectively then and smiled. They had a wedding for which to prepare, and then Adam and Aida would be welcoming their second child. All was right with the world. Frannie did have one concern though.

“Where are we going to live? With everything that’s happened, the house never got started.”

“Well, if it meets with your approval, Joe is willing to turn over his cottage to us. It’s not too far away, but it’s far enough away. Adam thinks we can fix it up just fine before the wedding.”

“What are we waiting for? Let’s go take a look.”

*****

Epilogue

Within a month, Candy and Frannie were married and living in the little cottage by the pond. With the help of the Cartwright brothers, there was a stable and corral added and the interior was cleaned up and painted. A few months later when Adam and Aida welcomed Margaret Elizabeth or Peg into their family, Candy and Frannie had an announcement to make to the family that they were expecting their first child. To celebrate, Ben deeded over the acres of land around the cottage, which made Candy a landowner as well. Eventually Candy hoped to have his own horse business, but he continued on as the Ponderosa foreman until everyone felt that Griff was ready to step up into that responsibility.

***The End***

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