Annie and Adam Stories (by BettyHT)

Summary:  There are six stories.  Annie — Rustlers and kidnapping lead Adam into a tempestuous romantic relationship. Slander — A man suspects Adam of having been with his wife and makes no secret of his thoughts which leads to ugly gossip and all sorts of complications.  The 105 — Some of Adam’s bad memories bother his sleep, but others who remember have revenge in mind. He needs his family backing him up on this one as he is falsely accused. Some trouble for Hoss’ romantic relationship adds to the complex situation.  Je t’aime! — Adam and Annie have a few bumps in their romance and marriage with visitors and other factors interfering with their relationship. Hoss gets a little good romance eventually too.  A Bird In The Hand — Adam and Annie travel to San Francisco and into a mystery and danger which eventually ensnares their son and causes an agonizing decision. There are some nasty and mostly unseen villains but Maggie will help.  A Time for Everything — Adam is targeted for revenge and finds himself accused of murder and without a defense.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  155,851


Annie

Chapter 1

“Well, it’s no treat for me either. Stop moving around so much.”

“Why? Just because you like to give orders?”

“No, because it hurts my shoulder.”

“Oh, sorry. I wasn’t thinking about that. If you lean back into me, maybe that would take some of the pressure off your shoulder.”

“I’ll be fine.”

“You don’t have to be the big suffering hero all the time, you know. Lean back, ya jackass, and take some pressure off your shoulder. You aren’t going to be much help to your brothers and me if you pass out.”

“I will not pass out.”

“Yeah, well I don’t know you well enough to count on that, so lean back. Now!”

All the while they were arguing, Annie was trying to work her back toward Adam’s right hand so he could reach in her pants. Now in other circumstances, she would have just invited him to do that, but at the moment, they were tied together, he probably had a broken left collarbone, and she had a small caliber derringer tucked into the back of her pants. Because her hands were tied to Adam’s, she couldn’t reach down into the back of her pants to retrieve the weapon. His hands and fingers were much longer so she was trying to maneuver his hand into her pants to grab the pistol. Meanwhile she was covering what she was trying to do by staging a mock argument with him. Of course, he didn’t know it was a mock argument, but he would when his fingers touched the grip of her pistol.

Annie’s younger brother Jeremy was tied to Hoss. The two of them were about the same size so the rustlers apparently thought that they should be tied together with the larger rope the four men had. They had used a smaller rope to tie Annie and Adam together, but they had wound it around their wrists too. Suddenly she had Adam’s hand in position and hiked up her hips burying his hand in her lace underthings. He would have enjoyed the moment a lot more except as his fingers brushed the lace drawers, they also felt the handle of a small pistol. He wrapped his fingers around the grip of the gun and then whispered.

“Well I thought that was going to be more fun. Now what do you think we can do? I need to be out of these ropes in order to do anything with that.”

“Are they looking at us?”

“No. What do you have in mind?”

“Suck in your gut and hold it.”

“Why?”

“Just do it!” Annie hissed at him. Of all the times to be stubborn and unwilling to listen to a woman, this was not it. As Adam complied, he understood. It loosened the ropes somewhat, and Annie began slipping the rope from his wrists and sliding it down his hand. Soon he would have one hand free. It hurt a lot as the rough rope abraded the skin as Annie forced it to slide down his hand, but he had to hide that or the men watching them would know they were up to something. He put a smile on his face instead and tried to hold it.

“What are you smiling at?” The man who appeared to be the leader of the rustlers didn’t like to see Adam smiling. It made him nervous.

“Well you might be smiling too if your hands were tied and pushed up a lady’s behind. Can’t say when I’ve ever had so much fun when I was tied up.”

“Well, wipe that smile off your face. You might want to save some of that good cheer for later. We still gotta decide what to do with you four.”

“You could just leave us here, and head out with the cattle you have already.”

“Shut up! You know we can’t do that. You let that kid escape and now we gotta worry about him coming back here with help. There’s only four of us, so you four are our ace in the hole. If it wasn’t for you, we’d be gone already.” He gave Adam a solid kick to his thigh then to emphasize his power as well as his anger and frustration.

Dusk was approaching and the four rustlers were getting desperate. Adam could read it in their body language and could see from the worried look on Hoss’ face that he knew it too. Desperate men could be especially dangerous. All they had done so far was rustle some cattle, but their fear of being apprehended could cause them to do a whole lot more. Gradually he felt the rope sliding over his right hand and onto his fingers. He realized he would have to pull his hand with the gun from her lace drawers first though. He had to take a breath anyway.

Whispering to Annie, Adam prepared to take a deep breath. “All right, that’s smart. Let me catch my breath, and then you can work it down the rest of the way. I’ll pull the gun out the next time. Tell me when you’re ready.”

The next time was the charm. Adam had a gun in his hand, and it was free of the ropes. The warmth of the pistol reminded him constantly of where it had been. He found Annie to be willful, sarcastic, smart, sassy, and incredibly sexy. Joe and Hoss had a hard time taking their eyes from her the first time they met. Adam had managed mainly because of how she talked to him at their first meeting. He tried to focus on remembering the details as Annie worked the rope down his other hand abrading the skin as it had on his right hand.

“We don’t have any of your cattle. You can check the brands if you want. All twenty of these are ours.”

“Do you know you’re on the Ponderosa?”

“We’re just cutting through. We aren’t grazing on any of your precious grass. We’re free rangers, and we want to get these cattle to California.”

“Well you could have asked permission.”

“Boy howdy, Your Excellency. Now I have heard about the Cartwrights. That big one must be the one they call Hoss, cause everyone says he’s a right nice man and fair and kind to everyone.”

“Yes, ma’am, that’s me.”

“So the one in the green jacket must be the handsome ladies man who could charm anyone into just about anything.”

“Yes, ma’am, at your service.”

“So that leaves just one and that’s the oldest one who’s the arrogant, know-it-all, haughty, bossy one.”

Hoss and Little Joe started chuckling then, but they could see Adam get his mad on. There would probably have been more of a verbal sparring match except the four rustlers they had been tracking thought that all of them were in pursuit and had surrounded them. Suddenly four men with rifles stepped from the trees.

“You so afraid of the two of us that you had to have four armed men waiting just in case?”

Except the four men yelled for them to raise their hands and the Cartwright brothers obliged them. Surprised, Annie and Jeremy did not respond immediately and one of the men fired a shot over their heads. They raised their hands then. All of them were ordered to dismount. Disarmed one by one, they were marched up the hill to the rustlers’ camp hidden at the top of a rocky ridge.

As they were marched up hill, Adam had moved to wrestle with two of them to give Joe a chance to get away. Annie had seen the two brothers exchanging looks but hadn’t realized they were up to something or she would have run too. By the time she realized what they were doing, it was too late. Adam was laying on the ground holding his shoulder and getting some well placed kicks that put him into a fetal position. Hoss and Jeremy had to almost carry him up the rest of the way. Annie had wanted to go to him to help him, but the men wouldn’t let her. It wasn’t often you saw someone perform an act of heroism like that. He could have been killed for that little maneuver, but he acted like he had done nothing out of the ordinary. Hoss and Jeremy also acted as if that was exactly how they expected him to act. She was thinking that men were a little crazy risking their lives for others, and then acting all nonchalant about it. If it had been her, they would have heard something like screaming, yelling, and certainly complaints about being kicked like that. On the other hand, it had been the first indication she had had that perhaps the oldest of the Cartwright brothers might be more than an arrogant, haughty, bossy boots. He certainly was attractive if you liked the masculine, virile, hirsute type, and she did.

So here were Adam and Annie tied together back to back with one small derringer as their only defense and not much of one unless they could get free of the ropes before anything else happened. All the motion of what they were doing was taking a toll on Adam though. As Annie worked the rope down his left hand, it put a lot of pressure on his left arm which of course pulled at the damaged left shoulder. Sharp pains were radiating down his left arm with every movement. The blow to the head added to his misery because as the pain and movement increased, so did the dizziness and the nausea. He fought to keep himself from retching by trying to take a lot of breaths but that worked against the efforts of Annie to get them free.

*****

Chapter 2

Now Annie and Adam were sitting and she could feel him shivering in the growing cold. She wondered if his injuries made it worse for him. She was leaning back into him as she worked the ropes, and could smell him, and she liked the smell. He smelled of leather, horses, sweat, and some bay rum. It was a manly scent which went nicely with the manly package of broad shoulders, beautiful eyes, and those pouty lips she was thinking would be a pleasure to kiss. She would never tell him that though. He was far too arrogant and probably assumed every gal who saw him, wanted him. She had met men like that before. She had no hopes this time either but it didn’t hurt to admire the scenery and dream about him sliding into bed next to her and pulling her into a warm embrace. She was jerked from her reverie when the two of them were hauled to their feet and forced out to the edge of the ridge.

“You down there. You see what I got here. You come any closer, and I’ll throw him right over the edge. Now I want to see you all mounted up and riding back the way you came. You leave us alone and we’ll let your people live.”

Down in the valley where they had been accosted by the rustlers and disarmed, Ben sat with Joe and a number of hands from the ranch. They were out of range of the men on the hill unless there was a sharpshooter in either group, but as far as Hoss and Adam knew, they were the only sharp shooters there.

“Adam, son, are you all right? Is Hoss all right?”

“Pa, we’re all right.”

The rustler who had yelled the threat hit Adam in the head with his pistol for that. “I didn’t tell you could say anything. You two keep your guns on him. You untie him.” The man gave orders to the other three so it was obvious who was in charge.

As the man untied Adam, Adam passed the gun to Annie who quickly slipped it around to the front of her as soon as her hands were free. With the rustlers’ attention on Adam and in the diminishing light of dusk, they weren’t watching her carefully. Meanwhile Jeremy and Hoss were loosening their ropes with no one watching them after watching Annie and Adam and seeing what they had done. The rustlers were not skilled in the art of tying up two people together that they had been forced to do because they only had two ropes.

The rustlers forced Adam to stand at the edge of the ridge. Annie could see that he was dazed and would likely be unable to keep his balance. It wouldn’t take much to topple him over the side.

“All right, you back off and ride out of here, or I push him over the side. It’s a long way down, and if you want him to avoid the sudden stop at the bottom, you better do as I say.”

From her peripheral vision, Annie saw Hoss and Jeremy getting free of their ropes and reaching for their pistols that had been thrown down near them. She waited a moment but could wait no longer as the leader was threatening to shove Adam over the side.

“Drop your guns!”

The four men whirled on Annie, and it was four guns to one derringer they thought until they heard the pistols cocked on the other side of them by Hoss and Jeremy.

“You better do what the little lady says or you’re gonna be caught in a crossfire.” Three of the men dropped their pistols, but the leader turned in fury toward Adam.

“I ain’t going alone.” He lunged toward Adam to push him over the edge, but Adam turned enough to avoid being shoved over the edge falling instead to his side and grabbing a small shrub as he slowly slid toward the edge and the sheer drop below. The leader however toppled over the side. Annie raced to Adam’s side and grabbed his arm pulling him but unable to stop his slide toward the edge although she slowed it enough that Hoss was able to get there and pull him back. Hoss pulled him up despite the brief yelp from Adam as Hoss grabbed his left arm and pulled. As soon as he had him safe, he let go of the left arm. Adam’s eyes were squeezed shut, and he was breathing in short puffs as he tried to minimize the movement that caused agony. Annie sat down and cradled his head and did her best to stabilize his left arm and shoulder so they couldn’t move.

Within minutes, Ben, Joe, and the others clambered up to the campsite. The hands took custody of the three rustlers and marched them down the hill. Joe slapped Hoss on the shoulder.

“Took your time getting back, Shortshanks. Just got here in time to see Adam almost tossed over the side.”

“He doesn’t look too upset about it now.”

Laying with his head pillowed between Annie’s ample breasts, Adam was content as she fussed over him. The pain had diminished as soon as he could stop moving and relax. He liked the feeling of her caring for him and lay calmly in her arms. Soon Ben and Joe were at his side with Hoss. Ben knelt down and put his hand on Adam’s right shoulder.

“Adam, are you all right?”

“Well, I think I have a broken collar bone. I got a wallop upside my head and a few kicks to tender areas, but otherwise, I’m fine. I think my nurse here should keep doing what she’s doing for another week or two though.”

“You’re just a malingerer. Most men would be up and herding cattle after a couple little bang ups like that.” Annie smirked as well as Adam ever had.

Standing up then, Ben rolled his eyes, Joe smiled, and Hoss chuckled and shook his head. Hoss had a feeling all that sparring between the two of them showed they liked each other already. Jeremy walked over, and Joe did the introductions.

Ben didn’t have much confidence in the plan the brother and sister had. “Well, Annie and Jeremy, your chances of getting your cattle over the mountains before the snow falls too deep are pretty slim. If you want, we’ll buy your cattle and add them to our herd. We can take them to market in the spring. You’re welcome to stay on the Ponderosa as our guests as long as you want.”

“You don’t owe us anything. We would have done it for anyone. After all, we helped old smarty pants here.”

“I know he can be a bit supercilious and domineering, but he is my eldest son, and I am very grateful that you saved his life. I would like to consider both of you as friends, and as friends, I would welcome you to stay with us.”

“Thank you. I think that Jeremy and I would like that.”

“Supercilious and domineering? Isn’t there some sympathy for the one who got hurt so Joe could get away?”

Joe had to jump in with that one. “See, there he goes taking credit for everything again. You’ll have to excuse him. He has these delusions of grandeur some times.”

Adam wanted to have a snappy retort to that, but Hoss was starting to help him up, and he had to bite his lip as the severe pain nearly overwhelmed him again.

“Not gonna cry like a little girl again, are you?” Adam just dropped his head to his chest and tried to ride out the wave of pain as Hoss pulled him up. “Sorry, I didn’t know it was that bad. We’ll get ya down this hill pronto and then we’ll get ya home.”

It took some time to get Adam home because they didn’t have a wagon to use. He rode on Sport with Hoss on one side and his father on the other to make sure he didn’t fall off his horse. With some of the hands, Joe helped Jeremy and Annie herd their cattle behind them until they reached one of the lower pastures. By the time they got to the ranch house, Adam was exhausted. Hoss helped him to his room and got him settled in bed. Annie asked if she could go see him. Ben and Joe were doing a count of the herd with Jeremy so Hoss was the only one there.

“Ah, ma’am, he ain’t got no nightshirt on. He don’t like em and wouldn’t put one on.”

“Well he’s covered up with a blanket isn’t he?”

“Yes’m, he is.”

“Then would it be all right if I went to see him?”

“I guess so.”

Taking that as permission, Annie headed up the stairs. At the top, she realized she didn’t know which room and looked back down at Hoss who gave her the directions. When she got to his door, she found it slightly ajar. She knocked softly and entered. Adam appeared to be sleeping so she sat in a chair that was near the bed and watched him for a bit. His uneven breathing and the flickers of movement in his face showed he wasn’t sleeping. Even though she knew he wasn’t really asleep, she was startled when he spoke.

“Perhaps a kiss would help me sleep better.”

“Well I wouldn’t kiss you if you were the last man on earth.”

“Well if you won’t kiss me, there are all sorts of other things we can do if you want to slip in here with me.”

“You’re disgusting.” Annie stood to leave but had a grin on her face as she exited the room. He liked her and wanted her. He was presumptuous though to think that just asking would get her in his bed. She hadn’t been with a man in a long time though and she felt the desire in her heart to go to him. She knew he would be hard to resist, but she wasn’t planning on making it easy for him. Although she knew she might succumb to his charms in a moment of weakness eventually. Even his voice was seductive. She heard him call out as she walked away. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be that rude. Please come back again.”

*****

Chapter 3

Over the next couple of weeks, Adam and Annie sparred about all sorts of things and Adam teased her about being intimate when no one else was around. She teased him back unmercifully, and he kept suggesting she do something about what she was doing to him. He was out of bed after just a day, but couldn’t work with that broken collar bone, and he was dizzy from the concussion as well. So the two of them had a lot of time together as the others helped get the ranch ready for the winter.

“Would you like a little mulled wine? Hop Sing really does a nice job with it every fall and winter. It might loosen you up a little.”

“Maybe you ought to have some yourself. It might make you a little more mellow and pleasant to be around.”

“No one is making you stay here with me. I could be reading a good book now if I didn’t have to talk with you.”

“Well I need to go take care of my horse anyway. Staring at his hindquarters and mucking out his stall will certainly be preferable to sitting with the hindquarters you’re so good at being.”

After grabbing her coat, hat, and gloves, Annie stormed out of the house. Adam picked up a book from the table next to his chair, but when he opened it, he found he couldn’t concentrate. All he could think about was his last and hopefully his next conversation with the feisty young woman. He didn’t want to, but he did like her very much. She got his mind working and his blood boiling in more ways than one. Normally Joe would have been after such a pretty woman who was staying with them, but her sharp tongue and quick wit were not things he found attractive. Joe and Hoss seemed to like Annie quite a bit though, and Adam thought they enjoyed her ribbing him altogether too much. Despite their sparring though, he found he enjoyed her company very much. He remembered being tied to her and having her warm body pressed to his back. Her quick thinking and resourcefulness had probably saved his life not that he would admit that to her. She would inevitably find a way to make him cringe when she talked about it. Adam liked his friends, his horse, and his ladies to have a bit of an edge, and he especially liked a woman who made him think as well as physically react to her. Annie was certainly doing all of that. Adam wondered what it would be like to kiss her, and if she would have a critical analysis afterwards. He grinned then and awaited her return.

In the stable, Annie was thinking along much the same lines. Except she was surprised that she liked Adam so much. Normally men who were so arrogant made her head in the opposite direction, but she was beginning to wonder if it was arrogance or just that he had confidence in his abilities. She had almost slapped his face earlier though. As she thought about that, she couldn’t help it and she blushed. She had made several saucy comments to him, and he had been frustrated with her.

“Sometimes I think I ought to take you over my lap and spank you.”

“Only sometimes? What about the other times?”

“Then I want to take you on my lap but for other purposes entirely.”

“You’re disgusting. Besides, I am not a child and I will not be talked to as if I am.”

“Then why are you still here talking with me?”

“Because I told your father that I would stay with you while he was gone to town. Now I’m thinking I should have gone to town and run those errands for him, and he could have sat here with you.”

That’s when Adam had suggested the mulled wine, and now Annie was out here in the stable mucking out a stall when she could be relaxing in the nice warm house. As she finished, she thought she heard something outside. As she left the stable, she saw Adam sitting on the porch step. She closed the stable door and walked deliberately to him not wanting him to see how concerned she actually was.

“What are you doing out here? I thought you were told to stay in the house today?”

“I was, but I thought it would be nice to sit out here. I just got a bit dizzy so I sat down. Is that all right with you?”

“Do you want some help to go back inside or to sit out here?”

“Probably best if I head back inside.”

Bending low, Annie had Adam put his arm around her shoulder as he stood. She saw him grimace in pain and knew it was probably his shoulder that hurt. Then the two of them walked into the house. Annie shivered under his touch for his warm hand grasping her shoulder was sending tingles all through her body.

“Are you cold? Hop Sing really does make some nice mulled wine.”

“No, thank you, but a little hot chocolate might be nice.”

It was hard to tell if it was superior hearing or fabulous intuition, but as Annie sat by Adam on the settee waiting for his dizziness to pass, Hop Sing came out with two steaming mugs of hot chocolate and a plate of cookies.

“Mr. Adam no eat breakfast. He eat something now. Missy Annie please to tell Hop Sing if she likes his hot chocolate and cookies.”

“I am sure Adam will love them, and I know I’ll find them delicious. Thank you.”

Not liking Annie answering for him but unwilling to contradict her statement, Adam just scowled. Annie and Hop Sing noticed.

“Mister Adam not good patient. He not listen and do as told. You make him sit here and rest.”

“I’ll try, Hop Sing, but other that sitting on him, I don’t know how to make the man stay where he’s put.”

Grinning lasciviously then, Adam did have a comment. “I wouldn’t mind you sitting on me. When do you suppose you could start that?”

“I really ought to slap you, but then I’d have to touch you to do that which would be disgusting.”

“Perhaps a game of checkers or chess then?”

That turned into a marathon session of chess with each winning two matches. Adam wasn’t beaten often and had never been beaten by a woman. He knew his brothers were going to have a great time with that. They got called away to dinner by an impatient Ben and agreed to continue after dinner. Joe said he would play the winner but both ignored him. The last match lasted over three hours in total, and ended up with Adam conceding. Surprisingly Annie was gracious.

“It probably wasn’t fair. You were getting tired and made some mistakes. You were ahead the whole match until you did that.”

“I lost. You won. That’s how it is. Congratulations.” Adam leaned back and closed his eyes for a moment. Then he opened his eyes and smiled. “And tomorrow, a rematch!”

Groaning, Annie was smiling inside. Another whole day with him would be fun. When they weren’t trading barbs, they talked about almost anything. She enjoyed being with a man who was willing to listen to her ideas and discuss them with her. It didn’t hurt at all that she enjoyed just being by him physically too. She was beginning to think she would be able to identify him in the dark just by the smell of him for it was so masculine and suited him perfectly.

Because of Annie, the days passed quickly for Adam and that made everyone else in the family happy. He was normally such an ornery patient and got crabbier and crabbier as his convalescence progressed. This time he remained pleasant to everyone even if there seemed to be an inordinate amount of insults traded with Annie. It seemed they worked at coming up with more and more creative ways to jab at each other in conversation. Neither one ever got upset with the other though because it was a game with them. Ben smiled at Hoss one evening as Adam and Annie doing their usual bickering over a chess match. Both of them understood that Adam and Annie were starting to like each other more and more. It seemed that quite often they forgot there were even other people in the room. There was nothing that anyone could interpret as traditionally romantic between the two, but both Ben and Hoss expected that would change as soon as both of them admitted how they actually felt about one another because that was so clear to everyone else.

On Thanksgiving, the day was more pleasant than ever with Annie and Jeremy joining in the family celebration that also included Sheriff Roy Coffee and Doctor Paul Martin. Over dinner, Roy was inclined to share stories he had about the three Cartwright sons, and none of those stories showed them in a good light.

“Roy, you’re scaring our guests with stories about us like that. Don’t you have something good you could say to impress them instead.”

“Well, Adam, I didn’t know that you wanted to impress someone. Now I surely could tell stories to make you all look better. Now which one of the guests would you like me to impress?”

Everyone at the table laughed at Adam’s scowl, but for the first time, it was clear that Adam was pursuing Annie and wanted her to see him in a good light. When it was time to bid Roy and Paul good night, Adam stood next to Annie on the porch. As everyone said goodbye, Adam put his right arm around Annie’s shoulders and pulled her close.

“You better remove your arm from my shoulder before I remove it from yours.”

“Well you could try. I wouldn’t mind wrestling a little.”

“Adam, mind your manners with our guest. It’s Thanksgiving. You ought to show some gratitude for what Annie has done for you.”

“Oh, Pa, I am very grateful to Annie except for the mouth on her.”

“My mouth! You should talk, you egotistical martinet.”

“Ah, have you been looking in the dictionary for new words for your insults, again?”

“No, when I look at you, they just naturally come to mind.”

Shaking his head, Ben walked in the house to let the two of them have another one of their verbal sparring matches except this time Adam had his arm around Annie’s shoulder. It was one step closer to him admitting he was falling in love with her. Despite her words, Annie had not removed his arm from her shoulder or his. It was apparent to everyone that she actually didn’t mind at all.

The verbal banter continued between the two of them over the next several weeks, but sometimes it was more affectionate than barbed. Everyone seemed to notice except Annie at least to the observers. Inside, Annie had noticed and liked the fact that Adam was being nicer and nicer to her, but she wouldn’t concede that to him and give him any more control over her than he already had. He was like a powerful magnet pulling her into his orbit. But she found it extremely difficult to think of leaving the Ponderosa, and when she thought like that, she knew too that she was falling in love.

Finally it was nearing Christmas, and Annie wondered if she and her brother had overstayed their welcome. When she asked, she was surprised by the answer. Jeremy had agreed to work on the Ponderosa.

“Jeremy, when were you going to tell me?”

“I was going to tell you as soon as you brought up leaving. You just did, so I told you.”

“But I can’t just stay here because you’re working here.” Annie didn’t want to leave but now felt that she would be imposing.

“You’ve helped everyone out by staying here with me. I would have inevitably bitten someone’s head off otherwise.” Adam was actually feeling a fear in his gut that Annie might leave. He had been looking forward to being able to spend time with her when the snows came and locked them at the ranch and often locked them in the house for days at a time.

“You got that right. Miss Annie, you plumb been the best gift anyone coulda given this family. You kept Adam from being the ornery cuss he normally is when he’s hurt or sick.”

“But Hoss, Adam is fine now. His collarbone has healed up.”

“Annie, I don’t want you to leave yet. There’s not going to be a job for you in town now. Winter always makes jobs hard to find. And Jeremy will be here so you would be all alone in town.” Adam had almost slipped up then and expressed his true feelings. Everyone in the room understood what he meant though.

“Annie, everything Adam said is true. You are welcome to be our guest as long as you want. It’s not everyday I get to repay someone for saving my son’s life by pulling a gun on some rustlers and then stopping him from falling over a cliff. And then you took charge of his care here. I can never repay you enough for that.” Ben was smiling but everyone knew he was very grateful to Annie for what she had done.

“I couldn’t impose on you like that. I need to do something then to pay for my stay.” Looking at Adam and the expression he had, Annie was quick to amend that statement. “But I won’t do anything that he suggests.”

“Annie, I’m sure my son would never suggest anything inappropriate to a guest in our home.” Ben gave a pointed look to Adam for there were some times he thought that Adam pushed too far in his comments to Annie. “We do have the Christmas season coming up, and we could use some help with the decorating and preparations.”

“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright. I would be happy to help.”

“Good, then that’s settled. You will stay here, and Jeremy will be working for us.”

*****

Chapter 4

In the days before Christmas, there was plenty for everyone to do. Adam and Hoss took the wagon into town to pick up supplies and then a day later, they went back for more. They were getting ready for hosting a party and laying in stocks of supplies for the winter when they sometimes couldn’t get to town. As Hoss and Adam returned from that second trip, Annie and Joe were hanging garland around the front door. There had been about six inches of heavy wet snow, and Joe couldn’t resist. He hit both Hoss and Adam with snowballs as they were carrying boxes into the kitchen. He could tell by the looks he got that as soon as they could, they would be retaliating.

“Oh oh, Annie, get ready. There’s gonna be a snowball fight soon.”

“Why should I get ready? I didn’t throw any snowballs.”

“You don’t think Adam is going to miss a chance to mash a snowball in your mouth?”

“Good point. All right, where’s the best defensive position?”

Stacking snowballs as fast as they could, Annie and Joe still weren’t ready because Hoss came at them with some powerful throws and Adam came up behind them after circling around the back of the house. He had been known in the past to even come down off the porch roof so Joe wasn’t surprised but Annie was when he hit her in the back of the head with an especially wet sloppy snowball because he was so close he could. She turned around to throw one at him and got the next one in her mouth as she prepared to say a saucy comment. Then she got mad and tackled him which normally she wouldn’t have been able to do, but he was so surprised, it worked. With her hands full of snow then, she gave him a particularly thorough snow face wash. When she was done, she realized he wasn’t fighting back. Instead he had a huge grin which made her realize she had straddled him. She blushed about as thoroughly as she could at that point and moved to get up, but he grabbed her wrists and pulled her down for a kiss. It was a quick kiss, but she felt those warm lips wet with snow and they felt as if they had burned her. She leaped back as soon as he released her.

“Fun, isn’t it?”

“You’re a cad. I can’t believe you just did that. We were having a snowball fight, ya big lug.”

“I don’t know. It felt more like wrestling to me.”

Any retort by Annie was cut off by the barrage of snowballs that hit her as soon as she was standing. Adam started laughing so hard he rolled in the snow. Annie wanted to hit him with something harder than a snowball right then except she heard Hoss and Joe laughing hysterically too. Even Ben and some of the hands had come outside to see what the commotion was. They saw three men covered in snow with one of them laying in it, and Annie standing there fuming.

“Boys, I think perhaps you have given Annie enough of an introduction to a Ponderosa snowball fight. Annie, please, go inside and warm up. I’m sure these three can handle everything out here.” With a raised eyebrow, Ben turned to follow Annie into the house and got hit in the back with a snowball. He turned around and his three sons were doing a great imitation of the three monkeys: no hear, no see, no say. He shook his head and headed into the house knowing he was going to have to hide his grin if Annie was anywhere in sight.

On Christmas Eve, there was a party at the Ponderosa. The house was gaily decorated and a giant tree stood next to the fireplace. There was a giant ball of mistletoe hanging near the front door. Musicians started to play, and Adam asked Annie to dance with him. He had not yet kissed her or hugged her since the snowball fight, but spent as much time as he could with her. Sometimes he reached up and pushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear. Other times he touched her hand or her arm as he was talking to her. When they walked together, he put his hand on her back to guide her. He had never pursued a woman as hard as he was pursuing her. He meant to have her but she had yet to let him get close enough to hug her much less try to kiss her the way he wanted to kiss her. He pulled her close for their dance.

“Don’t you think that’s a little too close. I don’t need to be guided like a baby.”

“Just follow my lead. We’re going to glide around this room together.”

With his hand warm on her back and his breath on her face, Annie couldn’t help herself and melded her body to his. She could tell that he was being affected by her as much as she was by him as he held her. The musicians moved from one song into another alternating fast with slow. After nearly an hour, when the music stopped, Adam didn’t let Annie go but maneuvered her under the mistletoe.

“You can let me go now, you big lug.”

“No, no, I can’t. If you would be so kind to look above you, you will see it is mistletoe. I can’t let you go now unless you kiss me. It’s a tradition that must be upheld.”

Submitting to a kiss, Annie went to pull away from him as he brushed his lips over hers again after the first kiss and then tried to nudge her lips apart with his tongue. “I can’t kiss you in front of all these people. Not the way you’re trying to kiss me.”

“All right then, let’s go.”

“Go where?”

“Outside. We need to talk. Besides, you must be warm by now, and we can cool down a little and get some fresh air.”

Grabbing her coat and his, Adam ushered Annie out the front door. He helped her slide her coat on and then pulled his on before wrapping his arms around her and pulling her in for a passionate kiss he hoped.

“Well I don’t have to kiss you here.”

Adam pointed up, and when she looked, she had to laugh. There was another large ball of mistletoe hanging on the porch and he had positioned her directly beneath it. He pulled her into his embrace again and this time, he did get the passionate kiss he had been looking for. He kissed her neck then as he ran his finger along the neckline of her dress. She gasped from his touch but didn’t pull away. He moved back to her lips and kissed her deeply again.

“Adam, we shouldn’t be doing this. It’s too much to do for a couple who aren’t married.”

Nuzzling her neck, Adam continued his kissing and caressing that Annie couldn’t bear to stop and couldn’t bear to continue.

“Please, Adam, don’t. We shouldn’t be doing this. We’re not married.”

“Well then, there’s only one thing to do.” As Annie went to turn to the house to return to the party, Adam pulled her tightly to him. She was surprised but what he said surprised her even more.

“Marry me. Please, will you marry me?”

“What?”

“I thought I made myself very clear. I wanted you from the moment I first saw you. But now I’ve gotten to know you, and I want you with me always. I want you in my bed; I want you by my side: I want you always and forever. I love you with my heart and soul.”

Searching Adam’s face for any sign of mischief, Annie only saw raw desire and hope. She wanted so badly to say yes, but she couldn’t without explaining. “Adam, I can’t say yes.”

She never got that chance to explain. Adam dropped his arms from her, and that cold mask was fixed in place. “Very well, then. I guess you should probably go back inside. People will be wondering where you are.”

As Adam turned quickly then and walked away from her, Annie didn’t know what to do. She had wanted to explain, but he had turned on her so quickly, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to explain any more if he could be that cold with her. She wondered if she did want to be with him. She didn’t want another relationship without love. He had been so warm when he was flirtatious but had turned it off as fast as she thought any human could. Annie went back inside, but at the looks she got from Hoss and Joe, she knew they were wondering what had happened outside. She couldn’t bear to tell them, and as she thought about what happened, tears began to flow.

Angry and wondering what Adam had done to upset Annie like that, Hoss and Jeremy did their best to comfort the young woman. Joe got her some tea, and told her to sit in the kitchen for a bit until she felt better. He sat with her and waited to see if she wanted to talk. Hoss and Jeremy went outside to talk with Adam because he did not come back in for the party. They couldn’t find him, but Sport was gone.

As Adam had ridden out, he realized all of his friends were at his home. If he went to town, he knew he would probably end up at the saloon. So he headed for the little used line shack nearest the house. When he got there, he took care of Sport, and then he built up a fire in the fireplace and sat in the dancing firelight wondering how he had gotten things so wrong.

Christmas was very subdued on the Ponderosa when Adam did not return that day. They opened presents, toasted the holiday, and enjoyed Hop Sing’s finest foods. But the empty chair at the dining table was a reminder there of what had happened. The biggest problem was that no one except Annie had any idea what had happened, and she didn’t want to talk about it. As the day drew to a close, and everyone had retired for the night except Annie and Ben, he asked her to sit next to the fireplace with him.

“Mr. Cartwright, Jeremy and I should go. It’s not going to be comfortable for anyone while we’re still here.”

“What happened?” Tears started to flow again so Ben handed over his handkerchief. “We need to get this all out in the open if anyone is going to heal.”

“Adam asked me to marry him, and I said I couldn’t say yes. I wanted to explain, but he just turned on me and walked away. He got so cold and distant. Then I came in the house, and you know the rest.”

“My eldest son has a very difficult time opening his heart to anyone, trusting anyone. If you had said that to Joe, he would have gotten angry and demanded to know why not. Hoss would have probably shed a tear and asked you why. Adam is the most tenderhearted of them all regardless of that persona he has. He is very easily hurt. He runs away from being hurt. I think he expects to be hurt when he loves someone so he’s more than ready to be hurt if something goes wrong.”

“I didn’t mean to hurt him. I thought he valued the truth, and I wanted to tell him the whole truth before he made that kind of commitment. He never gave me a chance.”

“We’re going to host the New Year’s Eve party this year for the Cattlemen’s Association. A member hosts every year, and it’s our turn this year. Please, will you stay at least until that party is over? If you still want to leave then, I’ll do whatever I can to help you with that.”

“It’s going to be very hard to do stay here. What if Adam won’t come home because I’m here?”

“If you love him, isn’t he worth a bit of trouble and hardship? And he will come home. If he isn’t here tomorrow, I’ll send Hoss after him. He knows that.”

Smiling through her tears, Annie nodded. She didn’t actually think it would make a difference, but she would stay until New Year’s Day.

*****

Chapter 5

On the morning after Christmas, Adam was home. It was clear he hadn’t slept well with the circles under his eyes. He also hadn’t shaved or eaten since he left. He sat in the kitchen nursing a cup of coffee when Ben came down for breakfast.

“Well, it’s about time you got back. Yesterday was pretty much ruined for everyone, thanks to you. What have you got to say for yourself?”

“Nothing.”

“Well I expect you to be shaved and properly dressed for the dining table by the time we have breakfast.”

“I’m not hungry. What work needs to be done today?”

“Well the regular chores of course, and we need to haul some hay to those pastures before the snow gets any deeper. Three or four wagon loads ought to be enough.”

“I’ll get started on that right away.”

As Adam grabbed his coat, hat, scarf, and gloves before walking outside, Ben could only shake his head. Hop Sing looked at him with sympathy. Adam was a difficult man to work with especially when he was upset, and anyone who knew him knew that he was upset. Ben informed Joe and Hoss that Adam was home when they came downstairs. He told Annie too and saw how pale that made her. Ben realized how important this was to her, and how difficult she would likely find the next week to be unless he could get through to his most stubborn son.

After breakfast, Joe and Hoss went out to help Adam move hay to the pastures. He had finished their chores for them, and it was a measure of how upset they were with him that they did not thank him for doing some of their work. Adam had meant it as an apology, but obviously it wasn’t enough. They were relatively quiet as they worked. Joe and Hoss wanted to say something about Adam’s absence on Christmas and how that had ruined the holiday for them but didn’t know exactly what to say yet so nothing was said.

Uncomfortable with silence in almost any situation, Joe had to bring up something he had heard at the Christmas Eve party. “Adam, there’s a rumor that Dave Anderson’s son looks more like you than him. You used to be sweet on the lady he married and now there’s talk.”

“Geez, Joe, if you believe the talk, there ain’t a spinster, widow, or lonely wife who hasn’t had the benefit of older brother’s attentions. Many a dark haired baby has got a man wondering if he fathered that dimpled little tyke or if his wife had a visitor while he was away on a cattle drive.”

Remaining silent, Adam continued to fork hay from the wagon onto a stack in the pasture. Joe couldn’t remain silent though. “Adam, is that true? Have you been roaming the countryside taking care of the ladies? Hey that would explain why he isn’t married yet, wouldn’t it, Hoss?”

“Well, now, it surely would. Hey, older brother, ain’t ya gonna say nothing?”

“Doesn’t matter what I say. If I say I didn’t, it appears I’m defending myself. I can’t prove I didn’t. If I say I did, you’re going to think I’m boastful and a complete cad. It’s a situation in which I can’t win.”

“Well, rumors must be based on something.”

“Why, Joe?”

“Well, because aren’t they always?”

“As long as people keep thinking like that, rumors will continue to be created and spread. It’s asinine.”

“Hey, you don’t have to call me names.”

“I didn’t call you a name.”

“Yes, you did. Didn’t he, Hoss?”

“Nah, he just got those uppity ways cause his mama was uppity like that.”

“Hoss, don’t.”

“Aw, c’mon. You say all sorts of stuff, and I say one thing about your prissy mother, and you get all upset.”

“Shut up, Hoss!”

“Oh, get over it. She wasn’t a saint. She was a woman in bed just like any other.”

With that, Adam hit Hoss. After he did that, he stood in horror of what he had done. “Hoss, I’m so sorry.” Adam had promised Inger that he would take care of Hoss, and in the nearly thirty years since that day, he had never hit Hoss. Now he had broken that promise and was devastated by his failure especially after what he conceived were his other failures in the past couple of days.

However Hoss was incensed and never heard Adam’s apology. He was angry because Adam had hurt Annie. Hoss loved Annie and thought he could have fallen in love with her except she only had eyes for Adam. Hoss had suffered the day before watching Annie struggling to get through the day without crying. All of his pent up anger was released though as he pummeled Adam who did not fight back. Joe had to grab Hoss’ arm and scream at him to stop. Hoss stood then and looked at Adam who was on all fours on the ground.

“Why didn’t you fight back? You gonna just walk away from me like you walked away from Annie on Christmas Eve after you hurt her so bad she was crying all that night and all yesterday even when they weren’t any tears?”

Adam struggled to his feet with the evidence of Hoss’ mighty blows all too apparent. “Hurt her? I asked her to marry me. How can I face her now? Tell me that. How would you face a woman who said she couldn’t say yes when you asked her to marry you?”

Both Joe and Hoss stepped toward Adam then but he shrugged off their help. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at the blood on his face. It didn’t do much good so he picked up his hat and scarf, put them on, and grabbed the fork to remove the rest of the hay from the wagon. He was a little unsteady on his feet, but fought off the nausea and dizziness to complete his task. Hoss and Joe finished up with the other larger wagon. Without speaking again, Adam climbed aboard the wagon seat and snapped the reins taking the empty wagon back to the barn. He was done unhitching the horses when Hoss and Joe returned with the other wagon. Hoss told him to go get cleaned up, and they would take care of the horses and the harness.

When Adam went into the kitchen to get help from Hop Sing, Ben heard him. He came into the kitchen to find out why Adam had not come in the front door. What he saw shocked him. Adam’s face was bloodied, bruised, and swollen especially on one side.

“Now you’ve been fighting with your brothers?”

“I wouldn’t exactly call it a fight.”

“Oh and what would you call it?”

“It was a pretty good beat down.”

“And I suppose you didn’t throw any punches?”

“I started it. It was my fault.” Adam was wincing with that statement as well as the astringent Hop Sing was using to clean the abrasions on his face.

“Which brother?”

“You don’t really think Joe could do this to me, do you?” Hop Sing finished cleaning Adam’s face and handed him another clean cloth to hold to his nose which was almost done bleeding. He knew he would get a lecture from Hop Sing as soon as his father left.

“A simple answer would have been nice. I’m going out to talk with him.”

“Pa, please don’t.”

“Don’t presume to tell me what to do when there’s trouble in my family especially with the way you’ve been acting lately.”

By the time Ben got to the barn, he was as curious as he was angry. He saw Hoss and Joe and by Hoss’ embarrassed expression, he knew that what Adam had said was true except there wasn’t even a mark on Hoss.
“Would you care to explain to me why your brother is sitting in the kitchen looking like a prize fighter who lost a five round bout, and you look just fine? I know he can box better than that.”

“That’s just it, Pa. He hit me when I said something that made him real mad, but then he didn’t hit back. Joe says he said he was sorry, but I guess I didn’t hear him. Pa, I was just so mad at him after what he did to Annie, I guess it just got to me too much.”

“Pa, Adam said he asked Annie to marry him. She didn’t accept his proposal and that’s why he left. Is that true?”

“Joseph, I don’t believe your brother is in the habit of lying. He may hold back telling us some things, but you know you can take his word as his bond.”

“But, Pa, why wouldn’t she say yes? You can tell how crazy she is about him.”

“Perhaps that is none of your business. For the next several days, it would be advisable if the two of you would stay out of your brother’s affairs. They’re a big enough mess already without you two making things worse.”

Walking back to the house, Ben thought he probably should have a talk with Adam as well, but when he got inside he found out from Hop Sing that Adam had gone to lie down because he had a terrible headache. He didn’t come down for lunch which was as subdued as a funeral. He was there for dinner and Hop Sing served him a bowl of soup. Annie was shocked seeing the condition of his face not knowing what had happened. After Adam excused himself when he finished his soup, Ben waited until he turned the corner at the top of the stairs before telling a short version of the day’s events to Annie. Ben also resolved to himself to have a talk with his oldest son the next day.

*****

Chapter 6

In the morning as Adam exited his bedroom, Hoss was leaving his. Adam stopped and Hoss turned away to head downstairs.

“Hoss, I’m so sorry.”

“You’re sorry?”

“Yes, I’m so sorry I hit you. I hope you can forgive me.”

“For that little poke. Heck, I hardly felt it. Adam, I’m sorry for beating on you. It was uncalled for. I’m really sorry.”

“It’s all right. I guess I had it coming.”

“Ya never said nothing against my Ma and I shouldn’t have been crude talking about yours. Heck I never even met the woman.”

“Ah, neither did I?”

“What, oh yeah. We’re good then?”

Wrapping an arm around his big brother’s shoulders, Adam nodded and the two went down to breakfast. Annie was already there with Ben so Adam said he wasn’t hungry and headed out to the stables to do chores. Ben followed him and found Adam backing the horses out of the stalls so that he could muck them out. Ben sat on a bale of hay and watched his son for a bit wondering if he would say anything.

“Are you through playing the martyr yet?”

“I’m not playing the martyr.”

“Of course you are. You think it’s the same as the other times you opened your heart to a woman. She’s not going to die like Sue Ellen. She’s not going to run off with someone else like Laura did. She’s right here because I asked her to stay to give you another chance.”

Spinning around to face his father, Adam had a sharp response to that. “What good does another chance do? I asked her, and she said she couldn’t say yes.”

“Did she say no?”

“Well, it’s the same thing.”

“Is it? Or were you so ready to be rejected, that you assumed it was. You’re smart enough to know better, but when it comes to love, I think you’re the most childish of my boys.”

“You’ve got to be kidding. That’s the best you’ve got? I am not childish.”

“Aren’t you? You want love to be simple and pure like a child gets love from a parent at birth. Well, love with a woman isn’t that easy. There are bumps in the road. You need to get over it, and ask her why she couldn’t say yes.”

There was silence then as Ben let Adam think it through. Adam handed his father a fork. “Do I get a tanning with this lecture?” There was a hint of a smile there, and Ben realized he had indeed penetrated that hard shell. “Pa, do you really think she loves me?”

“Adam, do you really think I would waste this wonderful lecture? I wouldn’t have bothered unless I thought it was one of the most important things for your future. She loves you as much as I think a woman can before she is married. I think she’s the kind of woman too whose love will grow as the two of you learn more about each other and share experiences. You’re a lucky man to have found her. Now don’t mess this up again. She’s also a very strong woman and not about to take any more foolishness from you.”

“Where is she?”

“Last I saw, she had her coat on and was walking behind the house.”

Taking the hint, Adam walked in that direction. Ben took a deep breath, looked to heaven, and said a quick prayer. These two feisty people were going to need a bit of help from someone to be able to clear the air between them. Just when Ben was thinking there might be a resolution of this mess, he saw Jeremy come out of the bunkhouse to confront Adam. He threw Adam up against the wall of the bunkhouse and pinned him there. As Ben rushed to them, he heard Jeremy’s threat.

“You go near my sister again, and I’ll make what Hoss did to you look like child’s play.”

“Jeremy, listen to me. I think you should let Adam go talk with Annie and try to settle this between them. Honestly, Jeremy, I think it would be for the best if you would let that happen.”

Unsure, but knowing that Ben had been a friend to the two of them ever since they got here, Jeremy relented and released Adam. “You better not hurt her, or what I said still stands.”

“Understood. I won’t hurt her. I promise.”

With that, Jeremy stepped back and allowed Adam to continue to the back of the house. He found Annie there pacing and looking forlorn. When she saw Adam, she looked almost afraid.

“Adam, I can’t do this. I told your father I would stay until New Year’s Day, but this is just too difficult.”

“Annie, tell me now why you couldn’t say yes. I didn’t give you a chance before, and I was wrong. I guess I thought you didn’t love me, but if you didn’t, you wouldn’t feel so bad about how things are. So Annie, please talk to me. Tell me. Please?”

Looking at Adam and seeing the sincerity in his bruised and battered face, Annie decided they could talk.

“Adam, I was married before. It was a very brief marriage before my husband died in a typhoid outbreak that had took my parents as well. Adam, I was very sick. I had a very high fever for days and days. I was in bed for weeks. When I recovered, some things, woman things, just weren’t the same any more, and the doctor told me that I probably wouldn’t be able to have children. There have been a couple of men who said they wanted to marry me. As soon as I told them that, they lost interest. What man doesn’t want his own family, heirs? That’s why I couldn’t say yes. I had to tell you this, and now you can walk away, but at least you know why, and it has nothing to do with you.”

Stepping in close to Annie, Adam held out his arms. Annie stepped into his embrace and the two of them stood silently for several minutes just relishing the comfort of the arms of the other. Then Adam was ready to talk.

“That doesn’t matter as much to me as you do. Yes, I would like to have children, but it’s up to God, I guess. The doctor was guessing. He didn’t know. He was just giving you fair warning. You’re giving me fair warning, and Annie, it doesn’t matter. I love you. I didn’t fall in love with you because I thought you could have babies so I can’t fall out of love with you if you can’t. Can we start over? Can we spend time together and get to know one another better?”

Annie turned her face up to kiss Adam and hold him, but two negative things happened. One he said ‘ouch’ to her kiss. His lips, jaw, and cheek had not recovered from the pounding he had received from Hoss. The other was that Annie felt something sticky on her fingers when she wrapped her arms around Adam’s neck and put her hand in the curls at the back of his head. When she pulled her fingers away, they were sticky with blood.

“Adam, what happened? You’re bleeding.”

“I didn’t know I was bleeding, but your brother objected to my coming to see you. He pushed me up against the wall of the bunkhouse rather forcefully. I guess after the beating Hoss gave me, I didn’t protect myself enough. We need to do something about those two men before one of them accidentally kills me.”

“For now, let’s just get you inside and cleaned up. Then I think you might need to lay down for a while.”

After cleaning up the gash on the back of Adam’s head, Annie and Adam walked together from the kitchen toward the stairs. Annie was going to walk Adam to his room. Seeing everyone sitting in the great room, Adam had one comment.

“Please, no one has a reason to hit me any more, I hope.”

“Yes, and let’s keep it that way unless I tell you he needs a good whupping.”

Hoss started laughing then especially when he saw the look on Adam’s face. Annie had put him in his place again. He decided if she could put up with him, he could too. Jeremy seemed to think the same thing as he started laughing too before he commented.

“Only lady I ever knew who could bust a mustang. Looks like she done it again.”

That got everyone laughing and Adam couldn’t climb the stairs fast enough. In his room, Annie kissed him again before he lay down, but he didn’t release her hand. “Please, stay with me. We won’t do anything, but just stay with me.”

Annie nodded and Adam slid over on the bed so she could lay down next to him. He wrapped an arm around her as she rested her head on his chest. Then he closed his eyes and fell asleep. He was exhausted after the last few nights as was Annie who soon was asleep as well. The door was open and they were both fully clothed except for boots, but Ben was aghast when he saw them. He decided to say something later when Adam awakened. He didn’t like Adam’s answer.

“Pa, we were fully clothed and asleep. We did nothing wrong. I promised you years ago to abide by your rules inside this house. Have I ever given you reason to doubt me?”

Ben had to admit the logic of Adam’s statement but didn’t like it.

“We won’t do anything like it again if it bothers you so much, but you had to know how significant today was for us.”

Ben did have to agree with that. For the next several days, life got back to a more normal and pleasant routine as Adam and Annie spent time talking and inevitably sparring with each other.

*****

Chapter 7

On the night of the New Year’s Eve party, Adam danced only with Annie. If she wasn’t available because his father or brothers were dancing with her, he waited until she was free again. He held her in his arms tenderly for every waltz and held her firmly for the more boisterous dances. After more than an hour of that, she was exhausted. He grabbed their coats and escorted her out the front door.

“Why does this seem so familiar?”

“Perhaps because we did the same a week ago.”

Wrapping his arms around her waist and pulling Annie to him, Adam kissed her gently at first. He ran his hands up and down her back slowly as he pressed her closer to him.

“Now I was wondering if you had an answer for me that was different than a week ago, and I promise to stay right here and listen if you have something you need to say. If you can’t say yes right now, I’ll wait until you’re ready to tell me that too. I know it’s been a rough week, and I’ll give you all the time you need. Just tell me what you’re feeling.”

Placing a finger gently over Adam’s lips to stop his nervous talking, Annie looked into Adam’s eyes and touched his face with her hands holding both of his cheeks. What she saw was a yearning there that she understood for she felt it too. “Yes, Adam, yes.” Then they did kiss with a passion born of their love for one another and the difficulties they had experienced in the past week. They kissed and held each other close until they had to stop. With his hands situated once again on Annie’s waist as her hands rested on his chest, Adam had a suggestion he was hoping she would consider.

“Annie, the minister is a guest here tonight. Would tonight be too soon to marry me?”

“Oh, my God, are you crazy?”

“Well, not according to my father but then he’s probably prejudiced in my favor. No, I mean it. Your whole family is here. Mine’s here. Why not?”

“I guess I never thought it would happen like this.” Annie shook her head and tried to think of reasons not to do it. She couldn’t think of any. “Yes, if you want to, yes. But what will your family think? Oh my, God, what will Jeremy think?”

“There’s only one way to know. Let’s go ask them.”

Without giving Annie a chance to object, Adam wrapped an arm around Annie’s waist and escorted her into the house. The music paused when the couple came in the door and stopped, and Ben looked to the couple. “Well?”

“She said yes.”

“And?”

“And tonight is fine with her.”

Congratulations and grins were all that met them then. Hop Sing brought out the champagne he had been told to chill and prepare to serve. Hoss and Jeremy gave Adam’s slaps on the back that reminded him why he never wanted either of them to be angry with him. Suddenly Annie realized that Adam had orchestrated the whole thing. She whirled on him and demanded to know if he had in fact planned the whole thing.

“Did everyone here know you were going to ask me tonight?”

“Well, not all of them perhaps.”

“I can’t believe it. You never are spontaneous, are you?”

“Sweetheart, you must know me better than that by now. Would I do anything without thinking it through first and preparing?”

Shaking her head, Annie had to admit that was true. Adam pulled her into another kiss, and then the minister performed the wedding ceremony he had been warned by Adam might be expected of him this night. When the minister pronounced them husband and wife, and told Adam he could kiss the bride, he grinned and reached for her.

“You heard him. I have permission.” And then Adam gave her a kiss that went well beyond the usual propriety of a first kiss of husband and wife. Annie whispered in his ear after he stopped.

“And now who needs a good spanking?”

Pointing at himself and acting as if he was innocent of everything, Adam got Annie to laugh. Then Ben was there to congratulate her as were her new brothers-in-law and her brother. The band began playing a waltz and Adam stepped out with Annie to dance, and then she danced with Ben, Hoss, Jeremy, and Joe before begging for a chance to sit for a time. She wasn’t sure but she thought she hadn’t stopped smiling for at least a half hour. Several people came in to say more snow was falling, and the guests hurriedly got their coats, hats, and scarves to head out and make sure they got home before the storm intensified. Ben and his sons made sure that everyone had enough carriage blankets and such before leaving, and then everyone left in a caravan so that should someone have trouble, the others would be there to help.

After the guests had left, and the room was cleaned up, Ben, Hoss, Joe, Jeremy, and Hop Sing said their goodnights. Adam and Annie stood alone in the great room with only the glow from the fireplace.

“I’m a little embarrassed to go upstairs now. They’ll all know what we’re doing.”

“We’re not going upstairs.” Adam picked Annie up then and she wrapped her arms around his neck wondering what else he had planned. He took her to the downstairs guest room and pushed the door open. The fireplace had warmed the room, and candles illuminated the space. He carried her in, kicked the door closed, and sat on the bed with her in his lap. He began unbuttoning her dress as he planted light kisses on her neck and then her shoulder as he pulled the dress down a bit. She unbuttoned his shirt and ran her fingers inside twirling them in the hair on his chest. She had wanted to do that since the first day she saw him lying in bed and that glorious chest had been exposed for her to see and admire.

“Sweetheart, not too much too fast. I want to enjoy the first time with you.”

“You were pretty confident that I would say yes, weren’t you?”

“Was there a chance you were going to say no?”

“Not a chance.”

“And, yes, I was very much counting on that. It would have been difficult to sleep tonight if you had told me to wait.”

“What if I told you to wait now?”

Stopping what he was doing and looking carefully at Annie’s face, Adam waited to see what else she would say.

“Ha, gotcha!”

“You really do need a spanking now and then.”

“You wouldn’t dare!”

“Not tonight. But one day you may push me too far.”

“Why not tonight?”

“Because tonight is our wedding night, and I won’t do anything to make you unhappy. I want you to remember this night fondly forever. Then when we have our anniversaries, no matter how badly I may have acted at times, I can always remind you of how good I was tonight.”

“Are you always planning and thinking ahead? Do you ever just enjoy the moment, and let the pleasure of something wash over you and wipe everything from your mind?”

“Hmm, I’m willing to try that. But first there are a few obstacles to remove.”

By then Adam had Annie’s dress open and pulled it down to her waist before he stood her up and pushed the dress to the floor. Then he pulled up her chemise running his hands up her sides and up her arms as he pulled that off. She was standing there in just her lacy pantaloons. He took off his shirt, unbuckled his belt and unbuttoned his pants dropping them to the floor as well. He lightly caressed her as he leaned down to kiss her. He hooked a thumb in each side of the pantaloons and pushed them slowly down her legs.

“I’ve been wanting to get inside these lace pantaloons since the first day we met.”

“You were inside them the first day we met.”

“Yes, but my hands were tied and I was trying to grab that little derringer you had hidden in there. That was quite clever by the way.”

Annie smiled with the unexpected praise from Adam. Then he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her back onto the bed with him. He lay beside her then and explored her body sliding his hands from her shoulders down across her abdomen while gently kissing her neck and her shoulders.

“I knew you were lecherous. That’s why I had to keep running away from you for the last two months.”

“Until tonight.”

“I got tired. You caught me at a weak moment.”

“Do you want to change your mind? It’s not too late to back out.”

“No, mister, you’re stuck with me now. Don’t expect me to let you win at chess just because we’re married. I’m not the type to sit back and act all domestic and such.”

“Umm, would you like to lay back and let me love you the best I know how? There’s been a lot of talking, and now it’s time for a lot of loving.”

Annie said nothing but was smiling. She had liked her husband, and he had been a decent man, but they had not been in love. Their time together in bed was all about satisfying his needs, and in the time that they had been together, he had never done anything like what Adam had done already tonight to bring her pleasure with his soft kisses and gentle touching. Usually her first husband had done what he wanted and then rolled over to go to sleep. Annie was being educated this night on how to enjoy a physical relationship as Adam asked her what she liked, and she said he could keep doing the things he was doing and more if he knew of anything else. He grinned and kissed her deeply again pressing their bodies together as he encouraged her to touch him as he was touching her. By the time Adam moved above her, she was ready for him. When they finished their lovemaking, he rolled to her side and held her close until his breathing and heart rate returned to something closer to normal.

“Oh my, is it going to be like that every night?”

“Oh, no, I couldn’t take my time tonight. I ached for you. No, sweetheart, it’s going to be better next time. Just wait, and I’ll show you.” Adam laid back and pulled Annie beside him. “Do you want to sleep a bit first?”

“Do you mean we will do more tonight?”

“Yes, it’s our wedding night. It should be memorable.”

“If we’re going to sleep, shouldn’t we put on some nightclothes?”

“I’ve never been a fan of them. They bunch up, and now they would also be in the way. If you’re willing, just snuggle up close to me, and I’ll pull the covers tightly around us. We’ll be nice and warm.”

Annie rested her head on Adam’s shoulder then with her hand still on his chest, and he did as he said. She fell asleep hearing the steady beat of his heart and the soft slow breathing as he fell asleep as content as he could remember being in his life.

*****

Chapter 8

“Hey, don’t I get a ring? If you planned everything so well, why wasn’t there a ring?”

“I did give you a ring. It’s just that is a temporary ring until we can get to town and order you a proper one.”

“It’s plain wire you wove into a ring.”

“I couldn’t get a ring in less than a week regardless of whether I could have gotten to town or not. I could give you my mother’s ring to wear if you wish, but I wanted to get you a ring that was from me.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I really was just kidding and didn’t mean to get you upset. This time.”

Early in the morning on New Year’s Day, Adam had awakened Annie when he slid out of bed to put wood on the coals in the fireplace. The room was small and probably could have been warmer, but they could hear the winds howling outside. A major winter storm had blown in on them after midnight. Now the newlyweds were snuggled down under the quilt and blankets wrapped in each other’s arms and talking.

“Can we get a dog?”

“What? Where did that come from?”

“We had a dog when I was growing up. It was fun to have a dog. Then when my parents and Walter died, Jeremy and I started moving around and the dog got sick and died. I think it ate something it shouldn’t.”

“So you think it would be more like a home to have a dog? Well, we do have Joe. He likes to do tricks. He hasn’t played any tricks on you yet because you were a guest, but now you’re family so it’s only a matter of time.”

“What kind of tricks has he played on you?”

“He put some red dye in my bay rum. I didn’t put it on my face because I saw the color on my hands, but I had red palms for weeks. Once, he put frogs in my chamber pot. I spilled and it was quite a mess to clean up. Hop Sing still hasn’t forgiven him for that one. Hop Sing had to bring the rug to Virginia City to be cleaned. Pa wasn’t any too happy either. Joe just looked sheepish, but inside I know he thought it was hilarious. I was just surprised he didn’t find a way to watch me when I used it so he could see the look on my face. He pulled the necessary over once while Hoss was sitting in it. For me he tied a rope around it when I was in there so I couldn’t get out. Then he went to town to have a drink. I was in there until dinner when Hop Sing needed eggs and came outside to hear me yelling. Oh, and now you’re laughing. I suppose you’re imagining it and thinking how funny that would be.”

“Well, I was thinking I wouldn’t mind doing something like that to him.”

“That may be very funny to think about, but don’t ever do it. Please?”

“Why not?”

“Pa gets very upset, and Joe will want to do about three more pranks to get even for one played on him. It just isn’t worth it. The only pranks you can play on him are ones that he doesn’t know are pranks.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I’m a little afraid to tell you. Isn’t there something else we could do until everyone else is up and ready for breakfast?”

“Maybe, but it would have to be something very good, and of course very interesting to take my mind off this conversation.”

Later, Adam and Annie had fallen asleep again and were awakened by noises from the kitchen as Hop Sing began to prepare breakfast. The room was considerably warmer and Annie was pleased to find that Adam had brought her clothing from the upstairs guest room and had brought an extra robe as well. He had a kettle of water by the fireplace so she had some warm water with which to wash.

“You can relax while I shave again, and then I’ll dress and get out of your way. I’m not looking forward to going to the stable to do chores, but they have to get done.”

Adam had shaved the night before so that he would not whisker burn his new wife. Annie had found out that he needed to shave twice a day or have significant stubble either in the morning or in the evening. She appreciated that he would do that for her. She watched as he shaved and dressed while she was still snuggled under the covers in the cocoon of body heat he had left behind.

“C’mon now, time for you to get out of bed. How about a kiss before I brave the terrible nasty storm out there?”

“You’re only going a hundred feet.”

“Yes but it will be a nasty terrible hundred feet. And then I have to come back through it all that nasty terrible snow again.”

“I think you need to go try out for a part at Piper’s Opera House. I’m sure they have a few tragic parts you can play.”

With his hand to his heart as if he had been stabbed, Adam leaned down to kiss Annie before leaving. She slapped his posterior as he turned to go.

“Ah, wench, remember what I warned you about. You may earn yourself a spanking yet.” Adam exited and closed the door before Annie had a chance to respond.

In the great room, Adam found Hoss bundling up for the trip to the stable.

“Thought you would be in bed yet since ya just got married last night.”

“I’m giving her time to dress for the day. And I’ll take care of her horse and mine. Now do you have a rope to tie to us?”

“Yeah, out in the washroom. I put some ropes there at least a week ago getting ready for when we had a storm. We’ll string a line to the stable too so we can find our way back. You ready?”

As Ben got to the top of the stairs, Hoss and Adam were heading out into the maelstrom. Ben yelled for them to be careful, but with the wind howling, they never heard him. Ben was confident though that Hoss and Adam would take adequate precautions. He got a cup of coffee and waited at the window by his desk though even though he couldn’t see more than about a dozen feet from the house. He started to get worried when an hour had passed, and they had not returned. Annie came out of the downstairs guest room, and Ben noted that she looked worried too so he did what he could to reassure her even though his own worry was unabated. Joe came downstairs and asked where Hoss and Adam were. There was no reply as both Ben and Annie just kept looking out the window. Joe grabbed a cup of coffee to warm up and began dressing to follow his brothers, and Ben came over to do the same. Just as they were about to brave the storm, the front door opened and two snow covered men stumbled in and then slammed the door shut.

“Damn, that’s a nasty storm.”

“Hoss, we have a lady present.”

“Ah, sorry, Pa and Annie, but dadburnit, that storm done blew in part of the back wall of the stable. Adam and me been working to close off that opening, and we barely could feed the horses a bit and such before we had to head back here. We were getting too wet and cold.”

“Yes, as soon as we can warm up and get some dry clothes, we need to head back. The repairs we made won’t hold. I need some tools from the shed too, and some lumber if we can find some.”

“How much do you need?”

“Pa, at least ten long boards, and a thicker beam if we can find one.”

“Adam, Joe and I will get some hands and we’ll go to the tool shed to get what we can. If necessary we’ll take boards from the tool shed. Nothing in there will suffer from the snow. You and Hoss get warmed up.”

Looking worried, Annie wanted to hug Adam but he was all wet. After he stripped off the wet coat, hat, scarf, and gloves, he tugged off his boots as well. He grabbed her hand then and led her up the stairs and to his room which was now their room.

“This will be our room now unless you want the guest room in the back to be our room. I need to get some dry clothing on. You can look around and see what you want to do, what you want to change, and bring your clothing and such up here. When I get back in later, we can find places for everything and you can tell me what you want to do.”

Knowing that if Annie got busy, she would worry less, Adam was giving her plenty to do. He hoped the time would pass quickly enough for her. He finished putting on dry clothing and grabbed his heavier coat from the closet as well as another scarf and pair of gloves. Over it all, he was going to pull on a slicker because he knew he would have to do some hammering outside and the snow was heavy and wet.

“Whenever we get to town, we can buy some things too. First will be a ring for you, but we can get other things that you want. And before you say anything about a dog, we need to talk to Pa first. He has always been dead set against a dog here even when Hoss brought home the cutest puppy a few years ago.”

As Adam prepared to leave to go do the work that was needed, he wrapped his arms around Annie and kissed her. He could see her eyes were glistening, but she put on her usual brave front.

“Don’t you dare get hurt out there, mister. We have a few more things to do to celebrate being married.”

“I’ll be as careful as I can be. Hoss and the others will be helping.”

Once Adam got downstairs, he could see Hoss was now dressed in heavier clothing too.

“Pa and Joe already headed out with some of the hands to the tool shed to get what you said we needed. They’ll string a rope line from the house to the tool shed and then to the stable.”

Following the rope line they had strung earlier, Adam and Hoss were soon in the stable. Snow was already blowing in openings in the temporary repairs. They got out the ladders and were ready when the others got there with lumber, a beam, nails, and other tools. They positioned the beam across the crossbeam that had cracked and secured it. Then they nailed the lumber across the temporary fix that Adam and Hoss had made. It was almost done in about an hour.

“I need to go outside and nail those boards to the new ones in here. Pile up some bales against this wall to help strengthen it and prevent the wind from blowing through.”

“Adam, I can go help you.”

“Hoss, it won’t take long. I’ll go out the tack room door so I’ll tie off a rope there. It should take about the same time as you need to get a wall of hay bales up against this wall.”

Soon, there were men in the loft lowering down hay bales to use, and they could hear hammering from the outside of the wall. Ben and Joe saw to the horses putting blankets over them because the stable was colder than usual with the wind and the snow that had blown in for part of the night. Straw was added to the small chicken coop that was in the stable over the winter so they could tell Hop Sing that his chickens were safe. There was suddenly a loud thump against the stable wall, and all were relieved when the wall held with no cracking or give. The worry was that they no longer heard the hammer, and after a few minutes when Adam did not return, Hoss and Ben rushed outside following the rope line Adam had used. They found the rope under a large branch that had fallen from a tree because it had become so weighted down with the heavy snow. Hoss rushed to the opposite side of the branch and saw the yellow slicker under the spreading branches.

“Pa, go inside and get everyone quick. We gotta lift this off of him.”

Reaching down to start pulling the snow away from Adam, Hoss was relieved when Adam reached for his hand. He cleared more snow away until he could kneel right by Adam’s head.

“How bad are you hurt?”

“I don’t think I’m hurt too bad at all. The snow cushioned me and I can feel everything, but there’s too much weight pressing me down. I can’t move.”

“We’ll get ya outta there in just a bit. Pa went to get everyone to help.”

Some of the smaller branches had to be cut away from the larger branch so that they could grab hold of it. In less than fifteen minutes, they were ready to lift as Ben stood by ready to pull Adam out. It worked just as they had planned it. Adam had trouble walking so Hoss and Ben helped him into the stable. There they closed everything up and made sure there were no more problems and then headed to the house. It was clear that the men would have to clear some of the snow off the roofs too so there wouldn’t be any collapses. Ben gave those orders to be carried out as soon as the men were warmed up again as they headed into the bunkhouse. As they got to the house, the door was flung open and Annie was there looking scared. The snow was beginning to diminish, and she had seen them helping Adam walk to the house.

“What happened?”

“Sweetheart, it’s nothing to be worried about. I got knocked down. I’ll be fine. Just a few bruises.”

“Then why can’t you walk?”

“I probably could, but it’s a lot easier this way.” Adam grinned trying to alleviate Annie’s worry but not very successfully. Once Hoss got Adam to their room, Ben and Hoss were a bit at a loss as to what to do. Adam settled it. “Annie can help me now. Thank you.” It seemed weird to Ben especially not to be helping a son who was hurt. He had just realized how much had changed because of Adam’s marriage.

After about a half hour, Annie came down the stairs with a pile of wet clothing and a yellow slicker. “He was right. Nothing serious, but he has some very nasty bruising on his back and shoulder. He’s going to be very stiff and sore I think. Right now he’s cold and hungry.”

Almost as if he had been cued, Hop Sing appeared with a tray. He had soup, coffee, and warm biscuits fresh from the oven. Annie took the tray thanking Hop Sing profusely, and Hop Sing took the wet clothing looking at the other Cartwrights as if to say that was how they should be with him. Ben was thinking that exact thought, and thanked Hop Sing as well for helping so much. Hop Sing smiled then, and Ben knew all would be well for a time.

Upstairs, Annie sat at the side of the bed as Adam had his lunch. She had a funny smile so Adam asked what she was thinking. He put his tray on the table and looked at her.

“What’s funny? You have this cute little grin.”

“I think this was pretty much where I came in about two months ago. You were banged up and lying in bed with no clothes on.”

“Yes, and I asked you to kiss me or climb into bed with me, and you got angry. I am sorry about that. I was just teasing.”

“How about now?”

“Now?”

“Well, you could ask the same thing now.”

“Would I get the same answer?”

“You should try it and find out.”

*****

Chapter 9

“May I stay and watch?”

“Adam Cartwright, please get your sorry posterior out of my dress shop. That is no way to speak in front of a lady.”

“I’m so sorry, Madame Fourier. I was most neglectful of my manners to speak so boldly in your presence. Consider me properly chastened.” The lack of remorse was all too evident in the grin he could not hide.

“Just get on out of here. Your wife and I have much to do.”

Grinning even more broadly, Adam left Annie in the capable hands of Michelle Fourier even if he knew Annie was going to blast him later for his insouciance. It was fun though baiting her like that and then waiting to see what she would come up with as a response. Behind his back as he left the dress shop, both ladies were smiling and shaking their heads.

“Madame Cartwright, is he always like that?”

“Yes, always.”

“Madame, you are a lucky woman to have such a wonderful and oh so handsome man completely entranced by you.”

Nodding in agreement and chatting about marriage and men, the two ladies began looking over fabric for dresses, and some dresses that were already made. Adam had told Michelle that there was no limit on his wife’s purchases as he wanted her to have a proper wardrobe for winters in the high Sierras and then lighter wear for spring and summer. Jeremy and Annie had been expecting to spend the winter in California, and neither of them had the proper clothing for a cold snowy winter. Jeremy had been easier to accessorize with some of Hoss’ old things, and then both Hoss and Jeremy had gone into the mercantile to buy some new items as well. Annie had at first objected to what Adam had told Madame Fourier saying that she didn’t want him spending so much.

“It’s for my benefit as much as yours, Annie. I get to see you in some pretty new things I hope, and then I get to help you out of them at night. No expense is too great for that pleasure.”

“You are just awful sometimes.”

“Do you want me to stop telling you how much I appreciate your beauty and your physical charms? I would hate to have to do that.”

“Well, I guess it would be all right as long as you can stop doing that in front of your father. I don’t think he likes it much.”

“No, he probably doesn’t. All right, not in front of my father. Now will you buy some new things while I have you here in the dress shop? Hoss and Jeremy are going to be buying a lot of things too. We’ll load as much as we can in the sleigh and they’ll take rest in the wagon.”

“Is that why you said we couldn’t all fit in the sleigh?”

“Yes, I wanted to be sure there was plenty of room for the purchases we make. You do remember how large our brothers are?”

“Why the sleigh and wagon then instead of the large carriage?”

“The carriage wheels are narrow, and we don’t have anything to outfit it for the snow. We’ve never had a reason to use it in the snow. We’ve always used the sleigh or the wagon. Now Michelle will help you, and then afterward we can go to the jeweler to get a ring for you.”

“Yes, Madame Cartwright, come with me and we shall do some fittings.”

And that’s when Adam made the comment that got him kicked out of the dress shop. He headed to the mercantile for he had some purchases he wanted to make there as well, and then he was going to the saddlery to order a new saddle made for his wife. He was enjoying this winter more than he could remember since his youth. As he walked, he saw Roy Coffee up ahead. Roy was always aware of what was going on around him and waited for Adam to catch up to him.

“Well, congratulations. I heard you made things right with that pretty lady of yours and got married to boot.”

“Yes, we did. We’re having lunch later at the International House. I would like you to join us if you have the time.”

“I’ll make the time. A sheriff needs to have lunch too.”

“Good, then we’ll see you there. I’m going over to the bank and then I have a few other errands to run. We’ll meet you there.”

“Now I hope you ain’t carrying too much cash around. There have been a lot of robberies lately with so many miners and cowhands out of work. Mostly it’s been small stuff, but you could present a very nice target for someone.”

“I’ll be careful but with Annie at the dress shop, and then we need to get her a ring, I do need to be carrying a large amount. I’ll be as discreet and careful as possible. Maybe I can get Hoss and Jeremy to walk over to the bank with me.”

“Sounds like a good plan. Now are those two eating through your winter stores at a record pace?” Roy had quite a grin then thinking about how much those two big men could eat.

“We’re going to have to butcher a couple more steers this winter just to feed the two of them because, I swear I think they’re still trying to impress each other with how much they can eat. Well I suspect you’ll see a good example of that at lunch. Can we meet you there about noon?”

After getting Roy’s agreement to that, Adam continued on to the bank and then went to the mercantile. He alerted Hoss and Jeremy that he had been warned by Roy to be careful carrying money because of so many robberies in town. Hoss decided that the two of them ought to walk with Adam.

“I don’t need a nursemaid. I was just letting you know that there might be a problem.”

“Way I see it, older brother, is that ifn the two of us is with you when you go collect your wife and all her packages, then there won’t be any problem. We’ll all just stick together until we leave. He didn’t say nothing about no bushwhacking outside of town now did he?”

“No, and that’s a good thing. Pa asked me to bring money for the payroll too. I’m carrying a lot right now. I’m going to the saddlery before we have lunch, and then Annie and I will be going to the jeweler’s after lunch. Originally I thought we could do it before lunch, but it’s already eleven.”

“All right then, we’ll go to the saddlery with ya. Jeremy’s gonna need a few things ifn he’s gonna be working the upper pastures and the spring drive. Old Tobias ought to be able to make him a nice pair of chaps.”

So the three men walked to the saddlery and made their orders for goods. Unknown to them, they had been overheard because one man had followed Adam from the bank. Knowing it was a Cartwright, he and his friends had assumed he would have money on him. Now they knew he would be carrying the payroll so the man hurried back to his friends.

At the dress shop, Adam went inside as Hoss and Jeremy headed to the International House across the street. It was unlikely anything would happen so close to the center of town and amidst all the people there, and the two men were not at all comfortable going into a dress shop. Inside the shop, it was quite warm so when Madame Fourier said it would be a few minutes yet, Adam took off his coat and sat in a chair near the door. Soon the two ladies came out carrying several dresses.

“Adam, which of these dresses do you like the best? I thought the green dress was the best but Michelle likes the brown corduroy with the lace blouse top.”

“What about the striped one?”

“I thought it was pretty, but it’s a little fancy for everyday use but looks best with an apron on. So which one do you think I should get?”

“All of them.”

“Well, I can’t get all of them.”

“Why not? Madame would you be so kind as to pack those up for us? And did you make sure she had enough of the other lady’s things she will need?”

“Yes, indeed, Monsieur Cartwright, I did as you asked. The riding skirts and blouses that you asked for will be ready in a few weeks. And Madame has fabric to make more dresses.”

“That’s excellent. Would you write up the total please?”

Madame Fourier asked Adam if he could stand on the chair and get some boxes down from the top shelf. He did but had to stretch to reach them, and he felt the bruised muscles in his back and shoulder complaining about being stretched out like that. It was only a few days since he had been trapped under a snow laden heavy branch that had fallen on him. As he climbed down from the chair though, he almost blushed with what he heard.

“Very true, then, Madame Cartwright. It certainly does resemble a nice ripe peach like those we get from California. Very firm but luscious I would think.”

As Annie answered affirmatively, she couldn’t keep the glee from her voice. With her grin, Adam knew she had just scored one for her side. He grabbed his coat and asked if they had packages he could take to the sleigh. Chuckling, both ladies pointed to packages stacked on the counter near the door. As he left with the packages, he could hear their laughter. He was thinking that he needed to do something soon about her embarrassing him like that but at the moment had no ideas. As Adam got back to the shop, they were ready with the dresses that were boxed up by then so he took those to the sleigh and then walked back to collect his wife and take her to lunch.

“I thought we were going to the jeweler’s next?”

“It got a little later than I thought so we’ll have lunch first. Hoss, Jeremy, and Roy Coffee are waiting for us.”

As Adam and Annie entered the restaurant, they saw their brothers and Roy already enjoying coffee. As they joined the group, Paul Martin came into the restaurant, and Adam invited him to join them for lunch. As Adam accepted the congratulations on being married, Annie smiled and placed her hand on his thigh. He picked up her hand in his and kissed as she smiled demurely at him. Adam loved the fact that she had no idea what her touch could do to him and that she wanted to be close to him seeking his reassurance with these two men she didn’t know very well yet. Lunch was pleasant and all of them marveled at how much Hoss and Jeremy could eat. Adam’s comments about it got chuckles from everyone except the two big eaters.

“Now, older brother, you wouldn’t be so puny ifn you was to eat like us. You could use some meat on those bones.”

Shaking his head in exasperation, Adam signaled the waitress.

“Could you tally up the total for me before these two behemoths order more food?”

“Aw, Adam, I was hoping for dessert. They got some right nice pies and I done told Jeremy that we could have some with lunch.”

“You can have some but it’s on your tab. Annie and I have another errand to run, and I want to head home soon so that we’re there before the sun sets.”

*****

Chapter 10

After settling the bill at the restaurant, Adam escorted Annie from the restaurant and down the street to the jeweler’s shop. One man followed them from the hotel, and two others converged from opposite directions. Adam and Annie were in the shop before the three men got together. They were frustrated by that, but quickly conferred and came up with an alternate version of their original plan. One by one, they entered the jeweler’s shop. Adam paid no mind to the first man who entered even though he wasn’t dressed as one would expect a customer who was buying jewelry. He pulled off his hat and held it in his left hand and asked the owner if he had any work and that made Adam relax. Soon another man entered and then a third. Neither looked like they were the type to be buying fine jewelry. They were greeted by the first man who told them there was no work for them there, but Adam felt the hairs on his neck stand up and loosened the small leather strap that held his pistol in the holster.

“Don’t move, Cartwright! We know you got a passel of cash on ya. Just hand it over and nobody has to get hurt.”

The three men drew as if on a signal, and Adam didn’t have time to react. Adam tried to maneuver to get Annie behind him, but the man who had spoken saw that and had a new set of orders.

“You just hold up there. Turn around and don’t move anywhere. Now, put your hands on the counter and move your feet back so’s you’re leaning. Ya like to lean as I recall.”

Once Adam was leaning his weight on his hands which were on the counter, the leader of the little group told one of the others to grab his pistol.

“Now, little lady, you just reach inside his coat and pull out that envelope with the money. Then hand it over to me.”

Stepping up next to Adam, Annie reached inside his coat and pulled out the envelope, but he felt a weight in his pocket after she did that so he knew she had dropped the derringer from her purse into his pocket. He went to stand up after she handed the money over, and no one seemed to object. Annie stood behind him then when he pressed her arm just a little to indicate to her what he wanted.

“All right, we got the money, now how we gonna get out of here with it? He’ll be after us as soon as we walk out this door.”

The leader of the small gang looked thoughtful for just a moment. “We’ll take her with us. Ifn he follows us, we’ll shoot her in the head.”

The other two men looked shocked at that, and Adam looked furious. As the leader moved toward Annie who was standing behind Adam, Adam reached out to stop him. The man swung his hand with the pistol and hit Adam with the butt end of it. Adam went down to his knees then. As he did so, he pulled the derringer from his pocket and shoved it into the belly of the man who had hit him.

“What you gonna do with that little thing? You can’t get all of us with that.”

“No, but I can get you and you’ll die real slow bleeding out if you’re lucky, or from a gut infection if you aren’t. Now you two, if you don’t want that for your friend here, get out of here now.”

“Go, do as he says. Just make sure you got the money, and remember that I’ll be wanting my share.” The two men left. Adam stood then with the derringer still in the other man’s gut and the other man still had a pistol in his hand. “So we got ourselves a standoff, don’t we?”

“Annie, go behind the counter and get down.”

“Adam, …”

“Just do it!”

Scrambling quickly to do as Adam commanded, Annie was soon out of sight.

“Now you can leave. But don’t even think of coming back in here. If anything happens to my wife, there won’t be a place on earth where you can hide. Get out!”

Walking the man to the door, Adam only pulled the derringer away as the man turned to leave. Then he slammed the door so he could not return. Adam picked up his pistol from the floor and walked to the counter. “You can come out now.”

“Yes, Your Excellency. Who gave you the rights to make all the decisions?”

“Annie, some situations are just not meant for discussion. I had to protect you.”

“Well, I protected myself pretty well before I met you. I was the one who still had a gun after they took yours away.”

“There’s wasn’t time to discuss a plan with you. Sometimes I just need you to listen to me.”

“What you mean is that you want me to just do as ordered. Well I’m not going to do that, and you better get used to the idea.”

“Annie, let’s not argue about this. Let’s just go tell the sheriff. I’m sure those men are well on their way out of town by now.”

“Well maybe I want to talk about it now. You just ordered me around like what I thought didn’t matter.”

“Sweetheart, there are just some times when a husband wants to protect his wife. As a man, I have to do that. I hope you understand that. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t protect you and you got hurt. I can’t ever let you be hurt if I can do anything about it.”

“Oh I know you meant well. It just hurt to be ordered around like that.”

“Better that than what they were talking about doing.”

With a pout on, Annie walked to the door and pulled it open. It didn’t last long because as she stepped outside, she had to grin. Adam did the same when he stepped outside because there were Hoss, Roy, and Jeremy with all three men in custody. Roy was collecting their firearms as Hoss and Jeremy held their pistols on them. Roy grabbed the envelope of money from one of the men too.

“Well, now, older brother, I see you’re just fine. We heard some fireworks going off in there and hoped you would still be all right.”

“How did you manage to do this?”

“Well, now, you see, we saw you and Annie walk into the shop, and then these three walked in one by one, and you gotta admit they don’t look like the jewelry buying type. How come you didn’t see that right away? You must have been distracted by something, I suppose.”

With a bit of a scowl at Hoss, Adam responded before turning to his wife. “Well, Hoss, if you have this well in hand, Annie, would you like to go back in and order that ring I promised you?”

“Well, thank you, Adam, so much for asking instead of telling me. Yes, please, that would be nice.” The couple went back into the store to talk with the nervous owner.

Chuckling, Hoss took the envelope of money that Roy had gotten from the robbers, and walked to the store. Adam must have been very distracted to forget that. Jeremy helped Roy shepherd the three men to the jail. Inside the jeweler’s shop, Adam and Annie couldn’t decide on a ring. He wanted to spend a lot more than she wanted him to spend, and then there were disagreements over the type of stone and how many. Finally the ring was ordered, and everyone could head for home.

“Older brother, do you have to argue with Annie over everything?”

“No, Hoss, there are some things we don’t argue about at all. But on everything else, it’s not arguing. We’re both free to state our opinions, and sometimes we don’t agree with each other.”

“Sure sounds like arguing.” Hoss knew he wouldn’t be comfortable in such a relationship. He liked a more demure gentle woman. But he remembered something Joe had said Adam told him once that he liked his friends, his horse, and his lady to have a bit of an edge to them for it made them more interesting. Hoss wasn’t so sure about some of Adam’s choices of friends, but with Annie and Sport, he certainly did seem to enjoy the tempestuous relationship. Then he remembered Margarita and how well she and Adam got along after all that fighting for they were the best of friends now. He just shook his head and snapped the reins to send the wagon home. He watched Adam and Annie on the seat of the sleigh ahead of him. They snuggled close to each other with a blanket over their legs. Annie had her arm wrapped around Adam’s arm, and their two heads were close together so it was easy to see they were engaged in conversation. Next to him on the wagon seat, Jeremy saw the same thing.

“Adam is so different from her first husband. I thought Annie was all right with that marriage, but I gotta say, I ain’t seen her this happy since we were kids. Adam is really good for her.”

“You know, Jeremy, I could say just about the same thing for Adam. I wasn’t so sure about the two of them with all the arguing and such, but he seems more relaxed than I can ever remember him. She’s really good for him too.”

In the yard of the Ponderosa, Joe came out to help carry in packages. Hoss was going to tell him to keep the packages separate, but Annie quickly shushed him and told Joe to just hurry to get them in the house because she was cold. Jeremy volunteered to take care of the horses as a gesture of thanks for the trip into town and the new clothes. Hoss and Adam followed Annie into the house knowing that she was up to something.

“Hoss, could you help Adam take these dress boxes up to our room please? Joe, could you bring the rest of my packages up too?”

Hurrying to do as she asked because they wanted to see what she was up to, Hoss and Adam both paused at the top of the stairs as Annie reached them there. She had them move down the hallway a bit and then told them to wait a moment before peeking around the corner. Downstairs Joe was just staring at the stack of packages. He looked up at Annie at the top of the stairs.

“Annie, how do I know which ones are yours?”

“Oh, dear, they’re all mixed up now. You’ll have to open them up to see what’s inside. The ones with lady things are mine.”

Then Annie joined Hoss and Adam down the hall. Quietly and slowly they crept back to the corner to watch Joe. One by one, Joe opened the packages. The first one was lacy pantaloons that he hurriedly stuffed back in the wrapping. The second was a gown and robe that he pulled out and admired before replacing in the package. He did have a bit of a flush on his face by then. The third were petticoats and chemises that he couldn’t get back in the package fast enough. He did open a package with wool plaid workshirts, but the next package held a soft corset which made Joe’s face turn even redder. What made the whole thing better for Annie and the others was that Ben had come out from the kitchen with a cup of coffee, stopped, and watched Joe as he opened each package.

“Son, is there something you would like to tell me? You do seem to have quite a fascination with ladies’ undergarments.”

Annie chose that moment to lead Hoss and Adam back to the top of the stairs to see Joe surrounded by open packages of Annie’s clothing, and Ben standing there with a mock frown waiting for Joe’s reaction. Joe stuttered and stammered and said it was all Annie’s idea.

“Joe, I had no idea you would paw through my things. I thought you could just tear open a corner to see what was inside.”

Hoss and Adam had to sit on the stairs as they started laughing gleefully at Joe’s discomfiture.

“I gotta go outside and help Jeremy with the horses. Annie, now you can see which ones are yours here. No need to thank me. I’ll just get going.”

As Joe grabbed his hat and jacket, Hoss and Adam started laughing even more especially with the hasty exit and the door slamming shut.

“Adam, you done got yourself a right smart one there. Joe didn’t know what hit him!”

“I know, Hoss, and whatever you do, never play a trick on her. She’s enjoying this a lot more than we are.”

By then, Ben understood what had happened and was chuckling too. The best pranks to play on Joe were always the ones he didn’t know were pranks. Ben looked over at Annie and gave her a theatrical bow. It was good to have a lady in the house. She had tamed his oldest son’s wanderlust, brought in a good friend for his middle son, and was more than a match for his youngest and his pranks. Life was a lot more interesting with Annie on the Ponderosa.

*****

Slander

Chapter 1

“Yes, I visited her, but I didn’t get in her bed. I have lots of friends who are women, and I don’t sleep in their beds either.”

“Did you ever take her to bed?”

By Adam’s look, Annie didn’t need the answer. “I’m thirty-four years old. You don’t really think you were the first woman I was with?”

“No, but it’s this woman’s husband who’s making all these claims about you. What are you going to do about it?”

“I was with her before she was with Dave. They’ve been married over a year. There is no possibility that is my child.”

“Hoss said that people were talking about you seeing her when she was married.”

“I have never had relations with a woman who was married or even betrothed despite the rumors. I don’t know that there is much I can do about this situation. I did visit her once when Dave wasn’t home. I did it on purpose because I wanted to warn her off from someone she was after before the situation became too messy. I can’t tell people that without exposing that man. But if I only deny having relations with her, it will seem that I protest too much, and that will only make people think I did. It’s the old rock and a hard place. I can’t win.”

“Who was she after, and why did you think you had to do something about it?”

Sighing, Adam just looked at her. He wanted to tell her and knew he shouldn’t. The fewer people who knew, the better it would be for everyone, but she was his wife and he trusted her implicitly. “Annie, I don’t want to tell you and involve you in this, but I do trust you and I trust your judgment which would be helpful perhaps at this point. I have to tell you that it is someone very close to both of us, and that if this story gets out, it could hurt a lot of people. Do you think you want the responsibility of carrying this secret which you cannot divulge for any reason?”

“So are you saying that someone very close to us is the father of her baby?”

“Quite possibly that’s true. Oh hell, I’m guessing it’s probably true. Look, Dave Anderson is blond and blue eyed and so is his wife. Both are very fair, but their baby has dark curly hair, dark eyes, and darker skin tones than either parent. Dave had to know as soon as that baby was born, that it wasn’t his. I had hoped he would be so happy to have a son that he wouldn’t make an issue of it, but apparently others noticed and started talking. Now Dave feels he has to do something to preserve his honor even if it means soiling his wife’s reputation beyond repair and saddling his son with the notoriety.”

“Well, it can’t be Hoss. If it was Hoss, no one would have known because he has that fair skin and light blue eyes. So that leaves only a couple of others. Let me think about this for a time. We can talk about it again after we get home.”

Riding in the buckboard to town, Adam and Annie had a chance to talk privately that they seldom had at home except in their bedroom. When they had been about to leave, Hoss had asked Adam if he had warned Annie about the stories that were going around, and that there might be some pointed comments in town. So as they drove in, Adam explained what had been going on and why he had not wanted to go to town recently and had in fact skipped church services the past two Sundays. Normally after a winter spent snowbound, Adam couldn’t wait to go to town and to go to church services to see people, to sing, and to generally enjoy the amenities a town offered. Now his reluctance to do anything like that made sense to Annie.

“So we’ve been cooped up on the ranch this spring because you didn’t want me to know about this?”

“No, it was more that I didn’t want you to be exposed to ugly things people might say. I’m hoping that by me keeping a low profile, Dave will cool down and this whole ugly episode can be closed.”

“You don’t really think that’s going to happen, do you? As soon as people see you in town, they’re going to be talking.”

“I’m hoping we can get a look at those puppies that Paul has, you can pick one, and then we can run our errands. The sooner we get out of town the better.”

“What about lunch?”

“I’ll order a basket from the restaurant. We can have a picnic.”

“Is that why you put those blankets in the wagon? I did think they were rather nice ones for a puppy.”

“The basket with the rags in it is for the puppy if you want one. The blankets are for us. When we were talking about fantasies, I believe you said something about being outside under the blue sky with puffy white clouds and the sun shining. Well, today could be your day.”

“That won’t work.”

“What won’t work?”

“You won’t get my mind off of our conversation by promising to seduce me on a picnic in a meadow later.”

“Well, it was worth a shot. Now, can we just try to do things quickly together in town?”

“It’s important that I’m with you and that we aren’t fighting, isn’t it?”

“Well that would certainly help although most of what people think is fighting are really just our spirited discussions.”

“I’ll try to behave myself today. We can look all lovey dovey if you want.”

“That might be stretching it a bit far. People are used to us talking a lot. We shouldn’t stop entirely, but it would be nice to tone it down a little probably so we don’t add anything to the rumors.”

“I can do that. I think.”

Shaking his head, Adam snapped the reins to speed up the team now that they had talked. Once they were in town, Adam and Annie stopped first at Paul Martin’s house. He had gotten a dog not realizing it was going to have a litter. It was some kind of shepherd breed of dog which he had gotten from a sheepherder for helping his wife in an especially difficult delivery. The man had little cash and had paid with a dog and a sheep. Paul sold the sheep and was giving away the puppies, but did like the dog very much and was keeping her. He thought she would be good company as he traveled about to ranches and farms. Paul greeted them as soon as they drove up.

“I waited assuming you would be on time, but I have to go. Mrs. Jenkins is having her baby. Her oldest rode in a half hour ago. You can find the puppies inside. Take any one you want. None are spoken for yet.”

“Yes, Paul, we can do that. Anything we can do for you?”

“If you could the dog out in the back, that would be nice. Just bury whatever she does. Shovel is by the back door. Thank you, and I’ve gotta go.”

Saying their goodbyes, Adam and Annie went inside to see the puppies and take the mother out back to do her business. It took a lot longer than they had expected. Annie couldn’t decide and wanted two puppies.

“Pa said he could tolerate one. That was a big concession from him. We can’t take two with us. He’ll blow.”

“But one will be so lonely.”

“With you, Hoss, Joe, and me, I doubt that very much. One will be fine. Now you have to choose so we can go do the rest of our errands. Unfortunately by now, everyone must know we’re in town, so better get your defenses up. It could get ugly.”

Getting ugly didn’t take long. Adam surprised Annie with a visit to the saddlery and picked up her new saddle that had been custom made by Tobias for her. Old Tobias was very pleased with all the compliments Annie gave him about her new saddle. As they walked outside to put it in the wagon, both of them could see that they were getting a lot of stares.

“Well, into the breech. Let’s head over to the mercantile to get that list of supplies and then to the restaurant for our lunch order.”

There were inaudible whispers as they got down from the wagon in front of the mercantile. Adam took Annie by the waist to help her down and held her close.

“Now, no matter what is said, please do not react. We need to get out of town without any more trouble.”

“You think it’s going to be that bad?”

“Those ladies are unlikely to say anything to me, but as soon as my back is turned, they’ll try to spear you. Just be ready and stay calm.”

Handing a list to the proprietor, Adam noted that the ladies who had been in the store had all gathered in a group in the back of the store. He wanted to grab Annie and haul her out of there over his shoulder when he saw her meandering around the store and getting closer and closer to the gaggle of gossips.

“My dear, we’re so sorry to hear what your husband did. You have our most sincere sympathy.”

“What Adam did? He got me a puppy and a new saddle. Next he’s taking me on a picnic, so I don’t know what you’ve heard, but there’s certainly nothing to be upset about.”

“Well, my dear, we were talking about that story about him and Mrs. Anderson. Tis a shame, it really is.”

“Yes, I suppose that’s true.” All the ladies leaned forward ready to relish any tidbit they could get. “It’s so shameful and sad really that a man would say those things about his wife and beautiful baby. I know none of you fine ladies would ever repeat such a terrible lie. Well, good day to you. It looks like Adam is ready to go. See you all in church on Sunday, I hope.”

Listening and watching, Adam was torn between anger and pride. Pride won. Annie had taken a big gamble but had handled it well. He was going to have to accept that she was never going to do everything he told her to do and would have to trust that she would handle herself as well as she had just done.

It was a quick trip to the restaurant to get some food for a picnic. Stares followed them wherever they went, but Annie was more concerned about how quiet Adam was. She thought she may have angered him too much with her behavior in the store. Then she started thinking she had done just fine, and he shouldn’t be angry at all. By the time they reached the Ponderosa and headed to a meadow for a picnic, Annie was angry.

“How dare you be so angry with me over a little comment I made in the mercantile. It was exactly what those ladies needed to hear. Now why are you so upset?”

Turning toward Annie after having been lost in thought for the best part of an hour, Adam smiled which really made Annie confused.

“Why are you smiling?”

“Because you’re right and you’re wrong. I’m not mad at all. I was just thinking a lot, and you weren’t saying anything either so I thought perhaps you needed some time to think too. You did a great job with those ladies. An economy of words and you fired both barrels point blank.”

“You’re not mad that I didn’t do what you told me to do?”

“I wanted to be mad, but I married you knowing exactly what you’re like. I wouldn’t change you for all the gold in the world. You’ll just have to pardon my occasional scowl or frown because you do have a habit of surprising me, sweetheart. I am definitely not used to being with a woman who makes her own decisions. It will take some getting used to.”

Tossing his hat in the back of the wagon, Adam pulled out two blankets and spread them on the grass pushing the tall fresh stems down to make room. Then he pulled Annie into an embrace and as he kissed her, he began unbuttoning her dress.

“Adam, we can’t do anything here. We’re right out in the open.”

“There’s no one within a mile of here. We’re on the Ponderosa. Anyone who sees this wagon will know it’s us and give us some privacy, I hope. The puppy is asleep and the horses never tell.”

The rest of the argument diminished as clothing was discarded and kisses and touches finally replaced words. About an hour later, Hoss and Joe rode to the crest of a hill nearby.

“Hey, Hoss, isn’t that our wagon?”

“Yep, that’s ours all right.”

“Well where are Adam and Annie?”

“Joe, the grass in these meadows is only a foot or two tall, right? And you can’t see them, right? Where do you think they are?”

“Oh, so we better not ride over to say hello.”

“Nah, it would embarrass Annie too much. But we can sure rib Adam about it later.”

Laughing, the two brothers rode for home.

*****

Chapter 2

In the stable at the Ponderosa as they groomed their horses, Hoss and Joe were talking and got around to the rumors about Adam being the father of the Anderson baby.

“Hoss, do you think it could be true? Do you think Adam is that baby’s father? Everyone who has seen the baby says it looks like him.”

“The baby had dark curly hair, dark eyes, and darker skin than his mama and papa. That don’t make him Adam’s son. Adam says it ain’t so it ain’t.”

“You’re sure of that?”

“Joe, no matter how many times you and Adam been at each other, has he ever lied to you? Nope, if he says it ain’t his, then it ain’t.”

“Well, Hoss, I wonder who it could be then. Adam didn’t really answer that when I asked him. He said something about how could anyone know for sure. You know how he always talks about something else when he doesn’t want to answer.”

“Yeah, I know. I had the same feeling. But I gotta believe that ifn he ain’t saying, it’s because he’s got a good reason.”

“He must know who it is then or have a pretty good suspicion. Now I’m wondering why he won’t say who he thinks it might be.”

“Hey, Joe, maybe he thinks it’s you, and he’s trying to save you from a world of hurt. Dave Anderson is a big guy. He could really pound on you.”

“Hoss, she never liked me and you know it. She always blamed me for her and Adam breaking up. I’m not sure why. All I did was tell Adam I saw her kissing Dave Anderson when she was supposed to be Adam’s gal.” Joe started snickering.

“Yeah, Joe, she’s pretty and all, but there’s something about her that just ain’t right. It’s like she likes men fighting over her. I wouldn’t be surprised that she started some of those rumors herself just to see if Dave would beat on Adam for it. She’s probably still mad that Adam dumped her almost two years ago.”

“Well, and Dave ought to know that too. He was the one who was with her when she was supposed to be Adam’s gal. He knew she cheated when he married her. I guess he thought marriage might end it. Hey, do you suppose Laura cheats on Will like she cheated on Adam because you know there are stories about Will catting around too? He could be trying to get even.”

“Don’t know and it ain’t none of my business. Will was with Laura when she was supposed to be Adam’s gal so it could just be the way he is too. I just wish I could find one gal. That’s hard enough without thinking about having more than one. Boy howdy, that has got to be a mess to be in.”

“Well ever since Adam brought Annie into the family, I’ve been thinking more and more that I would like to get married.” At Hoss’ shocked look, Joe had to continue. “I know, I know. It’s been a lot of fun seeing one girl after another, but when I think about Adam and Annie out there today and realize just a trip to town could end up in a little romance, well then I wish I had something like that too.”

“Takes a lot less energy than all that chasing around to, don’t it?”

“Hey, Pa probably ought to look too. There’s lots of ladies who wouldn’t mind being Mrs. Ben Cartwright.”

“Yeah, but don’t you wonder about those rides he takes and comes back hours later looking like he was working on something. I gotta wonder if Pa ain’t already seeing somebody.”

“Wonder who that could be? Candy’s been pretty secretive lately too about his activities. Wish I knew what everyone was up to.”

“Sometimes I think that, and sometimes I think it might be better if I didn’t know.”

The sounds of the wagon coming in the yard were heard by both brothers then. They stood in the shadows of the stable and watched Adam help Annie down from the wagon. She never minded Adam taking the dominant role in situations like that. It was nice having him right there to help and there was often a kiss involved. This time was no different. Thinking they were unobserved, the couple stood by the wagon for a moment and kissed and Adam’s hands were sliding down Annie’s back. Whistles from the stable broke them apart before any impropriety could be observed. Reaching into the back of the wagon and scowling at his two brothers, Adam lifted out the basket with the puppy and handed it to Annie before removing the empty lunch basket to take that into the kitchen with the supplies they had picked up.

“Oh, Hoss, you have to come here and see the puppy I got. He’s so beautiful and smart.”

Hoss couldn’t move across the yard fast enough when he heard that. He reached Annie’s side almost at a run and gazed down at the sleeping puppy. “He is a sweet one, ain’t he?”

“What is it? It looks like a mutt.”

“Well, you can’t be Uncle Joe to Shep then. Hoss, you can be Uncle Hoss to our puppy though.”

Ben had walked out of the house by then and heard Annie’s statement. “Well, I was hoping they would be uncles to a little boy or girl one of these days.” All three men saw a shadow pass over Annie’s face at that statement, but she bravely managed to talk about the puppy instead. Then leaving the basket in Hoss’ hands, she excused herself to go in the house to ‘freshen up’ which made all of them wonder what had just happened. Adam walked outside from the kitchen and asked where Annie had gone because he saw Hoss with the puppy. Once Hoss explained what had happened, Adam hurried inside. The others looked at each other as mystified by all of it but seeing that Adam seemed to know what had happened without even being there.

Once Hoss carried the puppy inside in the basket, he got a glower from Ben who did not like dogs on a ranch and especially not in the house. “Pa, he’s just a tiny little thing, and he ain’t got his mama no more. He’ll stay in the basket, but he needs to be in the house right now. You wouldn’t want to have to face Annie ifn a coyote came up and grabbed this little guy, now would ya?” With a harrumph, Ben headed to his desk. Joe and Hoss played with the puppy who had awakened, and Hoss went to beg some food from Hop Sing to feed him.

Upstairs, Adam was trying to comfort Annie who was crying almost inconsolably. They had not told the family about what the doctor had told Annie after her bout with typhoid fever. He believed she would never have children. “Adam, you have to tell them. I can’t, but I can’t bear to hear your father encourage us to give him grandchildren. You know that isn’t going to happen no matter how hard we try.”

“I don’t know that yet. The doctor was guessing.”

“Well doctors’ guesses are based on a lot of training and knowledge. I believe him. You said you wanted to marry me anyway. Is that still true?”

“Oh, sweetheart, of course that’s true. I love you so much. I try to show you all the time that I do care so much for you and want you with me.”

“Then please tell your father. I can’t live like this with him thinking there’s going to be a baby when you know there probably won’t be one.”

Pulling Annie close, Adam was silent and let his embrace tell her that he cared and would do anything for her. She appreciated the hug and rested her head on his chest as her arms wrapped around his waist. She was thinking there definitely were some very good things about having a strong man at your side. After about an hour, Adam walked downstairs following Annie as all of them had heard Hop Sing call them to dinner. Annie had asked him not to hold her or touch her for she would break out crying most assuredly if he did that in front of the family. All Adam wanted to do was exactly what Annie had asked him not to do. Annie wasn’t talking and barely touched her food before saying she needed to go outside for some air. Adam looked down at his plate and sighed deeply.

“You two have a fight about something?” Hoss was deeply concerned.

“Son, you can talk with us. Maybe we can help.”

After a few moments of silence, Adam looked up at his father and then looked at Hoss and at Joe making all of them worry about what was coming next.

“It’s not about that rumor that you fathered that Anderson baby because Annie has to know you wouldn’t lie about that?”

“No, Joe, it’s not that, and we didn’t have an argument. It’s something I should probably have told all of you, especially Pa, a long time ago. Annie probably can’t have children. She had typhoid fever and it was very bad. It lasted for weeks, and the high fever seems to have done some long term damage to her body. Before we were married, that was what she wanted to tell me when I asked her to marry me. I love her with my heart and soul, and I know I may never have children.”

“Adam, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“It’s all right, Pa. I came to terms with it when she told me, but every time you mention having grandchildren, it hurts Annie. It makes her think about it all again. She still hasn’t come to terms with it.”

“Can’t the two of you adopt? There always seem to be a lot of kids needing a home and a family.”

“Maybe that will be an option someday, Hoss, but right now it would be too hard on Annie. It would be a constant reminder of what she cannot have. The ladies in town ask her often enough, and we’re not telling them why. This is for the family to know so that Annie has a safe place.” As his father and brothers nodded their heads in agreement, Adam excused himself to go see his wife. He found her leaning on the corral fence with her head down. He stood as close as he could without touching her and leaned down to talk softly to her.

“I told them. There won’t be any insensitive comments from the family any more.”

“What did they say?”

“They were sorry to hear that you had to deal with that, and Hoss mentioned adoption but I told him you weren’t ready for that yet.”

“Why? We could adopt.”

“When you can adopt because you want to love a child, we can adopt. Right now I’m afraid you would adopt to fill a hole in your heart. You have to heal first, Annie, before we can give all our love to a child. Can I hold you now? I know you said it would make you cry, but it’s only me here, and I really feel the need to hold you right now.”

Gently, Adam began rubbing Annie’s back. He moved his hand in a circular motion slowly feeling her relax. Annie turned to him, and Adam pulled her into his embrace as she rested her head on his chest and wrapped her arms around him. Eventually Adam and Annie came back inside and Annie started playing with the puppy. When he acted like he had to go, she took him to the front of the house, and he did his business off to the side. Hoss was very impressed.

“Pa, did you see that. That pup is only about ten weeks old, and he’s pretty much house broke already. He’s a right smart pup, all right.”

When it was time to retire for the night, Annie walked up the stairs with the puppy and Adam followed behind with the basket. Ben wanted to say something but knew he shouldn’t. Once the couple disappeared down the hallway upstairs, he just sighed. He guessed he would have to get used to a puppy in the house.

Upstairs, once Annie was reclining in their bed, she began thinking. The Anderson baby was born by the time she and Jeremy arrived on the Ponderosa for she remembered Hoss saying something about the rumors already at that time. The rumor mill had really pushed this one so that over the winter, the rumor had grown to have the status of truth in the minds of some. She waited until Adam slipped in beside her.

“Is it Joe you’re protecting by not talking about this rumor?”

Laughing softly, Adam moved close to Annie wrapping his arm around her. “That would be too easy, wouldn’t it. No, it’s not Joe. He’s the one who told me about Dave and Sue, and I broke off seeing her. She hates Joe, and he doesn’t have much good to say about her.”

“Well, then, who could it be?”

“Are you sure you want to know?” When Annie nodded, Adam leaned down close to her ear and told her. Very surprised by who Adam thought might be the father, Annie had a few more questions for Adam. “Is she that seductive that she can get anyone in her bed or do men think they’re in love with her? When you were with her, did you think you loved her?” Adam nodded again. “So you thought you might marry her?”

“The thought had crossed my mind, but I wasn’t even close to asking her.”

“But the two of you were having relations?”

“Sue is very seductive and certainly has her charms. Sweetheart, I went into a woman’s bed if she was willing and I was attracted to her. Sue is very attractive, and she was very willing. The first time, I kissed her after I brought her home, and she asked if that was all I was going to do. I wanted to be sure so I asked her if she wanted me to do more, and she made some suggestions I was more than willing to do.”

“Well, that hussy! Is she like that with men in general, or was it your dashing good looks and gorgeous body she wanted?”

“I think she thought I was an agreeable conquest. Then she conquered Dave. I didn’t want to sleep with a woman who was sleeping with someone else at the same time.”

“But you’ve been to some of those houses in town. I heard Joe and Hoss talking once.”

“That’s not a relationship. That’s just to take care of needs. Now do we need to talk about this any more? I could think of a number of other things we could be doing.” As Adam was talking, he was untying the ribbons on Annie’s gown.

“Really? We just did it this afternoon in the meadow.”

Kisses and intimate touching replaced words for a time, and then the two fell asleep only to be awakened in the middle of the night by a puppy who had some business to do.

*****

Chapter 3

When Adam got downstairs with the puppy to let him outside, he was very surprised to find his father sitting by the fireplace. The smoke from his pipe had been a clue as soon as Adam entered the hallway upstairs. He put the puppy outside until he finished his business and then sat in the blue chair by the fireplace with the puppy in his lap. As he waited for his father to speak, he stroked the puppy’s back and watched his eyes slowly close.

“I’m very concerned about your wife. She seems very emotional about not having children, and as if that wasn’t enough for her, she has to hear these terrible rumors about you. Have you discussed this with her?”

Looking at his father and wondering if he would ever think of his sons as adults, Adam could only nod. “Annie will come to terms with all of it. Getting married probably made it hit home even though she has known this for years. Now that she’s married, it’s become more real and all the more devastating because she would so much like to have a child with me.”

“Maybe I should ask if you’ve come to terms with it.”

“Mostly, I guess I have. I love Annie so much and couldn’t imagine life without her. I do keep hoping that the doctor could have been wrong, and that there’s still a chance we could have a child so in that way, no, I haven’t completely come to terms with it.”

“What about the rumor that you fathered that Anderson baby?”

“Pa, you know there have been rumors about me before. They eventually died down. It seems every time a baby is born with dark hair and darker than usual skin, people are looking to me. As far as I know, I have never fathered a child with anyone.”

For that, Ben had to hold his tongue. He knew it was unrealistic to expect that Adam, at his age, would not have been with women, but he wished he had married instead of being with so many. Ben had the same concern about Joe. At least Adam had finally married. Watching Ben, Adam could imagine what he was thinking. The puppy had fallen asleep on his lap so he thought it was time to take him back upstairs.

“Pa, don’t worry too much. We’ll all say some prayers in church tomorrow that this will all get resolved soon.”

“Adam, you must have some idea who fathered Sue Anderson’s baby. Why won’t you say who you think it is and let them handle the rumors.”

“First of all, I would never do to someone what has been done to me. It is grossly unfair. Heck, Pa, at one point, I wondered if you were the one.”

“Me? Adam, I went over to help her out when Dave was gone on that cattle drive, but I would never be with a married woman, not that she didn’t try.”

“That’s what I finally decided. I guessed she would have tried, but that you would be too sophisticated to fall for her scheme. The more I know about her, the more I wonder if she ever even liked me or was she using me as a means to an end. She’s beautiful and does have some charm though.”

Ben chose not to think about what Adam probably meant by that last statement for he suspected he had been in an intense sexual relationship with her and they weren’t married and hadn’t even discussed that as far as he knew. “I have to wonder how many men she tried to use her feminine charms on and who she finally snagged. Who do you think it was?”

“Pa, that baby was conceived during that fall drive about a year and a half ago. Sue and I had broken up over six months before that. Now, other than you and me, who else with dark hair and eyes was around here during that big drive? It narrows it down if you think about it. I had that bad leg with that wound from the arrow and other injuries. You stayed here to run the ranch business, and Hoss and Joe ran the drive with Dave’s help. There was one other who went over to their ranch because you asked him to help out.”

Ben’s eyes got big then as he thought about it. “He wouldn’t have dared, would he?”

“That’s exactly what I’m afraid may have happened. You sent him over there to help out because you were busy here. I couldn’t possibly go. There was no one else who could. I’m not sure, and I’m not willing to say anything based on suspicion.”

“That’s wise, but I still worry about Dave. He’s slow to anger but holds a grudge. He’s not someone to be dismissed. He could be dangerous.”

“He won’t come at me with a gun. He knows better than that. As for his fists, I guess I just better stay out of reach until he cools down. Good night. Annie’s bound to be worrying about why I’m taking so long.”

However Annie had not been worrying for she had gone looking for Adam and heard him talking with his father. When Adam came back with the puppy and got him settled in the basket, Annie asked him how much of a danger Dave could be. He tried to reassure her that Dave wouldn’t be that much of a threat but wasn’t convincing enough for her or for himself. Neither slept well the rest of the night. The next morning, Annie skipped breakfast saying she wasn’t feeling well.

“Do you still want to go to church? We could stay home again.”

“No, if we keep hiding out, then it looks like we have something to be ashamed about. We need to go to church. Hop Sing will fix me some of his wonderful tea, and I’ll be fine. It’s all the stress and lack of sleep, I think. Just give me a few days to get used to all of this.”

As Annie went in the kitchen to request some tea, Ben leaned toward Adam and spoke softly. “She has a point, but bringing her to church looking ill and out of sorts might have the opposite effect.”

“I’ll be fine. I can act like I’m fine for a while. I could hear what you said.” Annie answered from the kitchen.

“Pa, she’s got ears like a cat. She can hear anything. She heard the puppy scratching around in the basket last night and knew he needed to go outside.”

“Well, Annie, I know, but do you want to force yourself to have to do this?”

Annie came out from the kitchen with a cup of tea. It was like Hop Sing had read her mind and prepared exactly what she needed. “Papa, Adam has to go to church, and he can’t go alone or there’ll be even more talk. I’ll be fine. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go dress.”

True to her word, although Annie spent most of the carriage ride to town leaning up against Adam and sleeping, as soon as they neared the church, she perked up, slapped her cheeks to get a little color, and smiled. Adam hugged her close. “You’re amazing. How did I ever get so lucky?”

“Oh I don’t know. Perhaps it was the rustlers, the kidnapping, a wise father, and two very supportive brothers.”

“You forgot to mention my charm and wit.”

“Oh yes, and that notorious self confidence and arrogance.”

“Hey, I thought you were going to be nice to me while we were at church.”

“I will be, but we’re not there yet.”

On the front seat of the carriage, Ben looked at Jeremy who only shook his head. That was his sister all right, but he knew that her sassy delivery was only ever delivered that way to people she liked. She had as much trouble saying how she really felt as Adam did. Both of them found other ways to communicate the depth of their emotions. He suspected that it would never change. He knew now that Annie had never loved her first husband. She had always been quiet and deferential around him. With Adam, her heart was open and her mouth was free because she loved and trusted him with her true self. Jeremy grinned as Adam pulled Annie to him and quieted her with a kiss. That was one way to stop her sassiness.

At the church, Adam helped Annie from the carriage and she walked to the church with her arm linked in his and the family all around them. There were still some stares but more people wondered if Dave’s claims could be true for Adam stood tall and ignored the accusations. His wife apparently trusted him, and his family was by his side making those who knew them realize it could not be true. That day in church went a long way toward squelching the rumor. Only the most gossipy among them would continue to talk about it, and even for them, it was losing interest.

Dave and Sue Anderson sat in church as well, and for most of the service, Dave stared at Adam on occasion glancing at the dark haired baby in Sue’s arms. He was beginning to doubt too that Adam was the father of the baby, but Sue continued to insist it had to be Adam claiming she had never been with another man except when Adam forced himself on her. Dave was having trouble with that part of the story too for he had never known Adam to have to force himself on any woman. It always seemed to be the other way. He also remembered how Sue had pursued him while she was supposedly Adam’s gal. She had wanted him, she said, and she let him do things and asked him to do more than he had ever done with any woman. He did wonder if she loved him, and he knew that his attraction for her was based mostly on winning the woman that Adam had bedded. He thought that after church, perhaps he and Adam could talk. As the service ended and people began to file out of church, Dave walked up to Adam as he was heading to the necessary after escorting Annie to the carriage.

“Adam, I think we should talk.”

“If talking is what you have in mind, that’s a good idea, but my wife isn’t feeling well and I need to take her home. I’ll be happy to talk to you on another day.”

“All right. But don’t forget.”

“I won’t.”

As Ben and Jeremy arrived back at the carriage, Ben had to ask what that conversation had been. Adam was relieved that Dave wanted to talk because he was thinking there might finally be a calm, rational way to resolve this whole mess. What he didn’t know was that when Dave reported what he said to his wife and friends, they were skeptical. That’s where Annie’s good acting led to an unfortunate conclusion.

“She looked fine in church, but as soon as you wanted to talk, she’s suddenly not feeling well? That stinks.”

“Yeah, Dave, you can’t let him get away with that. He didn’t show any respect for you at all, and using his wife as an excuse was the coward’s way out.”

That was the type of conversation Dave had with several friends over the next several days. His temper was back up, and he wanted revenge. Just as Adam and Annie were relaxing a bit about the situation because it seemed everything had gone so well at church, it had gotten worse again without their knowledge. On Wednesday, Adam and Jeremy went to town to pick up fencing supplies. They were going to have to take down some fencing to release the cattle for the spring drive, and the materials were to repair the parts of that fence that wouldn’t be good enough to put back up. Annie had said she was feeling better, but Adam thought she still looked a bit pale and wanted her to stay home and rest a bit more. Reluctantly she agreed for she was tired and had been having trouble sleeping too. At least Shep was with her, and he was a great comfort to her. Adam and Jeremy got a late start because they had to fix a wagon rim before they could go. It was noon before they left.

In town, Adam saw Dave Anderson’s wagon and wondered if he would see him. At the mercantile, Adam dropped off the list of supplies they needed and asked Jeremy to wait for them and load them when they were ready because he wanted to go talk with Dave. If Hoss had accompanied Adam, he would never have let Adam seek out Dave on his own. But Jeremy didn’t realize the threat because he didn’t recognize the men who followed Adam down the street as he walked toward the livery stable where Dave’s wagon was standing. With so many people milling about on the street, Adam didn’t realize the threat either. He walked into the livery calling Dave’s name to see if he was there.

“Yeah, Cartwright, what do you want?” Dave’s voice came from the shadows in the back of the stable. He was coherent, but his words were slurred together.

“Sorry, Dave, I thought you would want to talk, but you’ve been drinking so this isn’t probably a good time to do this.”

As Adam turned to leave, Dave’s friends were there blocking the exit. Both had drawn their pistols once they entered the shadows of the stable. Adam turned back to Dave. “Apparently your friends are going to insist I stay. Now do you want to try to talk about this mess?”

“You know what my friends have been telling me? They said that somebody who does something like what you done deserves to be horsewhipped.” From the shadows, Adam heard the unmistakable sound of a bullwhip being snapped. It made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.

“Dave, I didn’t do anything. It’s a big lie.”

“Now you’re calling my wife a liar? If I ever thought you might be telling the truth, that cinches it. You’re a dirty liar calling my wife a liar.” It wasn’t a good time to point out to Dave that his statements were illogical. He was angry, and it was all too obvious that he had been drinking too much. It was a terrible combination for a man who had been cuckolded because it meant he wanted someone to pay, and of course, that someone was Adam. He walked closer to Adam who didn’t want to draw his pistol. He didn’t want to shoot Dave, and he wouldn’t be able to stop Dave and be able to fire on the two at the door who already had their pistols in their hands. They might be bad shots but he was only about ten feet away from them. They could hardly miss even if they were bad shots. Adam tried to talk to Dave, but that was cut off abruptly as Dave swung the whip and caught Adam high on his right arm. The whip tore his shirt and left a welt on his arm.

“Dave, don’t do this. You can still walk away from this.”

“Yeah, well you can’t. You’re gonna pay now.”

Dave landed two more strikes drawing blood before Adam was able to grab the whip and pull Dave off balance. Adam threw everything he had into a left uppercut laying Dave out on the floor. The two with the pistols were unsure of what to do which gave Adam an out. He rushed them and pushed them aside finding out that they were in fact terrible shots for they fired at him as he ran. Once they got to their feet only dust was thrown up by their errant shots, but Adam hoped they didn’t hit an innocent bystander in their anger and frustration. Thankfully they gave up as he rounded the corner near the mercantile. Adam’s right arm was stinging a lot and bleeding profusely shocking Jeremy who had come out of the store when he heard the shots. Roy and Clem came running and stopped when they saw Adam plop down on the bench in front of the store. He gave them a brief rundown of what had happened.

“Well, I’m thinking a few days in jail might just cool them boys down. Clem, take a couple of deputies and round those boys up. I’m walking Adam over to the Doc’s.”

“Roy, I can just go home.”

“Not bleeding like that, you aren’t. Doc’s gonna patch you up first. Jeremy, you wanna get Adam a shirt from the store there. They know his size and the color he likes.”

Nodding and smiling in response to the sheriff’s request and smirk, Jeremy did as asked and then had to ask where the doctor’s office was. He arrived with the shirt as Doctor Martin was applying salve and bandages to the cuts from the whip. He put a lot of padding over each one. Then he put salve on the welts the whip had made on Adam’s back as it wrapped around him each time. Finally he cleaned the abrasions on Adam’s hands from grabbing the whip and pulling Dave off balance.

“Now Jeremy, you need to let Hop Sing and Annie know that these wounds have to be cleaned out and dressed at least twice a day so there won’t be any infection. He’s not to do anything with that arm either so the skin can close up and the bleeding will stop. He needs two weeks of light duty to let everything heal.”

“Yessir, I’ll see to that. Annie’s a right good nurse, and she’ll take good care of him. I might need something for pain though.”

“Oh, were you hurt?”

“No, but I probably will be when I bring him back to Annie all hurt like this. She’s gonna be awful mad at me for not stopping it.”

Even while grimacing from the doctor’s ministrations, Adam had to grin a little for he knew that Jeremy was absolutely correct. Annie was going to be mad. Adam looked forward to making up with her once she calmed down. Makeup sex was always very passionate. It was as if Jeremy and Paul knew what he was thinking because they just shook their heads at him.

*****

Chapter 4

“What were you thinking? You said it yourself! You said you would stay away from him, and you went to see him in the livery stable? And you went by yourself? Are you an idiot?” As expected, Annie was very angry.

“No, I’m not, but you’re really pushing for that spanking!”

“You wouldn’t dare. Besides, with that arm, you couldn’t do it anyway!”

“Don’t push too hard, or I’ll try no matter what it takes.”

Ben felt he had to intervene at that point. “Adam, I think your wife is just concerned about you. There’s no need to argue and make threats.”

“What? Pa, we’re just talking.”

“Yes, Papa, we just have to get it out so it doesn’t simmer.”

Shaking his head at his son’s unusual relationship with his wife, Ben walked back into the great room leaving Adam’s care to Hop Sing and Annie. Seeing Hoss and Joe there next to the fireplace, he had little to say about how Adam and Annie conversed and only shook his head.

“Pa, we see it too. It looks like they’re fighting all the time, but then they’re all fine with each other like nothing happened. I guess it’s a lot like Adam and Little Joe.”

“What? You can leave me out of this.”

“Nah, I mean the way you and Adam are always going at it with each other. Seems to be the only way you two can talk sometimes, but it clears the air and then the two of you work it out. We know ya love each other as brothers, but it can be darn hard for us sometimes to have to listen to it all with the two of ya jabbering at each other so much.”

“Oh. Well you do see the common denominator here is Adam. Maybe it’s the only way he can communicate. He seems to have a few of those knock down drag out spats with Pa rather often too.”

“Deronmintor?”

“The denominator, the common element, the common factor, the only one who is in all the arguing.”

“You might have something there, Joe, but ya coulda just said it straight out the first time. I guess Adam finally found someone like him to marry so she don’t take it wrong when he gets all grumpy and complaining.”

“Boys, there’s another problem. With those cuts on his arm and the welts on his back, Adam shouldn’t go on this drive. I know he has everything set up to boss the drive, but the doctor doesn’t want him using that arm to do much of anything for two weeks. You know if he goes, he’ll do too much. You don’t need that problem.”

“Yeah, knowing our oldest brother, he’ll let it go too until he needs a doctor, and that could be tough. Hoss, why don’t you boss the drive, and I’ll keep the ramrod job.”

“We can do that. Pa, do you suppose there’s any way to hire Dave to work this drive? He’s a darn good cowhand.”

“No, Hoss, that’s probably not a good idea right now. Why don’t you see if Will can help out? We’re taking some of the cattle from his ranch so it would make sense for him to help.”

“Pa, have you been over there lately? The looks from Laura could turn ya into a pillar of salt. Something’s not right there.” Laura had always made Hoss feel uneasy, and lately he didn’t want to be anywhere near her.

“I know. I’ve seen them together, and it’s not pleasant, but maybe that’s a good reason to take Will along. It might help to separate the two of them for a bit.”

“Yeah, Adam hasn’t been over there to help out since he hooked up with Annie. I’m guessing it was a real long winter on that ranch. What happened to Will’s plans to sell the ranch and go to San Francisco?” Joe was concerned because Will had made it clear he wanted to move and start up his own business, and Joe thought it would be a good idea for Peggy too to get away from Adam and get used to Will as her stepfather.

“Laura threw a tantrum when it finally was time to make the move, and your cousin backed down. He’s not a happy man right now.”

“Guess Adam really dodged a bullet with that one, didn’t he?”

Walking out of the kitchen, Adam was perturbed to find his family talking about him. “Dodged what bullet?”

“Ah, well we was talking about the drive. You shouldn’t go. Joe will still ramrod and I’ll take over as trail boss. We’re gonna get Will to help out.”

“Oh, and that was probably where dodging the bullet came in.” Adam knew he shouldn’t go on the drive, and this made it easier for him, but it still rankled. He hated having to turn the job over when it was his turn to do it. That and his family talking about him irritated him more than he already was by what Dave had done in town.

Realizing that his hope that Adam wouldn’t know they had been talking about Adam’s failed relationship with Laura, Hoss found an excuse to head outside. “Well, I better go get to work then. I’ll let Candy know that I’m bossing the drive, so he’ll have a bit more to do here on the ranch while we’re gone.”

“Hoss, I’ll help you.” Joe wanted to get out of the room as much as Hoss did.

That left Ben who asked his sons if they needed any help. When they said they didn’t, he excused himself to go get a cup of coffee leaving Adam and Annie alone in the great room. Adam had his shirt on but open and the white bandages that Hop Sing had insisted on wrapping around him to protect the welts on his back were all too visible as was the thick padding that could be seen under the right sleeve.

“Why is that everyone gets nervous any time we’re talking about Will or Laura? He’s your cousin and neighbor and yet they’re not invited to family events. We say hello to them at church, and that’s about it. Peggy always asks when you’ll come over again, and you do your best to sidestep that question. Would you please explain all of that to me?”

“Now?” With his fingers almost immediately brushing across his lips and his eyes turned down at the floor, Annie knew it was something Adam found painful to discuss. She started to think that it was not a good time to press him for the details for he was physically, emotionally, and mentally stressed by the situation with the rumor about the Anderson baby and that so many including Dave would believe it. His integrity and reputation for honesty were very important to him, and although he would avoid telling the truth sometimes, she had not known him to lie and his family held that same opinion of him.

“I’m sorry I got angry with you for going to see Dave in the livery stable. I don’t understand why you didn’t take Jeremy with you.”

“I didn’t think he wanted to fight. After church on Sunday, he wanted to talk, and I told him I would, but that you weren’t feeling well and I wanted to get you home. I don’t know what happened with him in the last few days to change him back into that angry man bent on getting revenge.”

“You didn’t tell me on Sunday that he had asked to talk with you.”

“You were so tired, and you’d been such a trooper to come with me to church, I felt I had to spare you any more. I wanted to take care of you.”

“I’ll be fine. You need to think more about taking care of yourself.”

“Well, on that note, because we never had time for a honeymoon and I can’t go on the drive or work anyway, how about if I ask Pa if he thinks we could take a couple of weeks and go to San Francisco? There are usually some nice shows in the spring, and we can go to the beach and have a picnic. There are some wonderful restaurants to go to, and I have friends I would like you to meet.”

With a frown and a smile, Annie nodded.

“The smile I get, but why are you frowning?”

“I would like to go very much, but I was wondering if all of this was to avoid answering the question I asked earlier. You know, if you don’t want to talk about it, you could just tell me that. You don’t have to use these elaborate avoidance techniques you have.”

“I didn’t ask you to go to San Francisco to avoid answering your question. I do think that two weeks on our own will give us more time to talk. I’ll tell you anything you want to know. Now if you want to know about Laura, I want to go up to our room. I don’t want to have anyone else there when I explain what happened.”

So Adam and Annie went to their room, and while they sat side by side on the bed, Adam explained one of the more painful parts of his past. He told her how Will and Laura were seeing each other while Laura was supposed to be getting ready for her wedding to Adam. He told her about the accident when he fell from the roof and was paralyzed. Then he told her about being in the wheelchair and overhearing Laura and Will express their love for each other. That betrayal was why he was uncomfortable around Laura and Will. He explained that Peggy wanted him to be her father and was having a difficult time accepting Will in that role. To help with the separation, Adam had asked his father to try to keep the two of them apart. Therefore, unless it was a big party, Will and Laura were not invited to the Ponderosa. It was a trying situation for all of them.

“Did you sleep with her?”

Obviously a little surprised by that question, Adam answered first with a question. “Are you going to ask me about every woman with whom I have had relations?”

“No, just the ones I might still see.”

With a deep sigh, Adam leaned back on the bed. “Yes.”

“Well she must be an idiot then to walk away from the best loving and most handsome man I have ever met. I can’t believe she did that to you.”

Seeing how angry Annie was, Adam felt a warning was appropriate. “Now, Annie, it’s over. I don’t want you doing anything about it. I was truthful with you that her betrayal and Will’s were very painful for me, but I have to tell you I was very lucky too. If not for Laura leaving me for Will, I would never have found you. You’re the best for me, and I want you to know that there has never been and never will be anyone who is more important to me than you are.” Adam sat up and reached for Annie with his left arm to pull her to him. They kissed, and Annie’s hand brushed across the welts on his back making him flinch.

“Oh, I am so sorry. When you kiss me, sometimes my brain just stops working.”

Grinning then, Adam’s good spirits were back. “Hmm, it’s a confidence builder that I have that effect on you and we’ve been married almost five months.”

“Mister, we could be married five years or fifty, and you would still have that effect on me. Now though, you should get some rest.”

“I would rest better if you were with me.”

“You know perfectly well that if I stayed here with you, you wouldn’t be getting any rest at all. Your hands just naturally seem to start roaming around whenever I’m close to you, and as soon as those lips of yours touch me, my brain seems to disappear. Now get some sleep. I’ll wake you for dinner.”

After dinner, Adam asked his father if he would mind if he and Annie took a couple of weeks to go to San Francisco because he couldn’t work anyway. Although a stage ride might be a bit uncomfortable, it did fit within the doctor’s prescription so Ben had no objections and thought it might be good for the two of them to get out of town for a while. Ben was concerned at how the stress seemed to be affecting Annie’s ability to sleep and making her feel ill as well. Adam and Annie began packing the next morning. After Hop Sing and Annie cleaned up Adam’s wounds and put on fresh clean bandages, Ben gave Adam and Annie a ride to town to catch the stage. It was a blustery day, and few people were traveling or even out and about in town. There were no other passengers on the stage, and Adam gave Annie a pat on the behind as she climbed into the stage ahead of him and then he had a lecherous grin once he got on the stage.

“We can’t do anything on the stage!”

“Oh, I think there may be a few things we can do.”

Shaking her head, Annie had to admit that the time would pass more quickly if they were hugging and kissing for some of the time at least. She wasn’t too worried because Adam did have one arm he could barely use. She wasn’t as safe as she thought though, but she didn’t object much either to the attention she got.

In town as Ben watched the stage pull out, Sheriff Roy Coffee hailed him. The two of them sought refuge in a nearby restaurant where they ordered coffee.

“Ben, I’m right glad to see ya. Saves me a trip out to your place.”

“Oh, why did you need to come out to see me?”

“Well, actually I needed to contact Adam. Dave is still in jail for disturbing the peace yesterday along with those two friends of his. Adam wouldn’t press no other charges so I’ll have to let them out in two days. But Dave got himself a lawyer.”

Ben was confused. “Now if he’s getting out in two days, why does he need a lawyer?”

“Well seems he’s gonna sue Adam for support for his child and he’s suing him too for adultery with his wife.”

“What?”

“I got a subpoena I gotta serve on Adam. He has to appear in court to give a deposition to the lawyer.”

“Well that’s plain ridiculous. Besides, Adam has left town for two weeks. He and Annie are heading to San Francisco. So unless you can ride faster than that stage is going in this weather, Dave will have to wait two weeks to have that subpoena served. Maybe he’ll come to his senses by then.”

“Don’t hardly think so, Ben. I been hearing those two jaspers who was locked up with him keep telling him how he got shamed by Adam and needs to get back at him. Ben, I can’t see this turning out well. There’s gonna be hurt all around from this mess.”

*****

Chapter 5

“You’re enjoying this a bit too much.” Adam was grouchy. Annie had insisted they stop over in Sacramento to see a doctor, and they had been cooped up in the hotel room for two days. There were a couple of things that always made him a grouch. One was being a patient, and the other was being forced to stay in one location for very long. In this case, both were true so he was a very crabby man.

“I’m not enjoying it. It had to be done. You had a fever, and we need to make sure these wounds from that whip don’t get any worse. You heard the doctor. I need to clean these at least two or three times a day, and no more traveling for you until they start to heal again. There’s only a mild infection in that one cut now, but we can’t let it get any worse.”

“No, what I meant is that you like being in charge and telling me what to do. I hope you know it won’t last.”

“Oh, I think there are a few things you wouldn’t mind me ordering you to do.”

“Like what?”

Smiling, Annie sat on the bed and looked up as demurely as she could manage at that moment. “Perhaps I could tell you it was time for a nap, and you better shuck them clothes and crawl into this bed.”

“Would you be in there with me?”

“Well, it would depend on how fast you comply with my request.”

Grinning, Adam dropped his shirt to the floor. It hadn’t been buttoned anyway because Annie had finished cleaning his wounds and bandaging them securely only a few minutes previously. Then he dropped his pants, pulled off his socks, and slid under the covers. “Fast enough for you?”

“Perhaps too fast. I may have to ask you to slow down a little in the future. But for now, yes, that was nice.” Slowly then, Annie unbuttoned her dress and let it slide to the floor. Then she unhooked her shoes and slipped them off. Reaching up under her petticoats, she slipped off a stocking and then the other and dropped them by her shoes. Item by item, she slowly removed the rest of her clothing before pulling the covers back and sitting beside Adam. “Now, it’s your turn to give orders.” And they played that game for a time before they actually did fall asleep once they were both very satisfied with how the early afternoon had gone.

When it was nearing six, Annie awoke and looked up to see Adam gazing down at her. She knew he liked to watch her as she slept. She had asked him if he would draw a portrait of her in sleep so she could see what he found so fascinating. He said he would if he could pull the covers off. Annie wasn’t ready to let him draw her as a nude, so that request of hers had yet to be granted.

“May I escort you to dinner, my fair lady?”

“You may, indeed, kind sir, but methinks we ought to don yon fine clothing beforehand.”

Chuckling, Adam slid from the bed and retrieved their clothing that was strewn across the floor. The next morning, Annie was satisfied that the cuts on his arm were healing. There had been no drainage during the night, and the angry red color had subsided to a light shade of pink. They got tickets for the riverboat and were on their way to San Francisco by the end of the day.

Standing at the rail with his left arm around Annie’s waist, Adam pointed out to her places and sights that he knew. She was dismayed at the murky waters, and Adam explained it was the result of mining and that there were court cases being fought over that issue. He hoped this would never happen to the waters of Nevada and beautiful Lake Tahoe but said the outcome of the cases in California would have a big impact. They discussed other issues related to mining and water rights. Although Annie loved the bantering and teasing with Adam, it was these talks on serious issues when he explained things and asked her opinion that made her love him more every day. Although he threatened to spank her when he was perturbed, she didn’t think he would actually do that unless she willfully went against his wishes on something he found terribly important. He showed too much respect for her as a person for her to think he would treat her like a child. The paternalistic attitude of her first husband had irritated her more than anything else about him, and she was happy that Adam did not act that way toward her. Even with all the grumbling, he had listened to her advice in Sacramento and then heeded it. It made her feel more confident and loved.

In San Francisco, it was Adam’s turn to take charge which he enjoyed immensely. He took Annie to the theatre, to meet and visit with his friends, and to his favorite restaurants. There were of course lots of quiet intimate times in their hotel room in between because it was their official honeymoon. At Adam’s insistence, Annie bought some new dresses and then some other garments that she thought were absolutely risqué, but Adam thought she would look ravishing in them even if he was the only one who would see her dressed that way. In fact, he was sure that he would be the only one to see her dressed that way, and just the thought of it made him want to rush back to their hotel room. They didn’t rush back, but Annie did model some of the new garments that evening, and their tickets to the theatre were forgotten. There was the promised picnic, visits to chocolate and pastry shops, and then to bookstores where the two of them stocked up on some of the latest releases. By the time their ten days in the city were over, both of them were relaxed and rejuvenated. Adam’s arm and back were nearly healed so the trip home was much less strenuous.

Again on the stage, Adam and Annie were the only passengers from Placerville to Virginia City. Adam had some ideas of what he would have liked to do, but Annie wanted to talk about something that had been nagging at the edges of her conscious mind for a while. “You said you thought for a time that Pa could have been the one who fathered that Anderson baby because he rides off for hours at a time and no one knows where he is. What do you think he’s been doing?”

“I’m not sure. I think he is seeing someone. When we brought supplies to the line shacks this spring, the one we use the least because it’s between home and Virginia City was clean and orderly. Usually it’s the dustiest one because it is so seldom used.”

“So you think he’s been using it to meet with someone?”

Nodding, Adam had to smile. “I even toyed with the idea of following him to see who it could be, but that really is none of my business if he doesn’t want us to know.”

“Don’t you have any idea? And why would he want to hide it?”

“First of all, any one Ben Cartwright is seen with at a dance or a party becomes the target of gossip and rumors of impending marriage, and slander about gold diggers inevitably results. So that Pa is keeping it a secret if he is seeing someone is not surprising at all. It doesn’t mean there is any reason to think it isn’t a wholly respectable relationship. And as to whom it could be, I have no idea. My father appreciates a pretty woman, and always finds time to chat with women even if he doesn’t particularly care for them. He is always a gentleman.”

“Too bad his sons didn’t inherit that from him.”

“Darling, would you have me act gentlemanly with all the ladies, or should I continue my roguish ways with you only?”

“Well, when you say it that way, I guess I’m pretty happy the way things are. I still want to know who it is.”

Laughing at Annie’s insatiable curiosity, Adam pulled her to him for a sound kiss. They were still in each other’s arms when the stage rolled up to the depot in Virginia City. Annie straightened her clothing and sat up straight causing Adam to grin. “It’s all right for them to know we’ve been kissing. We’re married, and the coach was private.”

As soon as the driver put the step by the door of the stage, Ben was there pulling the door open to welcome Adam and Annie home. Every time that Adam traveled away from the Ponderosa like this, Ben had a little stab of fear that this might be the time he decided not to come back. Ben knew the wanderlust was just barely held in check by his eldest son. He had hoped that Adam and Annie would have a child and make a home on the Ponderosa, and that was the main reason he had been sad to learn that Annie might not be able to have a child. But Adam was home again, and Ben hugged Annie and gave her a kiss on the cheek before grabbing Adam in an unaccustomed hug. Adam had no idea why his father was so demonstrative but was soon to learn the reason.

All of the serenity of the trip was dashed almost as soon as Adam and Annie returned to Virginia City. After their greeting from Ben, Roy was there to meet them with the subpoena. Adam was angry but even more upset when he saw how the subpoena affected his wife. Because the subpoena required him to divulge information in a formal deposition with a judge as a witness, there would be no way to avoid all sorts of embarrassing revelations. There was no protection of the right to remain silent in a civil proceeding. Adam would have to answer truthfully any question posed to him.

Ben suggested that the three of them might like to have lunch in town, and then go talk with their lawyer about the subpoena. Adam agreed for putting it off wasn’t going to help so he would do what he usually did and meet a challenge head on. Annie put her head down and sighed wondering when the two of them would have any peace. As they were seated at a table for lunch, Madame Fourier entered the restaurant. Ben saw her first.

“Well, hello, Michelle, ah , Madame Fourier.”

“Good afternoon, Monsieurs Cartwright, and Madame Cartwright. What a pleasure to see you here.”

“Michele, if you’re planning to dine alone, perhaps you would like to joining us. Adam and I just returned from San Francisco.” Annie liked Michele a great deal, and had enjoyed their talks especially the long talk the day she had ordered so much clothing.

“Ah, Annie, I would be so happy to join you if I am not imposing. Did you add to your wardrobe while you were in San Francisco?”

Blushing, Annie nodded, and Michele had a good idea why she was doing that and so did Ben. “You must show me the dresses you bought when you have a chance. I would like to see if there are some patterns I could use in my shop.”

“I would be happy to do that.”

“Sweetheart, why don’t you do that after lunch while I go see the lawyer?”

“Don’t you want me with you at the lawyer’s office?”

“If you want to sit and listen, that’s fine, but I assume that Hiram will be running me through a series of questions he will expect I’ll have to answer. You already know what the answers will be. It’s your choice of what you want to do.”

“I’ll go with you, and if Hiram thinks I’m not needed, then I’ll take the valise with the dresses over to see Michele.”

“That sounds like a plan. Now does anyone know what the special is today?”

The rest of the meal passed pleasantly as the four of them chatted about lighter events, and Annie invited Michele to the Ponderosa whenever she had the chance. Michele smiled and said she would be delighted to visit and told Annie that perhaps once things calmed down for her and Adam, they would be able to spend some time together. After lunch, the Cartwrights headed to the lawyer’s office and Michele went back to her shop. As expected, Hiram had no questions or concerns that required Annie’s presence so she headed over to spend some time with her new friend.

On the day of the deposition, Annie accompanied Adam to the courthouse as did Ben. Hoss and Joe as well as Will were still gone on the cattle drive. Hiram said a show of family support couldn’t hurt, but their absence could. Hiram and Adam had discussed the case the day before, and they were sure that a judge hearing such a deposition would not be impressed with Dave’s case. In front of the judge who would decide if the case had merit and could proceed, Dave’s lawyer made Adam explain his relationship with Sue Anderson in depth.

“Did you ever have relations with Sue Anderson?”

“No, I did not.”

“Come now, isn’t it fairly common knowledge that you did before she was married to Dave Anderson? Are you trying to tell us that everyone who believes that is wrong? How could that be?”

“No, but her name was Sue Maitland then, and yes I did have relations with her. It was mutually agreeable to us. I never had relations with Sue Anderson though. I would never be with a married woman or even a woman who was betrothed.”

“Your Honor, please instruct the witness to only answer the questions I pose.”

“You opened the door, counselor. You have to live with what comes in or be more careful in how you phrase the question.”

“Now you were the one who arranged the cattle drive that Dave Anderson worked, weren’t you?”

Adam had to answer in the affirmative.

“But you didn’t go on that drive, did you?”

“No, I did not. I was injured and confined to light work.”

“Your Honor?”

“Mr. Cartwright, please only elaborate on your answers when he asks you to do that.”

“When her husband was gone on a cattle drive that had been arranged by you, why did you go to see her if it wasn’t for a liaison between the two of you?”

“I wanted to warn her about some of the behavior I had heard about.”

“What kind of behavior?”

“I heard she was seeing other men. I told her she shouldn’t be chasing after other men because she was married.”

“Did you see her with anyone or were you the one she was chasing after?” Dave’s lawyer was getting overconfident thinking he was leading Adam into admitting an affair with a married woman.

“No, I was not, and I did not see her with anyone else.”

“Then why were you so sure that these things you heard were true?” Hiram smiled. He knew that a lawyer should never, ever give an open-ended question to a hostile witness especially one as intelligent as Adam Cartwright. Adam was free now to explain, and it wouldn’t be good for Dave’s case especially because Adam was answering the question posed by Dave’s lawyer.

“Because she was seeing Dave when she was supposed to be my girl. Someone told me that he saw her kissing Dave, and when I asked her, she had to admit she had been seeing him behind my back.”

Standing then before another question could be asked, Hiram made a motion to the judge. “Your Honor, based on what you have heard here already, I would ask you to dismiss this suit and order Mr. Anderson not to pursue this legally and waste the court’s time.”

“Counselor, I am inclined to agree with you. Does the plaintiff have any evidence to support this case because I haven’t heard any so far?”

“Your Honor, I’m sure that with time, the case could be presented to your satisfaction so that a trial of the torts could proceed.”

“Well, now, counselor, that’s a big mistake you made. You will not use my time to go on a fishing expedition looking for evidence. You should have had some before you showed up in my courtroom to take a sworn statement. This case is dismissed with prejudice. Nothing like it better be filed with this court, or I will find both of you in contempt. Mr. Cartwright, I apologize that this fiasco was allowed. I’m sure you lawyer can advise you about the statutes on slander if you would like to pursue that. This proceeding, however, is adjourned.” The judge angrily banged his gavel and stood to exit the room.

“You can’t do that! He took my wife! He needs to be punished for that!” Dave had been getting angrier and angrier in the courtroom as the deposition had proceeded. He knew too that his lawyer had not been a match for Adam.

“You sir, need to be quiet or I will hold you in contempt of court. A few days in jail might be necessary to calm you down.”

“Contempt? You bet it’s contempt. You were paid off by the Cartwrights, weren’t you? They can get away with anything because they have a lot of money.”

“Sheriff, please remove him from this courtroom and see if a day in jail can get him to regain his good manners if he has any.”

“I’ll get you, Adam Cartwright! I’ll get you for this if it’s the last thing I do.”

It was a somber group of Cartwrights who traveled back to the Ponderosa. They had quashed the legal proceedings against Adam, but Dave was even angrier than before. All of them knew that an angry man like that could be a lot of trouble for them if he decided to act on his anger. He would never meet Adam directly in a fight for he would lose. The biggest question then was what he would do instead.

*****

Chapter 6

“Heard you had a pretty tough time with Dave’s lawyer but handled it just fine.”

“Candy, I wish I knew a better way to talk about this, but I need to ask you something.” Adam and Candy were out fixing fence. Adam was feeling fine and some of the fence repairs had been jury rigged until someone could get to it. Jeremy was gone to get more supplies so the two men had some privacy for a time.

“Adam, I think I know what you’re asking. No, I’m not the father. I was sweating it out for some months though.”

“May I ask why?”

“It pretty much happened as you suspect just not as fast as you think. She made a move on me the first day I was over there to help out. I think that might be one of the reasons your father asked me to go after he had helped out a few times. I’m guessing she put some moves on him and he wasn’t comfortable being around her. I resisted, honestly, I did. But she was after me and after me. I couldn’t control it. She’d bend over by the clothes line while I was working, and I could see so much cause she would have her skirt hiked up when she was working outside. She’s a darn fine looking woman as you know. But I didn’t do anything. I stayed away from her as much as I could, did the work I had to do, and got out of there as soon as I could. Could only take it for a week, and then I asked someone else to help her.”

“Let me guess. She touched your arm, your shoulder, or your hand as often as she could get near to you, and she stood as close to you as she could often brushing up against you. She dressed provocatively and talked in innuendoes that left little to the imagination.”

“Well, I suppose you would know. You thinking you were just another conquest?”

“I’m thinking she wanted some of the Cartwright money and I was a means to that end. Now why did you say you were sweating it out?”

“Well, I was in town on a Saturday maybe two months later or so and had some drinks with your brothers and some of the boys. You know how it is when you can get Joe to crack open that wallet of his. Well, I probably had a few more than I should have, but the next day was a day off so I wasn’t worried. As I was getting my horse and thinking I ought to ride home while I still could, Sue called to me from the mercantile. She had a wagonload of supplies and asked if I could help her. I did of course, and then she asked me to help her drive the wagon home and unload it because Dave was gone on a hunting trip over the weekend.”

“And her hands were roaming and she made all sorts of suggestions as to what you could do.”

“That’s it. I took her that afternoon and came back several more times when she asked me to. Adam, she told me she was already with child so I didn’t have to worry. Damn, she had me do things that no other woman had ever asked me to do. I’d dream about her at night. But afterwards, I was worried that she had said she was with child just to encourage me more. Well anybody can count, and it was seven months later that she had that baby so I know it ain’t mine. Until then, I was thinking I could end up in the situation you’re in. I was never with a married woman before and I’m ashamed I was with her. It wasn’t right, but no one else has to know.”

“You said you asked someone else to help her out. Who did you ask?”

“Oh boy, I was afraid you’d want to know that. I asked Will if he could help. I figured she’d let a married man alone. I know now that wasn’t very smart. I heard that Will and Laura are having some troubles so I’m thinking that he might be the father.”

“Damn, this just keeps getting better and better. Well I guess it’s with Will that I ought to be having this conversation.”

“He’s supposed to be working at his place today. I can handle this with Jeremy. Why don’t you go over to talk with Will once Jeremy gets back here?”

Jeremy returned with the wagonload of materials and Adam headed back to the house to change. He was surprised when he walked in that his father was not there, but Annie was sitting by the fireplace working on some sewing. Michele had been teaching her some basic skills so she could make new curtains. Annie liked it, and thought she might like to tackle something more complex in the future.

“Do you know where Pa is?”

“No, he’s off on one of his mystery rides again. He always says he has ‘something to do’ and then comes back a few hours later. Why do you need to know?”

“I had that talk with Candy. He’s not the father, and I wanted Pa to know because we had discussed that possibility. Now I’m going over to see Will. Seems he was helping Sue too during that time. If he’s the father, I may deck him.”

“Adam, you can’t. That situation over there is bad enough from what Hoss says.”

“I know, but I sure would like to.”

“Go talk with him and find out what happened. You might be as surprised as you were with what you found out from Candy. I’d like to know the details of that talk sometime too.”

“I’ll tell you tonight.”

“Ah, pillow talk, the best kind. Will that be before or after?”

Shaking his head, Adam bid his wife goodbye and headed over to see Will. When he got there, Laura was standing by Will near their stable. When she saw Adam riding up, she gave a small wave and headed to the house. Adam was surprised by that, but it was welcome because now he wouldn’t have to come up with an excuse as to why he wanted to see Will privately.

“Somehow, I’m guessing it’s me you want to talk with.”

Dismounting, Adam tied Sport to the corral fence. “Yes. I need to find out what happened with Sue Anderson. Somehow I have to find the truth and then find a way to get Dave to believe it. I talked with Candy. He told me what he asked you to do. He feels badly about it thinking he pushed you into a bad situation.”

“He did, but it’s not probably what you think.”

“And you know what I’m thinking?”

“Well, it is a guess, but I would suppose you think now that I’m the father of Sue Anderson’s baby. I’m not. Yes, she tried, but I told her I had made a mistake like that once already and hurt someone very much. I would never do anything like it again no matter how attractive the situation.”

That was probably the closest Will had ever come to admitting his duplicity with Laura. Adam believed him. “She tried then?”

“Yes. I think the woman has to be insatiable. I guessed that she had tried with Ben and with Candy and that’s why I was asked to help out. It would have been nice if Candy had given me some warning because that woman is frightfully seductive.”

“I’m sorry. It just seemed with how you and Laura are lately that you might have fathered that baby, and she was upset about it.”

“No, Laura is upset about something else entirely. She’s had several miscarriages. We thought the first one was God’s punishment, I guess. She wasn’t even sure if that one was mine or yours. But the next two have really hurt. The doctor has advised her that she may not be able to carry a child to term. We’ve both been sad about that but especially Laura. Whenever she sees another woman with a baby, it hits her so hard. That’s why we leave events so quickly sometimes.”

“I’m sorry, Will. I had no idea.”

“Well, it’s not you, Ben, Candy, or me. It can’t be Hoss, and if I remember correctly, Joe can’t stand to be around her. Who do you suppose the father is?”

“Damned if I know. This whole situation just got a whole lot worse. How can I talk some sense into Dave if I can’t help him with that answer.”

“The way she is, Adam, it could almost be anyone.”

“Not anyone. It has to be someone with dark hair, darker eyes, and darker skin. This is going to take some work but the answer can’t be too far away. She’s never left town. Well give my regards to Laura and Peggy.”

As Will waved goodbye, Adam was deep in thought. He headed home to discuss this with Annie and perhaps his father if he was home yet. He needed some ideas to figure out a way to pursue a solution to this mess. When he arrived home, there was a carriage there that he didn’t recognize. He dismounted and walked to the house only to be met by Annie who came outside.

“You’re never going to believe who’s here.”

Pausing only a moment, Adam had an idea. “Sue?”

“Darn, how do you do that?”

“More importantly, why is she here?”

“She got here just after you left. We’ve been talking.” Annie recounted what had happened so far. “She’s very upset. She’s admitted she lied to Dave. She wanted him to get upset and leave her. She can’t stand having him around. Apparently she tried to get any man she could thinking he would leave, but instead he got angry, very angry. So she said it was because of you. She said you had been over there having your way with her and laughing behind his back. She was hoping Dave would challenge you to a fight and be killed. It was another way she thought she could get rid of him. Then she worried she would have no money so she said the baby was yours hoping that you would pay them money to shut up. She planned to take the money and use it to leave Dave.”

“And what about the baby?”

“She was going to take the baby with her. She does love the baby and the baby’s father.”

“Who is it?”

“She won’t say other than he’s from Virginia City, which we already had surmised, but that he’s already married and can’t get out of it. They both feel trapped, and it made them desperate. He was apparently the one who said that she ought to get some money from you.”

With his head down and leaning against a porch post, Adam rubbed his forehead. “What a mess. Frankly I don’t see any good way out of this. Got any ideas?”

“Only that maybe we should think about giving her the money to leave. Dave is drinking a lot and seldom home. She says when he does come home, he’s always angry and has threatened her.”

“That just doesn’t seem to be the Dave I know. This has really messed him up. Well let’s go inside and talk. We’ll see what she thinks about your idea.”

“Oh, there’s one more thing. She said Dave has contacted someone named Poole and that you would know who that was.”

Adam closed his eyes as he frowned. Then he looked at Annie and put his arms out for her. “Sweetheart, this whole mess just got a whole lot worse.”

Inside the house, Sue seemed to get smaller as Adam walked in and over to her. She knew how badly she had messed things up and the Cartwrights especially Adam she was hoping would be her salvation.

“You’re the one who should probably be horse whipped. Do you have any idea what you’ve done? Dave isn’t the same man any more. He was a decent man even if you decided you didn’t want to be with him any more. But now we have to deal with the aftermath. Annie wants me to give you the money so you’ll leave. It’s a matter now of how much?”

“I don’t have anywhere to go. I guess the money isn’t as important as having a place to live where I can raise my son. I could live with my parents, but since my father got hurt in the mine, they hardly have enough to feed themselves.”

As Adam stood rubbing his forehead as he thought, Annie stepped beside him and took his arm. “Can we find some work for her father to do so that the family has enough money to live?”

“We could probably find some odd jobs for him to do to keep the family fed. We could also keep him on a retainer over the winter. Yes, so that that innocent child doesn’t suffer, we can do enough, but that still doesn’t solve the problem of Dave. Sue, you told Annie he contacted Poole. Do you know if Poole agreed to come here and do it?”

“I don’t know. Dave just yelled that out to me during one of his outbursts.”

“All right, I’ll talk with my father tomorrow. You go to your parents’ house in town, and we’ll make arrangements by tomorrow to work this out. You do need to tell Dave the truth though or at least as much of it as you told us. I would guess that the whole truth will make him ready to leave you be, and that might settle all of this.”

“I will if I can find him and he’s sober. He’s never sober when he comes home so waiting at the ranch for him is not a good idea. I’ll try to find him in town in the morning and see if he’ll listen to me.”

With that, Sue took her leave after apologizing profusely for everything she had done and thanking them for still being willing to help her. She said she had no one else who could help. The tears and apologies seemed real, but with Sue, Adam knew it was best to be a bit skeptical. Annie agreed as did Ben when they explained the situation to him later.

Once Ben had returned home, Adam had told Annie and Ben about his conversations with Candy and with Will. He left out the news about the miscarriages that Laura had had because he didn’t know if Will meant for him to share that with his family. The three of them agreed that they would work out the details in town the next day. That night in bed, Annie asked Adam if there was anything more he had to tell her so he explained about Poole. She had forgotten how worried he had looked upon hearing that name, and with his explanation, she shivered. Her fear that something would happen to Adam at the hands of Poole made her scared and the nausea that had left her alone for a few days reappeared. Adam got her some tea, and when she finished that, he rubbed her back until she fell asleep. Then he laid beside her and pulled her close to him, but stared at the moonbeam shining in the room and slept little the rest of the night worrying about Poole and Dave and what they might do.

*****

Chapter 7

“Adam, no, don’t do this!”

“Pa, I have to. Please don’t interfere. You’ll only make things worse.”

So Ben stayed in the crowd that was gathering on the side of the street watching Poole and Adam face off. They had talked the night before and again that morning about the situation with Sue and Dave. The three of them had come to town to pick up supplies and make the arrangements that were needed. As Ben had walked out of the bank after getting the cash they would need, he saw Adam standing in the street facing Poole. Ben’s heart began to pound, and all he could think about was stopping this gunfight before he would have to see his oldest son wounded or killed.

Standing in the morning sun in that street, Adam felt sweat running down his back even though the day was mild. He remembered being shot before with the force of the bullet slamming into him like a small steel fist and the searing heat of it entering his flesh followed by waves of pain radiating throughout his body it seemed. He knew Poole was an excellent marksman and wondered if a shot to his heart would be less painful for he might not have time to feel the pain before his life ended. But Annie would be alive because he had realized when he saw Dave standing there with an arm around her neck and a pistol to her ear that she was more important to him than his own life. Dave and his friends had walked behind them into the mercantile. They hadn’t even realized they were being followed. What had started as a routine trip to town for supplies and to take care of their other errands had become this life and death scenario. Adam knew he could not defend himself against Poole. It was not only the threat that Dave would shoot Annie in the head if Poole failed. His arm was mostly useless after being hit by Dave’s friends. They had hit his upper arm several times and a whack by an axe handle had numbed his hand and probably had broken a bone in his forearm. He had not been able to retaliate for fear of what Dave would do to Annie if he did. As a result, he would not be able to draw. He had tried to talk them out of what they were bent on doing but had failed at that too.

“Dave, guys, you may see me killed but you’ll all be locked up. It’s not just Annie’s testimony that will send you to prison. All the other people in this store will know what you did and tell the story. Dave, there must be another way. Think about it.”

“No, that’s all I been doing is thinking about it. Everybody is laughing at me. My wife was stolen by Adam Cartwright right under my nose. I can’t let that go. I can’t. Now get outside. Poole’s waiting for you.”

So now Adam stood in the center of the street facing Poole knowing he would likely die soon. After what seemed to be a long time but was only about a minute, Poole told Adam that they would draw on the count of three. He counted off in a slow cadence and the crowd was silent expecting to see a man die before them. On three, Poole drew but Adam did not. He had his hand on the butt of his pistol but did not draw it even though Poole was pointing his weapon directly at Adam’s chest aiming for a kill shot. Bent on finding Dave and telling him the truth finally, Sue had come from her parents’ home. Frozen into immobility by the sight she saw in front of her, she looked around wondering where Dave could possibly be. When she heard what the two men said next, she had an idea of where he was and began edging around the two men standing in the street.

“Why won’t you draw?”

“I can’t.”

As Poole walked closer with his gun pointed at Adam’s chest, he saw that Adam had rapidly developing bruises on his face which was also bloodied. “What happened?”

“Poole, you have to shoot me. He’ll kill my wife if you don’t shoot me.”

“Why didn’t you draw if you wanted that?”

“I can barely lift my arm and my hand is numb. Dave’s friends made sure I couldn’t win. They were very enthusiastic about their work, but Poole you have to shoot me. Please? My wife’s life depends on it.”

There was a collective gasp and then silence from the crowd after they heard Adam’s explanation. A few then yelled at Poole that it wasn’t a fair fight hoping to dissuade him from shooting Adam. From the door of the vacant store, Dave stepped out holding Annie tightly against him with an arm around her neck and a pistol pointed at her temple. It was clear to everyone then even those who had just arrived and not heard the conversation why Adam was in the street facing Poole’s challenge even though he couldn’t draw his pistol.

“Shoot him, Poole. That was our deal. You shoot him down like the dog he is.” Annie’s face was red and her eyes were full of fear and anger, but there was nothing she could do. Dave was a powerful man, and his madness now drove him.

“I’ve never shot a helpless man in my life.” Poole’s eyes flicked from Adam to Dave and back again. It was an awkward position. He had made a deal with Dave Anderson to get Adam Cartwright into a gunfight. For only a minimum fee, Poole had agreed to Dave’s offer. Poole felt he needed to defeat Adam because all those years ago this cowboy had beaten him to the draw. But then he and his father and brother had seen to Poole’s medical care. He would not murder the man for that’s what it would be if he shot him now.

“Why does he get to have everyone backing him and turning on me? Why?” Dave flung Annie aside and she crashed into the wall of the mercantile and dropped to the walk stunned. Then he pointed his pistol at Adam who was only about ten feet away.

“No, Dave, please don’t. Adam’s not the father. I just wanted to get money from him. It was …” but that man would never be named because Sue ran into the line of fire as Dave pulled the trigger, and the bullet meant for Adam tore into her chest narrowly missing her son. Poole fired and his shot hit Dave dead center. Dave fell to his knees looking at his wife in the street. She had fallen backwards and her son had fallen from her arms as blood spurted from her chest for a moment and then stopped. Dave fell forward onto his face then. The only sound was the wailing of the forlorn and terrified child and the sound of a woman sobbing.

Staggering over to the walk in front of the mercantile, Adam called softly to Annie. She turned to look at him realizing that her worst fear had not been realized. Adam reached out his left arm and Annie pushed herself to stand and go to him, but then the two of them collapsed to the walk from all of the stress and physical abuse they had suffered. Adam sat cradling Annie with his left arm as she cried softly with her head buried against his chest. Poole walked to Adam who held his wife with one arm as the other hung at his side.

“I’ve never seen anything like that. You were gonna let me shoot you down to save your wife’s life. You’re something else, Cartwright. Someday we’ll meet again. I’d still like to see which one of us would walk away from a fair fight now.”

All Adam could do was nod. He had no snappy comebacks for his mind was blank. Ben walked up to Poole as he left.

“Mr. Poole, you’re a gun for hire if I’m correct in my assumption.”

“I am, Mr. Cartwright, but I don’t break the law and I don’t murder anyone.”

“Mr. Poole, that’s good to know. I would like to hire you for a job. How does five thousand dollars sound?”

“I’m surprised. I wouldn’t have ever thought a man like you would pay a hired gun to do a job for him.”

“I’ll pay you five thousand dollars, and all you have to do is one thing, and it doesn’t involve shooting anyone.”

A little skeptical, Poole just raised an eyebrow and waited for the rest.

“I have that money with me right now. I’ll pay you to stay out of Virginia City and not challenge my son to a gunfight. He’s had enough. He’s not a gunfighter. Is it a deal?” Ben held out the envelope of money that he and Adam had planned to give to Sue Anderson to enable her to leave town or to help support her if she chose to live with her parents. They would still offer Mr. Maitland some work so that he could support himself and his wife. Ben wondered suddenly if they would now have to care for their daughter’s baby as well. His mind was snapped back to the moment as Poole took the envelope from his hand.

“I accept your terms and payment, Mr. Cartwright. Your son has nothing to fear from me ever again. I’ll leave up to you to tell him that if you wish. Thank you, and goodbye.” Poole mounted up and rode out of town. Roy had wanted to speak with him about the shooting but there were plenty of witnesses without him.

Walking back to Adam and Annie, Ben stood for a moment as the two of them worked to regain their composure. Once they stood, he told them he would walk with them to Doctor Martin’s office. Adam objected, but Ben pointed out that his arm looked broken and Paul could splint it and wrap it for the ride back home. He could hardly object to that. Sitting in Paul’s office later, Adam was not surprised when Roy walked in and wanted his statement. It was up to Roy to settle the whole matter finally and legally. With the statements from witnesses, Roy only needed corroboration from Adam and Annie to put this whole sorry story behind them. He did have one bit of news that surprised them though.

“The Maitlands have that baby now, but they said they can’t take care of him. They want somebody to adopt that little boy. Poor little fella needs a home.”

Looking at Adam with hope in her eyes, Annie saw that Adam was not going to jump at this chance. She planned to work on him about it though. Adam had the same question in his mind as his father but Ben asked first.

“Do they have any idea who the father is?”

“Her parents is in the dark as much as anybody was. I got a suspicion though. I’m gonna have a talk with a young man later and see what I can find out.”

Refusing a sling for his splinted forearm, Adam did ask for his jacket. He felt chilled even though the weather was mild. Doctor Martin said it was a sign of shock, and warned him against doing anything too strenuous for a day or two. He had found that Adam had one cracked bone in his forearm, and a lot of swelling which was why his hand was numb. He was back on orders for light duty. Paul also had cleaned up the small abrasions on Annie’s face and arm from being slammed into the wall of the mercantile by Dave. The bruising around her neck seemed to get worse by the minute. Paul could find nothing wrong though other than that. Ben got her shawl for her, and then escorted her to the carriage that she and Adam had used to ride into town. Adam climbed in, and with some help from Annie was able to get the team turned toward home. Ben said he was going to pay that visit to the Maitlands and then catch up to them.

As Adam drove the carriage into the yard at home, Hoss and Joe came out of the house to greet them. Having been away on a cattle drive for weeks, they had no idea of the events that had embroiled Adam and his wife. Adam climbed down and offered his hand to help Annie down.

“Well where you two been?” Hoss walked up and slapped Adam on the arm making him groan and lean against the carriage. “What’s wrong? I only gave you a little tap. Your arm must be better by now.” Then Hoss noticed the red marks on Annie’s face and the bruising around her neck. “Dadburnit, what’s been going on around here?”

Putting Adam’s left arm around her shoulders, Annie began to walk to the house. “Come on inside. There’s a lot to tell.” Adam and Annie sat on the settee and told Hoss and Joe what had happened. Neither said anything until they were done talking.

“So Sue caused all of this because she was unhappy in her marriage. Now she’s dead, Dave’s dead, and that baby is all alone. It’s really a shame. I’m sorry Hoss and I weren’t here to help. Sounds like you could have used some help.”

“Joe’s right. We’re real sorry we wasn’t here to help out. Is there anything we can do for you now?”

Walking in the door about that time because his talk with the Maitlands took longer than expected, Ben was happy to see all of his present family sitting together. He walked over and sat down to tell them his news. “I’m so glad to see all of my family safe and sound. I met with Sue’s parents. Mr. Maitland has agreed to do harness repair and other odd jobs for us. That will get him enough to support the two of them. Roy was right though. He wants to place Sue’s baby for adoption. He says the two of them have enough worries with his disability and her arthritis that they don’t think they could take care of a baby.” Looking directly at Adam and Annie then, Ben continued. “They asked me to tell you that they think the two of you would be great parents for that baby if you’re willing.”

Ben’s words hardly penetrated at first because Adam and Annie were still in some shock over the events of the morning. Hoss and Joe looked at the couple expectantly hoping they would say yes. To them, it sounded like a perfect solution. Annie looked at Adam with a smile hoping he was feeling the same way, but it was all too obvious that he wasn’t.

“We can talk about it later, privately.” Annie knew that the subject was closed with him until he had time to think it through. That night as they lay in each other’s arms seeking comfort, Annie asked him if he was ready to talk about it. He said he wasn’t and only wanted time with her.

“Can we talk about it tomorrow? We aren’t going to do anything about it tonight anyway.”

“I wish you would talk with me when you’re like this. I feel like you’re shutting me out.”

Repositioning himself so that he could look directly into Annie’s eyes, Adam looked down at her. “Sweetheart, I’m not. It’s just that right now my thoughts are not coherent. I think one thing and then another. Looking down the barrel of Poole’s pistol this morning has unnerved me a bit. I thought I was going to die. I thought I was leaving you all alone. I stood there and couldn’t control the situation at all. I felt so helpless. I can’t think about the baby until I get a chance to sort out all those feelings and thoughts.”

“Thank you.”

Confused, Adam looked for signs of whatever thought or emotion had driven that statement of gratitude. All he could tell was that Annie was smiling. “Why did you thank me?”

“You were honest with me. You told me what you were thinking. When you do that, I feel that you love me even more. Now if you think your arm can take it, will you make love with me? I want to be as close to you as I can get, and I can’t think of a better way.”

“Sweetheart, I’d have to be almost dead to say no to that offer.” Adam leaned in to kiss Annie and she ran her hands over his bare chest and shoulders. Soon they were finding even more pleasure and comfort in each other’s arms. Serious conversation was definitely being left for the next morning.

*****

Chapter 8

“Annie, if we adopt this baby, then some people might think that Dave’s accusations were true.” Adam was taking Annie to see Doctor Martin. He was concerned that even after the stress had been reduced, she was still having trouble sleeping and had occasional bouts of nausea. It was three days after the incident with Poole and Dave in town. Annie had dark circles under her eyes, and was quite pale. The bruises on her neck were fading to green and brown. They had discussed adopting the Anderson baby quite a lot with no resolution because they didn’t agree.

“Is that what you’re worried about? Adam, this innocent baby needs a family, and I have a lot of love to give to him. To me, that’s all that’s important. Your reputation will recover. Your friends and family already know what’s true and what’s slanderous.”

“I’m really trying to find reasons to convince you not to adopt this baby. It just doesn’t feel right to me. I don’t think we’re ready to have a baby in our lives. You need to see the doctor first to see why you’ve been sick so often lately because you can’t even think about adopting the baby if you’re not in the best of health. Babies are a lot of work.” Adam’s heart was heavy as he worried that there was something seriously wrong with his wife. Witnessing his father’s loss of two wives, and his own loss of Sue Ellen and Ruth as well as other failed relationships had made Adam pessimistic about a woman being with him. Annie’s nausea and sleeplessness had triggered a lot of the old fears which probably amounted to a phobia by then.

“Oh, and how many babies have you had that you can make that pronouncement?”

“None, but I did a lot to help with Hoss especially after his mother was killed. It was a full time responsibility. Then when Joe was born, I was old enough to see how much work it was for Marie and how exhausted she was at the end of a day.”

“Well, I’m pretty strong. I think I could handle it just fine.”

“I know you are, but I also had another talk with Will, and he talked about their trouble with trying to have a baby. It’s always on his mind, I guess. He wanted to know how everything was with us too. Then he said that he and Laura might be interested in adopting the baby.”

“What kind of trouble and why would they adopt?”

“Those two answers are closely related. Laura has had three babies she has lost. Will said they have messed up her system quite a bit. The doctor has said that perhaps Laura will not be able to carry another child to term. Will is thinking that adopting this baby might be the best solution. It will give her a baby to love, and she can relax about having a baby.”

“Yes, sometimes you do hear about people adopting and then having a baby. I guess that would be a better plan.” Annie reluctantly agreed with Adam’s logic, but then her own failure to have a child was back in the forefront for her. “Is that why Laura and Will have been so unhappy?”

Nodding, Adam wrapped an arm around Annie. He knew that she had the same sadness as Laura, but Laura had a child already. It accentuated what was a key difference between the two women. Annie bore her infertility and managed to live a fulfilling life despite it. Laura dwelled on what she could not have and made those around her suffer too. As Adam and Annie arrived at Doctor Martin’s office, she was very quiet and said little even as they greeted Paul. They were still standing by the door of the office when they heard Roy hail them. He had news he thought they would want to know.

“Two days ago in the morning, Daniel Lash junior was found hanging in the stable at the back of his house. The family’s hired hand who takes care of their yard and horses found him. He killed himself.”

Annie was shocked. It seemed there was news of some kind of violent and tragic event every time they came to town. Perturbed that Roy would bring up another violent end when Annie had suffered through so much, Adam wondered why Roy was telling them. “Ray, why did you think you had to tell us that? Annie doesn’t need to hear any more bad news.”

“Well, now, you see I had my suspicions about who was the father of Sue Anderson’s baby. I had seen her talking with young Daniel several times. Then I realized I had never seen her talking with another man except at a dance or such. So I went to see him. We talked privately and he said he wasn’t the father of that baby, but I think he was lying. You know how when someone is lying they don’t look at ya and they fidget around a lot. Well that was him. His wife is a harpy too but her pappy has a lot of money, probably more than Lash senior does. They don’t have children either. Well now today he’s dead. Kinda leads me to believe he must have been the father.”

“So you think that there won’t be a problem with someone adopting that baby because both parents are gone now?”

“That’s about it, Annie. Just wanted you to know. Now I got to move around town and see that everything is all right. I hope there’s nothing seriously wrong with either of you seeing as how you’re at the doc’s again.”

“I’m fine, Roy, but Adam is worried about me and wants Paul to check me over again.”

After bidding them adieu, Roy moved off to take his morning tour of town. Paul asked Adam and Annie why they were there, and after Adam’s explanation, he asked Annie to go into an exam room. Adam stretched out in one of the chairs in the office area and waited for the doctor to complete the examination. He prayed that there was nothing seriously wrong.

Inside the exam room, Paul had Annie disrobe behind a curtain and then wrap a blanket around herself. He had a suspicion as to what was bothering her, and needed her to do that. Then he had her get on an exam table and lie down. Once he finished his exam, Annie was first shocked, then angry, then upset, and finally sitting in stunned silence. Her only thoughts were of Adam and how he would react when she gave him the news. It didn’t take long. Adam walked into the exam room worried and looking almost as pale as Annie. Paul walked in behind him.

“Remember how you said we weren’t ready to have a baby in our lives? Well, mister, you better get ready.”

It took a moment for Annie’s words to register, and then Adam looked at Paul. “How could this have happened? She doesn’t have her flow.”

“I already asked him that, Adam. He said it only takes one. I have one or two a year. Apparently that’s enough.”

“How far along is she then?”

“At least three or four months but it could be as much as five months. You need to start getting ready to welcome a baby into your family.”

Paul waited. He suspected that in a very short time, there would be joy, but first they had to get past the shock. “Annie, when did you first start having these bouts of nausea?”

“About two months ago and then it got worse, but lately it’s been not as often or as bad. Usually it’s just a kind of queasy stomach now.”

“That points to the four or five month range then. I think you’re done with morning sickness. Your body is adjusting. You will need to avoid stress and probably don’t eat any spicy foods. That’s probably what’s been giving you the queasy stomach, and when you have that problem in your stomach and lower, it makes it difficult to sleep. Drink some of Hop Sing’s green tea in the evening, and keep those evening meals small.”

“I get hungry late, and Adam brings me a snack. Is that all right?”

“I think hot chocolate and a cookie would be fine. Don’t eat anything too heavy or greasy that might upset your stomach. Most people think hot chocolate helps them sleep anyway, so that might be a good thing to try.”

“Is there anything else we need to do?”

“Adam, I’ve already talked with Annie about that. Relations are fine as long as you like the traditional and gentle. For the next three months, that should be it. Then in the last month, there needs to be abstinence so you don’t trigger an early labor. No horseback riding or anything strenuous for Annie would be the last warning I can give you. Otherwise, Annie is strong and healthy so just prepare for a baby and enjoy the anticipation and the peace and quiet.”

“Adam, your father is going to be so happy.”

Finally, Adam grinned, hugged Annie, and kissed her soundly. Yes, he knew his father would be overjoyed. His brothers would probably be rather excited too. Suddenly he couldn’t wait to leave so they could go tell everyone, except once they were in the carriage and headed out of town, they kissed and hugged which caused Adam to drive the carriage off the road and into a meadow almost as soon as they reached the Ponderosa. They had picked up a lunch to go because Annie was hungry, but they didn’t want to stay in town to eat.

“Now? You want to stop here and do it now?”

“We have a lap blanket from the carriage, a picnic lunch, a beautiful meadow, and a gorgeous day. What better way to celebrate our news with each other?”

With no argument with that logic, Annie climbed down from the carriage with Adam waiting to hold her. He ran his hand over her lower abdomen but couldn’t tell if there was a bump there or not.

“There is. I thought I was eating too much and gaining weight. Well that’s probably true, but now I know why I was gaining weight there. Oh, Adam, this is a dream come true for me.”

Throwing her arms around Adam’s neck, Annie pulled him down for a kiss. He kissed her deeply for a long time. Then he released her so he could get the carriage blanket that he spread on the grass near the carriage. Then he turned to Annie who laid down demurely on the blanket and patted the empty space beside her. Grinning, he joined her there, and the two of them celebrated their joy and love for each other in the most ancient of ways. When they finished, they lay languidly entwined on the blanket until they heard two horses approaching. Then they hurriedly pulled their clothing back together and straightened everything as best they could in a hurry. Adam stood to pull the lunch from the carriage as Hoss and Joe rode up.

“We rode over cause we saw the carriage stopped here and knowing you was worried about Annie’s health, we figured we ought to see ifn you needed help. It seems you’re not worried about Annie any more.”

“Oh, Hoss, we got such good news from the doctor. Hoss, Joe, we’re going to have a baby!”

Both brothers swung down off their horses then and grabbed one of the two in a hug and then switched. Hoss slapped Adam on the back so hard he almost knocked him over because Adam still had the splint on his arm and needed to grab for the carriage across his body with his left hand.

“Ah, sorry about that older brother, but dadburnit, I’m just so blamed happy. I thought you two thought you couldn’t have a baby.”

“Big brother, we did think that, but we were wrong.”

“Boy howdy, Joe, this is a great day. Adam and Annie are gonna have a baby, and Adam done admitted he was wrong about something.”

“Yeah, we oughta get going, Hoss. I want to be there when they tell Pa. He’s going to be tickled pink. Maybe he’ll stop pressuring us to find a gal and get married.”

“Nah, maybe for a while, but he’ll be back at it in no time. We’ll see you two back at the house. Have a nice picnic.” Laughing deeply then, Hoss rode to join Joe who was already galloping away.

Soon Adam and Annie were on their way home as well. Lunch had been delicious, but they were both so hungry by then, they devoured the food in minutes. Annie was hoping Hop Sing had some donuts or cookies because dessert seemed like it would be appropriate considering the occasion and the fact that she was still hungry. The nausea had vanished with the news. Apparently the stress of their discussions about adopting the Anderson baby had been causing the problem. She felt wonderful as they drove home. Ben was in the house and Cochise and Chubb were tied up outside. Adam helped Annie from the carriage and they walked arm-in-arm to the house. Once inside, Ben had guessed their news before they could actually say it. The excited looks of Hoss and Joe who had brought Jeremy into the house with them, and the glowing smiles of Adam and Annie left little to guesswork. After congratulations and questions, Ben went to tell Hop Sing the news and ask him to prepare a meal for a celebration. Then he added that Annie would like some cookies and tea if it wouldn’t be too much trouble. Although Hop Sing fussed at Ben for that request, he was all smiles when he brought a plate of cookies and cup of tea out to the great room.

“Mister Hoss and Mister Jeremy no eat cookies until Missy Annie eat all she want. Hop Sing have no more, so men must let lady eat first.”

All the men agreed even though the aroma of those cookies made them all hungry. Annie couldn’t take the looks so she grabbed three cookies, and then told them they could have the rest. Smiling in triumph, she realized she had that power over the men now, and she got three cookies to one for each of them too. This being with child thing could work out well for her she thought. Dinner was similar with Hop Sing serving Annie first instead of Ben, and making sure she had anything she wanted. By the end of dinner, she was stuffed and asked if it would be all right if she lay on the settee and read for a time. Of course everyone agreed that would be fine.

Thinking that his father wasn’t as happy about their news as they had expected, Adam followed him outside when Ben said he needed a little night air. Walking out about a minute behind Ben, Adam saw his father leaning on the corral fence with his head down. Quietly Adam walked up beside him and waited.

“You always know when something is wrong, don’t you?”

“I try to pay attention. What’s wrong, Pa? I thought you would be dancing a jig knowing you were going to be a grandfather.”

“I am in my heart, but my mind is full of worry about another matter. I found out something this morning that I have been thinking about all day.”

“What is it? You know we’ll help you with anything that could be wrong. You’re not going to shock me with anything especially after everything that happened lately.”

Shaking his head and wondering how his sons would actually react to the predicament in which he had mired himself, Ben only could say a few words before he choked up. “It’s not exactly something that is wrong. It’s just a terrible predicament from which I see no escape. Son, I’m going to be a father again.”

“Pa, that’s wonderful isn’t it? We thought you were seeing someone, but we had no idea it had gotten so serious. Are you going to tell us who it is now?”

Feeling as miserable as he could imagine, and downright embarrassed too to have to admit that he had violated a rule they all held sacred, Ben also shocked Adam who thought he couldn’t be shocked. “It’s just that the situation is far more complicated than that. My reputation and the reputation of this family is going to be smeared with scandal. The slander against you is going to seem like child’s play compared to this. Oh, Adam, I’ve fallen in love with a married woman.”

*****

Chapter 9

That night, Adam didn’t sleep well. Annie felt him tossing and turning and that interrupted her sleep as well. She assumed that there Adam needed some time to adjust to his new status as an expectant father, but she hoped that he would sleep better the following night because she was exhausted when it was time to get up. Adam told her she should just stay in bed, but she didn’t want to get in that habit. Then when they got to the breakfast table, conversation between Adam and his father was negligible. Annie had expected that they would have all sorts of things to say about the baby who would be arriving in about four months. Hoss and Joe more than made up for the lack of conversation by the other two men.

“Hey, Annie, is Adam going to want to name him William Shakespeare Cartwright if it’s a boy? Or maybe he would like Macbeth better.” Chuckles and laughter followed each suggestion each more outlandish than the previous.

Hop Sing had made a gargantuan breakfast for them and was disappointed it wasn’t all eaten. Hoss took more then.

“Hop Sing, everything was delicious and wonderful to smell as well as see. You did a marvelous job preparing and presenting the meal, but I just can’t eat any more. This little baby isn’t as hungry as I thought. Perhaps, I could have some of these flaky golden biscuits later as a snack, and then perhaps some of those juicy ham slices for lunch?” Annie’s praise had the desired effect, and Hop Sing readily agreed to her suggestion. He grabbed the plate of biscuits and platter of ham returning to the kitchen with a smile.

“Why don’t you talk to me like that?”

“You don’t give me flapjacks with honey for breakfast whenever I ask.”

“I’m not much of a cook, but I thought I gave you other things you like.”

“Oh yeah, you gave me this baby who made me sick for two months and now it’s going to make me fat, thank you so very much for that.” It was sassy but delivered with a smile so it only made Adam shake his head as his brothers roared with laughter. Then the three brothers headed out for the day’s work as Ben headed to his desk to work. Annie pulled out the curtains she was sewing. They were nearly done, and now she realized she would need to start working on items for the nursery. She was thinking for a time as she worked, and then walked over to talk to Ben who seemed to be staring at the ledgers instead of working on them.

“Papa Ben, I have a few questions.”

“Yes, dear, can I help?”

“I hope so. Is there a cradle here, or are we going to need to get one?”

“There’s a cradle in the attic. We had one for Joseph. There’s a small trundle bed up there too. I seem to recall that there might even be some gowns up there packed away. They might be too old to use, but you could use them as patterns for new ones.”

“Oh good. Then as soon as I look those over, I’ll need to go to town to get some fabric. Which room do you think we should use for a nursery? I want to make curtains too.”

“Well, you and Adam might want to talk about moving into the larger guest room upstairs. It has an adjoining door to the smaller guest room. It would make a small family suite if you wanted to do that.”

“That’s a wonderful idea. Yes, I’ll talk to Adam about that. Is there something else bothering you? I thought you would be more excited about the baby.”

“Yes, I do have some things on my mind. I’m just trying to think through how to handle some things.”

“Is it Michelle?”

Almost jumping with the shock of Annie saying her name, Ben could only stare at his daughter in law.

“It wasn’t that hard for me to guess. You slipped a little in the restaurant one day too calling her Michele instead of Madame Fourier, but I already wondered because Adam said he thought you were seeing someone secretly, and when Michele and I talked, she always had questions about you interspersed with the expected ones about Adam. Then there was the way she looked at you and you at her whenever you met.”

“I’m glad that my son married you. He certainly found his intellectual match.”

“Are you upset about the baby because I thought you would be overjoyed?”

“I am filled with joy. I used to worry so much that Adam would leave to seek out his future somewhere in the world. Then when he married you, I wondered if the two of you would go or stay. Now that you’re having a baby, he’s all excited about being here with family in the only real home he’s ever known. I am filled with joy.”

“But?”

“Did Adam tell you?”

“Tell me what? Oh, I know something is bothering him, but I thought he was just trying to get used to the idea that he was going to be a father. Is there something more because you know how well that man can keep a secret?”

“We met at first because we were both lonely. She is married, but her husband left her years ago. I hadn’t found any woman to be with me, and I was lonely for female companionship. We enjoyed time together talking and laughing. We read and liked some of the same books, and she reads newspapers as avidly as Adam and I do so there was so much to discuss. We would talk, have a meal together, and sometimes take a walk. That’s all there was until I lost my good sense one day and kissed her. I knew it was wrong, terribly wrong, but I just couldn’t stop myself.”

“Where is her husband?”

“In San Francisco as far as she knows. He moves around a lot. They have no children, and he has had numerous women from all sorts of backgrounds. It was his appetite for other women that caused them to separate.”

“How long ago?”

“Just before she came here so about ten years ago. She couldn’t bear the humiliation of everyone knowing her husband was jumping from one woman’s bed to another.”

“Why don’t they just divorce and get it over with?”

“They’re Catholic. He will not consent to a divorce, and she thinks it’s a sin to even contemplate it.”

“There must be more for you to be this upset. Otherwise you could just keep going on as you have been.” Annie thought for just a moment and then gasped. “Is Michelle going to have a baby too?”

“Now you know the depth of my shame over the humiliation I have brought to my family and to the woman I love. I can’t see a solution. I will have a child that the law will consider a bastard and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

“Did you explain all of this to Adam?”

“No, I got the first part out, and I know I shocked him. That’s not easy to do as you probably already know. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him the rest. You’re easier to talk to about this. I don’t worry that I’ll see condemnation in your eyes. You’re very good at this. Have you thought about joining the clergy because you have a gift?”

“No, I think that I’m just fine right where I am. But I do think you need to tell Adam or really all of your sons everything. If I guessed, there must be other women who have guessed. Rumors may already be spreading. We were so engrossed in this other drama, we didn’t pay attention, but I would think it’s already an item of conversation among our town gossips.”

“How could they know?”

“Papa, I assume Michele comes to meet you regularly. Well as soon as she leaves town like that and heads toward the Ponderosa, they already had some clues. She’s too much older than Joe and Hoss would be more open about a relationship. Adam was already taken, so they would naturally have assumed it was you. How old is she, by the way, because I’ve wondered?”

“She’s quite a bit younger than I am. She’s only five years older than Adam.”

There was the sound of a horse in the yard then. Ben wondered if it was one of his sons but Annie said it wasn’t as she went to answer the door. Ben told her to wait so he could answer the door. It was Will, and with one eyebrow crooked up in a question, he looked at Annie.

“I can tell their horses apart. It didn’t sound like any of them.”

“Adam said your hearing is remarkable, and it is quite discerning as well. Will, welcome. Is there something I can do for you?”

“Well, Uncle, there is. I want to sell my ranch to you. Laura and I are adopting the Anderson baby.”

“Congratulations! That’s great news, but why do you want to sell the ranch?”

“Ben, I was never cut out to be a rancher. There are some job opportunities in California, and now that Laura has a baby to love, she’s agreeable to moving. We’ll be much closer to her Aunt Lil, and she likes that idea a lot. Peggy will miss all of you especially Adam, but this way I think we’ll get closer and be a real family especially with the baby.”

“I’ll talk with the boys, but I can’t see that any of them would have an objection. We could meet in town tomorrow if that’s agreeable, and work out all the details. The boys are all in the southeast pasture if you want to ask them yourself and give them your news.”

“There’s one other thing, Ben. I know you asked Will Maitland to do odd jobs around here. But he and his wife were a bit upset to learn we were planning to move to California, so Laura and I invited them to come with us. I’ll be traveling a lot in my job, and Will can handle all the chores around our home when I’m gone. Will’s wife Clara will probably find the warmer climate better for her arthritis, and Laura will have some help and some company too. They’re willing to become the grandparents in the family to their own grandson and to give Peggy more of an extended family. I think that’s important.”

“Will, it sounds as if you have worked out a wonderful solution for everyone. I’m sure my boys would agree.”

Smiling because Ben still referred to his sons as boys, Will agreed to do that and left. Annie asked if she could ride into town with them the next day so she could do some shopping for fabric, and of course she wanted to share her news with Michele, and she expected that Adam would be telling his friends too.

“Papa, you need to talk with your sons about your other concerns before you go into town. It would be cruel for them to find out by someone’s ugly remark, and you know that’s possible.”

“Would you tell Adam? He knows quite a bit already but you can fill in the rest. I’ll talk with Hoss and Joe separately.”

Nodding, Annie got back to her sewing, but her mind was in a whirl. She understood how Ben could not concentrate. It was quite a mess, and she hoped that when she and Adam talked that they might come up with some ideas because right then it seemed like there was no way out. Annie’s talk with Adam went so much better than Ben’s talk with his younger sons. Adam had been tempted more than once by married women. Seductive, beautiful women were not always satisfied with the one to whom they were married, and if their eyes were wandering, it wasn’t unusual for them to wander in the direction of Adam Cartwright. He had been close to making that kind of mistake in his life, and understood how just a little change in circumstances could have landed him in the same kind of mess his father was in. He and Annie discussed it at length. She wanted to know who those married women were and he wouldn’t tell her.

“You said we had to be honest with each other. Why won’t you tell me? It seems kind of important to know what women are lusting after my husband.”

“Only if you don’t trust me.” Adam stared her down after that one.

“I do trust you. Maybe I’m just a little insecure.”

“I love you more than life itself. Haven’t I proved that to you? I would never be with another woman now no matter what she does.”

“I’m sorry for doubting you. Can I blame the fact that I’m with child and acting all emotional now?” She grinned at him looking up and batting her eyelashes.

“I’ll let you get away with that one, but never question my love for you. Trust me and love me, and we can face anything together.”

Then Annie mentioned the move to the adjoining guest rooms that Ben had suggested, and Adam thought it was a fine idea. It would no inconvenience anyone else, and it would give them a private area.

“Do you think we’ll ever have a house of our own?”

“Sweetheart, I didn’t know you wanted one.”

“Well, the biggest reason is Jeremy, I guess. I would like him to be able to live like part of the family and not in the bunkhouse.”

“All right, we can start thinking about some options then. If you want it to be soon, then Will and Laura’s house will be available soon. If you want one built on a site we choose, that will take probably four to six months.”

“Oh, so we could have a new house by the time the baby gets here.”

“Maybe, it would be close. From your reaction, I guess that would be the option you prefer.”

“Yes, living in Laura’s house with all the memories wouldn’t be good. I really would like a fresh start. I’ll talk to Jeremy tomorrow to see what he would like to do.”

“It’s a plan. I want to talk with Pa yet tonight to see how things went with Hoss and Joe. My guess would be that it was pretty rough on him.”

In that assumption, Adam was correct. Hoss thought he would never do anything like that nor could he even conceive of a situation in which he would be with a married woman. He hadn’t been in anything like that so had no understanding. Joe was too young yet to see how complex situations like that could develop without either party realizing what was happening. Ben and Michele had meant to be friends and offer companionship and comfort to ease each other’s loneliness. Neither had thought their relationship would develop into an affair nor that such a new relationship could so quickly result in a pregnancy. Michelle had never gotten pregnant with her first husband in the ten years she had been with him before the anger and bitterness of a loveless marriage caused their separation. She was distraught over her circumstances and thought she had no one to turn to for help. Ben knew he would have to go to her aid, and that would blow the whole scandal wide open exposing all of his family to ugly publicity. Adam listened and asked a few questions as the two sat up late talking and sipping brandy in front of the fire.

“Adam, shouldn’t you be upstairs with your wife? I don’t want to cause any problems for the two of you.”

“Annie knows where I am and what I’m doing. Pa, tomorrow, I think I ought to be the one to go see Michele. I can go with Annie, and it will look quite normal to anyone who’s being nosy. You and Will can go to the bank and the land office and get that all squared away. I don’t know if it’s a good idea for Hoss and Joe to come with us unless they’ve settled down by morning. They’ve got a lot to think about, but I saw them as I was coming down here, and they’re hurt and resentful right now.”

“Talking with them didn’t go nearly as well as talking with you. You’ve never been in my situation, I hope.”

“No, but I’ve been tempted, and I understand how it could have happened. Pa, it was so natural to happen, and yet I could understand why neither of you saw that. You so much wanted a friend and companion, you didn’t look ahead far enough to see what the progression of your relationship would be. But now there’s a baby to consider, and Michele’s reputation as well as yours. Let me talk to her and see if there’s something we could do.”

“All right. You go see her. Maybe we can keep the gossip hounds at bay for a little while yet.”

*****

Chapter 10

“Joe, you have to give Pa some understanding. Any one of us can make a mistake, and we have. Why can’t you see that Pa is suffering and needs us now?”

“He’s always preached to us about the sanctity of marriage, and how we have to uphold the family reputation. Then he goes out and does this. How can I just ignore that?”

“Joe, what are you really upset about? I know you’ve been tempted just as I have by married women practically throwing themselves at you. You must realize that in this case, Pa and Michele were just planning to be friends. He didn’t intentionally chase after a married woman.”

“No, but Adam, she’s going to have a baby. None of us have ever done anything like that.”

“Haven’t you ever been worried about that, Joe? Haven’t you waited sometimes for the lady to say it was all right and she wasn’t with child?”

At that, Hoss had to speak up. “You mean the two of you been having relations with women who don’t work at those houses? You been messing with single gals you weren’t gonna marry?” From the looks on their faces, Hoss knew it was true. “I guess I just always figured if that happened, I would marry the gal. I wouldn’t wait to see if she was carrying my baby.”

“Hoss, I never set out to do that, but if she was willing and wanted me to, I wasn’t saying no.”

“Does Annie know that?”

Shrugging his assent, Adam didn’t know what to say. He had always assumed that Hoss had been intimate with some women too but hadn’t realized it was only with the women who did that for a living. He looked over at Joe who shrugged too probably drawing all the same conclusions as well as agreeing with Adam’s assessment of how he proceeded with women.

“We need to talk about Pa though. Now Michele is married, but she’s been separated from her husband for ten years. He wanted to keep seeing other women when they married, and she put up with his adultery for ten years before she left. I’m going to go talk with her today and see what we might be able to do about all of this.”

“Adam, what can anyone do? She’s married to one man and carrying another man’s child. No matter what, there’s going to be a big mess, and the people are going to be talking and making nasty remarks all the time.”

“Joe, I don’t know, but there’s got to be something we can do. I’ll talk with Michele, and we’ll go from there. Can the two of you at least be willing to listen and not make any more remarks to hurt Pa? He’s suffering right now and could use some support instead of your disapproval. You know that if this was one of us, he’d be there at our side trying to help us through it.”

That remark really hit home. Both Joe and Hoss nodded. They had made some unpleasant remarks at breakfast and then stomped out to the stable to do chores and commiserate with each other over how unpleasant things were going to get for them. Adam had made sure to remind them that is was their father who was suffering the most, and that he would have been upset with them if they had done the same but would have been at their side helping too. Breakfast had been unpleasant, but Adam hoped the tension would be reduced. He was worried too about Annie and didn’t like this added stress either. He was going to do anything he could to make things better for all of them.

With Hoss and Joe helping, Adam quickly had the carriage ready to go. They saddled up Buck, Chubb, and Cochise too. When Ben and Annie came outside to go to town, Ben had tears in his eyes as he thanked his sons for their support.

“Pa, we jest needed some time to get used to the idea. We’ll help any way we can.”

“Thank you, Hoss.”

“I’m with you, too, Pa. We’ll see this through together, not that there won’t be a few comments at your expense over the next few months.”

“Months?”

Chuckling a little, Joe had to respond. “Well, weeks at least. You can’t expect us to just let this go so easily. It’s not often we get to do this.”

The family rode together to town, and then split up with Adam and Annie going to see Michele and the others meeting Will at the bank. Michele’s eyes were red rimmed and it was clear she had not slept much the night before. Ben had looked about the same at breakfast. Annie’s heart almost broke knowing that the two of them should be with each other and comforting each other, but that wasn’t possible at that point. With no one in the store, Adam got right down to business.

“We need to look like we’re working on some purchases. We’ll talk though. Michele, you told Pa that Jacques won’t divorce you because you’re Catholic and that you won’t consider it either for the same reason. Have either of you considered annulment?”

“In the eyes of the Church, I think we would still be married because we had a religious marriage ceremony.”

“But what if we could get the Church to annul the marriage?”

“Is that possible?”

“It is. It will be difficult, and in the religious court, you will be held responsible because you deserted your husband. But there are no children and you have been apart for ten years so as long as all the fees are paid, it should work as long as Jacques can be convinced to do it.”

Michele’s countenance which had been so hopeful dropped back into a hopeless sadness. “Jacques comes from a prominent family. I cannot see him doing this for me.”

“Wouldn’t an annulment and a chance for him to marry someone of status be important enough for him to consider this?”

“Jacques is very proud. He was so angry and humiliated when I left, I cannot see him willingly doing this.”

“Tell me more about him. Tell me what he likes and dislikes.”

Pausing for a time in thought, Michele told Adam what she thought he wanted to know. “He is proud as I said, and although he loves money dearly, he is amazingly generous to his friends. He enjoys the nightlife far more than the usual man. He angers easily but you would find it hard to tell for he never seems to lose his temper. His voice gets lower and his eyes narrow. Sometimes there is a nervous twitch by his right eye. I had to learn the signs because he is also a violent man, and although he would never go beyond the law, he would do whatever he could do legally. He has dueled men to the death, and beaten a man to death with his fists which was ruled self defense except the man was leaning against the bar unconscious when those last blows were struck. Jacques would not let him fall but hit him in the temple until he died. Then he calmly let him fall. It was all in the papers. The man’s family was incensed, but there was nothing they could do. Jacques had to tone down his violence after that though because his family did not approve of such public displays. His parents have died leaving everything to him, but I would think he has used up a lot of that wealth already indulging his appetites. I have never seen him afraid of anything. He is arrogant and supremely confident in himself and his abilities.”

Listening intently, Annie was suspicious. “Did he hurt you?”

Sighing deeply, Michele nodded.

“How badly?”

“I needed to see the doctor on a number of occasions. Other times, I hid the bruises as well as I could.”

Standing next to Adam, Annie felt the tension in his body. He could not tolerate the thought of men hitting women. She would need to talk with him about this before he left for San Francisco because that is exactly what she thought he would do. He told Michele that he would speak with his father and work out a plan, but Annie suspected he already had a plan in mind based on the questions he had asked Michele.

“And Michele, I don’t think that you and Pa ought to change your habits. Make the trips you usually would make, and do whatever you would usually do. The gossips will notice a change in behavior faster than anything else. Try to maintain the pretense you have labored so hard to uphold at least until we can do something about Jacques. Please?”

Agreeing with Adam’s idea, Michele wrapped up a few items that Annie said she wanted to have on hand to wear as she grew larger with child. The mention of that made Michele look exceedingly sad again, and Annie gave her a hug just as several ladies entered the shop.

“Oh, Michele, there isn’t anything wrong, is there?” The gossip mongers were eager for scraps at this point. Adam quickly announced though that he and his wife were expecting a child, but he said he hoped they would keep it just among themselves for a time because it was still four months away at least. They tittered, they smiled, agreed, and then hurried off to tell all of their friends probably.

“Thank you, Adam. That will keep their attention from me for a time I would think. I am so very happy for you too. I know that it was not something you expected, but I can see how joyous you are. Please, if there is anything I can do, let me know. I have patterns for baby gowns, and shawls for mothers to wear.”

“Oh, Michele, would you help me with patterns? I want to sew some gowns but I’ve never done anything like that. I don’t even know what fabrics to use.”

“I will do that. I will get together some patterns, and some fabrics and thread for you to choose from. You can add ribbons and such later when you know it is a boy or a girl.”

“That would be wonderful. How about Saturday? If you could come to the ranch, we could spend the day doing that. You could have lunch with us.”

“I don’t know about that. How will the rest of the family feel about me being there?”

“They will be fine. It will take some getting used to for all of us, and there’s no time like the present to start.”

With Michele’s agreement to come to the ranch on Saturday, Adam picked up their packages and escorted Annie to the carriage. He headed the carriage to the bank expecting that his family should probably be nearly finished with the paperwork. As he arrived there, he was hailed from the front of the land office. Ben was there with Will.

“Everything is done. Will has the money and it’s been deposited. The bank will handle the transfer to a California branch. The deed is on file now. The Anderson ranch is up for sale too. What do you think about buying that and renting it out?”

“That’s a good investment. They have some wonderful pastureland that we could use if we decide to expand the herds. The pastures are also lower than some of ours and more accessible in the winter. I would think we could rent the farm buildings and a little land but we could incorporate those pastures right away so we have them if we need them. With no timber and rather hilly though, I would think that there wouldn’t be many interested buyers. Who’s selling it?”

“James Cartwright.”

Surprised at the name at first, Adam and Annie suddenly realized that Will and Laura’s new son was the heir to that ranch. Will was smiling.

“We plan to put the money away in a trust fund for him. When he gets older, we’ll tell him about his first parents. He’ll already know his grandparents.”

Everyone was thoughtful with that. The boy would have a lot to adjust to when he got all that information. It would be a tough job for Will and Laura to have to tell him what had happened, but he deserved to know so Adam was glad they would tell him the truth.

“We may have a cash flow problem after buying Will’s ranch, but he’s willing to have us make payments over the next several years because there’s no rush to get the money. Will and Laura will be leaving on Saturday.”

Annie was going to say something but Adam grabbed her elbow and turned her toward him. His look was all she needed to know that he didn’t want her to say anything about Michele coming to work with her on Saturday and being there for lunch. As they stood there, the same ladies who had been in Michele’s shop came up to them.

“Oh, congratulations on the baby, Mr. Cartwright. Adam told us the wonderful news. Never fear, we’ll keep it hush hush until it is more proper to tell everyone. It is so wonderful that your eldest son has found a wife who can give him children. Now is there anyone special in your life?”

Looking to Adam as the ladies were interrogating him, Ben could tell that Adam had not said anything about he and Michele although of course the wouldn’t have expected him to. It was just that the way they phrased the question had shaken him a little although no one could tell from his demeanor.

“We are all very happy for Adam and Annie, and we thank you for your kind thoughts. Now Will needs to get going. He has just sold his ranch, and he needs to get home and start packing so he and Laura and the two children can head to California on Saturday.”

It was a nifty piece of deflection for the ladies suddenly wanted to know about Will and Laura instead of prying into Ben’s life. Will mentioned his new job in California and being closer to Aunt Lil, and that the Maitlands were going with them. The ladies were beside themselves with the bonanza of exclusive information they had just gotten and couldn’t wait to rush off to tell everyone and revel in their status as the preeminent sources of information in the town. As the ladies took their leave, Adam grinned at his father.

“That was magnificent. They won’t be prying into your life for at least another day or two. As soon as Will and Laura drive that wagon through town though, watch out.”

“Ya, Pa, you better not be in town for a while. Joe and me will just have to handle all them errands to town ya gotta make. We’ll take turns, won’t we, Joe?”

“Yeah, oh yeah, and we won’t take any more time doing those errands than you would, Pa, honest.”

“Yes, Joseph, I’m sure you won’t because I will not be accepting your brother’s offer. If there’s anyone who will do some of those errands for me, it will be Adam.”

“Ah, Pa, we need to talk about this at home. Maybe we ought to get going while the coast is clear.”

That night on the Ponderosa around the dining table after dinner, Adam laid out his plan. It would cost them some significant money, and would probably require liquidating some investments but Adam had a plan for that too.

“We have had good years and lean years with those silver mine investments we made. We have no control over the price of silver or whether the government will buy it for coining money. Those investments could be liquidated easily if we offer the whole package to one of the big corporations. It’s how silver mining is going anyway.”

“I worry about those corporations, Adam. Are you sure this is the way you want us to go?”

“It’s the way we need to go. We have to have that money, and we aren’t going to give up any pastureland or timber. The prices for silver are high right now. We can sell for a good price. If we regret the decision, we only need wait until the price of silver drops again and those shares will plummet in price, and we can buy again for less than we sold these for.”

“Pa, it sounds like a good plan all around to me. I vote to trust Adam on this one, and let him try to work out the deals he’s talked about.”

“I agree with Hoss, Pa. This sounds like the only way out of this mess if it works.”

“All right then. I’ll agree. How much time do you think this will take?”

“No more than a month, I hope. Maybe I could finish in two to three weeks if all goes well and everyone is agreeable.”

Annie gasped a little at that. She had no idea Adam might be gone that long. That night, they made love as they usually did, but afterwards, Annie was a bit sad. Adam understood why but asked her if she saw any other way to help Ben and Michele. She had no ideas so she buried her head on Adam’s chest and cried a little. He held her, and promised that if it took longer than two weeks, he would come get her and they would take another trip to San Francisco. That helped a lot, and the two of them snuggled in to sleep in each other’s arms for the last time for a while.

The next morning after breakfast, Adam walked outside with Annie. The two stood holding each other for quite some time as if trying to memorize all the sensations of their embrace. Annie was sad but trying not to show it. When Adam kissed her goodbye though, she couldn’t help herself and a tear ran down her cheek. Adam gently kissed it away and promised to be back as soon as he could. Ben watched the couple from the window by his desk, and the guilt that was weighting him down grew heavier.

*****

Chapter 11

As Adam rode to town, he had second thoughts. Finally, he knew what he had to do. He turned his horse and rode home. When he arrived and walked inside, Ben looked at him in consternation but understood as soon as Annie rushed into Adam’s arms.

“It would be wrong to leave you here to cope by yourself. I have to go now, but will you join me as soon as you can? You need to pack, and think about any commitments you have, but then I would like to see you heading my way. Perhaps Joe or Hoss could come with you?” Adam looked at Ben who nodded. They would not let Annie travel alone, but he already had an idea of who ought to escort her to California to meet Adam. Adam pulled Annie outside with him and kissed her soundly and with a lot more enthusiasm than he had earlier. The first parting had been bittersweet, but this time it was full of hope and promise. There were no tears except for tears of joy, and Annie was all smiles this time as she watched her husband mount up and ride away. Adam turned and gave her a jaunty salute before riding rapidly toward town. He still wanted to make the noon stage but would have to hurry now. Sport liked it when he got to run all out. He wouldn’t be getting much exercise for some time so Adam thought it was a good thing. He would tip extra big at the livery in town so that they would wipe him down thoroughly and let him cool down with a walk.

The trip to San Francisco was routine. After settling into his hotel room, Adam went to meet with a lawyer first. He wanted to make sure everything could be done. He had gotten Michele’s permission to legally act on her behalf, and the lawyer agreed to work with him. Next he contacted Jacques Fourier and asked to meet with him on a matter of importance. The next day at lunch, Adam was able to meet Jacques and take the measure of the man. Jacques ordered wine with his lunch and ate rich sauces with meat in them. He finished off his meal with a cigar. He offered one to Adam who declined.

“Now that we have had a fine meal, what is the matter of importance you wish to discuss with me?”

“I want to be honest with you from the start. I represent Michele Fourier.” Adam saw Jacques’ eyes narrow and there was a slight reddening to his face. Otherwise he remained quite calm. “She has an interest in having her marriage to you annulled by the Church. Because she abandoned you, it would be up to you to pursue an annulment.”

“And why would I do such a thing? I cannot see a reason that I would want to do something to please my wife who has not been a wife to me for ten years and has forced me to seek comfort elsewhere and to have to endure the gossip of this town.”

“There is certainly an expectation that you would not do this gratis. I am prepared to offer you five thousand dollars for the Church annulment and then another five for a civil divorce.”

“That is a pittance! The fees the Church would demand from one such as myself would take that five thousand and I would have nothing.”

“Then how about if we pay the fees to the Church, and you keep the whole five thousand for the annulment. I have engaged an attorney who could file the necessary divorce papers, and you could keep that entire five thousand as well.”

“And what is your interest in my wife? Have you perhaps fallen for her witch’s charms and now seek to have her for yourself?”

“No, I am married. I act on her behalf because she is a friend of my wife, and my wife is also close to the man Madame Michele would like to marry.”

“And where would you get this money you promise me?”

“Madame Michele owns her own business and the man to whom she would like to be married is also a property owner. There is enough money to take care of this business, and free you to marry perhaps someone of a more prestigious social status than a dressmaker. You will be initiating both the annulment and the divorce so you would save face as the man who shunned the wife who created such a scandal for him.”

“If it is so important to her and her new conquest, then I think that ten thousand for each would be appropriate.”

“I will have to consult with my lawyer and others before I could consider a larger amount. But I have discerned that you are not opposed to the idea, and that may sway my clients into finding a way to procure the larger amounts. I cannot be sure that they would be able to pay twenty thousand dollars plus the fees to the Church, but I will see how much more they are willing to expend on this. Shall we say lunch again tomorrow?”

“Yes, Mister Cartwright, that would be acceptable. I will be here and willing to discuss your requests. Till we meet again, then. Good day to you, sir.” Jacques stood and bowed. Then he and his retinue left the restaurant. Adam was smiling as they left. He had managed round one as well as he could have expected. Now he had to prepare for round two which he expected to be a more difficult step in the negotiations. Adam had a difficult time sleeping that night. In the morning, he rose early as he usually did and went for a walk. The exercise was good for him, and he ate a good sized breakfast before going to meet with his attorney who was a friend and former classmate. They had expected Jacques to request more money, but he had been bolder than they envisioned. They worked out a counteroffer for Adam to make as well as the supporting arguments he would need.

The second lunch was as agreeable as the first although Adam found he had a sour stomach as much as he did the first day as he watched Jacques shovel in the rich food. Adam knew what a despicable man he was but couldn’t let his feelings show at all. He needed to appear to be the neutral party negotiating on behalf of another at his wife’s behest. He was doing well because even as he sat there smiling at the small talk that seemed to be all Jacques was capable of producing, he was envisioning a small neat bullet hole right between the eyes of a man whose death would please many and bring relief to many others. Again at the conclusion of the meal which had ended with another rich dessert, Jacques was again ready to negotiate. Adam offered thirty-five thousand in total with payment of all fees to be included. Jacques held firm on forty thousand. Adam told him it might be a deal breaker, but he would see if he could get his clients to part with more money.

“It may well be several days before I get word on whether I can offer you more. Would it be acceptable to you if I sent a message when I get a reply to my query?”

“Certainly, that would be most acceptable. I would assume though that you would only contact me if they are willing to meet my price. It would be insulting to me to offer again an amount that I have already rejected.”

“I understand that fully, sir, and will only send a message if I am authorized to meet your requirements. I will be in the city at least until Monday and will hopefully be able to send a message to you during that interval.”

“Will you not stay to carry out the rest of the instructions once the payment is approved?”

“I have reserved a room through Monday. If I get authorization to proceed, then I will extend my stay to work through the details of both processes. I am not completely confident that I will be able to meet your terms so I will wait before extending my reservation.”

Having quickly established just how greedy Jacques was, Adam was playing him by not letting him know just how much authority he had to pay even more money than Jacques had requested. It was a tightrope with a man like Jacques because Adam had to offer him enough money so that he would not be offended or angry at the offer, but a small enough amount so that he would not become too demanding and put the price out of reach. So far, it had worked well. He planned to visit with friends over the next few days as well as have his lawyer friend contact the Church to get the machinery working to produce an annulment as quickly as possible. There was no negotiating there. The money had to be paid or the process would not commence. Jacques was well connected socially in the city and had status because of his wealth, but Adam found through some discreet inquiries that he did not have significant business and financial contacts in the city except for those who dealt in illegal or quasi legal activities. He planned to be careful nevertheless and did hire a detective to watch over his meetings with Monsieur Fourier and to check Fourier’s activities each day.

On Monday, Adam met with Jacques Fourier once again at lunch. He did the dance and agreed to Fourier’s terms. The deal was that with the delivery of the annulment papers, Fourier would receive twenty thousand dollars. With the delivery of the divorce agreement after it had been filed, he would receive an additional twenty thousand dollars. All fees for producing those documents were to be paid by Adam. The two men shook hands and parted amiably. Adam relaxed for the first time since he had designed this plan in his mind. He met with his lawyer and the paperwork was started. On Tuesday, Adam was surprised to return to the hotel after running errands to find Annie and Ben waiting for him.

Rushing into Adam’s arms, Annie gave him an enthusiastic kiss that drew some attention in the hotel lobby. Adam knew they had stepped outside the bounds of propriety but was so happy to hold Annie in his arms. He did suggest they go to his room to discuss what had happened so far. He found out that Will and Laura had indeed left on Saturday and should probably have arrived in California by then although they probably had a day or two yet to reach their new home just outside Sacramento. Michelle had come to the Ponderosa as invited on Saturday, and she and Annie had cut patterns, and stitched clothing until the others had returned for lunch. Michele was gradually charming her way into the hearts of Hoss and Joe so the afternoon had passed amiably. Then Adam gave them his news.

“Now, it’s a waiting game. It took less time than I thought to get Jacques to agree to the terms, but now we have to hope he does not reconsider and demand more money although I expect that he will.”

“Have you made the arrangements to get more money if that happens?”

“Yes, our broker is selling the silver mine shares we own. We got a good price, and that money will be in the bank by the time I may need it. The annulment papers will be ready in a week. It cost more to expedite the process, but it’s well worth it in this case don’t you think?”

“How much more?”

“Double, but it cut the process from a month to a week.”

“Yes, that is definitely a bargain when you look at it that way.”

Relaxing next to her husband on the couch in his room, Annie listened and was amazed again at how Adam and his father could talk about spending thousands of dollars on this as if there was an endless supply of money. She had still not gotten used to living within such a wealthy family. She and Jeremy used to feel so rich when they got several hundred dollars for bringing some cows to market. Describing wealth in thousands and millions was simply beyond the scope of her experience. She was tired from the trip though and closed her eyes as she leaned on Adam’s shoulder. Ben noticed, and smiling, whispered that he ought to go to his room to freshen up and let Annie get some rest. Adam agreed although until he realized how tired she was, rest had not been his first priority.

The next few days, Adam took his father and Annie to lunch, dinner, and the theatre enjoying his time in San Francisco even more than he usually did because he had the most important people in his life with him. Nights were shorter and the excursions less strenuous though because Annie tired more easily. She barely showed that she was pregnant, but Adam could tell and loved to run his hand over the swelling in her abdomen as they lay in bed each evening and again in the morning.

“Cowboy, that baby isn’t growing that fast that you need to keep checking.” Annie was grinning as she said it though for she did the same thing and far more often. She still found it so amazing that a life was growing inside of her when she had previously thought that would never happen. Adam smiled too. He had seen her pleasure when he stroked her baby bump and knew that she was happy that he was so overjoyed with the idea of becoming a father. He worried too, but as long as Annie looked this healthy, he was able to keep his fear in check. He prayed each day that nothing bad would happen to Annie or the baby, and his father was praying for the same thing every day as well.

On Friday, Ben left for home planning to stop in and visit Will on his return trip. Annie and Adam spent the day in their room finding joy in one another. The next morning, rejuvenated and relaxed, they headed out for a picnic. On Sunday, there was a church service to attend and then dinner with friends later as Adam and Annie shared their news then with Adam’s closest friends in the city. There were congratulations all around and a number of quips about how long it had taken Adam to get to this point.

“Gentlemen and ladies, it is like fine wine. It only gets better with age.”

Laughter greeted that statement by Adam and then with more congratulations and a few more well placed jibes, Adam and Annie returned to their hotel. Annie could tell how tense Adam had gotten as the day progressed.

“Are you worried about tomorrow and whether Jacques will show up to sign those papers?”

“Very much so. Annie, you haven’t met him and I sincerely hope you never do. Sitting across from his is like sitting with a rattler about two feet from your face. You can smell him and all you sense is danger. You have to be exceedingly careful of your every move knowing that a wrong move could mean disaster. He is not particularly intelligent but you see that look in his eye to know that he has a predator’s instincts.”

“The way you describe him, he sounds like the devil himself.”

“Annie, the world would be a better place if he wasn’t in it.”

Suddenly worried, Annie looked up sharply at Adam who was undressing for bed. “You’re not planning to help him on his journey from this world, I hope?”

“No, but I got the feeling he was waiting for a chance to jump all over me for some perceived wrong. Michele said he was a duelist, but I fear he is much more. He’s a natural born killer. I think he likes killing people.”

“You will be careful? You’re scaring me a little too.”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said so much. I guess my nerves a little frazzled too. We’ll sleep, and in the morning, I’ll make arrangements for the documents to be signed. Then later this week, we’ll have the divorce papers ready as well as soon as a judge approves the documents. It’s all going as well as I hoped. We may be done with this in two weeks. Then we can go home and let Pa figure out how he’s going to take care of the rest of his mess.”

“Why didn’t you let Papa handle this part of it? I know you told me your reasons, but I was so worried about you being gone, I don’t remember. That night is a little hazy for me.”

Smiling Adam sat on the bed and reminded her of the reasons. “Pa is so emotional with his love for Michele and his fears over what is going to happen next, he wouldn’t have been able to be as dispassionate as you need to be for negotiations. Knowing what Jacques did to Michele, he would have also been very angry which also is a detriment to forging successful agreements. The last reason would be that Pa has impregnated the man’s wife. If that was ever divulged, you know what Jacques would do. My father dueled in his day, but he would be no match for Jacques.”

“Damn it. I just realized why you took this on your shoulders. You think that if there’s a duel, you’ll be successful where you father would not. You think that you’re going to end up dueling Jacques?”

Forced into admitting that Annie was correct, Adam was dismayed when Annie turned away from him. She lay on her side with her body shuddering with sobs. Adam reached for her but she shied from his touch. He moved closer pressing himself to her and wrapped an arm around her pulling her tightly to him. “Sweetheart, I won’t seek out a duel. I just know that Jacques is seeking an excuse to challenge me to one. I’m sorry that I upset you, but who better to take this challenge than me?”

Rolling to face Adam then, Annie’s tear streaked face was also furious. “You’re a husband and soon you’ll be a father. That’s a good pair of reasons why you shouldn’t even consider this. Adam, I don’t know what I would do if I lost you. How could you even think about putting yourself into such a situation?”

“Sweetheart, I’ll do my best to avoid it, but I can’t promise it won’t happen.”

With no real resolution to the argument, Annie and Adam had trouble sleeping and both looked like it the next morning. Adam dressed to run his errands as Annie sat morosely picking at her breakfast. By the time Adam returned to report that all was successful and the divorce decree was being processed, Annie smiled a little, and the two of them spent the night quietly. The next day, Annie resolved to try to put the threat of a duel in the background and concentrate on having some enjoyable experiences with her husband. They visited bookstores, pastry shops, and candy shops as they had done on their honeymoon. On Friday, word came that the divorce decree was ready to be signed. Adam left to deliver the payment that would ensure the papers were signed and filed. All went well until the payment was made. Then Jacques asked for more.

*****

Chapter 12

“Your father was in town. I would have liked to meet him.”

“I’m sorry that I did not know that. He was only here for a few days though.” Adam got an uneasy feeling about this conversation with Jacques.

“Yes, I would have liked to meet the man who took my wife to bed. Ah, I see from your look that you did not think I would find this out. I also have learned that you and your family are quite wealthy and could have paid me much more than what you did. I demand that you pay me five hundred thousand dollars in compensation for your family disgracing me or meet me on the dueling grounds tomorrow morning.”

“There must be another way. Perhaps a reasonable amount of money could be paid to you for the perceived wrong you believe you have suffered, but half a million dollars is well beyond what my family can afford to pay.”

“No, no! No negotiations. There are no negotiations where honor is concerned. You have my terms. I expect an answer.”

“When and where?”

Smiling like a hyena poised over its prey, Jacques bowed slightly and issued a time and place. Adam was given the choice of pistols or rapiers. He chose pistols. Jacques smiled his predator’s smile although he would have preferred the rapier. He enjoyed the resistance of skin and muscle and then the feeling of it yielding under pressure. He liked being close to a man when he realized he was mortally wounded. Men usually thought they would be able to give him a good fight with the rapier never realizing his training made him a master. Pistols got it over with quickly and the tension in his opponent always made him feel superior and masterful. He always felt a rush just before that let him fire at his opponent with impunity. He looked at the soon to be dead man in front of him and smiled even more broadly. Adam nodded and left. Adam’s worst fear over these negotiations had come to fruition, and now he had to tell Annie although he briefly toyed with the idea of not telling her until it was over. He knew that would doom his marriage though so he headed to the hotel for what he knew would be an emotional afternoon and evening.

The next morning, standing in a slight fog, Jacques was confident. He had dispatched enough jealous husbands to have little fear of a cowboy from the wilderness. He had a second but only because it was proper form. He had invited his latest conquest to be with him to see him duel. He was tiring of her already, but he planned to keep her around for his dalliance until he chose his next paramour. He had quite a bit of money now after accepting those payments from Cartwright and had rid himself of the encumbrance of Michele too. He was feeling quite good, although he did expect the cowboy to look more nervous than he did. With his stance and demeanor, Adam looked altogether too confident he thought. His second noticed too and suggested that because they had both shown up to accept the duel, any matter of honor was already upheld if he wished. His pride wouldn’t let him do that although his mind was suggesting it was a good idea. The referee stepped forward with the pistol case, and both men walked forward to select one. Adam checked his over carefully although he had done it once already. His second who was his lawyer as well stood by and said nothing. He knew the reputations of both men and had a fair estimate of their abilities. He fully expected Adam to be riding home that day.

Just as the referee began the count to start the duel, several men walked out of the nearby trees. Adam was not surprised and kept his concentration on the count and on Jacques. Jacques was suddenly very afraid. He did not know who these men were, but from the looks on their faces, they knew him well. Adam had contacted friends and family of men who had been killed by Jacques. They were there to see Jacques meet his maker, and they would of course cause some nervousness on the part of Jacques as Adam had planned. The number three was spoken in deathly quiet by the referee, and two guns fired. Jacques and Adam fell to the ground, but only one of them rose again. Adam rose from one knee and was clutching his left arm as blood leaked between his fingers. Jacques had been better than expected but not nearly good enough. He was dead with a bullet hole neatly placed between his eyes. Adam dropped the pistol on the body and turned to his second who wrapped a handkerchief around his arm.

“We need to leave here quickly. The police will arrive soon. They will be able to tell what happened but not who did it if we’re all gone.” Within a minute, the area was empty of all living persons, and the police arrived to investigate the gunshots but found only one man apparently killed in a duel. In such a situation, it was not worth their time and effort to investigate. Dueling was against the law, but no jury would convict anyway as people in the west considered it a matter of self-defense.

There would be no tears shed for Jacques Fourier. He had no children and no spouse, but his will was still on record with his lawyer. It named Michele Fourier as his beneficiary as he had not had time to change it. In the hotel room as Adam and Annie were packing to leave, that news was delivered by his lawyer. Adam instructed the lawyer to begin liquidation of the Fourier estate and to place all proceeds in an account for Michele Fourier. Adam hoped that this information would at least crack the icy barrier that was between him and his wife since the duel that morning and their discussions the previous day. It didn’t. He would have to wait to let her process what had happened, and then probably there would be a fiery exchange between them to clear the air. Annie had issued no ultimatums to prohibit him from dueling, but she might just as well have done that for the impact it had on their relationship.

Boarding a steamer for Sacramento the next day, Adam and Annie were still at odds. She could not accept what he had done, and he could not imagine a scenario in which he could have done things differently and still had his self-respect. They spent a night in Sacramento, had dinner, slept, and packed up the next morning without the usual banter and certainly no intimacy. As they rode the stage for the next part of the journey, a woman on board the stage asked a number of questions. She was surprised they had been married less than a year. At the first rest station, the woman held Adam’s arm as he was going to go into the station for lunch.

“Young man, I was married for over forty years before my husband died. One thing he never forgot in all that time was why I said yes to him when he proposed. I think you have already forgotten. Perhaps you should try to remember.” She went into the small ramshackle station then to have some lunch and get away from the unrelenting heat. Adam was angry at first that a stranger would deign to interfere and offer him advice, but the more that he thought, the more he wondered if she was correct. Finally with a small crooked smile, he went to have lunch as well. The day was extremely hot so the driver told them they would wait two hours before continuing. They were spending the night at the next way station and would arrive closer to eight than the scheduled six but the horses would handle the conditions better if they waited to let the sun move a bit lower in the sky. Adam asked Annie to walk with him to a grove of trees nearby.

“Why? It’s hot and I don’t think I will enjoy the exercise.”

“It will be cooler there, and the station manager says there’s a small pond there. We could take off our shoes or boots and put our feet in the water.”

That did sound appealing so Annie agreed to go with Adam. He took her arm in a soft hold and guided her there. Once there, he told her to sit so he could remove her shoes. As that was done, he massaged her feet before letting her swing around and put her feet in the water. Then he pulled off his boots, sat beside her on her right side, and immersed his feet as well.

“I’m still mad at you, you know.”

“Yes.”

“I still don’t understand how you could put yourself at risk like that.”

“I know.”

“Aren’t you even going to defend yourself at all?”

“Would it matter? There’s nothing I can say that will make you accept what I did, but I still feel I did what I had to do. We disagree. It happens.”

“You can be infuriating some times. I want to just smack you when you’re like that.”

“Sometimes I still would like to give you a spanking.”

“You wouldn’t dare!”

“We’ve had this discussion before. I would dare if I thought it was necessary.”

“Even if I was really mad at you afterwards?”

“Yes.”

“You’re doing that on purpose to make me talk to you, aren’t you? I hate that when you manipulate me like that.”

“I know.”

And then Annie did smack him on the arm. Unfortunately it was the arm that Jacques’ bullet had creased, and Adam jerked with the pain. Annie was immediately contrite and wrapped her arms around Adam to pull him close and kiss him which he was more than enthusiastic in encouraging. Suddenly she frowned and leaned back and looked at him. “Did you do that on purpose too?”

“Do what?”

“Sit there on my right side and then antagonize me until I smacked you one?”

“Now, Annie, do you really believe I would let you hurt me on purpose?” Adam had that hint of a smile that drove her crazy wondering what he was thinking.

With a deep sigh, Annie started laughing. She lay back on the soft grass and stared at the blue sky they could see through the treetops. “You are a real piece of work, mister. Will you at least promise that we will talk over any future plans in depth before you do them so that I can state my opinion while it still matters?”

“I can do that.”

“No, I want you to promise you will do that. No more sentences with wiggle room so you can always say you did what I said even though you didn’t do what I meant.”

Resting on his sore arm, Adam leaned down close to Annie. “I promise that I will talk over any future plans with you in depth before I do anything about them so that you at least get to state your opinion while it still matters.” Then he leaned down further and sealed the agreement with a kiss. Soon more was happening, and later they had to hurry to get their footgear on and get to the stage when they heard the driver calling for them. Once they got there, Adam kissed the widow on the cheek.

“Not that I’m complaining, sweetie, but what was that for?”

“Ma’am, I think you know, and thank you.”

“Adam, why are you kissing another woman?”

“She gave me some great advice earlier. She’s a very wise woman. Besides I only kissed her on the cheek. Sorry, ma’am, my wife gets a little jealous sometimes. I don’t mind.”

For the next stage of the trip, Annie and Adam conversed at length with the widow after they introduced themselves so they could call each other by name. The widow was Margaret Marshall but she said everyone called her Peg. She was heading to Virginia City to find work as a cook or seamstress. Adam and Annie said they might be able to help her with that. At the next station, they had dinner and then it was time to get some sleep. The station manager offered the spare bedroom to Adam and Annie.

“No, I can sleep out here in a chair. Let the two ladies have the bed.”

“Adam, are you sure? I would hate to separate a man from his wife.”

“No, that’s quite all right, Peg. Annie, that’s all right with you isn’t it?”

When Annie nodded yes, Peg gave Adam an appraising look. That afternoon it was clear the chill was gone between Adam and Annie even to the point that Annie had leaned into Adam who wrapped an arm around her so she could get a nap on the stage. Then Peg remembered how the two had been gone and had to be called back to the stage so they could leave. Peg smiled.

“You do work fast young man, don’t you?”

Then Peg walked into the bedroom with her valise. Annie blushed a little and followed her in closing the door. Soon there was giggling coming from the bedroom which made Adam wince. Once again he was reminded that in marriage, privacy was not nearly as protected as he would like. The station manager went to his bedroom so it was Adam and the driver in the main room of the station. They had a cup of coffee, turned down the lamps, and did their best to sleep in the chairs that were there.

*****

Chapter 13

In the morning, Adam slowly awakened to a woman’s hands massaging his neck as he leaned on the table where he had slept the night before. “I’m going to give you about twenty minutes to cut that out.”

“Your wife might object to that.”

With a start, Adam turned quickly around to find that Peg had been the one rubbing his cramped neck and shoulders. Annie was carrying her valise from the bedroom and grinning at him.

“Gotcha!”

“You really are asking for it, you know.”

Simply shaking her head, Annie handed her valise to Adam. He sighed and carried it outside to be loaded on the stage. Grabbing his kit, he went to the water trough, pulled off his shirt, and pumped cold water over his head and face feeling the whisker stubble that required him to shave twice a day to be presentable. He soaped up and took care of that before donning his shirt and heading back inside. After breakfast, they headed out. In two more days, they should arrive in Virginia City. In Placerville, Adam and Annie took a room for the night. It was a relief to Adam to have a bed to stretch out in. He relaxed and waited for Annie to join him there after she combed out her hair and took care of cleaning up after the dusty ride. Adam had been going to order a bath for them but it had gotten quite late with some problems with the coach that day so all they really wanted to do was to get some sleep. In a day and a half, they would be home.

Riding into Virginia City after that day and a half of traveling, Adam and Annie were anxious to get the papers delivered to Michele and go home. Annie was very tired after all the stress and then the travel. Peg asked her if she was ill, and she replied it was just that the baby was sapping all of her energy. Realizing that she had slipped and announced she was with child to a near stranger, Annie blushed but Adam asked if Peg wanted them to introduce her to Michele who would likely need some assistance in her shop and he said he knew of a boarding house as well. Peg was grateful and the three of them headed to Michele’s shop. Under the pretense of introducing Peg to Michele, they could hand over the legal documents without any gossips getting any more ammunition. There was a woman in the shop when they arrived so Adam and Annie kept everything very business-like until the end of their conversation when Annie had a question.

“Michele, could you please come out to the ranch on Saturday and help me again with cutting patterns and getting some of my sewing projects started? I would certainly pay you for your time and possibly entice you with the promise of one of Hop Sing’s lunches?”

Michele graciously accepted and took the papers from Adam when her customer was otherwise occupied. She agreed to take on Peg as a helper for a time at least for she told them she had fallen behind on her work with so many orders coming in. It seemed that the women of Virginia City were finding more and more reasons to visit her shop and it was exhausting to try to get everything done. With their task accomplished, Adam and Annie escorted Peg to Clementine Hawkins’ boardinghouse and gave their recommendation so that she would be able to rent a room there. Peg thanked them for all their help, and Annie suggested that she could visit the Ponderosa sometime when she could get away. Peg was delighted to say yes to that. By then, Adam spotted Hoss with the carriage at the stage depot so he escorted Annie there. Hoss greeted them with enthusiasm.

“Heard you had quite a successful trip. Got all that business taken care of on that end?”

“Yes, we did. Now it’s up to Pa to handle things from this end.” Adam nodded at Hoss. They would talk more once they were away from the big ears in town. As they rode to the Ponderosa, Adam filled Hoss in on everything he had done including the duel.

“Is that why you were all fired up to be the one to go? You suspected there might be a duel? Pa’s gonna be upset with you when he finds out.”

“I already got blasted by Annie. Pa can’t be any worse than that.”

Annie was going to punch him in the arm for that, but she realized she was on his left side and would have to hit his sore arm so she reached around and pinched his behind instead. He yelped and jumped forward a bit causing Hoss to laugh so hard he almost ran the carriage off the road.

“You do that, Annie. He needs someone to keep him in line.” And Hoss laughed more as Adam scowled at him.

Adam stared at Annie. “You are getting closer and closer to making me do it.”

“Do what?” Hoss had no idea why Adam had said that.

“Oh, Hoss, he keeps threatening to spank me. He wouldn’t dare.”

“Annie, now I wouldn’t be too sure about that. Did he tell you about the time he spanked Margarita in front of her father, her sister, and the rest of us?” So Hoss proceeded to tell the tale of the shrew Adam tamed especially about spanking her after she broke Adam’s guitar over Hoss’ head.

Not knowing whether to laugh or be shocked, Annie was a bit of both. “You wouldn’t dare do that to me, would you?”

“Keep pushing, and you will find out.”

It was quiet for a bit then before Hoss started talking about Ben and how happy he had been when they had gotten the wire that all had been resolved. The three of them discussed when Ben was likely to propose to Michele. It needed to be soon considering that she was already carrying his child. In a couple of months, she would be showing and then there would be no way to stop the gossip except it wasn’t unusual for couples to marry with a child already on the way so the talk would die down as long as they were married a reasonable length of time. Adam correctly guessed that there were women in town watching the calendar to see when his child was born in order to gossip about it if it was less than nine months after their wedding. It wouldn’t be so the gossips would be disappointed with that one.

“How much money do you think Michele is going to get when they sell off the property of that husband of hers?”

“We have no way of knowing. I would think at least forty thousand because of the money we gave him, but who knows what kind of debts he may have incurred. We’ll have to wait and see. I asked for expedited sales so it shouldn’t take long to know.”

“How come you could do all that without Michele’s say so?”

“She gave me documents before I left allowing me to act on her behalf.”

“Ah, that was smart. Then she didn’t have to go and take a chance on being with that jasper. You two work well together on business stuff. Is Michele going to keep her shop in town if she and Pa get married?”

“Well, let’s hope that’s a when and not an if, but yes, I think she will. We found her an employee too on the stage ride. She has a lady about Pa’s age who’s going to be working with her at least until she gets caught up on all the orders that have come flooding in lately.”

“Why is she getting so much work now?”

“It seems that the busybodies in town are in her shop as often as they can, and they need an excuse to stop and chat with her so they order up a dress. Just the fittings are keeping Michele very busy. They’re casting about trying to get some information so they can spread more stories. Michele is holding up well under the pressure, but even she can’t take that forever. I invited her to come out and help me again on Saturday. That will get her out of that shop, and give her a chance to relax.”

Once Hoss had gotten Adam and Annie back to the Ponderosa, it didn’t take long to find out Ben’s reaction to Adam being in a duel with Jacques.

“What in tarnation did you think you were doing taking a chance like that? You have a wife and a baby on the way. Did you think about them at all? Of all the irresponsible, lame-brained schemes, this has to be number one. Well, don’t you have anything to say for yourself?”

Barely holding on to his temper, Adam paused a little before answering. It would help him calm himself, but he knew from previous experience that his father would now start feeling just a little guilty for blasting him like that especially in front of members of the family. He waited until he could state his position clearly and without rancor. “If you’re negotiating with a known duelist, it’s always a possibility. I had confidence in my ability to survive. I didn’t have that confidence that he would not kill you. I couldn’t live with myself if I had let you go into that situation and done nothing to stop it.”

“I am perfectly capable of handling negotiations and would never have let it get to the point that I was challenged to a duel!”

“Not if he found out you were sleeping with his wife and demanded a half million dollars in compensation!” Adam had been pushed far enough that he knew he had embarrassed his father but his father had snidely denigrated Adam’s abilities, and he lost his cool. He did find that his father and Joe had that ability far more than any other living soul. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that in front of everyone.”

Fuming a bit at first before realizing who had caused this disagreement to get this far, Ben apologized as well. “I’m sorry too. I should not have criticized you for doing the best you could do under circumstances I created. I’ll let your wife handle any criticism of you dueling. She was the one with the most to lose.”

“Ahh, Annie’s already taken care of that. We’ve, ah, reached an understanding.”

Recognizing that the worst was over, Annie changed the subject. “I asked Michelle to come out again on Saturday to help me. Now that she has Peg to help, that should work out even better for her.”

“Who’s Peg?”

So Adam and Annie explained how they met Peg and why she was in Virginia City. It was serendipity for all concerned. Then they explained that Michele was the beneficiary of Jacques’ will.

“I can’t see that she would want anything from him after what he did to her. I can certainly supply her with anything she needs.” The unspoken commitment was there in Ben’s words and everyone in the family heard it.

“Pa, I told her he owed it to her. It was the least he should have done after everything he put her through. Besides, forty thousand of it were the two payments I gave to him. She’s just getting the money back.”

“I suppose that’s true. I just don’t like her owning anything that he owned.”

“That’s why everything is going to be sold. It will only be money. She can then use it to purchase anything she wants or give the money away. It will be her decision. She will finally have taken the power away from him. I think that’s important for her to be able to do.”

Recognizing the truth in Adam’s statement and how well his oldest son understood the woman Ben loved, Ben had to thank him. Then he thanked Annie for inviting Michele to come out to the Ponderosa again. He was grateful for how his family had accepted the woman with whom he had fallen in love, and he told them that. Hoss had that aw shucks look of his, and the others made light of what they had done, but Ben could see they were all pleased that he had acknowledged how much they were doing to try to help him.

Because Annie was tired by all the travel and the emotional upheaval of recent events, Adam insisted she head up to their room to get some rest. When she did, she found the room emptied of all their belongings and furnished with guest room furniture. She looked back at Adam who was flanked by his two brothers and father and rushed to the end of the hall finding the door to their new room open. Their bed, dresser, desk, and other belongings had been moved into the guest room with the adjoining room. When she peeked in there, she saw a cradle and a trundle bed all made up for a baby’s arrival. All the room needed were the new curtains that she and Michele had been working on.

“Hoss and Joe did this for us while we were gone. Jeremy helped with the heavy lifting. All you need to do are the curtains for each room and then any other special touches you want.”

Throwing her arms around Hoss first and then Joe, Annie was smiling and crying. Neither brother really knew how to react to that. “Oh, I’m so sorry, but being with child seems to have made me an emotional mess. I’m really happy, and oh so grateful to you for this. Thank you, thank you.” Then Annie hugged Adam. “Did you know they were going to do this?”

“Know it, Sis! Heck, he planned it. He sent a wire and said as soon as you were packed up and headed out on that stage, we could move everything from your old bedroom to this one. Pa made us get the baby stuff out of the attic too and clean it all up.” Joe was very proud of how well he and Hoss had done in pleasing Annie.

As soon as Hoss and Joe headed downstairs, Annie did a more thorough examination of both rooms finding them meticulously well organized and clean. “Joe really ought to find himself a wife. She would be one lucky lady.”

“One of those women is going to have to grab hold of him. He’s pretty fast. He’s usually seeing a woman, just dumped a woman, been dumped by a woman, or looking for the next woman. There’s hardly time for a relationship to develop.”

“Well, I’m going to have to pay closer attention and help out any likely candidates.”

“Oh, no. You just stick to planning for us. Don’t get involved in Joe’s. That’s a recipe for disaster. If you want to help, look around for a nice lady for Hoss. He’s the one who ought to be married and having a bunch of children.”

“Really?”

“No, no, I was just kidding. Please let my brothers work out their own romances, please?”

“All right. I’m busy enough helping your father with his anyway.”

Rolling his eyes, Adam leaned down to kiss Annie. “Now get some sleep. The two of you have had a difficult couple of weeks, and you need your rest. We can unpack later.”

For a few days, Annie enjoyed a life of leisure. On Saturday morning, she got out all of her sewing materials ready for a day of learning how to make gowns and curtains from Michele. She was very much looking forward to the day, and was shocked when Hoss rushed inside to tell Adam that Michele’s carriage had arrived with a damaged wheel, but Michele wasn’t in it. Hoss and Adam quickly rode out to find out what had happened as Ben and Joe got the buckboard hitched up and put blankets in the back and then hurried to catch up. Annie had wanted to go too, but Ben told her she would hinder not help them. She reluctantly sat on the porch and waited for news after telling Hop Sing that there might be an injured person being brought to the ranch. Annie hoped that a minor injury was all that had happened, but she feared it was a lot more. Her fears were realized an hour later when Hoss drove the wagon into the yard. Ben was sitting in the back cradling Michele’s head on his lap and holding a cloth against her head. Adam was soon there and jumped into the wagon to help his father pick Michele up and hand her over the side to Hoss who carried the unconscious woman inside.

Adam gave Annie a quick rundown then. “She must have fallen out when the carriage hit a rock and tilted. She’s got a head injury and possibly other injuries. Joe took Chubb and rode for the doctor.”

*****

Chapter 14

“Ben, could I speak with you privately?” Doctor Martin had just come out of the downstairs guest room where Michele was. He had been tending to her for well over two hours, and the five Cartwrights had become very tense with the waiting. Just a short time before, Hop Sing had exited with soiled sheets and a basin of brown water. He would say nothing, but after about fifteen minutes, he had taken clean sheets and a basin of clean water in with him.

“You can tell everyone how she is. There are no secrets here.”

“None?” Paul was surprised, but then the Cartwrights often surprised him. “She will be fine in a few weeks. She has a nasty bump on the head and a mild concussion, but her memory is unimpaired and she is lucid. She has some nasty bruising to her abdomen but no internal bleeding as far as I can tell, and no broken ribs. However, she lost the baby. It wasn’t that far along and it was a risk for her being with child for the first time at her age. She couldn’t withstand the trauma of the blow to her abdomen when she fell. I’m sorry. There was nothing that could be done about that.” Paul noted that no one had seemed surprised that Michele had been with child, and all were dismayed that she had lost the baby.

“Can I see her?”

“Ben, let her have a little time to settle comfortably in the bed. Hop Sing is changing the bedding, and we gave her a clean gown to put on. Once he comes out, she’ll change but it may take her some time. She was banged up pretty good. Perhaps, Annie could go in to help her?”

Not needing any encouragement, Annie moved quickly to the bedroom and Hop Sing was leaving as she got there. Then there was another long wait before Annie came out to say that Michele would prefer to rest quietly and alone for a time. Ben sighed deeply worried about her and with apparently nothing he could do to help. Periodically Annie checked in the room just to be sure that Michele didn’t need anything until Michele asked her if she would just stay and sit quietly with her. Ben was frustrated as any man would be in such a circumstance. Doctor Martin left after giving Hop Sing some laudanum in case Michele needed it for the pain especially if it prevented her from sleeping.

None of the Cartwright men slept well that night. Ben sat up late as did Adam. Annie had come out of the Michele’s bedroom a few times. Once she left to get some dinner for them, and another time to use the necessary. She shook her head and told Ben that Michele wasn’t ready to see him yet. The last time she came out was to get a quilt and to kiss Adam good night because Michele had asked if she could stay with her. So after Hoss and Joe retired for the night, Adam and Ben sat up talking for a time and then just staring into the flames. Adam worried about the effects of this stress on Annie who was now six months along herself. Finally he left to get some sleep after encouraging Ben to do the same. After midnight, Ben went to his bed but didn’t sleep. He worried about Michele and what this miscarriage would do to their relationship. He didn’t want anything to change but feared it would affect how she saw him. He didn’t know what the effect would be but feared the worst. Hoss and Joe both heard their brother and then their father come up to bed quite late. They knew how each was suffering and were sorry that there was nothing they could do.

With the dawn, Hoss awakened and so amazingly did Joe. When they dressed and went downstairs, they found their father and older brother already sitting downstairs drinking coffee in front of the fireplace.

“We didn’t miss breakfast, now did we?” Trying to keep it light, Hoss said the one thing that usually could get a rise out of Adam even in the early morning. It didn’t work this time. Ben simply answered that Hop Sing was preparing breakfast and it would be ready soon. Annie came out of the downstairs bedroom about that time. She had dark circles under her eyes and looked exhausted.

“You’re going up to bed right now.” Adam was extremely concerned about his wife at that point and wasn’t about to consider discussing the merits of his suggestion.

“I can’t. Michele needs me.”

“Our baby needs you, and your first priority is our child right now.”

About to argue about it, Annie was halted by Ben’s agreement with Adam and then Hoss and Joe also seconded his suggestion. Adam stood there looking concerned, worried, and angry as well as tired himself. Annie nodded, and Adam took her by the arm and walked her up the stairs.

“Adam, you look like you could use some sleep as well. You should stay with Annie. We’ll take care of Michele.”

Considering what his father was suggesting, Adam wasn’t going to argue with him either. He simply nodded and continued to help Annie up the stairs. In their bedroom, Adam helped Annie undress. Normally that would have led to some lovemaking, but in this situation, he helped her clean up and then dress in a clean gown. He pulled the covers back on the bed so she could slide into the bed. She snuggled into the pillow and closed her eyes. By the time Adam lay down beside her and wrapped an arm protectively around her, she was already breathing quietly and evenly in a light sleep. Relieved of his worries for the moment, Adam pushed his face into Annie’s hair and inhaled the scent. Then he kissed the top of her head and closed his eyes falling into a restful sleep as well.

Downstairs, things did not go nearly as well for Ben at first. When he entered the bedroom to see if Michele wanted some breakfast, she asked for Annie.

“Annie needed to get some sleep. Adam took her upstairs. She’s six months along now and needs her rest. I can help you.”

“I’m so sorry. I know how disappointed you must be with me.”

Sitting on the side of the bed then because standing at the door simply wasn’t enough, Ben touched Michele on the shoulder and took her hand. “You have nothing to be sorry about. I’m not disappointed at all. I’m very concerned about you. I love you, and I was terribly worried. This must have been so hard for you.”

Hoss got up from the dining table and walked to the guest room pulling the door closed. This was a conversation that Ben and Michele needed to have privately. Joe was a little disappointed they would not hear how the couple resolved their concerns. Hoss looked at Joe a little peevishly.

“We’ll find out when they want to tell us.” Then he put some food on his plate and started eating because he felt better about things already. Just those first statements from his father and from Michele indicated they would work things out. And Adam had Annie upstairs resting so everyone was getting what they needed, and at the moment, Hoss needed breakfast. Joe needed a new girlfriend and had missed a Saturday night in town. Hoss was guessing that Joe was going to be ornery all week or at least until Friday when he could get to town.

In the bedroom, Michele was quiet for quite a while. Ben held her hand and stroked his other hand slowly up and down her arm hoping it was soothing her. She didn’t flinch from his touch so her arm wasn’t hurting, and more importantly she wasn’t rejecting Ben’s attention. When she tried to turn to look at him more directly though, she grimaced in pain.

“Do you need some laudanum for the pain?”

“No, I wanted to be able to look at you directly. I’ll be fine. I took some last night when I needed to sleep.” Michele wanted to see Ben’s face when she said the next thing she wanted to say. Ben wasn’t like Adam who could hold that mask in place no matter what was being said. Even when Ben was trying to be impassive, he always reacted to what was said although he could get that neutral face back quickly if he tried. “Ben, you don’t have to stay with me now.”

“I have nothing else more important to do today. I’ll be here as much as you need me.”

“No, I mean you don’t have to be committed to me. Without the baby, you’re free of me if you want to be.”

“What? You just stop talking like that right now. I want to be with you because I love you. The baby forced the issue, but I was thinking all along that I wanted to find a way to be with you forever. It is very sad that we have lost our baby, but we have each other, and the boys and Annie are here too. We can still be a very loving family.”

“Ben, what are you saying?”

“I’m saying that I don’t ever want you to leave here. I want you to be my wife and live here on the Ponderosa with me. I know this is an odd time to do this, but Michele, will you marry me?”

Looking to Ben to see if there was pity or guilt or some other emotion driving him to ask her that, Michele saw only love and concern. “Yes, Ben, if you’ll have me, I’ll marry you.”

Although Ben wanted to wrap his arms around Michele and hug and kiss her passionately, he leaned forward slowly so as not to cause her any discomfort, and he kissed her very gently as he held her cheek. “Thank you. You have made me a very happy man. As soon as you feel up to it, we’ll go to town and get you a ring, and we can meet with the minister to pick a date for the wedding. I would like it to be soon.”

“Yes, you can do all the planning. I’m tired and I’d like a nap now.” Michele had a small smile then even though she had suffered the tragedy of the loss of the baby. Softening the shock somewhat was that she remembered Doctor Martin’s warning when she first saw him that he thought that she might lose the baby because he saw signs that she might not be able to carry to term. She wasn’t a medical person so the terms he used had eluded her understanding, but his conclusion had been clear. Now the worst had happened, but she and Ben could move forward. There was nothing more she could hope or pray for at this point so she just wanted to sleep and forget about it for a time.

So Ben sat quietly by Michele’s side until she fell asleep. Then he gently tucked the covers up to her chin and went to talk with his sons. He told them first to stay quiet no matter what he said, and then he told Hoss and Joe that he and Michele were getting married. He sent Joe into town to contact Peg to let her know what had happened and to be sure she could open the store for the next week without Michele’s help. He sent Hoss up to see if Adam and Annie were awake so he could tell them the news.

“Adam, you awake?” Hoss heard a yes from the bedroom. “Are you two decent?”

“Of course we’re decent. But if you’re asking if we’re dressed, the answer is yes.”

Hoss shook his head a little because sometimes his older brother was a little hard to understand. He pushed the door open. “Pa says he’d like ya downstairs whenever you can cause he has something he wants to tell you.” When Hoss saw both Adam and Annie look nervous at that, he quickly amended his statement. “He’s got some good news to tell ya.” Then before he could say too much, Hoss pulled the door shut and left which left Adam and Annie sputtering with questions so they hurriedly got out of bed, refreshed themselves, and hurried downstairs.

Having trouble fitting in her dresses, Annie was wearing a skirt that she could pull up over the bulge and had wrapped a shawl around her as Michele had told her and with Adam’s help secured it at her waist. By the time Annie walked down the stairs, it was clear to everyone that she was with child. She had been disguising the bump for quite a while but no longer could for it seemed to grow daily according to her complaints to Adam. When Ben saw her, he got a lump in his throat and a tear in his eye over the loss he and Michele had suffered but consoled himself that there would at least soon be a baby in the family. When Ben told Annie and Adam his news, they were both overjoyed, and Annie hugged and kissed Ben for she was so looking forward to having female companionship in this household of men. Annie had not had a woman to talk with since her mother had died. Ben looked at it the other way that Michele would have a woman with whom to commiserate and celebrate especially when the men were out working.

Over the next few days, there was a lot of consoling of Ben and Michele when they were feeling down about the loss they had suffered, and then a lot of celebrating when they were talking about the wedding. In town, rumors were rampant that Michele was on the Ponderosa to hide the fact that she was with child. The gossips claimed the accident was a creative story and a ruse to explain her absence from town. In two weeks when a slim Michele accompanied Ben and the family to church services, and the minister announced that they were getting married the following Saturday, the gossips were stymied. The small scar on her forehead was clear evidence that she had in fact been injured, and that narrow waist could not conceal a pregnancy. They were embarrassed when people questioned the stories they had been telling, and they had no answers. More than one person was heard to say that slandering Ben Cartwright was a terrible thing to do for the man did so much for his neighbors and for the town.

By late August, Ben and Michele returned from a month long honeymoon in Denver. Jeremy married a homesteader’s daughter and moved into the Anderson home. He and his wife planned to plant vegetables, raise chickens, and hogs, keep dairy cows, and sell their surplus in town. Ben accepted fresh vegetables, cheese, butter, and hams in lieu of rent for the property, and Jeremy continued to work as a ranch hand as well. When Adam took Annie for a ride to show her a property they could use to build a house, she said they could do that someday but that she enjoyed living in the big house with the whole family. Peg ran the store full time, and Michele and Annie did a lot of the sewing and stitching on the Ponderosa delivering it to the store twice a week. Then in September, Annie shook Adam to awaken him one night.

“Adam, it’s time.”

“Hmm, time for what? It’s still dark.”

“Time for the baby, you big lug. Now get out of bed. You need to help me clean up this mess. My water broke.”

“I’ll get Hop Sing. He’ll help.”

“Not yet he won’t. I want to be dressed in a dry gown and have clean sheets on the bed before he gets here. Now help!”

“Shouldn’t I go get the doctor?” Adam was busy pulling sheets off the bed and replacing them with clean dry ones as Annie tugged a clean gown over her head. Then he put the blanket back on the bed as well.

“No, you’re staying right here. You can send Joe or someone else. You put that baby in there, and you’re damn well going to be here when he comes out.”

“How do you know it’s a boy?”

“Because a girl would have waited until morning. Now roll all this up and then you can tell everyone who needs telling.”

Within an hour, Annie’s contractions were coming very close together. Michele and Adam were with her. “Adam, I think that baby is going to be here before the doctor. I’ve never helped at a birth. Have you?”

“Not unless you count the livestock. Hop Sing has though so he’s our best bet for help.”

Almost on cue, Hop Sing entered the room carrying all the things they would need. There were towels, string, clean sheets, and pitchers of warm water and cool water. The diminutive man was nearly invisible behind the stack of items he was carrying and the two pitchers in his hands. Ben walked in behind with a tray with a pot of tea and cups quickly retreating when he heard his wife say she could see the head, Annie screamed, and Adam and Michele tended to the young woman. When Ben got downstairs, all he saw were the worried looks on Hoss and Jeremy. Hoss had gone to get Annie’s brother when Joe rode to get the doctor but neither of them was there yet.

Before Ben could say anything, there was the wail of a baby upstairs.

“Well, that might be a record. That baby arrived in a hurry.” Although Ben remembered that Annie had been complaining of a backache and nausea at dinner. That had probably been the start of her labor, but she had not known it. Less than four hours after Annie had awakened Adam, a baby boy was wrapped in swaddling clothes and resting in Annie’s arms. Adam, who had been dreading this night because of his fears of what could happen in labor, sat back in near shock. There hadn’t been time to be afraid for they had been so busy. Hop Sing and Michele cleaned up and then left the couple alone with their child.

“We never did settle firmly on a name. Are we going to call him Andrew after my father or Adam after you?”

“Let’s call him Andrew Adam Cartwright. I do like the nickname your father had. Drew is a good name.”

“Well, hello little Drew. Would you like to see if you can have something to drink now?”

Drew struggled a bit with the unfamiliar requirements of suckling but as soon as some milk entered his mouth, he latched on like he knew what he was doing. It was noisy slurping, and he soon tired of it, closed his eyes, and went to sleep. With a smirk, Annie looked at Adam. “He’s a lot like his father already.”

“Hey, now don’t talk like that when the family is around. It’s not too late for that spanking.”

“Oh, hush. Now that he’s sleeping, you take him down and show the family. I think I’ll relax a little too. I didn’t get much sleep last night.”

As Adam was carrying Drew down the stairs, Joe rushed in with Doctor Martin. “Well, it looks like I missed the birth. I’ll go up and check Annie. Adam, bring the baby up as soon as everyone has had a chance to admire him, and I’ll check him over too.”

Jeremy had tears in his eyes when Adam told them the baby’s name. Adam told Jeremy that he should go up with him when he took the baby upstairs for Paul to examine him.

So in a year, much had happened on the Ponderosa. Adam was married, had a son, and any plans to leave were forgotten. Ben was married and loneliness was no longer a concern for him. Hoss and Joe were starting to think more seriously about getting married. The Ponderosa was much larger, Will and Laura were happily raising their family in California, and the gossips in town were stymied.

*****

105

Chapter 1 –Four years earlier.

“It ain’t right that he walks around free as a bird after what he’s done.”

“Yeah, Nate, all those men died, and he gets away from the Paiute with nary a scratch. You know he was working with em. He had to be.”

“What was that final tally? I think they said over seventy dead and about half that wounded. He oughta pay for that.”

“Yeah, Paul, just because he’s a Cartwright and the fighting is over for now, everyone is willing to look the other way. Well I ain’t cause I knew a lot of those men who died. The Paiute War may be over, but there’s still some justice to be done.”

“But, Clyde, what can the three of us do against him? He’s fast with that gun, and, I mean, I don’t want to go to jail for killing him.”

“There’ll come a time, there’ll come a time when we can do something about that Injun lover Adam Cartwright.” Clyde had no idea at the moment, but he was a patient man and assumed that at some point an idea would come to him of how they could get revenge on Adam Cartwright without going to jail.

The three men continued to drink their beers as they sat at a back table and watched Adam talking with his brothers and friends, drinking beer and acting like nothing terrible had happened. In fact, it had been terrible for Adam, and this was his first trip to town since his ordeal. He hadn’t yet conquered the nightmares, but they weren’t as bad as when he first arrived home three months after being captured at the First Battle of Pyramid Lake. Numaga kept him alive because of his family’s close relationship to Chief Winnemucca. But the old chief had died in that awful winter and everything Numaga tried to do to keep the peace didn’t work. When the militia marched on his people, he fought. They captured Adam and tried to use him to barter a settlement, but it didn’t work. The Army arrived almost three months to the day of the first battle, and the Paiute were decimated as the militia had been at the first battle. The war was over, but the problems and anger lingered.

Carefully so that Adam wouldn’t notice, Hoss and Joe surveyed the room watching to be sure there would be no trouble. They knew Adam had suffered at the hands of the Paiute during his captivity. They saw the scars from the lashings around his wrists and ankles. They had seen poorly healed abrasions. Adam had a fair amount of bruising when he had finally been released in a last ditch effort by the Paiute to stop their own destruction. Some of the Paiute had taken their anger and frustration out on him before they let him go. He had spent weeks recuperating and gaining back some of the weight he had lost. The Paiute did not have enough food for themselves so had fed their captive meager meals that at times were only the scraps of a meal. In addition to being malnourished, he had been beaten at times, humiliated in his predicament, and exposed to the elements all the while expecting that he would likely die. Sometimes they had taunted him with what they would do to him. They told him about slicing his forehead skin and peeling his face off. They told him they would cut off his genitals and carve up his body. He had some horrible images from that first battle and its aftermath that supported their claims.

When he had been released, Ben had cried in his joy that his son was alive. However there were those in town who openly wondered how Adam could be alive when so many others had been killed and their bodies mutilated. Adam had returned with no apparent injuries. They thought that somehow he had collaborated with the enemy never giving any specific idea of how that could be true, but only citing that by being alive, he must have.

Adam had a fairly good idea what his brothers were doing by each of them standing at an elbow and never leaving his side. Candy leaned on the bar next to him and watched using the mirror. Using peripheral vision, Adam noticed Hoss and Joe doing the same. A little further down the bar, several ranch hands leaned on the bar with one elbow and kept watch as well. Adam had heard a few taunts as he rode into town. His father had mentioned that there were stories going around town, and he should do his best to ignore them.

It all might have ended very quietly that first night in town except Sam Clemens came into the saloon. He had seen the Cartwrights and friends coming into town and had hurried to finish the story he was writing to get over to the saloon. He not only wanted to tell Adam he was glad he had survived, he also wanted to find out as much about his captivity as he could. He had tried once at the Ponderosa but had been politely turned away by Ben who said Adam needed time to recover from his ordeal. As Sam entered the saloon, he saw the wary looks of Adam’s brothers and friends. He also noted how thin Adam was even though he had been presumably eating well for the past few weeks since his return home. He had dark circles under his eyes yet indicating he was likely still not recovered from the exhaustion of his ordeal.

“Adam Cartwright, the hero of the Paiute War, it’s been rather difficult to get to talk with you. As you are in town, I was wondering if you had time to answer a few questions.”

“He ain’t no hero, and I got a few questions for him right now too. How’d you get out of there alive when all of our friends and neighbors got killed? What did you do, Injun lover, to save your own skin?”

“Now, Clyde, you just shut the hell up talking like that. Adam suffered plenty out there and he don’t need no stupid remarks like that from you.”

“So, he’s just a coward then letting you speak for him and protect him?”

As Adam moved to push away from the bar and confront the loudmouth Clyde, Joe put a hand on his right arm. “No trouble tonight, please. Pa was very worried about us coming to town. Let’s just leave and let this one ride.”

“Joe, would you walk away if a man called you out as a coward?”

“I’m sorry, Adam. I never meant to stir anything up like this.”

“It’s all right, Sam. This time it’s not your fault. They’ve been waiting for an opening and would have found an excuse sooner or later to speak their mind.” Turning to look at Clyde, Hoss and Joe saw that familiar icy look come over Adam’s face. He stared at Clyde who started to look decidedly nervous. “Clyde, you want to back that up with something or just leave?”

“You know I ain’t a match for you with a gun. It would be murder if you pushed me to fight you like that.”

“Your choice then. You can leave or you can fight.”

Nate and Paul grabbed their hats and stood. “C’mon Clyde. It ain’t worth getting killed over.” Clyde stood at Paul’s suggestion although his knees felt like they might buckle.

“This ain’t over, Cartwright. It ain’t over. Someday, you’re gonna pay for what you done.” With that Clyde walked from the saloon with one more reason to hate Adam Cartwright. His friends followed him out as he headed to another one of the twenty-one saloons in the city that was at the peak of its prosperity.

Turning to Sam, Adam made an offer. “I’ll buy you a beer, Sam, but I’m not interested in talking right now.”

“I’ll take you up on that, Adam, and thank you. Not right now, but does that mean there’s an opportunity in the future to talk about what happened?”

“We’ll see. For now, let’s just relax and not worry about things we can’t change.”

So they talked about women, horses, and silver mines. They played a low stakes friendly game of poker. By about nine, it was clear that Adam was tired. Hoss suggested the two of them could ride home and get a good night’s sleep. Adam smiled at that. He hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in months. It would be nice if it would happen, but he had doubts that it would. He did take Hoss up on his offer though, as Joe and the others stayed another hour or so. Hoss had a few questions as they rode.

“You wouldn’t have shot Clyde, wouldja?”

“If he wanted to force the issue, yes. I was thinking he had too much to drink, and he was angry but not stupid. His friends weren’t going to back him up either.”

“But how would that have made things any better in town for you?”

“I wouldn’t have, but it wouldn’t have made it worse either. But if I was taunted and insulted like that and did nothing, then more people might begin wondering about me and what kind of man I am.”

“Adam, there’s always going to be people like that. You can’t fight all of them.”

In his usual manner of making it seem a bit funny because he smiled that crooked little smile, he answered. “I can try.” But Hoss knew he meant it. He would fight if he got pushed. He had seen Adam face a professional gunfighter, Poole, when he got his back up. Hoss just hoped that things calmed down a bit before it came to gunplay.

People would have to get on with their lives and get ready for winter. In the long run, the whites had fared far better than the Paiute who had suffered starvation in the previous winter and then suffered devastating losses at the Second Battle of Pyramid Lake. The next winter could be even tougher on them because the problems that had caused the war were still there. There were murders that had occurred on both sides, but the worst might have been the cutting down of the pinyon pine trees, fencing off the best pastures, and denying the Paiute access to water. The only places they could live without harassment was in the desert and in the higher elevations. In both environments though, there wasn’t enough food, and in the desert, the water holes sometimes dried up. In the mountains, the snows could get so deep that no one could hunt and it was difficult to stay warm. In either locale, the Paiute were likely to suffer more.

For Adam, gradually the suffering diminished as the nightmares went away. Adam got stronger, and got back to his routine on the ranch. No one would have been able to tell that he had suffered through captivity because he did what he always did. He buried the hurt and the pain deep inside, and when he had bad dreams, he sat quietly in his room and stared out at the stars or the clouds depending on the weather. He told everyone he was fine, and for the most part he was. Several years later, he was held captive again, but that time it was in the desert by Kane. His recovery from that shorter captivity took longer, but eventually he did what he had done the first time. Then he met the feisty Annie and all the good memories they made seemed to bury the bad experiences so deep that they could not emerge again. Except they did emerge in nightmares again, and the unlikely catalyst was a baby’s cry in the night.

*****

Chapter 2

“Adam, wake up, you’re scaring the baby. Adam!”

Thrashing and moaning, Adam slowly awakened. He was tired a lot lately with all the interruptions of his sleep and trying to work a normal day too. Annie took naps during the day frequently after nursing their son, but Adam didn’t have that opportunity. For some reason, the baby’s crying at night was triggering nightmares for him.

“I’m sorry to wake you because I know how tired you were, but you were scaring the baby and I didn’t think you were getting much rest anyway. Another nightmare?”

“It was just a bad dream.”

“You can call it what you will, but these have been happening almost every night since the baby was born. Michele asked me about it. She must be a lighter sleeper than Papa, and she’s been hearing you too.”

“What did you tell her?”

“There wasn’t much I could tell her. You haven’t told me much about them either.” As Andrew suckled at her breast, Annie looked at her exhausted husband. “Adam, something has to change. You’re exhausted all the time, and men who are that tired make mistakes. I don’t want you getting hurt. Can you tell me what your bad dreams are about? You did promise me truth. It’s time to talk.”

“I don’t want to give you the terrible memories I have.”

“I pledged for better and for worse, in sickness and in health. I meant those words when I said them.”

“I’m not sick.”

“No, but there is something wrong, and I promised to be with you through the tough parts too. Now tell me.”

Closing his eyes, Adam told her in a soft voice. “I dream a lot about the First Battle of Pyramid Lake. I remember seeing so many dead people. I knew many of them. There were one hundred and five casualties that day with seventy-six killed and twenty-nine wounded. I was lucky not to be one of them.”

“Is that when you were taken by the Paiute and held for a few days?”

“Three months. It was three months before I was freed.”

Shocked, Annie sat there and tried to process the story. “But when your father tells the story, it seems like it was only a few days or a week.”

“Yes, I know he makes it sound that way. He probably has as much trouble with that memory as I do. Every day for three months, I thought they would kill me. Mogoannoga told me they would. Numaga argued with him a number of times to save my life. Finally with the Army units approaching, they made a last ditch good faith effort to try to stop the attack. It didn’t work, but I was free.”

“Do you have any idea why Andrew crying make you remember?”

“The only thing that I remember like that is that babies cried a lot in that camp that summer. There wasn’t enough food, and the mothers didn’t have enough milk for their babies. Babies would cry and cry, and when they stopped crying, you knew they were dying. They would get quiet and be still, and then within a day or so, you would hear a mother’s grief stricken sobbing as she mourned her dead baby. One carried hers around with her for most of a day and refused to let anyone take the baby away from her. Finally they did, and did whatever they did with the bodies.”

“So you didn’t get enough food either?”

“No one did, but they certainly weren’t concerned about me. I slept tied to a post in the middle of camp at night. It would get so cold, I would wake up shivering and pray for dawn to come so I could be warmed up by the sun.”

“That must have been horrible for you. Have you ever told your father and brothers about this because when they talk about it, they don’t make it seem that bad?”

“They knew some of what happened just because of the condition I was in by the time I got back. But I never talked with them about it much. I was having these nightmares then, and I just wanted to forget all of it.”

“You never did forget those things though. You just buried them alive, and now they’ve come back to haunt you.”

“I’ll be fine.”

“Maybe, but you need to face those memories, I think. Trust me enough to tell me, please. But right now, Shep needs to go outside. Then maybe we can all try to get back to sleep.”

Taking Shep outside which was a fairly normal occurrence helped soothe Adam, and he found that rather amusing. He stood and watched Shep do his thing as he thought that they had an unusual dog because he seldom barked. It was probably one of the reasons his father had tolerated him indoors this long. He was also a very calm dog who liked to lay in front of the fireplace when indoors. He did like to run so when Adam went out to work, Shep often came along now that he wasn’t a puppy anymore and could keep up. In their room at night, Shep lay near the small stove in the corner, Andrew slept in a cradle on the side of the bed next to Annie, and of course Adam and Annie were together. At first, Adam thought it would be weird to make love with his wife with the dog and the baby in the room, but found that if Andrew was asleep and Shep ignored them, it wasn’t a problem. Of course they weren’t making love very often. The baby was still very small and Annie was still healing from the labor. When Adam got back upstairs, he expected Annie to be asleep, but she wasn’t. Instead, she had shed her gown, combed her hair, and was resting propped up by pillows waiting for him. He smiled when he saw her like that and dropped his clothing as fast as he could. Without turning down the lamp, he slid in bed beside her and began kissing. Soon they were making love gently but passionately as Shep curled by the fireplace. When they finished and lay in each other’s embrace, Adam had a question.

“If Michele hears me when I have bad dreams, do you suppose she hears us when we make love?”

“Maybe, but they’re probably making their own noise most of the time. They’re still newlyweds.”

“I still find it kind of strange to think of my father with a wife. I know he had three, but it’s been so long, I can’t hardly remember him acting like a husband. When I see him do those romantic things, it seems odd.”

“It’s even more odd when I see Hoss with Marsha. He is so in love with her.” As usual, when Marsha’s name was brought up or when Marsha was with the family, Adam stopped talking. Annie wanted to know why. “You did it again. I said Marsha, and you stop talking. What’s wrong? She’s not an old girlfriend, is she?” Annie had asked the question in a joking way, but even in the dim lamplight in the room, she could see Adam’s pained expression. “When? Where?”

“It was well before I met you, so don’t worry about that. It was in Sacramento on buying trips. We would have dinner, go to the theatre, and then have, ah, private time afterwards. There was no emotional relationship. It was just two people together on occasion. I was shocked when Hoss came back from that buying trip just after Andrew was born and announced he had met her. At that time, I didn’t think anything would develop because I never saw her taking an interest in a man like Hoss.”

“What’s wrong with Hoss?”

“Nothing at all, it’s just that she tended toward a different kind of man. I know I wasn’t the only one. Now she’s here engaged to Hoss, and I have no idea what I should do.”

“It has been quick, but this is the first time you’ve said anything about that. I did think she seemed to be flirting with you sometimes, but then I thought she was just teasing. But she wasn’t, was she? Could she be here after you?”

“That doesn’t seem likely. She knows I’m married. I just don’t have any idea what she has planned, but it has to be something.”

“Maybe she fell in love with Hoss and decided to change her ways?”

“That’s my quandary and why I didn’t want to say anything to anyone. If she has changed, then my revelations could only cause harm.”

“But if she hasn’t changed, then keeping it secret could set Hoss up for a big letdown. Well now I kind of wish you hadn’t told me. No wonder you have trouble sleeping worrying about Hoss and having those memories too.”

“Maybe we can talk tomorrow evening? It will give you time to think about it and perhaps come up with an idea.”

“Perhaps?”

“I don’t want to transfer the pressure to you. Just think about it so you can give me advice.”

“Thank you.”

“Why are you thanking me?”

“Because every time you open up to me like this, I know how much you love me. Letting me know what you’re thinking is so intimate. I never feel closer to you than at moments like this.”

“Annie, I do love you. Sunday, Hoss has invited Marsha to dinner again. He may be ready to make an announcement, so we need to talk this through before then.”

Leaning toward Annie, Adam kissed her softly before reclining and closing his eyes. There were no more bad dreams that night. In the morning, Adam went down to breakfast alone announcing that his son was hungry, and as usual, Annie would be delayed. She often spent the morning rocking Andrew as well before she dressed and made her way downstairs. Hop Sing would bring up tea and biscuits for her. Then later she and Michele would do some sewing and such before having lunch together. Every day except Sunday was usually like that. This was no different except Annie tried to find out what Michele thought about Marsha.

“Adam said Hoss invited Marsha to dinner again tomorrow. He sure has been seeing a lot of her since she came to Virginia City.”

“Yes, he certainly seems like he’s falling in love with her. I do wonder what she is doing in town though. She always talks rather vaguely about why she’s here.”

“Michele, maybe that’s because she followed Hoss here from Sacramento. Maybe he made a huge impression on her. Maybe she feels as strongly as he does about her.”

“Annie, I just get a funny feeling about her sometimes. Ben says I’m being too suspicious. He says that is too much like Adam because he says he saw how Adam looked at her when they met, and he’s afraid Adam is going to do something to mess up the relationship between Hoss and Marsha. He said he’s done it before.”

“But he would only do something like that if it was to protect Hoss.”

“Does Adam talk much about what happened with Helen and then with Regan?”

“No, not much. Both of those subjects seem to make him uneasy, and it’s in the past before I knew him, so I try not to think about things like that too much.”

“Does it bother you to know that Adam was with other women before you?”

“I could ask you the same thing.”

“Yes, but Ben married the ladies. I think that puts it in a different category. It seems from what I’ve heard that Adam bedded anyone who caught his eye and was willing.”

“I’m not very comfortable talking about this, Michele. I know Adam had a past with women, and I had a marriage too, but that was before we knew each other. I prefer to deal with what I know about him and what he’s doing now.”

“I understand that. Ben has so much history that I’ll never be part of that it’s just easier to deal with what’s going on now. So back to Marsha, what do you think about her?”

“I don’t know. Mostly I have questions and I wonder.”

Soon they were talking about the dress shop and other immediate concerns until Andrew awakened from his nap and needed to eat again.

*****

Chapter 3

On Sunday, Ben was a most gracious host to Marsha. Hoss sat on the settee next to her just beaming, and at the table, Marsha sat next to him and held his hand for much of the time. Having a difficult time accepting how lucky he was, Hoss could only smile these days it seemed. Adam watched Marsha and occasionally exchanged glances with Annie. Ben noticed and wondered what was going on. What he didn’t notice was Michele watching Marsha as well. She was seated to Ben’s right so she could look without seeming to be. As expected, Hoss had an announcement.

“If everybody could listen up for a minute, me and Marsha got something to say. Now some of you know I asked her to marry me and she said yes.” Adam and Annie knew so they weren’t as surprised as the others. What Adam dreaded though was what came next because he had hoped to have time to sort out what was going on and knew he wouldn’t likely be able to do that before the wedding. “We decided that there’s no reason to wait. We want to get married at the end of this month. Now I know it’s only three weeks away, but we just couldn’t think of a reason to wait any longer.”

There were congratulations all around and Hoss couldn’t stop smiling. Adam did all the perfunctory congratulations and got a kiss from the prospective bride. She was reasonably chaste with the kiss, but as she released him, her hand brushed across his groin area. It could have been an accident, and her facial expression did not change, but Adam still suspected ulterior motives and that touch kicked his suspicions higher.

Unknown to Adam, Michele had seen as well what had happened noting Adam’s surprise and the coolness of Marsha as if she hadn’t noticed where her hand had been. Michele noted that her previous suspicion that the teasing by Marsha was really flirting was likely to be right on the mark. She didn’t know what to do but knew that at least Annie and Adam were talking about it. That unfettered honesty between the two of them would be tested by this, but the trust they had in each other seemed unbreakable. Michele only could hope that it was.

It seemed that things could not go any better except when Hoss left to give Marsha a ride to town, and Ben asked to speak with Adam. Adam had heard that tone of voice before and knew his father was upset. He walked outside with him as Joe caught his eye and signaled good luck. Joe knew that tone of voice from their father too. He was upset about something.

“You didn’t seem too pleased with Hoss’ announcement.”

“I offered my congratulations to both of them. What else was I supposed to do?”

“You know what I mean. Your attitude was clear to everyone. You don’t like it that Hoss has asked Marsha to marry him.”

“My attitude? There was nothing wrong with my attitude. I was polite, congratulatory, and considerate. My attitude was above reproach.”

“Your attitude is seldom above reproach. You adopt that arrogant smirk that is so irritating.”

“No, it’s this conversation that is irritating. I suppose you have other complaints because that doesn’t seem to be enough to call me out here for a dressing down.”

“Yes, you have been shirking your duties on the ranch letting your brothers do all the more difficult jobs.”

“Hoss wanted to take those buying trips in my place, and do I need to remind you that Annie had a baby a short time ago, and I had a duty to be here and support her. As far as other work, yes, I have taken on work closer to home and let Joe do more of the work that requires being out for a few days at a time, but again, it’s only been for a short time. I certainly have done my share around her and no one, not even you, should ever accuse me of shirking.”

“I should have known you wouldn’t accept anything I had to say. I suppose all that flirting with Marsha is all innocent too? You have made it quite clear how much you are attracted to her.”

“I have not been flirting with Marsha. She’s been flirting with me.”

“That’s the line you always use, isn’t it? It wasn’t me, it was her. She kissed me. She came after me. How often do you think you can use that and have us believe it?”

“Every time because it’s true. I have been trying to distance myself from Marsha, but she’s not getting the message. Other than shoving her away from me, what would you have me do?” Realizing that he was shouting and it was likely everyone inside could hear him, Adam took some deep breaths and slowly blew them out trying to calm himself. He never could completely understand how his father could cause him to lose his cool so easily. Many others tried to do that and failed. There was something volatile in their relationship, and it seemed it had always been that way. He could tell his father was still very upset, but he resolved that he would remain calm and get to the bottom of this. He saw the signs of his father’s inner turmoil: the eyebrows arched, the occasional pursing of the lips, and the eyes looking down fairly often. His father would never make a good poker player for he had too many tells. “Pa, what’s really bothering you?”

Ben heard the conciliatory tone of that inquiry, and worked to calm himself as well. He had already said things he didn’t mean angering his son and doing nothing to resolve the uncertainties he had about Marsha. Not yet ready to answer Adam’s query honestly, Ben countered with a question. “Adam, what do you know about Marsha? How well do you know her?”

Puffing up his cheeks and expelling the air forcefully, Adam knew he had to answer that one no matter how much he didn’t want to do that. “Pa, I didn’t want to have to say anything about this. If I’m wrong in my assessment of the situation, then Hoss could be hurt very badly by what I’m going to tell you. I was with Marsha on more than one occasion in Sacramento.”

“You and she were together? You mean as more than friends?”

“Yes, there was much more. There was no long term commitment. It was just for the moment, and she was a very willing participant.”

“Why didn’t you say something sooner?”

“She may have changed her ways. She may actually be in love with Hoss. I can’t say something when I don’t know if those things are true or not.”

“Hoss would be devastated to know you bedded the woman he intends to marry.”

“And now you know why I haven’t said anything about knowing her. Pa, I don’t know if that flirting she does is to tease me or provoke me. I don’t know if she’s playing a game or just innocently doing what a, shall we say experienced, woman would do.”

“An innocent woman wouldn’t do what happened in there tonight.”

Hanging his head, Adam sighed. “You saw her touch me then when I gave her a congratulatory kiss? Pa, I don’t know if that was an accident or not. She acted as if nothing had happened so perhaps she was unaware of exactly what her hand touched.”

“Adam, no woman is that unaware, especially a woman who has been to bed with a man.”

“So now we’re getting to what really has you upset? And I know it was more than one man. I wasn’t the only one to enjoy her charms.”

“Yes, I rather guessed that, and I’m sorry about what I said earlier. I never meant to say you were shirking your responsibilities. What I should have said is now that Andrew is obviously healthy and Annie is recovered from the delivery, perhaps you should take on a few of the more odious jobs around here.”

“I’ll do the restocking of the line shacks this week. Is that what you wanted?”

“Thank you. That is very gracious of you. Now what will Annie think about you being gone for the next few days?”

“She’ll probably sleep better without me waking her up. She’ll be fine with it, I’m sure.”

“What do you think she’ll say if she saw what Marsha did tonight? She must be upset already with all the flirting that’s going on.”

“Pa, she knows all about it. We’ve already talked about it. She’s as worried as we are that Marsha may not be what she claims to be. She may not be in love with Hoss. If that’s the case, Marsha’s going to hurt him very badly. You should talk with Michele about it. She and Annie have already had one discussion about it.”

“How do you know that?” The raised eyebrow and the little crooked smile let Ben know. Adam and Annie seemed able to talk about anything.

“Michele has dealt with duplicity. She may be better than anyone at knowing what might be going on here. I want to believe that Marsha has changed and wants Hoss as much as he wants her.”

“But?”

“The Marsha I knew was always working an angle to get exactly what she wanted.”

“But what could she want? You’re married, and only a very foolish woman would want to go up against Annie. Marsha does not seem at all foolish.”

“No, but she is very clever. We’ll just have to keep watching, and hope that our suspicions are groundless.”

“Adam, on another topic, Michele says she has heard you at night having nightmares. What’s wrong?”

Expelling another big puff of air, Adam didn’t want to broach this subject either knowing his father had never really come to terms with everything that had happened either. “Pa, it’s the Paiute War. The memories have come back to haunt me a bit.”

“But why now? That was years ago.”

“It’s Andrew. When he cries at night, it reminds me of that camp and the babies crying from hunger. Then I remember everything else I saw and experienced.”

“Yes, I remember those days so well too. Seeing all those men killed. Burying seventy-six men and some of them horribly mutilated. Then worrying every day about you until you came home. It was a nightmare then.”

“I’ve talked some with Annie about it. She’ll help me through it.”

Ben shook his head again. This was hard to get used to. He had always been the one to soothe his sons, and now Adam had a wife who had taken on that responsibility. Annie with her no nonsense ways and direct approach was wonderful for Adam, but Ben missed the days when Adam was his son and not a woman’s husband. Seeing his father’s reaction, Adam put a hand on his shoulder.

“It’s hard to accept how things have to change sometimes. But do you know how happy I am? Do you understand that I am where I wanted to be for so long in my life?”

“Yes, son, and I am very happy you found Annie. She is a treasure.”

“Now, how about if you and I both go back in to our treasures, because they’re probably tired of listening in at the window. We can just talk together at least until Hoss gets home.”

Inside, someone must have been in too big a hurry and knocked something off the desk because Adam and Ben heard a loud thud and whispering. By the time they got inside, all three were sitting relaxed by the fireplace except Annie had a little grin she couldn’t hide. Michele had a look that made Ben nervous because he had a feeling she wasn’t happy with him. He was correct. Once they were upstairs in the privacy of their bedroom, she had a little chat with him.

*****

Chapter 4

At breakfast, Ben looked like he had not slept well. When Adam sat down and sipped the coffee that Hop Sing had poured, he looked at his father with a small grin.

“Now I haven’t been sleeping well, and I look just like that. Have a little trouble resting easy last night?”

“Well it seems that Michele thinks I took the easy way out, and that I owe you a much bigger apology than anything I said last night.” Without saying a word, Adam communicated quite well. Ben knew he had to continue. “She told me that she had all she could do to hold your wife back from coming out on the porch and giving it to me with both barrels, perhaps literally. Then when you got me to back down, apparently Annie was quite proud of you.” Adam smiled. He had heard Annie’s version of that part already.

“The easy way out?”

“She said that I was hoping it was you who was encouraging Marsha, and that would make it easier because I could just lay it all on you and make you stop. She told me in no uncertain terms that I was acting like a horse’s rear end, and that I ought to learn to treat my sons with more respect.”

“Finding it a bit difficult to get used to living with a spirited woman?”

“You think this is all so funny, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do remember a lot of teasing that I took because Annie wouldn’t do what I wanted, and she frequently had her own ideas about what we should do. I don’t remember you helping me out in those circumstances. Now did I forget something that you said or did to make things easier for me?”

“It’s all your mother’s fault. She was too darned smart, and she passed it all on to you.”

Adam started laughing then and couldn’t stop. Ben had to smile and finally laugh with him. Hoss came walking down the stairs then.

“What’s all the laughing about so early?”

Ben smiled at his second son. “We’ve just been talking about our wives, and their tendency to have rather strong opinions. It definitely makes life, ah, interesting.”

“Well, I can’t wait until I can sit in on talk like that. Heck, in three weeks, I’m gonna have my own wife with her own opinions. Maybe you two can give me some advice when I get to that point?”

Noting how Adam smile got just a little tighter, Ben answered for them as cheerfully as he could knowing what he did. “Son, you can always come to us for advice. We will be happy to share our tales with you. Just don’t expect us to have any ideas that might help.”

Adam almost spit his coffee out at that point. Hop Sing brought food out for Adam but not for the other two. Ben wasn’t surprised but Hoss was.

“Hey, Hop Sing, how about us?”

“You wait until breakfast is served. I have breakfast on table when everybody sit down.”

“But why don’t Adam have to wait?”

“Mister Adam leave soon. He need good breakfast.”

Looking over at his brother eating a breakfast of ham, hotcakes, and baked apples, Hoss was salivating. “Where you going?”

“I’m doing the restocking of the line shacks. I’ll be back in about four days I would think. I’ll start with the northeast ones and work my way around to the west and then back home and do the closest one last. That way if I run out of supplies, it won’t be a problem. I’ll be gone for three nights, so if Annie needs help with Shep at night, could you do that?”

“Well, thank you. I thought I was gonna get stuck with the restocking too. Now I can spend some time in town getting arrangements for the wedding done. And yes, I will be happy to take care of Shep. What exactly does he need?”

“He can’t make it through the night yet. Just let him outside for a few minutes. He’ll come back in as soon as he’s done, and then he’ll go back to sleep.”

“You sure trained that dog darn good.”

“Not really. He just seems to behave himself and do what needs to be done. That is a very smart dog that Annie picked out. She said that when she first saw him. I scoffed a bit then, but she was right. That is a very smart dog.”

“You should remember that every time you’re thinking of arguing with me.” Annie had brought Andrew downstairs because Adam was leaving. She wanted to spend as much time with him as she could before he left. Soon Michele and Joe were downstairs too so everyone was able to tell Adam goodbye and wish him good luck on his task. Annie handed off Andrew to Michele before she headed outside to kiss her husband goodbye.

“So Papa knows now too?”

“Yes, after his talking too from Michele, I would imagine he knows everything we know. Now the big question is what to do about that. We weren’t able to come up with any strategy last night other than waiting to see if Marsha shows her hand one way or another.”

“Hoss came back very late last night.”

“I know. I heard him come in. I just wish there was some way to let him know so he could evaluate everything. Marsha gave me a look when they were leaving last night that has me wondering even more about her.”

“Yes, you said she looked a bit frightened. Maybe it’s because she’s worried yet that you might say something.”

“We have a lot of questions but no answers. I hope that over the next few days, one of us can come up with a plan.” With that, Adam pulled Annie into a hug and kissed her soundly. “I’ll miss you, but remember always that I love you.”

“I know. I love you so much sometimes that it hurts just to think about you being away. I’m glad you gave me Andrew. He’ll keep me busier so I have less time to miss you. I did pack the book you asked for and I left you a little something inside of it.”

With a smile, Adam mounted up to ride out with a wave for Annie before he started his trek leading two pack horses. Annie walked back inside to see the whole family looking worried. She smiled. “I’ll be fine. I have Andrew to keep me company.”

Because he was planning to meet Marsha in town now that Adam had taken on the restocking trip, Hoss rushed through breakfast and still managed to eat as much as any two of them combined. Then he said his goodbyes and headed to town. As soon as he was there, he stopped at the boardinghouse where he had left Marsha the night before. She was surprised to see him.

“Adam left to restock the line shacks. He headed out to the northeast this morning, and it’ll take him four days to work around to that last one. Sure am glad it’s not me doing it. Instead I got all day with you to make arrangements for our wedding. I thought we could have lunch too. Now what do you say to that?”

“That sounds wonderful. You don’t have to do any work at all today?”

“Pa wants me to hire a couple men for a few days to work on some brush clearing. That shouldn’t take too long. Lots of men who don’t like the mines are looking for work. I’ll hire a few of them and then we can relax.”

Hoss found Nate, Paul, and Clyde at the saloon exactly where he expected to find them. The three were always looking for work. They worked hard, but always seemed to cause trouble wherever they were so seldom kept a job for long. Because this job was only for the week, it wouldn’t be a problem.

“Now your brother Adam don’t like us none. You sure he ain’t gonna fire us first time he sees us cause I cain’t see taking the job just to lose it the same day.”

“Nah, now Clyde, Adam left this morning to restock the line shacks and you ain’t even got to come over to the ranch anyway. There’s some brush that needs clearing in the gullies that lead down to the stream that’s near the crossroads. In a rain, it’s gonna wash down and probably dam up that water better than any beaver dam ever could. We don’t want that valley flooded, and that bridge isn’t very high either. The easiest thing to do is to clear the brush now while it’s dry. So you boys up for it?”

“The usual pay, Hoss?”

“The usual, and a bonus if you finish it by Friday. We haven’t had any rain in a while and you know that there’s gonna be a gully washer one of these days. The sooner that job gets done, the better.”

“What should we do with the brush we clear? It’s kinda dry to be thinking of burning it.”

“For now, just make some big piles away from the gullies. We’ll take care of it later when things green up some.”

The three men headed out to work, and Hoss and Marsha went to see the minister to make arrangements. Then they stopped at the jewelry shop to order a ring before they had lunch. Hoss asked her about a dress, and Marsha said she could arrange that herself.

“Well, we got ourselves half a day and nothing to do. How about a ride?”

“Sure, that sounds wonderful. Maybe you could show me what a line shack is. You talked about them like I would know what they are, but I don’t. You’re going to have to teach me all about ranch life because I don’t know anything about it.”

“I’m sorry. You ride so well I forget you’re a city gal. Sure, I’ll get you a horse at the livery, and we can ride to the closest line shack. You might be getting back a bit late but the days are getting longer now so it should be fine.”

The ride to the closest line shack which wasn’t used much meant stopping at some high points where the grandest vistas of the Ponderosa were. At one stop, Hoss dismounted and told Marsha they should give the horses a short break. He wrapped an arm around her waist as they stood admiring the view.

“Darling, I can’t help feeling that you’ve got something on your mind. You seem kind of lost every now and then like your mind is a hundred miles away.”

Taken aback a bit by how perceptive Hoss was, Marsha had to remind herself that her first impression of him had been almost all wrong. He was gentle and kind, but he had a sharp intelligence that probably too many had underestimated. She needed to be careful what she said around him or she could mess this up still more. “Hoss, I guess the thought of being married after all these years is rather daunting. I know you never want to hear about my past, but I’m afraid that I may not be the right woman for you after all I’ve done and seen.”

“Darling, you’re the right gal for me. Now Adam and Annie got some history too, but they done put it behind them and are only looking forward. That’s what we oughta do too, don’t ya think?”

“I do love you, Hoss. I want you to know that no matter what happens, I truly love you.”

“Aw, darling, you’re getting me a bit nervous now too. Don’t be talking like something bad is gonna happen cause you might just put a hex on our wedding now. Let’s enjoy the day and think about only good things.”

Marsha nodded her head in agreement and smiled, but inside she was groaning and worrying. She wondered how she had ever made things so complicated. It wasn’t supposed to have happened like this, and now she had ensnared this wonderful man in her mess. She needed help and only knew one person that she trusted enough to ask for that help. He wasn’t going to be happy at all with her, but she was sure he would do everything in his power to help her make things right. She had to pray it would be enough.

*****

Chapter 5

On Thursday, as Adam rode up to the last of the line shacks, he was surprised to see a horse tied up outside. It wasn’t one of the Ponderosa horses so he had to wonder who it was. He tied off the leads for the pack horses and loosened his pistol in its holster. As he dismounted and walked toward the line shack, he put his hand on the handle of his pistol ready to draw and did just that when the door opened, but he could see no one.

“I won’t bite, and I definitely won’t shoot. Come on in. I made coffee while I waited.”

Adam strode into the cabin with his temper rising. “Damn it all to hell, what are you doing here? Haven’t you made enough of a mess of things without showing up here?”

“Well, I’m pleased to see you too.”

Adam grabbed Marsha by the upper arm then and nearly hissed at her. “Get on your horse and get out of here. You’ve done enough already. You don’t need to make things worse.”

“You’re not afraid that you’re still attracted to me, are you?”

“Attracted to you? You have got to be kidding. You were an easy and very attractive lay, but I had no interest in you other than that, and now that thought disgusts me. I wouldn’t bed you with a gun to my head.”

Marsha dropped onto one of the chairs then forcing Adam to release her arm. “I’m sorry, but I had to know. I had to know if you had any desire for me, and it’s very clear you don’t.”

“Then why are you here?”

“Because I came to Virginia City to use Hoss to get away from my life in Sacramento. He was just a stepping stone until I could find my way.”

“I thought as much. So, again, why are you here?”

“Because I fell in love with him instead.”

Letting those words hang in the air with no explanation, Marsha waited for Adam to react. She knew his mind was brilliant, but even he would need some time to process what she had just said.

“And you’re in a lot of trouble from your life in Sacramento, and now you want me to help you with that.” It was a statement, not a question.

“All those men you negotiate with regularly have no idea how smart you are. They blithely go about their business thinking that you are sweating out their offers, but you just manipulate them into the deal you want all the while making them think it’s their idea. Well I need that kind of thinking right now, and I’m not capable of it.”

“What have you done, or should I ask what you haven’t done?”

“I haven’t broken any laws or at least any that anyone would prosecute. I discovered I was with child a month ago.”

“Is Hoss the father?”

“He could be. I’ll only know when the baby is born.”

“How will that help?”

“You know the type of man I favored: dark, in all regards, just like you. Hoss is all light. I hope the baby is his, but I couldn’t tell you right now.”

“When were you planning to tell Hoss?”

“At first, I wasn’t going to tell him at all. I was only going to ask him for help to get away. Then I found to my amazement, that I cared for him more than I thought I could care for anyone else.”

“So for the first time in your life, you’re in love with someone other than yourself?”

“That’s about it.”

“Then tell him. Hoss loves you. He’ll forgive you anything.”

“Well, there is more to it. I brought more trouble with me.”

Sighing deeply, Adam waited.

“Logan Manning has a lot of money and keeps a lot of it at his house. He moves money in valises to and from his house all the time. When I decided to leave, I packed my bags and took one of the valises with me. I had taken it the night before when he, ah, entertained me at his home. After he fell asleep, I dressed and grabbed the smallest one. I thought I would use the money to get away. I thought I could ask Hoss for help. But the first day I saw him, he asked me out to the ranch for dinner. That night he kissed me, and I realized then that I had feelings for him. I should have left immediately because every day I’m here, I love him more. I didn’t know what to do especially after he asked me to marry him. I brought the money here with me. It’s in these saddlebags. You can keep it just to show you that I have no intention of following through on my original plan.”

Taking the saddlebags, Adam looked inside because he didn’t trust her. “You say you love Hoss, and yet you have put him in the crosshairs of one of the most dangerous men in the west. Manning is involved in every kind of criminal activity there is. He never goes to prison because witnesses never live until the trial so no one will bring evidence against him any more. You did that to my brother and never told him!” As Adam had talked, his temper had risen. If Marsha had been a man, he might have pummeled him right then and there before loading him on a stage and sending him back into his own mess. But Marsha wasn’t a man, and she was the woman Hoss loved and might be carrying Hoss’ child. “Damn you, Marsha, this is a maelstrom.”

“I don’t know what that is, but I’m assuming it’s something awful.”

“It is and you are. Why come to me? Why not go to the law?”

“Do you really think that the sheriff of a little town like Virginia City is ready to take on the Manning organization?”

“You might be surprised at how much Roy can handle. But you’re right in that it’s too much for him alone. We’ll have to bring in the U.S. Marshals too and hopefully the state governments will cooperate too.”

“Adam, how can we do that? I think I saw one of Manning’s men in town on Monday. I’m sure he’s already moving against me. You know that sending the money back won’t solve this. He’ll want to make an example of me. He’ll want to use me to teach the others a lesson.”

Dropping onto the other chair at the table then, Adam lowered his head into his hands and sighed deeply thinking about this mess. “Didn’t you say something about some coffee?”

After dinner, Adam knew that there was one place that Marsha needed to be, and it wasn’t in Virginia City. “You need to come back with me to the Ponderosa. You can’t stay at the main house because it would be too obvious, but we have a lot of line shacks just like this one. We’ll get you to one of them, and have someone stay there to protect you.”

“Why not the main house?”

“First of all, because my wife and son are there, and I wouldn’t out them in jeopardy like that. Secondly, that’s the first place they’ll look. We have a lot of men working on the ranch, and someone will be bound to see you no matter how carefully I bring you in.”

“Should I go back to town tonight?”

Adam leaned forward with his elbows on the table dropping his head and massaging his neck. “No, it’s not safe for you to go back. And it’s too late to go to the ranch house tonight. We’ll start at first light tomorrow morning. We should be at the ranch by about ten. We’ll have to tell Hoss everything, and then get you to one of the line shacks as quickly as we can.”

“Thank you. I know that I asked too much of you, but you were the only one I thought I could trust to help me.”

“I have to take care of the horses. The only food here is basic stuff but it will have to do. Do you know how to make beans?” At her nod, Adam pointed out the necessary materials. “I’ll bring a bucket of water and some bacon. You can fix us dinner while I take care of the horses.” An hour later, Adam brought in two saddles, and a bedroll. He threw the bedroll down by the stove with a saddle. Then he went out and grabbed the bags of provisions for restocking the line shack. Soon he had filled all containers and packed away everything else in the storage bins. Marsha was ready to serve dinner so he sat at the table.

“I’m sorry to take your bed tonight. But at least tomorrow you’ll be home in your own bed.”

“You’re not kicking me out of the bed.” Marsha looked up in surprise. “You get the bed roll. I’m not sleeping on the floor.”

“Are you at least going to clean up before you go to sleep?”

“No. I haven’t had a chance to wash in four days and my clothes smell just as bad as I do. It wouldn’t do any good to wash and then dress in filthy clothing. I’ll wash, shave, and put on clean clothing when I get home.”

“You can grow that much beard in four days?”

Adam ate and didn’t answer. He was hungry, tired, and now worried. He didn’t think anything he said to her would be pleasant so he said nothing. After dinner, he cleaned up the dishes quietly and then laid down on the single bunk. When Marsha realized he wasn’t going to talk any more, she cleaned up her dishes, went outside to do her business, and then came in to sleep on the bedroll. During the night, she heard Adam moaning in his sleep but refrained from going to him. She knew the sounds of a nightmare but didn’t think he would appreciate any comfort she might offer. In the morning, Adam got the horses ready and packed up with hardly a word. There was no more conversation other than telling Marsha what she needed to do. On the four hour ride to the Ponderosa ranch house, Adam maintained the same demeanor until Marsha had enough.

“If you’re mad at me, fine! But tell me what you’re thinking. What are we going to do? What do I say to Hoss when I see him? He’s going to be wondering seeing me ride in with you.”

“You’re staying back in the grove behind the house. The less who see you, the better. After I tell my family what’s going on, and try to restrain those who would like to go out there and strangle you, someone will come for you and bring you in the back. Then it will be a matter of getting you someplace safe.”

“This isn’t going to be easy, is it?”

“Damn you, this is going to be terrible, but it has to be done. Now I would like to try to get my thoughts in order so I can try to explain all of this so everyone can try to stay cool.”

That was the plan, but it didn’t work at all like any of the scenarios that Adam imagined. He left Marsha in the grove of trees and rode to the house with the two pack horses. As he arrived in the yard, he saw Roy standing and speaking with his family. He stopped at the stable, dismounted, and tied the horses to the corral fence before walking to the house. He had four days growth of beard and smelled terrible, but Annie rushed into his arms anyway. He saw tears in her eyes.

“What’s wrong? Andrew is all right, isn’t he?”

Roy stepped toward Adam. “Adam, I’m real sorry about this, but I gotta ask ya where ya been.”

“I’m sure my family has told you. I was restocking the line shacks for the last four days.”

“Where was ya last night?”

“At the line shack that’s southeast of here.”

“I need to ask you to look in your saddlebags.”

“Roy, I need to talk to you about what’s in those.” Adam handed his saddlebags to Roy who opened one side to find it stuffed with money.

“Adam, I gotta place you under arrest. You’re gonna have to come to town with me and face charges.”

“Charges? Charges for what?”

“I’m afraid I got four witnesses that say you was the one who robbed the stage late yesterday. Killed the driver too. Now I know that can’t be true, but you got the money, and you were in that vicinity. Is there anyone who can testify that you was actually at that line shack all evening?”

Ben and Annie noted the hesitation in Adam and then the evasive answer. He wouldn’t lie so it made them wonder why he answered the way he did. They saw him glance at Hoss too before he responded. “Roy, restocking the line shacks is a one man job.”

“Then you gotta come with me until we can get this all sorted out.”

“Can I talk with my father and with Annie before we go?”

“Of course, but don’t take too long. You can get a change of clothes and anything else you think you’ll need, but leave that pistol home.”

Hoss and Joe stood in shock as Adam walked to the house with his father and Annie.

*****

Chapter 6

“Adam Cartwright, don’t you dare. Don’t you dare question my trust in you and think for one moment that I would believe these ridiculous accusations. You say anything like that just one more time, and you may find my boot buried in your behind.”

As Adam had taken his gunbelt off in the house, he had turned to Annie to start trying to explain that he was innocent. She was angry that he thought he needed to tell her that. He grabbed her in a hug and held her tight. Michele was sitting in a chair holding Andrew who had fallen asleep. She wondered what was going on and knew it had to be serious by the way everyone looked. His father headed to the stairs.

“I’ll get you some clean clothing to wear.”

Adam told Annie to come in the washroom with him. He peeled off his dirty shirt as he was walking and tried to think of how to start this. Annie helped.

“First you can tell me who you were with yesterday. I heard how you answered Roy’s question.”

With a deep sigh and blowing his breath out forcefully, Adam decided the only way to do this was to start with all the most shocking information first. “Marsha showed up at the line shack. She was there when I got there. I guess Hoss mentioned what I was doing and she figured it out. She needs our help. She’s with child, and it may be Hoss’.”

Annie was speechless for only a moment. “Who else could be the father?”

“Logan Manning could be, and she stole money from him before she came here. That’s the money that was in my saddlebags.”

“Does that have anything to do with the stage robbery and murder?”

“It could, but I have no idea how.”

“Where is she now?”

“In the grove of trees out back. Someone needs to go get her after I leave. I want someone to come with me to town. Hoss is the most likely candidate. He can’t be with Marsha because that’s what they’ll be expecting, and on the ride in, I can tell him what I told you. He won’t be able to kill me because Roy will be there.”

“If you tell him what you told me, why would he want to kill you?”

“He will have to wonder why she came to me for help, and when he starts asking those questions, I can’t lie to him.”

“Roy’s going to hear everything too.”

“He needs to hear everything. We’re going to need some help with this one. Tell Pa and Joe everything after I leave. Joe can go get Marsha and sneak her in the house. Don’t let anyone but family see her. Tomorrow he should take her up to one of the line shacks and stay with her. Maybe Candy could go with him. They might need more help than that eventually, but for a couple of days, it ought to be enough.”

Rinsing off the soap, Adam was toweling dry when Ben brought him some clean clothing. “Is everything all right between the two of you?”

“We’re fine. Annie has quite a story to tell you though. I may have forgotten some parts, but she knows the main points. Joe and Michele should hear it too. And you’re going to want to set up a perimeter guard around the house by tonight.”

As Adam rode with Hoss and Roy to town, he watched Hoss especially trying to gauge the mood he was in. Adam guessed that Roy would listen to everything and evaluate what he heard, but Hoss could sometimes react very emotionally to some things, and the type of things Adam had to say were the kind of things likely to make Hoss see red.

“Hoss, there are a lot of things I need to tell you, and I want you to hear me out even if you get upset at some of the things I’m going to tell you.”

“Does it have to do with these charges?”

“No, I have no idea what these charges are about. I’ll deal with them later. No this concerns you and Marsha.”

“You’ve seen her? Because I went to town last night to see her, and she wasn’t there. I waited until late and she didn’t come back.” Looking suspiciously at Adam, Hoss had a challenge question. “Was she with you cause I seen how the two of you look at each other sometimes and you’re always trying to get up close to her? I figured it was more than teasing.”

“Hoss, I never tried to get close to her, but yes, she was with me and nothing happened. She came to me for help.”

Suddenly Roy was more interested. “You have an alibi! Why didn’t you say so back at the ranch?”

“She can’t come forward right now. She’s in danger. I’m hoping your eyewitnesses will take one look at me and realize I wasn’t robbing any stage or shooting any driver.”

“Adam, the witnesses agin you are a female passenger and three men who was working on the Ponderosa at the time. They said they heard some shooting and rode to investigate. They said they saw you and a woman riding sidesaddle riding away. Now I’ve seen this Marsha riding with Hoss and she don’t ride side saddle. You know any women who ride sidesaddle?”

“Roy, of course I do. We all do, but I don’t know of any of them who would rob a stage and shoot anyone. Who are these three men?”

“You know em. Nate Duggan, Clyde Darrow, and Paul Martin. They’ve worked for most of the ranches hereabout for years on and off.”

Hoss had to react to that statement. “Roy, you know those men hate Adam. They still blame him for that fighting over at Pyramid Lake where all those men got killed but he got taken prisoner. They still don’t accept that Adam was a hostage.”

“Hoss, that don’t change the fact that all three of them and the lady passenger signed sworn statements that it was Adam what done it.”

“Who is this passenger, Roy, and how does she know me?”

“Well she don’t know ya, but I had that drawing of you that was in the Territorial Enterprise, and she said it was you. Course, you didn’t have a beard in that drawing. Now I wonder why none of em mentioned that you have a beard.”

“Because I wasn’t there! Damn it, Roy, there’s some serious stuff happening with my family, and I can’t waste time on this when I should be dealing with that.”

“Now you want to tell Hoss and me the rest of the story you started telling before. And you might explain why you had a saddlebag full of money while you’re at it.”

So Adam explained the trouble that Marsha was in, where the money came from, and why she needed to hide out. He didn’t mention the baby or his past with Marsha. Roy seemed satisfied when he finished telling his tale.

“So, the two of ya was at that line shack from late in the afternoon yesterday until you rode for home today?” At Adam’s nod, he continued. “I need to talk to my witnesses. I want that lady to come take a look at you. Not even you can grow that much beard in one day, so I want her to look at you and tell me that you’re not the man she saw.”

“What about the other three?”

“”Well, now, I have no doubt they’re in the saloon by now. I’ll just mosey on over and ask them to describe your clothing and anything else they noticed. I may have to be more specific in my questions, but I sincerely doubt they’re gonna say you’ve got a beard. I think maybe they’s thinking they got an opportunity to get even with you for what they think you done wrong all those years ago.”

“What will you do then?”

“Adam, if they signed sworn statements that was a lie, I won’t have no choice but to arrest them. It would be up to a judge to decide what to do with em. In fact, I been thinking. I’ll take the saddlebags in and have that money counted. If the amount is different than what was in the strongbox, then that will help your case too. Meanwhile I can go talk to the three jaspers and see what they got to say. Finally, after about an hour, you and Hoss cold ride in. I’ll have to lock you up until this is cleared up, but then I can have that lady come over to identify you. Ifn she says it ain’t you, if the money don’t add up, and them three is lying, then that would be enough to let you go.”

With a deep sigh, Adam shook his head. “All right, Roy. Let’s do it your way. But could you work as fast as possible. There’s a lot going on at home, and I’d like to be there.”

Outside of town, Hoss and Adam pulled up and wished Roy good luck in his tasks. Then both dismounted and sat in the shade of a tree. Adam knew Hoss would have questions, but the first one took him by surprise.

“Have you been in bed with Marsha?”

Not wanting to get so confrontational especially with the rest of the news he had to deliver, Adam tried to deflect that part of the conversation. “We knew each other a long time ago.”

“Now there ya go with not answering my questions. How can I trust you if you won’t tell me the truth.”

“Yes, then, if you have to know.”

“Did you bed her last night?”

Highly offended by the question, Adam looked at his brother and frowned. “If that’s how this is going to go, then I’m going to be getting pretty angry. I did not sleep with her. We slept in the same building. That’s all. Now don’t ever suggest that I would be unfaithful to Annie again or you’re going to do damage to our relationship that might not be able to be fixed.”

“I’m not sorry about asking that question. I think I have a right to know. And what I want to know is why Marsha came to you and not to me. She shoulda come to me.”

“Yes, she probably should have, and I told her that. But, Hoss, she’s scared and she has a right to be. She also has some news for you that she thinks might mean you don’t want to be with her any more.”

“Ifn you didn’t sleep with her last night, then there’s nothing that would change my mind about her.”

“What about if she’s having a baby, and she doesn’t know if you’re the father or if it’s Logan Manning.”

Shock might have been a mild description of what hit Hoss at that moment. He was surprised, worried, concerned, angry, afraid, and a few other things all at the same time. Adam watched and waited for his brother to process all of the information that he had been given. It was a lot to handle especially because he had recently been so happy and thinking he had a simple straightforward relationship with Marsha.

“What about the money? Why did she take the money?”

“She stole the money from Manning to get away. He’s going to want to punish her for that.”

“And you asked me to come with you? I should be back there with her protecting her especially as she’s carrying a baby that might be mine, and if I marry her, it will be mine.”

“Annie and Pa know everything, and by now they’ve told everything to Joe and to Michele. Marsha should be with them and I told Pa to set a perimeter guard. Hoss, you can’t be with her. They’ll track her through you. I suggested that Joe and Candy take her to one of the line shacks. They could move a few times too. That way it would be very difficult for anyone to find her.”

“What about Manning? Will she have to run like that for the rest of her life?”

That thought frustrated Adam. He liked to run his life with planning, and this situation had him without an idea of how to proceed. “I don’t know what to do about Manning. I wish I had a plan but I don’t. Of course I just found out about all of this last night, and now I have to deal with these charges too.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem with what Roy already knows. He might have this cleared up by the time we get to town.”

“How do you feel about Marsha being with child and not knowing who the father is?”

“I don’t know. Did she know she was gonna have a baby when she came here?”

“Yes. It’s why she ran from Manning. Hoss, she intended just to ask you for help in getting away. She never intended that the two of you would fall in love. I think she might truly love you. She could have taken that money and left, and she would have been safer if she did. But she stayed even though she saw a man in town that she thinks is working for Manning.”

“And she didn’t tell me that either.”

“Hoss, I told her that if she loved you, she needed to learn to trust you. Marsha has not had much experience in either category. You were the first person in her life to bring those things out in her, but she still doesn’t know how to handle either one of them very well.”

“It’s hard to trust someone that much when you never knew them before, isn’t it?”

“You asking for her or for you?”

“Both, I guess. I never trusted anyone like I trust you and Pa and Joe. I’m not sure how much trust I can give her. She shoulda told me all of this right away.”

“Yes, she should have, but she didn’t realize she was falling in love with you then. Give her a chance. Let her surprise us.”

“You think she’ll be all right with Joe and Candy?”

“I wouldn’t have suggested it if I didn’t think it was the best idea for now. She’ll be at the house tonight when you get back, but don’t try to settle everything right away. You both need time to sort things out too. Hoss did you know much of her history when you were first with her?”

“Ya, I knew what kind of woman she was then, but something about her just make me want to go back to just her over and over again.” With an abrupt change of conversation, Hoss stood. “Do ya think it’s about time that we headed to town to see if Roy has your mess all sorted out by now?”

So the two brothers rode into town not realizing the maelstrom that would greet them. The three men who had accused Adam had been drinking and spreading a lot of stories especially reminding everyone about the Paiute War and how Adam had come home uninjured after all those other men were killed or wounded with three times as many in the former category as in the latter. Roy was having a difficult time settling them down and talking to the three supposed eyewitnesses. They had been drinking and Roy inadvertently let slip that they had not mentioned that Adam had a beard. That brought forth all sorts of reactions and gave the three a chance to amend their stories, but they did not accurately describe what Adam was wearing. They mentioned the black shirt and yellow jacket, but Adam had worn a vest and lighter jacket with his usual black shirt and pants. It was a hole in their story. But not enough yet to get Adam off the hook.

By the time Adam and Hoss reached town, Roy had to lock Adam up for his own safety as much as for anything else. Worse news was that the lady passenger had left for Carson City expecting to be back for a trial so she was not immediately available either. The stage line did not have an answer for how much money was in the strongbox either because they were carrying money for several banks and businesses and did not have an accounting for the total. The main office had that information but it would take until Monday to get an exact accounting to the office in Virginia City if they sent a telegram immediately. Adam was looking at a weekend in jail and it put him in a foul mood.

Roy tried to ease the tension. “Now you can just relax in there. I’ll be doing my best to get that lady to come here to identify you. Soon as she does that, and those three jaspers sober up so I can tell em what could happen because of a false statement to the sheriff, well then we’ll have you out of here.”

“Roy, you do know who that money belongs to. This is only going to get worse with more publicity.”

“Adam, there ain’t nothing I can do about that. Now I will be on the lookout for a stranger in town who might be that man Hoss’ lady is worried about, but without a description, that’s going to be difficult.”

“Hoss can get you that information for Roy tonight. Hoss, could you reassure Annie that I’m all right but warn her that I might be here until Monday?”

“Adam, Annie is going to be very upset.”

“Yes, but not with me. I can hardly get in any more trouble in here anyway. Now Roy needs to worry about Annie, not me.”

At first, Adam’s inclination was to shave, but then he realized how important it might be to have his beard so instead he asked Roy if he had anything to read. All Roy had was a stack of wanted posters and the old Territorial Enterprise with Adam’s picture in it that the lady had used to identify him as the perpetrator of crimes. He settled down to read what he had and hoped Hoss would remember to bring him a book when he returned to town the next day.

*****

Chapter 7

“Well, I have heard stories of you and your brothers ending up in this setting on more than one occasion but I did think that perhaps you would have managed to put this kind of behavior behind you.”

“Ha ha, very funny. Now what did you bring to me? A pistol in a cake, a knife stuck in your boot, or something clever?”

“No, ya big lug. I thought you ought to suffer a little as you take your short vacation here.”

Roy opened the cell and said nothing. He had heard enough from Annie already this morning that he wasn’t about to give her another opening. He could recall her words well enough. Who would think a pretty gal like that would use words like those she called him. Well, he supposed she had all night to think about what she was going to say. And boy she did have one heck of a temper. It was a wonder to him that she and Adam hadn’t had some terrible rows, but Ben said they argued all the time and seemed not to have a problem with it at all. He decided he wouldn’t do any searching of what she brought either because being called a ‘lily livered moronic horse’s patoot’ once was good enough for that day. Roy knew that Adam was innocent and had tried to explain that to Annie, but she couldn’t understand why if he knew that, he locked Adam up anyway. Apparently arguing that he had to go by the evidence was not acceptable to the fiery young woman with a child on her hip. He pulled the door to the back cell area closed to give Adam and Annie some privacy.

“Roy is only doing his job.”

“Listen, mister, I missed you. I slept alone for five nights now, and I am in no mood for forgiving.”

“Yes, sweetheart, and what would you be in the mood for?”

“You know already, and I bet you’re feeling the same way. This is ridiculous. When is that woman supposed to get here anyway?”

“Hopefully today. I paid for a ticket each way, meals, and a room if she wants it. I couldn’t do it directly of course, but I gave Roy enough money to cover all of that so he could make the offer.”

Gently, Adam took Andrew from his mother’s arms and laid him on the cot. Then he gathered Annie in his arms and pulled her close. “You don’t mind a kiss from a bearded man, do you?” She tipped her head up and pulled him closer which was answer enough. The kiss went on long enough that Andrew started fussing. Adam picked him up and then sat on the cot. Annie sat down beside him and laid her head against his shoulder.

“She’s not with child.”

“What? How could you know that?”

“I helped her pick out clothing to travel to the line shacks incognito this morning. Then she dressed while I was there. There are no signs of being with child, and there were signs that she was having her flow. Shep wouldn’t keep his nose away from her. She found it very irritating, but I found it interesting so I didn’t make him back off.”

“Why would she say she was with child if she wasn’t?”

“Oh, I could think of a few reasons.”

“Oh, yeah. She could get my help, Hoss’ help, and everyone’s sympathy. Damn her, she hasn’t changed a bit. Meanwhile she’s put Hoss in a dangerous position. Did you say anything to Hoss or anyone else?”

“I told Michele what I thought, and she had been suspecting the same thing. She said she knew she changed when she was carrying a baby. She miscarried early, but the signs were still there. Marsha is either very stupid or very devious and clever, and you know which one of those ideas I favor.”

Andrew was still fussing so Annie took him and checked his diaper which was dry. “I suspected as much. I changed him on the way in, but he hasn’t eaten since early this morning. He’s hungry. I’ll nurse him here, but get ready to hand me a blanket to cover if anyone walks in here.”

Their time together was uninterrupted because Roy was nervous about entering the back cell area. Annie had put quite a scare into him, and he didn’t scare easily. She had that same kind of ferocious self-confidence her husband had when he was in the right. Roy was not going to cross her again in the same day. When Ben and Hoss arrived at Roy’s office, they found him sitting at his desk drinking coffee with the door to the cells closed.

“I done told ya, Pa. That little gal can scare anybody when she’s a mind to. I could tell how mad she was by the way she walked in here before. Hey, Roy, what do you think of Adam’s she-lion now?” Hoss laughed at the look Roy gave him.

Ben was more direct. “Have you come to your senses enough so you can release Adam now?”

“Well, good morning to you two, too. I’m waiting on the stage. Hopefully when it comes in, we’ll have ourselves a witness who can swear it wasn’t Adam at that robbery. Adam gave me some information last night that might just give us a positive identification of who done it instead. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go wait for the stage. There’s too many ornery people here in my office who don’t know a proper respect for the law.” Roy grabbed his hat, stuck it on his head, and stalked out.

Pouring out cups of Roy’s awful coffee and drinking was about all Ben and Hoss could do. Neither wanted to interrupt the family time that Adam and Annie had, and they sat drinking bad coffee and discussing what they should do to help Marsha. It was a half hour before Roy returned with a middle aged lady who still had dust on her jacket from the ride. He dropped her bag by the door but asked Ben to please go tell Adam that the witness was there. Ben knocked on the door to the cells and waited a moment before entering. The lady was surprised at how polite everyone was being with a criminal but said nothing. Then Roy escorted her back to the cells. She looked in at Adam sitting with his wife and baby and then looked at each of the empty cells.

“Well, where is he?”

There were smiles all around except for the witness who looked quizzically at Roy. “Ma’am, this here is the man you identified as the one who stopped the stage and shot the driver.”

“No, sheriff, the man I identified did not have a beard. And this man has wavy hair, and, young man, would you stand, please?”

Adam stood and walked to the cell bars.

“Sheriff, this man is taller too with broader shoulders. That other man was just a bit taller than me, but this man towers over me. I certainly would have noticed that. This is not the man who robbed that stage and shot that poor man down.”

“Thank you, kindly, ma’am. Now I got just one more thing to ask of ya. Would you wait in my office while I go round up the other three witnesses and bring em here?”

“It won’t take long, will it? I promised my husband I would be on the return stage. He worries about me a lot, and I was just gone on that trip to Placerville to see my parents.”

“It shouldn’t be long at all, ma’am. You can sit in one of them chairs and make yourself comfortable. I’ll be right back.”

A half hour later, three hung over cowboys stood shuffling their feet and looking down at the floor of the sheriff’s office.

“Now, you boys swore that it was Adam Cartwright. But this lady who stood next to the man as he opened that strongbox says it ain’t him. Now what do you boys have to say now?”

Their poorly planned effort to punish Adam for surviving the Paiute War had just gone up in flames. Clyde spoke first. “Well as he was riding away, we thought it kinda looked like him. We talked it over and decided it was him. I guess we were wrong.”

“You guess you were wrong? Well, you boys can just unbuckle them gunbelts. You’re spending a few days in jail until the judge decides on Monday what I should do about men who lie to the sheriff in sworn statements.” Roy handed the ring of keys to Hoss and nodded at the back cell area.

“Now, Sheriff, it wasn’t exactly a lie. It was more like we was mistaken.”

“You three have been bad mouthing Adam Cartwright for years.”

“Well, it ain’t right that that Injun lover got away with it, and never got punished.”

Annie walked out incensed by what she had heard as Adam followed behind with Andrew. Annie was ready for them. “He was beaten nearly every day for three months. He wasn’t fed except for scraps. He slept in the open at night tied to a post. And every day they threatened to kill him. Finally they tried to trade him to avoid an Army assault. It took him weeks to recover when he was released. He still has nightmares about that experience. Now how exactly were you planning to make him suffer more for being a survivor? Do you plan to torment the other twenty-nine survivors of that battle? When can the men who lived that day begin to forget the horrors of what happened to them?”

There was silence for a moment. Then Roy picked up a wanted poster from his desk. “Adam was bored last night and spent some time looking through stacks of wanted posters. He found this one which is real interesting. Now any of you seen this man before?” The lady gasped and the three men got wide-eyed. The lady spoke first.

“Sheriff, that is the man. He has those same eyes and the straight hair. It’s him.”

Roy looked at the three cowboys who nodded and echoed each other’s answers that it was him. “Now this here is James Reed. He’s wanted in Texas and California for robberies and murder. His wife is suspected of being involved in his crimes. She rides sidesaddle.” Roy pointed at the back cell area then and the three were going to head that way when Adam spoke up.

“It won’t do any good, Roy. The judge will give them some time in jail, and they’ll have something else to hold against me. Just let them go.”

“If that’s what you want then, Adam. But I got my own idea on where they’re going next. Come with me, boys. Ma’am, thank you so much. You did a great job of helping justice today. Now I’m sure Ben would be willing to walk you over to the stage depot. Hoss, would you come with me?” Roy walked the three cowboys over to the Bucket of Blood and had them tell everyone they had lied about Adam. Then they went to the Silver Dollar. Eventually they had been in at least ten saloons with the same speech each time.

“Sheriff, ain’t that enough? We done told just about everybody that we lied.”

“Yeah, that’s enough of that. Now the next thing is, there’s jobs for cowboys in Texas, California, Arizona, Wyoming, Montana, and lots of other places. Get the idea?” All three nodded. “Then, I’ll expect you’ll be headed in one of those directions in the next hour, or I’ll find room in my cells and more charges I can file against all three of you. Is that clear?” Again all three nodded, and Roy walked back to his office with a smile on his face. Then he remembered that Logan Manning had a man in town, and he would have to start working on that situation next.

*****

Chapter 8

After speaking briefly with Roy and sending off a couple of telegrams, Adam was ready to go home. He would have preferred being in the carriage with Annie, but that meant his father would have to ride Sport. He did mention the possibility, but the look on his father’s face let him know that wasn’t going to happen. So he rode next to Hoss and ahead of the carriage. The two of them could talk.

“Have you thought about what we discussed on the way into town?”

“Yeah, and I want to do what I can to protect Marsha, but Adam, I got some worries too.”

“Let me guess. You’re wondering what else she didn’t tell us. You’re thinking that she could be lying. And probably you’re not so sure that if she’s with child that it could be yours.”

“Why do you even ask me questions when you got all the answers already?”

“Hoss, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you, but those are the same thoughts I’ve been having.”

“Oh, that’s all right. This whole thing has me on edge all the time. I don’t know what to worry about most. I can’t see as how that baby could be mine cause it takes a gal a while to know, doesn’t it? And we ain’t been together much and only in the last month. The first time was in Sacramento, and then only once here. Adam, I just don’t know what to think.”

“You’re doing fine. Everything you said is logical, but also points to her not telling the truth or at least not all of it. Annie and Michele don’t think she’s with child at all.”

“They think she made that story up? Why would she do that?” One look at Adam, and Hoss knew too. “Yeah, she pegged me just right, don’t you think. Little gal claims to be in trouble and all I can think about is helping her. But why did she go to you and not me then?”

“Believability. If she went to me and claimed it was because she could trust me, then she gets me on her side too and has me tell the story to you. Me getting arrested worked right into her plans.”

“She is in danger though, isn’t she? I mean, Logan Manning is a dangerous man.”

“Yes, that part is probably true. That’s why she wanted to ensnare us in her scheme. She needs help. But what has me confused is what help is she after exactly? She’s got money. She could have gone somewhere with that money so that he wouldn’t find her. Why stop so close, and leave herself open to being attacked?”

“And us too.”

Adam rode for a while deep in thought. Finally he looked at Hoss and shook his head. “She’s bringing him here, if she can, so he’ll be killed. Even if he isn’t, he’ll go to trial here for killing us because there’s no possible way for him to avoid that unless he goes on the run. No matter what happens, she’s rid of him.”

“And she can go live anywhere she wants with the money she’s got.”

“Hoss, that valise full of money would be enough for an ordinary person, but Marsha has expensive tastes. She must have more to this plan, but I have no idea what that would be. I was thinking that she hoped to marry you and get access to the Ponderosa wealth, but she must have seen that our wealth requires a lot of work and much of it is tied up in property.”

Both men were lost in thought for much of the rest of the ride. Once they got home though, Adam had some very clear ideas of what he wanted to do. “I’m going to shave in the washroom and take a bath. Annie, after you put Andrew in his cradle, would you bring me some clean clothes?” But Adam had a look in his eye that said there was going to be more than a shave and a bath going on in that washroom. He asked Hop Sing for hot water and lathered up his face. With his shirt off, he was shaving almost a week’s worth of whiskers from his face when Annie got there with his clean clothing. She watched him shave and asked what he and Hoss had been discussing so intently on the ride home. So he filled her in on their ideas as he shaved. Then he sat on the bench and pulled off his boots.

“Do you want me to stay and scrub your back?”

“Sweetheart, I had a lot more than back scrubbing in mind although that would be a good start.” He grinned and she knew he had a plan. Hop Sing brought in buckets of water then and began filling the tub. Adam had already put wood in the stove in the washroom and it was pleasantly warm in there. Hop Sing smiled as he left for he had some idea what Mister Adam might be planning especially because he had fired up that small stove to heat the room. He seldom did that except in winter for he was, by nature, a warm man. As soon as Hop Sing left the room, Adam locked the door. Annie looked at him and wondered what he had in mind although she was starting to get an idea. He saw her look and responded by undressing.

“I need a bath and I missed you a lot. I was thinking we could combine the two and save time assuming you missed me as well.”

“It’s the middle of the day! Your father and brother are out there.”

“My father has been married four times now, and Hoss has a pretty good idea of what men and women like to do together. If you don’t say anything, they won’t say anything.”

“But Michele will know too.”

“Michelle probably wishes my father would think of things like this to do too. Now are you joining me or not. I shaved.” He gave her that cheeky grin before he stepped into the water and sat down. Leaning back, he watched her. She began to unbutton her dress slowly as a smile crept over her lips. “Now, you’re teasing me.”

“Do you want me to stop?”

“Not at all. I’m appreciating this very much.” Adam started running the bar of soap across his arms and chest. Annie began to speed up her undressing which made him grin. However all thoughts of Annie scrubbing his back disappeared as they found much more pleasurable things to do. Afterwards, Adam held Annie close and kissed her softly. “They’ll never know except I think we got your hair wet.” He stood pulling her up with him and then grabbed a towel to dry her hair. She toweled dry with his help and dressed. Adam helped her with her hair, and when it was presentable, they both walked out of the washroom as if they had done nothing out of the ordinary. In the great room, Michele handed Andrew to Annie.

“He was fussing a little so I’ve been rocking him, but I think he wants what his mother has.”

Watching Annie walk up the stairs to go to their bedroom to nurse Andrew, Adam wanted to go with her and wanted to stay and talk with the others about what to do about Marsha. His father saw his look.

“Go ahead and go with your wife. Fifteen more minutes aren’t going to matter. You should be with them.”

Adam didn’t need much prompting. With a suggestion he was going to make, he would be missing his family again very soon. When he got to the bedroom, Annie was already seated and nursing their son. Adam sat on the bed and watched not saying a thing. These were the kinds of memories and moments that needed no words. When Andrew finished nursing, Adam took him and held him on his shoulder until he burped and fell asleep. He laid him down in the cradle and asked Annie to come with him leaving the door open.

“We need to talk downstairs. We’ll leave the door open so we can hear him if he needs us.”

Once downstairs again, Adam made his suggestion. As expected Annie and Michele objected. We need to keep you safe. I refuse to allow my son to be placed in jeopardy, and I know he is. This is the best solution. We can have you there by the end of today.”

“We can’t just drop in on them like this.” Michele did not know Annie and the Swede, but Adam’s wife Annie did for Adam was quite fond of the couple and they felt the same toward him.

Ben agreed it was the best plan. “Adam and I can have you over there in just a couple of hours. Hoss can go get Joe and Candy. They can bring Marsha back here.”

“But we want to be here to help.” Annie was feisty.

“We can’t protect you and protect Marsha and ourselves at the same time. It leaves us too vulnerable.”

“What if they find out where we are?”

“We’ll stop by Jeremy’s place and get him to go with you. I’m sure Swede knows some men who could help too. You’ll be fine.”

Neither Annie nor Michele liked the idea of being gone from their husbands, but begrudgingly they had to admit, it was the best idea. Logan Manning probably already knew Marsha was on the Ponderosa, and he would have been collecting information about the family by now. They did need to be away to be safe. It didn’t take long to pack, and Andrew was still sleeping in his cradle so Adam carried him in it to the large carriage setting him on the back seat. He tied Sport to the back, and Ben rode beside the carriage with Annie sitting with Andrew in the back and Michele seated next to Adam on the seat. As expected, Jeremy agreed to go along, and they got a warm welcome from Annie and the Swede. Adam hugged Annie tightly as they said goodbye. Ben gave Michele a hug and long kiss too. Then the two men headed back to the Ponderosa to try to clean up the mess into which Marsha had put them.

As they rode, Adam suggested they stop in Virginia City briefly to see if there was any answer to the telegrams, and to check in with Roy. Adam had the answers he wanted to his telegrams, and Roy had identified several men that could be assumed to be working for Logan Manning. Two of them had been visiting saloons and surreptitiously ferreting out information on the Cartwrights not knowing how well the Cartwrights were liked by the saloon girls who quickly alerted Roy to the presence of these shady characters asking these questions. Roy quietly hired a few more deputies to keep an eye on them.

Up on the mountain, Hoss had arrived at the line shack. He told the three there what had happened and summoned them back home. Marsha noticed a change in Hoss’ demeanor and suspected she knew why. She said little, so Hoss dominated the conversation on the way home. He especially delighted in describing how Roy had made Nate, Clyde, and Paul go to the saloons where they had spread their lies and admit it. He assumed they would never see the three again.

Once everyone arrived back on the Ponderosa, Adam and Hoss talked to the hands to set up security. Inside the house, Candy and Joe closed all the shutters. It would be hotter in the house that way, but there would be less surprises too. Ben moved firearms into each room of the house preparing as well as he could for an assault that all of them expected. Once they had made all the preparations they could, they sat down to share a meal. It didn’t have the lighthearted banter that usually accompanied a meal with these men. Marsha knew it was all because of her, but that didn’t bother her as much as the fact that she suspected they knew more about her plans and no longer believed her story. Hoss was not affectionate although he was polite. Marsha excused herself early saying she was tired and needed to sleep. Once she was upstairs, Ben and Hoss filled Candy and Joe in on what had happened. Joe was very angry.

“She’s still a gal, Joe, and that man wants to kill her. No matter what she done, we have to protect her.”

But upstairs, Marsha was packing a small bag and dressed in all dark clothing suitable for fleeing in the dark. She planned to slip out after everyone was in bed and sleeping. She thought she could be far from the house by the time anyone realized she was gone. Guards were set to stop someone approaching the house. No one would be expecting someone to leave.

*****

Chapter 9

“She’s gone, Mr. Cartwright. She rode right on by us before we even had any idea she was there.”

Guards had been set, but Marsha had evaded them because they had never expected her to do what she had done. They had underestimated her deviousness once again. Ben told the men to go back to the bunkhouse for there was no one left to protect. He would not risk their lives following her in the dark. She had made her choice and would have to live or die with it. When the men got back inside, they talked briefly.

“Why didn’t she want our help? We woulda protected her.” Hoss still had some feelings for her even though he knew what kind of woman she was.

Adam stood next to where Hoss was sitting and simply placed a hand on his shoulder. “She has some plan that we don’t know. We knew there was more to this than she was telling. I guess we may never know what she was really doing here.”

After pouring himself a small brandy, Ben sat in the red chair. “No, Adam, I think she underestimated us. She never thought we would figure out that she was lying as quickly as we guessed it. Whatever her plan was, it apparently didn’t involve us knowing what we were facing. Once she got back here, and Hoss acted differently toward her, she knew.”

With nothing more to say, the men drifted off to their beds one by one. The next day was Sunday, and most of the hands would be leaving for the roundup that was supposed to start on Monday. Ben had thought to keep them for security but now thought he wouldn’t have to do that. By midday, Ben and Adam planned to go pick up the ladies and Andrew. Each fell into sleep with a lot of questions but not as much worry.

Adam and the others each awoke the next morning with a gun barrel pressed to their throats. Marsha had undone the shutter in her bedroom and left through the window and down the porch roof. None of them had thought to check her room before retiring and Manning’s men entered the house the same way. All of them were marched downstairs one by one and tied to dining room chairs. Manning himself sat in a big red leather chair and waited until that task was completed.

“Now what do you want? You must know by now that the woman you were following is gone.” Ben could see no reason for them being tied up.

“Ah, but you see, I’m not sure she is truly gone. Once your men leave, then we will thoroughly search the premises. Unless one of you would like to volunteer the information to speed up this whole process.”

Adam tried to push Manning into revealing his purpose but got more than he expected. “What do you hope to gain from this? Marsha is gone, and the sheriff has the money.”

“Yes, you, I owe you something.” Manning backhanded Adam several times. “It was you who gave her the seed that grew into this. You weren’t satisfied taking her to your bed. You had to tell her she was too smart to be my consort. You told her she could leave and be anything she wanted to be. Oh yes, I have heard for the past couple of years all these ideas you planted in her head. So this is all really your fault.”

Ben could see the jeopardy in which Adam had been placed. He tried to come up with a solution. “We can replace the money she took from you. The valise had what? Twenty thousand? Thirty thousand?”

Manning began laughing so hard even a few of his men grinned. “Twenty thousand! Thirty thousand! You think that is all she took from me. She drained my bank accounts and sent the money to banks all over the country. She has the papers necessary to claim the million she took from me. Ah, I can see from your expressions that you had no idea what that vixen could do. Yes, I only discovered the missing funds after she left. She timed it all out quite perfectly. I should have had her working on the financial part of my businesses. Of course I gave her too much freedom, and this is how she repaid me. I need that money. I owe people, and they will not be happy with me if I cannot make my payments. So you see, I have nothing more to lose except my life. I will do what it takes to get my money back. Now, where is she?”

Hours later and after fruitless searching, Manning stomped back into the house. They had found no trace of where Marsha might be. The men in the house were telling the truth, but that would not save them.

“By rights, I ought to shoot every last one of you for interfering. But I do think that the embarrassment of being completely fooled by that vixen will be more than enough punishment for you all. Good day, and I do hope you manage to free yourselves before you starve to death. Well, maybe I wouldn’t feel so bad about that after all. Ta da.” As Manning got to the door, he motioned to Clyde, Paul, and Nate. “You boys did well. Come on outside, and I’ll give you what you earned and maybe a bonus too.” With smiles, the three men proceeded outside. Less than a minute later, there was the sound of three shots followed by three more in slow succession.

“Why’d he shoot em?”

“Hoss, he’s cleaning up the loose ends.”

“But, Adam, he said he wouldn’t shoot us.”

Adam was working his chair over toward Joe. It was a painstaking process and he didn’t think he had a lot of time. Joe understood what he was doing and worked his chair around and then toward Adam. “Be careful, Joe. If we tip over, this won’t work.” Once Adam reached Joe, he moved his chair so that Joe’s hand was next to one of the knots binding him to the chair. As Joe started to work on loosening it, all of them suddenly got a whiff of a foul smell.

Ben was shocked. “He’s spreading coal oil around the house.” Then he had a suggestion. “Hoss, you’re the only one who can do this. Can you smash that chair to get loose?”

As Joe loosened one knot and then another, Adam was slowly freeing himself. As soon as he could reach his pocket, he pulled out a penknife and cut the remaining ropes. Then he cut Joe free handing him the small knife so he could free the others. Adam ran outside with Hoss by his side as he had finally smashed the chair and gotten free. Both had grabbed pistols and headed in opposite directions around the house to find the men spreading the coal oil in order to stop them before they started the fires that would consume the house. Hoss reached his man who raised his arms immediately, but the man Adam found was about to light a small pile of debris soaked in coal oil. When he refused to throw down the lit match, Adam shot him and then ran and stomped the sparks into the dust. By then, Joe, Candy, and Ben were there to help. Ben had freed Hop Sing who came to the back of the house with buckets of sand. They began covering the coal oil in a thin coating of sand. Soon it would no longer be a danger as some would soak down into the soil and some would evaporate. As they worked, Roy rode into the yard.

“What happened here? I was coming out to tell ya that those Manning men weren’t in town no more. And why are these three dead?”

Hoss was the first to speak. “Adam shoulda let you lock these three jaspers up. They done told Manning how to get to the house without us seeing em. They musta signed on with him in town after Roy told em to leave. I’m guessing they were watching the house.”

“Who shot them?”

“Manning or one of his men. We were tied up at the time.”

Clyde, Paul, and Nate were laying on the porch. Each had been shot in the back and then the coup de grace had been administered to their foreheads. Logan Manning did not let any loose ends around. But he had never run into the type of planning from potential victims as he had faced with Adam and Ben Cartwright although they had nearly perished too.

“We have one prisoner too, and there’s a wounded man out back who probably won’t make it. I had to shoot him so he wouldn’t fire the house.” Adam regretted the shooting but would have done it again exactly the same if given the choice. He just didn’t like having to kill someone.

“I got the alerts out on Marsha and on Manning. First town they stop in, they’ll be arrested. Now you say you were tied up?” As the men nodded, Roy was calculating what other charges he could level. He could smell the coal oil as well. “Were they gonna fire the house?”

“Yeah, Roy, with us inside. I think you can add attempted arson and attempted murder to those charges you’re thinking about.” Ben sat down on a chair on the porch, but Adam was headed to the stable. “Adam, where are you going?”

“If they knew so much, I’m afraid they know where Annie and Andrew are. I’m riding there now.”

Seeing the wisdom of that and the urgency, all the men saddled their horses to head to Annie and Swede’s place as Roy headed back to town. Hoss and Ben could not keep up the furious pace set by Joe, Adam, and Candy on their horses so they told the three to go ahead and that they would be right behind them. By the time they reached their destination, the horses were lathered and blowing. Swede walked out of the house to greet them.

“Now what’s so awful you had to nearly kill these horses getting here?”

“Manning is on the loose. Is everyone here and safe?” Adam might have been holding his breath waiting for the answer.

“Ya, Ya, they are all inside eating cookies. Come in, you see, come in.”

Joe and Candy volunteered to look after the horses as Ben and Adam followed Swede into the house. Swede’s Annie met them at the door with hugs and reassurances that all was well. Adam gathered up his wife and held her close without saying a word. Ben did the same with Michele. When they released their wives, they wanted to know what had happened.

“Sweetheart, I am so glad that you and Andrew weren’t there.”

“Adam, what happened?” So Adam kept his arm around his wife and told the story to the mesmerized group. Several times he stopped the narrative to see if his father had anything to add, but Ben told him to keep going. Finally he told them of the execution of the three men who had falsely accused him, and that Manning was on the loose and that they had no idea where Marsha had run. Annie could feel the tension in Adam’s body and knew that he was still very worried.

“Adam, do you think it’s safe to go home?”

Not having a good answer for that, Adam hugged her closer. Ben had not considered up to that point that it might not be safe to go home, but with Adam’s lack of a response, he thought about why it might not be safe. Manning did not leave witnesses so if he found they were still alive, he might want to tidy up that part of his affairs. He had shown a cunning ability to get to them once already. Swede took care of their immediate concerns by telling them it was too late to go home anyway so they ought to spend the night. Adam smiled and thanked his host. After dinner, everyone was relieved when Adam and Swede got into a discussion of how to improve their mansion. Swede wondered if one of those indoor water closets like they had in the best San Francisco hotels could be put in his house, and Adam thought there would be no problem. Soon they were talking measurements and material requirements as the ladies made suggestions of how to make it more practical. In the morning, Ben thanked his host for the lodging.

“If your son fixes us up with that indoor water closet, you’ll be owed a lot more than one night’s lodging. It gets awful cold here in the winter trudging outside, and the bugs in the summer are mighty pesky. It is going to be quite the luxury for my Annie to have that.”

Helping Michele into the carriage, Ben climbed up on the seat to drive. Buck was tied behind, and Annie and Andrew had the back seat. Adam was riding because he and his father thought that if there was trouble, it was better that Adam and Jeremy be mobile. The ride home was pleasant despite some drizzle as they neared the ranch house which seemed to be very quiet. Adam rode ahead to make sure there was no trouble as Jeremy and Ben went on alert watching for any sign of trouble. When Adam neared the house, he saw no one, but there was a strange horse tied up outside. He tied Sport to a tree, and carefully approached the house. He looked in the kitchen window and saw that Hop Sing was talking to someone. As he listened, he relaxed and returned to the others telling them everything was fine. As they pulled into the yard, Hop Sing came outside with Roy to meet them. As Ben greeted his old friend, he had to ask why he was there.

“Well, now, Mondays are kinda quiet in town. Today there were some burials, and Dan is putting this whole story in the paper and had a few questions. None of that took much time so I thought I would come out here with news.”

Smiling at his father’s exasperation with the length of time it took Roy to deliver any kind of news, Adam just asked him what his news was.

“None of you need concern yourselves about that Manning. They picked him up in Carson City. He’s sitting in the jail cells there with his men. I sent the list of charges over there. They wanted permission to try him there cause it’s a gonna be a feather in the cap of the prosecutor and the governor too to have that nasty rascal tried and convicted in our state when California wasn’t able to do that. I said I sure had no problem with that and told em they could keep all of em. That’s all right with you, ain’t it?”

“It is just great with us. We can ride to Carson as easily as to Virginia City. Now what about Marsha?”

“Well, that Manning gave em some clues about her, but I for one ain’t holding my breath. That is one smart woman. I’d say she probably covered her tracks real well. I don’t think the law is all that interested in finding her anyways. She stole from a criminal. Don’t hardly seem worth the effort to catch her.”

“She must have been planning this for a long time in order to have all the paperwork ready to move the money, and to have all the rest of her scheme planned out.”

“Adam, you just thank your lucky stars that you didn’t get killed cause of her. I truly think she meant for Manning to kill all of you and then get tried for murder here. She may be smart but it’s her ice cold heart that scares me the most. I hope to God none of us ever see her again.”

“If they do want to find her, tell them to try New Orleans. That based on something she said to me a long time ago.”

“All righty, Adam, I’ll do that. Now Hop Sing done invited me for lunch, and if you don’t mind too much, I’d like to stay and visit with all of you. It’s not often I get to be in the middle of a happy family.”

Walking up to Roy, Annie handed off Andrew. “Perhaps you wouldn’t mind holding him while I get our things into the house?”

Roy’s smile showed how pleased he was. Ben went in the house with the ladies as the others took care of the horses. Life was getting back to normal. Adam would have to leave to catch up to his brothers at the roundup, but Ben was staying home this year leaving it up to his sons to get the count. Jeremy shared lunch with them and then headed to his home to get his gear and ride to the roundup as well.

A month later in New Orleans, Marsha stepped from the riverboat onto the dock under her new identity of Michelle Renoir, wealthy widow, who intended to enjoy many years of leisure living in the city she had dreamed of seeing for so many years. She smiled as men were anxious to call a carriage for her and load her luggage in the back. They probably assumed it was clothing, but one million dollars took a lot of space. The driver listened to her directions very politely, and then drove her directly to the police station. As she objected that was not her destination, he turned to her with a pistol in his hand to inform her that it was indeed her destination.

*****

Je t’aime!

Chapter 1

“Adam, what were you thinking? Dadburnit, you need to keep your head in your work or you’re gonna lose it!”

“I did have my head in my work. My horse slipped and I got unhorsed. It’s not the first time that’s happened to a cowboy.”

Hoss shook his head and got ready to walk away. He had to lasso a steer so it wouldn’t gore Adam but his older brother seemed not to be too concerned about that. He was going to leave before he said something he couldn’t take back but turned for one last comment. “She’s safe. No harm came to anyone in the family. Marsha fooled me into thinking she loved me, and sorta fooled you that maybe she did. But she was only trying to use us and brought Manning to the Ponderosa after she stole all his money. But Manning got caught, and he’s in jail. Marsha got away with Manning’s money, but they’ll catch her, I think. That clue you gave em about New Orleans might just work out. Pa’s at home watching over your wife and son. No one’s gonna hurt em while you’re out here working.”

“I know. I know.” Adam slapped some dust from his chaps and picked up the reins for Sport where Hoss had draped them. Hoss walked over to him and slapped him on the shoulder. “Thank you. I never saw that steer coming up behind me.”

“It’s all right. I’m sorry I yelled, but you scared me good standing there with that steer charging down at ya. Why didn’t ya take a look around when you lost your seat?”

“Guess I was embarrassed for being unseated like a greenhorn. That hasn’t happened to me lately. Seems that my balance and such hasn’t been too good the last couple of days.”

“Maybe you’re coming down with something. Do ya want ta ride on home and take it easy for a day or so?”

“No, I’ll be fine. I just need to get used to working again. There was too much time spent on other things lately. So don’t worry. I’ll be fine.”

“I know, Adam, I know. As long as I think about the work we gotta do, I can forget about all that other stuff.”

Seeing how dejected his brother looked, Adam felt for him. “I’m sorry, Hoss, I didn’t want to remind you about all of that. You’ll find a lady who loves you. Heck, Annie wants to try to help you if you want.”

“Help me? Like by being a matchmaker?”

“Yeah, I told her not to do it.”

“Why’d you do that? Maybe she could find me somebody real nice.”

That surprised Adam so much, he was speechless. Hoss looked at him and laughed. “I ain’t done so good by myself. It couldn’t hurt to see who she would come up with, now would it?”

Shaking his head, Adam had to smile. “No, I suppose it wouldn’t, and she would probably be thrilled to do it. I’ll talk to her when we get back.”

“We’re late with the round-up. We’re only gonna be back for part of a day before we have to leave for the drive if we want to get through those passes and back before any snow flies.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Don’t look so sad. You get a part of a day with Annie, and then we’re only gonna be gone for three weeks or so.”

The next several days were spent getting the last of the cattle out of draws and box canyons until the count was complete. Then they separated out the number they needed for the drive and herded the others into separate pastures. Leaving a few of the men to watch over the herd that was to be taken to market, Adam rode home with his brothers. He thought the day seemed quite warm and tied his jacket to the back of his saddle even though Hoss and Joe were wearing theirs. Hoss asked him if he was feeling all right, and he answered that he was fine. When they got home, they had dinner and then headed to bed because the next day would be a busy one.

In their bedroom, Annie expected Adam to want to make love that night, but he claimed to be too tired and fell asleep almost immediately. She had to shake him later to wake him so he could take Shep outside. Shep had slept in Hop Sing’s room for the nights that Adam had been gone and was very happy to be back in his master’s bedroom. When Adam came back upstairs with the dog, he kissed Annie on the cheek as she was nursing Andrew, and then he slipped back into bed and fell asleep. Once Andrew was fed and asleep, Annie placed the baby in the cradle before sliding into bed but found sleep elusive. For the first time in their marriage, there had been no loving of any kind. She wondered what was wrong as she listened to his soft breathing as he slept. She slid over in the bed placing her body next to his warm length and finally fell asleep assured by being so close to him. The next morning, Adam acted as he often did dressing to go do his chores before breakfast, but Annie had hoped because he had ignored her the night before, that he might have some lovemaking on his mind. Instead he got busy with the tasks necessary for the drive. Annie watched him as he worked over paperwork and maps in the house, and he did look very tired yet. She was thinking then that it must be exhaustion and he needed his sleep but was frustrated anyway.

Noticing how tired Adam looked even after a full night’s sleep in his own bed, Hoss leaned toward his father as they stood at the corral watching the string of horses Joe had chosen for the remuda. “Pa, does Adam seem all right to you?”

“He seems fine. Why do you ask?”

“He seems kinda tired. I thought he would look more rested now that we’re home, but he still looks as tired as he did while we were out doing the roundup.”

“Ah, Hoss, he is a married man with a small baby. That could have interfered with his sleep last night.”

“I suppose. Something just don’t seem right though.”

“He’ll be fine. The drive will be a short one this time. You just have to get them through the mountain passes to the new railroad spur, and then you can come on home. I’m thinking only about three weeks. That’s a lot better than the five or six weeks in the past.”

That took Hoss’ mind off his worry about his older brother and focused it back on the drive. “We hired on only a couple of extra hands for the drive. Do you want them back here for the fall or should we let them go at the end of the drive?”

“Use your best judgment. There’s always a lot of work in the fall, but we wouldn’t keep them on over the winter. We already have a full crew for those months with all the men who were here last winter agreeing to stay again.”

“Why wouldn’t they? Nice bunkhouse, good cooking, and reasonable pay for light work: I’d stay too.”

Slapping Hoss on the shoulder, Ben headed to the house chuckling. Inside, he found his wife, Michele, and Annie with their heads together talking. When he asked what they were talking about, they said it was personal. He had some idea what that might be so he didn’t pursue it. That night, Annie wore her best and most provocative gown and robe. Adam asked her what the occasion was, so she said he was going to be gone for three weeks, and they ought to spend a little time together. Adam nodded and Annie’s heart fell. They made love or they had sexual relations. Adam held her afterwards pulling her close to him, but there was no sweet talk, and then he fell asleep again. The next morning, he hugged her, kissed her and the baby, and headed outside to saddle up and go. When she walked downstairs with Andrew, Michele looked at her.

“Well?”

“It worked, sort of. Michele, what if he doesn’t want me any more? He’s acting like he’s not interested in me. What can I do?”

“He’s going to be gone for three weeks. Try to be positive. Maybe it’s just everything that’s happened, and everything that he has on his mind now. Ben says that he’s been moody at times in the past. Maybe this is one of those moods. Don’t worry. He loves you. I’m sure of it.” Except Michele wasn’t at all sure of it, and Annie could detect the doubt in her voice making her worry all the more. Later as she nursed their son, she couldn’t stop the tears. She had worried originally about how a man like Adam could love someone like her. His constant reassurances had alleviated that fear, but now she found that her insecurity was as great as it had always been.

*****

Chapter 2

“Where’s Adam? He’s supposed to take this shift.” Joe was riding night herd duty and was surprised to see Hoss ride up to him to relieve him instead of Adam.

“I know, Joe. He’s sleeping and I didn’t have the heart to wake him. He’s been so tired lately. I think he might be coming down with something.”

“Hoss, he hasn’t said anything.”

“Ya, well, you know how he is. He could have an arrow sticking out of his back, and he’d say he was fine just feeling a might uncomfortable is all. He won’t tell anybody he’s sick until he keels over, but he wasn’t wearing his jacket today, and it’s cool up here. All the rest of us were wearing ours.”

“Yeah, I noticed that. We’re going to be in these mountains for several more days. If he’s sick, there’s not going to be anything we can do about it up here.”

“I know, and that’s got me worried. I figured to let him sleep, and we can try to make things easier for him the next few days to see if that helps.”

Joe was thoughtful for a moment. “He wouldn’t be playing a game with us to see if we would do exactly that, would he?”

“I thought about that, but I think he was already feeling poorly during the roundup. He went to bed real early when we were home one night too.”

“There could be a reason for that other than being sick. If I was married to someone that looked like Annie, I think I might be going to bed early every night.”

“But that ain’t their pattern. They walk outside and such before they go up to bed. Nah, something’s wrong. I just don’t know what it is.”

The next morning, Adam was angry that he had not been awakened to do night herd duty even though Hoss had to shake him awake for breakfast. When Hoss did that, he realized how hot Adam was. His shirt was wet with sweat and his breathing was marked by light wheezing. So as Adam was complaining that as trail boss he should always do his part to keep the respect of the men, Hoss had another comment.

“You’re riding in the wagon today.”

“What? Why the hell would I want to do that?”

“You got a fever, and you’re glassy eyed too. Cookie said you didn’t eat no dinner last night, just drank water. You ain’t gonna be on a horse today putting yourself at risk and the rest of us too ifn we gotta rescue you when you fall off your horse.”

“I’m fine, and I’m not riding in the wagon.”

“You think you can fight me on this? I could push you over with one hand the shape you’re in. Now do I carry over to the wagon in front of everybody, or do you go on your own?”

The ease with which Hoss won that argument convinced even a skeptical Joe that Adam was truly ill. Hoss took over as trail boss. Adam sat in the wagon and slept most of the next two days leaning back against the wooden supports. Cookie told Hoss that on more than one occasion he had to grab for him so he didn’t fall off the wagon seat. Adam’s fever continued to worsen for the next several days until he was having trouble even walking by the time they cleared the mountain pass. He had been getting progressively more ill as the drive continued but suddenly was deteriorating faster than Hoss had anticipated. Hoss had Cookie drive the wagon into the small town near them.

There was no doctor there, but it was on the stage line. Hoss handed off trail boss duties to Candy for the remainder of the drive and headed toward home or the first town with a doctor in it. It took almost a week by stage to reach Virginia City. Hoss had to get help to get Adam out of the stage as he intermittently lost consciousness in the last day of their trip. Two men helped Hoss carry him to Doctor Martin’s office. Roy always watched the stage come in so he was there as well and had someone ride to the ranch to tell them the news.

Doctor Martin asked Hoss a lot of questions about how long Adam had been ill and when he had first noticed that something was wrong. He could find no rash or any injury. There was no obvious swelling or bruising of any kind. Then the doctor had Hoss help him completely undress Adam removing even his drawers and began examining him very thoroughly using a magnifying glass in some spots. Finally he asked Hoss to bring a lamp very close. He was examining Adam’s privates and Hoss wondered what could possibly be wrong. Using some cloth and a scalpel, the doctor made a tiny incision on the bottom of testicle and then used forceps to remove a tiny object which he placed in a metal bowl. He poured alcohol into the bowl. Next he took out bottles of solution and began alternately washing, flushing, and squeezing the incision that he had made. Adam began to thrash around with the pain of it and Hoss had to hold him down but it wasn’t enough so they had to tie his legs to either side of the bed and Hoss held his upper body down as the doctor worked. Blood and other fluids stained the cloths the doctor was using. Finally he seemed satisfied and placed a large wad of cloth against the area. Adam had passed out due to the pain and his weakness.

“You can loosen the bindings now. I won’t be causing him any more pain.”

“Doc, what did you find and what were you doing there?”

“He had a tick embedded under the skin in the soft tissues there. It was releasing toxins into his system poisoning him and causing a type of tick fever. There was some infection there too.”

Hoss’ face turned white. “People die of that.”

“He doesn’t have the type of fever you’re thinking of. That comes on fast and usually kills within a few days. This is more of a mild infection because the tick was in his body and it shouldn’t have been and who knows what it brought in with it. He was fighting the infection but it was making him progressively weaker and would have killed him if it wasn’t removed. I wish he had seen a doctor sooner.”

“I got him to ya as fast as I could.”

“I know, Hoss. I wasn’t complaining about you. It’s just that so many people out here get so sick and sometimes die because there isn’t medical care near enough. You were able to get him here, but what of all those people in those small towns who don’t have access to care? That’s all I’m saying.”

“I was praying along the way for a doctor too. I guess that’s all people out there can do.”

Doctor Martin had not wanted to make Hoss feel guilty. He got back to his patient. “Because of the delay especially, it will take some time for him to recover, but I see no reason why he won’t if we can break that fever. We’ll have to get him to take a lot of fluids to help rid his body of the infection, and he’ll be very weak for some time. Once we get that fever down, then we can be fairly sure he will make a complete recovery.”

“I saw where you was cutting. Is that going to be a problem for Adam?”

“Not any more than it’s been. The tissues are soft there, and what I had to do caused some swelling, but as soon as that goes down, he won’t have much discomfort.”

Hearing some noise in the outer office, Doctor Martin went out to talk with Annie and Ben who had rushed into his office. Michelle walked in carrying Andrew a short time later. After explaining what he could and reassuring Annie that Adam would recover, Annie went in to see him. Paul asked Ben to go see if he could get some ice to place over the incision which Paul was leaving open to drain. As Annie approached Adam, she was dismayed to see his torso shiny with sweat. He was pale and had obviously lost some weight. Hoss was wetting cloths to wipe him down and handed one to Annie who sponged off one side as Hoss did the other. Keeping her busy helped her manage her emotions, but when Adam opened his eyes and said ‘Hello, sweetheart’, the tears flowed. Hoss excused himself to give the couple a little privacy except it didn’t last long because Ben was back with some ice and came with Paul who packed it around the incision after checking the wad of cloth there.

“Good, the drainage is clear. I don’t want to stitch that up until tomorrow, but everything is looking fine.”

“Ah, Paul, could you tell me what you did.”

So Paul explained to Adam that he had picked up a tick that found a nice warm place to snuggle in and had caused all of his symptoms. He showed him the now dead insect in the metal bowl. Paul’s plan was for Adam to spend the day there, and in the morning, if the drainage was still clear, he would stitch up the incision for him so he could go home.

“He’s going to need to ride in a wagon preferably laying down in the back or at the very least a carriage so that he can recline in the back seat. No sitting on hard surfaces for the next few days. He needs to drink lots of fluid and eat only light meals until he’s feeling better.”

Annie wanted to stay, but Andrew needed her so she had to return to the Ponderosa that evening with Michele and Ben. Hoss stayed in town to help out as needed. The next day, Ben was back with Annie and the large carriage to give Adam a ride home. Three packages had arrived for Adam, and he took them home with him opening them on the way to show Annie the new books he had ordered. Then he opened the third package and smiled.

“Preston Mitchell is coming for a visit. He sent these books with a note inside.”

From the front seat, Ben asked what books he had gotten.

“I got Les Miserables by Victor Hugo which is in French. I sent for The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins because it’s from a new school of writing called the Sensation school. I’m curious as to why they call it that. Preston sent me four books by Auguste Nicolas about the philosophy of Christianity. We used to debate the nature of religion and its role in society. I’m sure he wanted to remind me of that.”

“Who’s Preston Mitchell?”

“We were classmates and rivals in college. I think we both enjoyed the rivalry. We seldom agreed on anything philosophically so we had some spirited discussions. His parents let me stay with them for a couple of holidays because I couldn’t go home like other students could. I told him if he ever traveled this way that he could stay on the Ponderosa.”

“Do you think such a visit is what you need right now?”

“Annie, I will be bored sitting in bed for days. Preston will help liven up the place so I’m not so ornery.”

Admiring his books, Adam didn’t see the worried look that Annie had, but Ben did. His son needed to get back to paying attention to his marriage and his wife before he damaged both. Ben hoped that the enforced time at home would give him a chance to do that. He hoped to get a chance to talk with his son about that soon.

*****

Chapter 3

“Don’t you miss all the girls and the fun we had when we were out? No cares and no one to answer to. I thought we could do more of the same while I was here. Don’t you miss that?”

“Yes, I guess I do.” Adam paused. Hoss had gone to town to pick up Preston that afternoon. Adam had managed to sit for dinner but now reclined on his bed. Preston had come upstairs with him to chat about old times and so that each could catch up on news about the other. Adam knew what he wanted to say, and wanted Preston to know he was sincere. “But, Preston, I have so much more now. I can’t tell you how good it feels to have a woman who loves you dearly at your side through anything. My joy at having a son made me feel like I had won the greatest prize of all. I can’t imagine living any other way now. So I do miss the things we did as college students just as those things I did as a youth and just like I miss the things I did as a child. I have those memories, but I find my life now to be more fulfilling than those early experiences.”

“What happens to your dreams then? What about travel, and more important, what about those buildings you wanted to design? What happens to all of that? I couldn’t give up my plans for the future just to have the same woman by my side. It would be frustrating and demoralizing.”

“I haven’t given anything up. I can still design buildings. I think it may happen a bit later in my life than I originally intended, but I still work on designs and keep up with changes. I do small projects now, but eventually I want to take all my ideas and put them into a house of my own. After I do that, there may be more opportunities for me to use those skills.”

For another hour, Preston talked about his plans and about the lives and accomplishments of former classmates. Finally he pleaded that he was more tired than he thought and excused himself to go to his room to get some sleep. Annie came in shortly after that with Andrew in her arms. She had heard Preston’s question earlier about missing all the girls and fun as well as the first part of Adam’s answer. Unfortunately she was so upset by then that she left without hearing the rest of the answer. When she came back in the bedroom after Preston left, Adam was reclining in the bed reading Les Miserables. That he was reading a book in French just reinforced her feelings that she was no longer that important to him.

“I’ll sleep in the bedroom next door with Andrew again so we don’t disturb you.” She gathered her gown and closed the door to the adjoining room before Adam could respond. Tears flowed as she nursed their son and then dressed for sleep once the baby was sleeping peacefully in his crib. She lay down on the small bed next to the crib, but sleep eluded her.

The first reaction Adam had was anger over the obvious rejection. She had slept in the room with Andrew the three nights before so that he could spread his legs out and be more comfortable, but she had kissed him goodnight and left the door connecting the two rooms open. Now she had shut him out. He thought about what had happened recently and couldn’t determine what it was that had caused this problem. The more he thought, the calmer he became. He began to relive the conversation he had with his father the afternoon just the day before. Ben had said he needed to speak with Adam privately.

“Adam, you haven’t been married long, and you never had a long term relationship before.”

“What are you trying to get at, Pa?”

“Well, I have seen signs that Annie doesn’t feel as loved by you as she should.”

“What? I tell her all the time that I love her.”

“But do you show it?”

At first, Adam was thinking of the intimate life they had and how satisfying it was to him, but then began to consider that he hadn’t asked Annie lately how she felt about it, and if there was something he could do to make her feel more pleasure. With the trouble with Manning, the roundup, the drive, and his illness, he realized it had been literally a month since they had talked about anything but things that needed to be done. There had been no romance for most of that time. He looked at his father who had been waiting patiently as Adam was thinking and nodded. “I guess being married four times does give you a different perspective on things. Thank you, Pa.”

“I always try to remember that marriage needs as much attention as any other relationship in life and it’s more important too. Sometimes it is the little things that matter most.”

With that in mind, Adam got up and crossed to the closed door opening it quietly. He walked in and looked at his wife and child lying there in the moonlight. He knelt down very carefully next to where Annie lay and put his hand on her shoulder wondering if she was asleep. She felt the warmth of his hand and wanted to stay upset and angry with him, but she couldn’t. She turned to look at him in the moonlit room.

“N’oubliez jamais que je t’aime!”

“What does that mean?”

“Never forget that I love you.”

Even in the moonlight, Adam could see the wet cheeks glistening as she looked at him. He slid his hand down her arm until he reached her hand. He grasped it gently and whispered softly to her. “Come with me.”

Almost reluctantly, Annie slipped from the bed and stood next to Adam as he rose from bended knee. He turned toward their bedroom and tugged just a little to get her to come with him. Then he closed the door to Andrew’s bedroom and pulled Annie into his embrace. “Will you talk with me now?” That simple statement brought forth more tears. Adam held her and caressed her back until the crying subsided.

“I heard you before. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop but I thought I might be able to put Andrew in his bed early. He was so tired.”

“What did you hear?”

“When Preston asked if you missed all the girls and the fun, and you said yes.”

Adam waited for more and when there was no more, he had to ask. “You didn’t hear the rest of my answer?” At her silence, he had his answer. “I said yes I missed those things like I missed the things of a child or a youth. I told him that what I have now though is so much better than any of those things I no longer have. There is nothing better than having a woman who loves you and a child that you made together.”

“Really? That’s what you said?” It was Adam’s turn to nod. “I bet he didn’t understand that at all.”

“No, I don’t think he did. I think you have to have the treasures I have to know how valuable they are. I love you, Annie, more than life itself. I cannot imagine living without you. If I ever take you for granted and forget to let you know how valuable you are to me, you need to give me a kick to remind me. I should make a greater effort to find time for you and give me a kick too if I ever neglect you.”

“I could have done that, but you’re pretty tender there now.”

“You wouldn’t have to kick me there!”

“Ah, but I would want to make sure you remember.”

“You are quite sassy sometimes.”

“I thought you liked that about me?”

“Yes, I do. I like that you can stand up to me. A docile woman would have grown to be predictable. You surprise me all the time. But I do want to remind you not to go to far. I still could spank you.”

“You wouldn’t dare. Remember, I can shoot.”

Adam laughed softly into her hair as he nuzzled her. “And remember how we promised to be honest with each other?”

“I know. I’m sorry. I should have talked with you. I guess my old insecurities haven’t been completely banished yet.”

“By the way, I don’t think I’m that tender any more.” Annie couldn’t see it, but if she could, she knew she would be seeing dimples right about then. Out of deference to his guest, Adam had worn a nightshirt. Annie reached down and grabbed the hem lifting the shirt up and over his arms and head as Adam raised his arms. Then Adam did the same with her gown pulling it up and off of her. He ran his hands down her back and felt her shiver. “Are you cold?”

“No, your touch does that to me. It’s like warm lightning. It just makes my body quiver all over.”

“What would you like me to do first?”

Annie smiled. He was being gentle and romantic like he was when they were first together. She wrapped her arms around him and whispered a few ideas in his ear. He was very agreeable to her suggestions. Neither got that much sleep and ended up oversleeping a little the next morning until Andrew reminded them that it was time to get up.

When they walked down the stairs together and smiling, Ben had a slight smile too especially when Michelle turned to him with a grin. All was well again. Adam walked slowly though so Ben asked him if he was hurting and then actually may have blushed a little when Adam said he had been exercising a bit too energetically the night before. Preston watched the whole scenario and found it all very surprising. From what he had seen the day before, Annie had been rather cool to Adam but now they were very warm with each other. Adam was even pointing out items in the room and giving her the French names for them.

Because Adam had promised a tour of some of the Ponderosa to Preston, Hoss volunteered to hitch up the carriage for him. Adam thanked him, but when Hop Sing offered to make a lunch for them to take along, Adam declined. He said that he wanted to be home to spend some time with his wife and son because they had been separated so much lately. Hoss and Joe volunteered to show Preston some of the ranch such as the horse breaking, but he declined saying he would enjoy some quiet time reading while Adam was with his wife and son. The disdain in Preston’s voice was subtle but there, and the whole family heard it. He had been polite so far so he was forgiven that transgression. After breakfast, Adam kissed Annie and then gave Andrew a big hug before he left with Preston to take a short tour.

*****

Chapter 4

“Now that is a view that speaks pure profit to me. You could cut those trees and make a fortune. There has to be gold and silver under those lumber too which would be easier to access after the trees are removed. Then you could ship lumber across the lake to California saving the expense of rail transport.”

“There are several problems with your scenario.”

“Adam, you’re trained as an engineer and an architect. I’m sure you could overcome any obstacles. I could handle any legal issues if they arise. I’m here to see if we should set up a law office in San Francisco to handle our business dealings here as we are expanding our trade with China and the Sandwich Islands.”

“It’s good to see you so enthusiastic, Preston, but those weren’t the kinds of problems I see in this ambitious plan of yours. If we cut the trees, the land erodes. If we mine extensively here, the tailings and such would all end up in the lake eventually. Then we would own an empire of barren rock and dirty water.”

“You would have enough money by then that you could live anywhere you want to live. You could build yourself a magnificent place and one for each of your family too.”

“Preston, we want to live here. We want the land to be our legacy to our children. We have all the wealth we need.”

“But you could have so much more.”

“Why would we want more? We have what we want.”

“But you have to work every day at hard physical labor. You have things like tick infections to worry about. What of your son? Don’t you worry about what would happen to him out here?”

“Preston, we do get newspapers here. I have seen all of the large cities of this country. There are dangers everywhere. Here at least, you can usually see them coming and have family and friends to stand by your side as you face them.”

The debate between Adam and Preston continued until they reached the Ponderosa ranch house again and had to agree to disagree. Lunch was quite good of course with Hop Sing cooking. Preston had to comment on that too.

“You let your servant speak so familiarly with you and tolerate even his imprecations about your behavior. Doesn’t anyone in the wilderness teach their servants to know their place?”

That pushed Annie too far and she spoke before Adam or anyone else could. “Mr. Hop is a member of this family as much as anyone else. He deserves our respect, and he has our love. It is not for some horse’s patoot from the east to tell us who belongs here and how they should act.”

“I’m sorry if I overstepped my bounds. I never meant to insult anyone. Please accept my apology.”

Everyone noted that Preston had apologized for irritating them but not for the words he had spoken, but he was a guest and deserved their forbearance so they gave it although begrudgingly on the part of several. Adam lightened the mood when he said he thought he heard his son calling him. He went to get him from his nap and brought him to the table where he cooed in Adam’s arms to the delight of the rest of the family. Preston was surprised that a child especially a baby was even welcome at the dinner table but said nothing after his last comment had been met with such rejection.

After lunch, Annie took Andrew upstairs to nurse him as Adam and Preston sat down to a game of chess. Preston expected Adam to be out of practice with no worthy opponents out west to challenge him so was quite surprised at how quickly Adam defeated him. Annie returned downstairs with Andrew who put his arms out wide when he saw his father. Annie smiled for Andrew was still very young but he loved his father dearly.

“Preston, I’m sorry, but I have an earlier engagement. Perhaps you would like to play Annie for a bit. She’s been learning the game and is an apt pupil.” Adam sat then without waiting for his answer for his attention had shifted to his son.

Seeing Preston’s disdainful look at Adam and at her made Annie furious. She sat down by the chessboard and began arranging the pieces. She would concentrate and try to remember everything Adam had taught her because she wanted more than anything to beat this man. Saying nothing, she simply waited until Preston nodded to her to take the first move. She did and the match was on. He used the same gambit he had used on Adam and it worked no better leaving his pieces vulnerable. After an hour of play, he had to concede. He congratulated Annie, and then stalked out of the house. Adam grimaced, handed Andrew to Annie, and followed Preston outside.

“I can’t believe you let me be humiliated like that.”

“You let yourself be humiliated. You opened against me with a gambit that is played when you intend to defeat your opponent quickly but leaves you open to checkmate if that plan fails. So I checkmated you in very few moves. When you played Annie without respect for her abilities, she taught you a valuable lesson.”

“Like she gives you lessons every night?”

“Excuse me?”

“At night, I can hear you, you know, rutting with your peasant wench. Last night I could hardly sleep thinking about the two of you acting like beasts in the wilderness. But that’s where we are, after all, isn’t it. And you found yourself a quite willing trollop who will let you do anything you want.”

“Preston, watch your mouth. We may have been friends for a long time, but I will not tolerate such comments.”

“What, you can’t stand hearing the truth?”

Adam hit him then and watched as he fell back against the stable door.

“Adam, don’t forget I was boxing champion in our class. You better apologize for what you did, or I will have no choice but to teach you a lesson in manners.”

Saying nothing, Adam stood with those cold eyes he could use when he was most angry. Preston wasn’t about to be intimidated.

“That’s the same look you gave me in the ring when we boxed for the championship. It didn’t work then, and it won’t work now.”

Preston stood and slid his jacket off laying it across a barrel. Adam removed his as well. For the first time, Preston was a bit unnerved. Adam had added a lot of bulk since their college days, and it appeared as though it might all be muscle. Preston still had confidence in his skills but worried what it would be like if one of those fists made contact with him. He didn’t have long to wait. His first blows were swept aside as Adam stepped inside his defenses with sheer force and began to pummel him. He was on the ground in less than a minute. It wasn’t the gentleman’s boxing he was used to doing. He had met cold fury and could not counter it. He raised his hands in surrender. Adam took a moment breathing deeply to calm himself.

“Why would you say such awful things? We have opened our home to you and treated you with respect even when you acted in a less than becoming way.”

“You have an empire here, and you won’t even use everything you have. You have a beautiful wife who adores you. You show the love for your son without any shame letting anyone who sees you know how much you care. You decide how to live each day and to hell with the rest of us and our opinions.”

“That bothers you so much? Why?”

Standing slowly and holding a handkerchief to his bloody nose, Preston looked directly at Adam. “Because I’m jealous. I came out here to lord over you all that I’ve done and accomplished, and I find you have riches beyond compare. My wife wouldn’t even travel with me, and she certainly doesn’t allow me the liberties your wife allows you. My wife does her duty and has borne me two children. That’s it. My children treat me as a proper father which means I am the sole means of support and they must ask my permission to do things. I have never been hugged by either of my children. I have never had one of them sit in my lap and lay his head against my chest. You have heaven here, and never did I expect that I would be jealous of what you have, but I am.”

“You can have it too. You just have to reach out and grab it.”

“I doubt that. If I move here, my wife has told me that I should grant her a divorce so she can marry a proper gentleman. My children are aghast that I would think of bringing them out here. Adam, to have what you have, I would have to start over.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I don’t want your pity. I just thought it was time to let all the truth out. Now I suppose I ought to pack and be on my way.”

“You’re welcome to finish your stay here as planned. Although I think my father is going to expect an explanation from me about why my guest looks like he was in a saloon fight.”

“Yes, and I suppose then he will give you some fatherly advice and pat you on the shoulder.”

“Maybe. You sound envious of that too and it’s something I could do without sometimes.”

“You may find it constraining, or knowing you, even suffocating at times, but my father touched me once in my lifetime and never gave me any advice. He told me what to do. When I graduated college with my degree, he said fine and tapped me on the shoulder. He said I was ready then to take over the New York office.”

“Preston, whatever you decide to do, you can count on my help.”

The two friends walked side-by-side into the house. Nothing was said by anyone about the bruises on Preston’s face. He did make a greater effort to be pleasant and only annoyed Adam with his stories of some of Adam’s less stellar experiences while in college as the others laughed. “Remember that Christmas that you were with my family. He stayed in my sister’s room and she had to sleep with my baby brother. Well she got up to get a drink of water and walked into her room forgetting in her sleepy state that Adam was a guest and sleeping in her room. She took off her robe and slipped into bed with him. He didn’t know what to do, so he got up and came to my room. My bed was much too small for two so he ended up sleeping on the floor all wrapped in a blanket. My father went to wake Adam the next morning before he woke me. He found my sister in that bed and the roar must have been heard for miles. We were scared, and it took quite a while to explain what had happened as no one had the complete story so we had to piece it all together bit by bit. If we hadn’t, Adam would be my brother-in-law now.”

“Preston, I never stayed at your house again.”

While doing chores in the stable, Hoss and Joe made a number of bawdy comments to Adam about sleeping with Preston’s sister. That night, Annie lay by Adam’s side after they had made love again. She asked him what had happened with Preston so he told her. He had not wanted to do that, but they had pledged honesty with each other so he had to tell her. Surprisingly, she said she felt sad for Preston instead of angry. Adam was relieved by that, but it didn’t stop Annie from a few barbed comments at Preston the next day to let him know she knew what he had said.

Properly chastised, Preston apologized and he realized he had made a sincere apology to a woman probably for the first time in his life. He began to like Annie more and more realizing what a good choice Adam had made. Then he sent a telegram to his wife telling her he had decided they ought to relocate to San Francisco. Her return message said his father would help her with the divorce decree on the grounds of desertion if he did not return immediately. He had some mixed feelings about that and sent a telegram to his father. The reply was what he hoped to get.

*****

Chapter 5

“That’s rather cavalier of you, and sudden too, isn’t it?” Leaning against the corral fence, Adam was surprised at Preston’s revelations about his plans for his future, and that they did not include his wife who wasn’t going to be his wife for long apparently.

“Adam, my marriage was for business. It wasn’t for love. She will make another match for probably the same reason. She wanted financial security for herself and any children she had, and she wanted to be in the right social circles. I gave her that.”

“But, Preston, what of your children? You can just say goodbye to them like this?”

“Adam, they will miss me less than their mother will miss me. As long as there is financial support so they can maintain their lifestyle and their friends, they won’t mind.”

“I just can’t accept that as true. And your father will help you with all of this?”

“He has what he wants. He has grandchildren to carry on his name. He has me out here to expand our business operations and bring in more money. He’ll probably step in and suggest a suitable match for her to stop the gossips. Perhaps she will marry my cousin. His wife died in childbirth and he has no children. This way she wouldn’t even have to change her name, and he would get children who are biologically related to him.”

“This is incomprehensible to me.”

“That’s because you live out here. You have never lived with the rigid social conventions of eastern society. There are all sorts of rules and nothing at all about feelings. I feel more free now than I have ever felt in my life. I will never marry again unless it is my idea and perhaps even for love. It seems to have made you quite happy to have done so. I’m not really all that sure of how to go about it, but when I return to San Francisco, I shall find a place to live and start attending events until I find some companionship. I doubt that people out here would be so intolerant of someone who is divorced. In fact, I doubt whether I should have to even tell anyone that. I only need inform them that I am in fact unmarried.”

“I said I would help you, and I will, but I have to tell you what I think too.”

“I know you do, Adam. It’s one of the reasons I value our friendship so much. We have always been able to be honest with each other, and even when we think the other is being foolish or completely wrong, we can still count on the other to help. Now, in a week or so, I plan to return to San Francisco. I will need a place to live until I can buy or build a home. I’ll need office space as well and probably letters to introduce me to various clubs and such so that I will be welcome.”

“I can help you with all of that. I will be gone for a few days though. Pa told me we are expecting another guest this week. She is the daughter of an old friend of his. We often seem to meet his old friends this way. Pa’s friend is in Sacramento for business and will be tied up in meetings over the railroad contracts and bidding for the better part of a month. His daughter is coming here to relax and have some fun.”

“Her father will let her journey alone?”

“No, only for part of the way and that’s why I’ve been delegated to go get her. I still get uncomfortable after an hour or two in the saddle, and that makes me expendable right now. I’ll probably be gone a few days. I’m taking the stage to Reno and then meeting her as she disembarks from the California train. We’ll make the return trip by train on the spur to Carson City. Someone from the ranch will meet us there.”

“And I am to behave myself while you’re gone and not antagonize any member of your family?”

“Well, there is certainly nothing wrong with your cognition. Yes, that is exactly what I am asking.”

“When are you leaving?”

“This morning. Annie is giving me a ride to town. Would you like to ride along?”

“Would she mind?”

Annie walked up behind Preston. “Certainly, but as a guest, you do have privileges. Now let’s get going. Andrew is sleeping now but he’ll be missing me in three or four hours.”

“You are direct.”

“If you mean honest, yes. Most people out here are. We don’t have time to play silly games. Sometimes we need information, and we need it when we ask. Now do you still want to ride along?”

Smiling, Preston nodded. Adam went to the house to grab his valise, and then climbed in the carriage with Annie at his side and her arm through his elbow as she leaned against him. Preston sat in the back and relaxed watching Adam and Annie and plotting how he would be changing his life to achieve some of the same things Adam had, but doing it in style in the city and among the wealthy and powerful. He hoped to have it all yet. Annie told him there would be a party when their guest arrived, and she and he would be the guests of honor. They would be inviting people in town after Adam left on the stage. Preston was agreeable to that for he had been to town several times now and found it more to his liking than he would ever have thought possible. He wondered if there was something playing at Piper’s for which they could get tickets. Then he invited Annie to have lunch with him at the new French restaurant in town although she had to decline because she needed to get home to Andrew. She did mention though that they could order food and take it with them for even Hop Sing did not attempt the pastries and a few other things that the restaurant had on its menu. Preston never would have thought that such things would be available in a town so far west, and he had learned that San Francisco had much more to offer. Preston’s father had been very agreeable to the idea that Preston would handle their business dealings in the west and therefore he would never have to travel out there. He made that decision without knowing that for the first time in his life he had done something to truly make his son happy.

At the stage, Adam pulled Annie into a hug and kissed her soundly reminding her of the lusty loving of the night before. She actually blushed a little when he whispered in her ear what he planned for them to do on his return. Seeing her slight blush, Preston had some idea what Adam had said. He remembered that when Adam was in school, he had been very adventurous with the ladies while Preston had been more staid, but Preston was willing to watch and learn now for he had plans. Adam shook Preston’s hand and then swung up into the stage taking his seat with two other passengers. Annie waved as the stage left and then looked at Preston.

“Well, Sheriff Coffee and Doctor Martin are first on our list to invite. Then we’ll see the minister and a few others. We can stop at the restaurant on the way and put in an order so we can pick it up before we go.”

“Annie, I didn’t bring much money with me. If we’re bringing lunch back, I’m afraid I won’t be able to pay the bill.”

“We’ll put it on a tab. Everyone in town is willing to do that for us.”

Preston was thinking at that point that it was nice being one of the big fish in a small pond. There were some other wealthy people who lived in Virginia City after they made fortunes in mining. The wealth the town generated was in evidence by the number of dress shops and jewelry stores he saw. There were of course many saloons and restaurants as well. He found Annie to be a pleasant conversationalist but then realized he should have known that. Adam had said something to that effect when they were in school. Preston remembered the conversation well when Adam had ignored a beautiful girl who wanted his attentions beyond one date. “I need someone with whom I can talk when we’re not in bed.” It seemed like a good standard to use.

As they walked, Annie introduced Preston to a number of people. He was especially happy to meet the banker and several mine owners who had just come from a meeting. He was surprised that Annie did not invite them to the party. They did stop in the Cattleman’s Association and invite all the men who were there, and Annie asked them to spread the word among the other ranchers.

“Doesn’t the president of the Bank of California branch here deserve an invitation?”

“Papa Ben said to invite our friends. The party is not to seal deals or make connections with wealthy people. This is a party to introduce you and our other guest to the friends of the family. As you should already know, Cartwrights are loyal to their friends.”

“You don’t like me much, do you?”

“I like you better now that you hold back on some of your remarks and looks. I don’t think you’ve changed at all, but Adam, shall we say, convinced you to mind your manners. I am grateful to you for making the effort. It just gives credence to the argument that you are a good friend of his.”

“You don’t believe I think of Adam as a friend?”

“I think perhaps you do, but I’m not sure you know what is expected of a friend. You do what suits your purposes.”

“You make me out to be a coldhearted scoundrel using people to get what I want.”

Looking at Preston, Annie shrugged. It was exactly what she thought, but Adam said Preston was his friend so she decided she had said enough already, and chose to change the subject by pointing out that they were near Piper’s and could get tickets for the show that was in town then.

Preston decided he needed to make a greater effort and needed to mend some fences so for the next few days, he spent time touring some of the ranch as Hoss and Joe had offered to show him. He surprised himself by finding the horse breaking corrals to be fascinating as he watched man and horse fight to see who would be the master. Sooner or later, all of the horses capitulated. Preston mentioned that it would make a fine subject for gambling, and was surprised to learn from Joe that in a rodeo held each year, that did happen.

“If you extend your visit by a few days, you can see a rodeo. It’s a week from Saturday. There’s a big dance at night, fireworks, and all sorts of things. Adam isn’t in the kissing booth this year, so perhaps you would like to take an hour.”

“Joe, that does sound like fun. Perhaps I will ask Adam if it would be all right for me to stay just a few days longer.”

“Well, do you want to ride with Hoss to Carson City to pick him and our guest up later today? Annie can’t go so Hoss would probably appreciate the company.”

Trying his best not to show how he felt about riding several hours with Hoss, Preston smiled and agreed. As they traveled to Carson City, Preston made an effort to be interested in the things that Hoss liked to talk about, but he had little interest in cattle breeding, ranching, or wildlife so it was difficult. When they arrived in Carson City and got a look at the guest, Preston was very happy to have made the ride though. Adam was standing on the railroad station platform with a blonde woman who appeared to be about twenty-five years old, and had the body of a Greek goddess and the face of an angel.

“Hoss, Preston, I would like to introduce Margaret McCloud of Boston.”

“I’m very happy to meet you gentlemen. My luggage isn’t much, but I could use some help with it.”

Preston and Hoss nearly collided with each other as they scrambled to pick up the three large valises that Margaret had brought with her. Adam stood smirking, and Margaret saw him and shook her head. “You said there’s another one on the ranch?”

“Yes, I have two brothers. You’ve met Hoss, so Joe will be happy to see you when we get to the ranch. Preston is a good friend from my college days. I didn’t expect him to be here.”

Having secured Margaret’s luggage in the carriage, Preston and Hoss rushed back to offer to escort Margaret to the carriage. She obliged both by putting out both hands for them to grasp. The three walked to the carriage with Adam walking behind carrying his small valise. He wondered how they would work the arrangement in the carriage, but Hoss was forced to drive so he was going to lose out until Margaret said she would like to sit up front to see the views as they traveled. The look on Preston’s face was priceless. As Preston grimaced from the back seat, Adam grinned, tossed his valise in the boot of the carriage, and climbed into the back seat. Then he had to tell Hoss they could leave because it seemed his brother was unaware of anything except the beautiful woman seated next to him. Adam prepared himself to be entertained by the antics of three men for the next week or two while Margaret was visiting.

*****

Chapter 6

“I thought Joe’s eyes were going to pop out of his head when he met Margaret. She isn’t going to be bored while she’s here, is she?”

Annie was leaning on Adam’s chest and playing with his chest hair as they talked in bed. Andrew was sleeping peacefully in the next room. Adam had claimed to be exhausted from his travels and retired early. Annie of course had to nurse Andrew. As soon as she finished that, Adam had helped her undress. All he was wearing at the time were his pants so he soon joined her in bed, and they enjoyed some time caressing and kissing before making love. Now warm and relaxed, they had time to talk. Early each night and sometimes in the morning before Andrew awakened they had found were their best times to share their thoughts. The topic this evening was Margaret and the impact she had had on three men. Ben and Michele had been enchanted with her, but Hoss, Joe, and Preston were almost literally falling over each other to try to spend time with her.

“On the way back from Carson, Hoss sat up on that seat like he had a rod down his back. You have never seen him sit up straighter. He told her about every animal that lives in the Sierra. He was even talking about tree frogs. She seemed interested, but Preston was just frustrated. He literally leaped from the carriage when we got here so he could help her down. Then Pa and Joe came out, and Joe poured on the charm. So when you saw her, there was Joe on one side and Preston on the other, and all three trying to walk through the doorway at the same time.”

“What happened to Hoss?”

“He helped me unhitch the carriage and bring in the luggage. I think he feels like he doesn’t stand a chance with her. But the funny thing is that she seemed more interested in talking with him than in anything Preston or Joe have had to say.”

“Why is that funny?”

“Most women only see Hoss as big, and don’t recognize the value of the man. Margaret seems to like him a lot already.” Adam could see Annie quite well because as usual, they had not turned down the lamps when they made love. He got concerned when he saw how she looked. “Now don’t get involved in this. It’s up to Margaret to choose to spend time with any or all of them. She’s a smart lady. She can handle it.”

“Well, it couldn’t hurt to help Hoss out a little. We know how Joe can be. What’s Preston like when he’s pursuing a woman?”

“A lot like Joe, and he really shouldn’t be pursuing a lady yet anyway. He’s still married until that divorce decree arrive and he signs it and sends it back so it can be registered.”

Hearing the change in Adam’s tone of voice, Annie had a question. “You don’t like what he’s doing, do you?”

“No, and I’ve told him so. It’s not so much the marriage. The way he described it, that I could understand. But he’s turning his back on his children too so he can do what he wants. It isn’t the right thing to do.”

“Preston did try to be nicer while you were gone. He did help me with some of those French words and phrases you left for me to study. N’oubliez jamais que je t’aime!”

“Très bon travail.”

“J’ai étudié tous les soirs.”

“Excellent! Je t’aime. And such hard work and studying should be rewarded.”

“Did you have something in mind?”

“Yes, I thought that I could give you a massage.”

“Would that be a reward for me or for you?”

“Sweetheart, it will be a reward we can both enjoy.” Adam pulled Annie toward him so he could begin massaging her back as she lay across his chest. Things progressed from there as he massaged every part of her, and she found that she did indeed enjoy it, and he was correct too in that he enjoyed it as much as she did. They overslept again the next morning and made everyone wait breakfast on them. Both apologized but Adam could see from Ben’s look that he wasn’t at all in a forgiving mood. He began to think he needed to spend more time on the plans for a new house.

Breakfast was dominated by descriptions of the Ponderosa and all the sights to be seen. Preston was out of luck on that one, so Margaret’s day was split between Joe and Hoss. She would tour the ranch to see the horses with Joe, and then after lunch, she would get to ride with Hoss to see some of the cattle operations. Preston looked glum. By dinner, there was all sorts of things to discuss. After dinner, Preston offered a chess game, Hoss offered checkers, and Joe offered a walk in the garden. None of those offers were accepted as Margaret said she was going to be with Michele and Annie as Hop Sing had agreed to teach them how to make noodles.

In the kitchen, the three ladies watched and learned from Hop Sing as they got to know each other. For Margaret, it was a pleasant break. She was so tired of men trying to impress her. She knew she was beautiful and often wished she wasn’t because men never seemed to care to get to know her. They wanted her beauty, but never worried about winning her heart or touching her soul. Annie broke the ice about the three would be suitors first.

“So, which of the guys do you like best?”

“I’m not so sure I like any of them all that much. You see, I know what I look like. Men are always falling all over themselves to get near me. It is tiresome.”

Michele and Annie shook their heads over that one. Who would have thought such beauty could be a burden. Annie still wanted to know what kind of man attracted Margaret’s attention so she asked.

“Now don’t take this the wrong way, but I enjoyed time with your husbands more than the time I spent with the others today. Adam was not trying to impress me or win me, so we talked about all sorts of things to pass the time. He is so proud of his wife and son, and you can hear the love in his words. Ben talks the same way. They treat me like a normal person, and they ask about me and what I like just like you’re doing. Hoss was like that on the ride from Carson City yesterday telling me all about animals here and asking me about animals I had seen on my travels, but then today he was just like all the other men.”

“So you’d rather go see a tree frog than having them try to impress you with how much better they are than any other man?”

“Yes, Annie, that’s exactly it. I want to be treated like any person would like to be treated. To many men, I am an object like anything else they can possess. I want to be a friend and confidante not a prize. Hop Sing has been wonderful to me too treating me like a member of the family as soon as I arrived. Hop Sing, I can see why the family loves you so.”

Hop Sing smiled and nodded. He wasn’t quite ready to join in this conversation but had an idea of how he could help one of the sons the next day. Annie was having similar thoughts but would have to enlist Adam’s help. Michele looked over at Annie as she concentrated on her plan. She smiled for she and Annie had discussed helping Hoss with Margaret and now it seemed Annie was formulating a plan. The rest of the evening passed quickly as they learned how to make the noodles and then helped Hop Sing plan the menu for the party. They all agreed to help with the cooking and the baking the day before the party. Michele told Margaret that as a guest she didn’t have to do that and got one of those looks from Margaret.

“Sorry, sorry, I forgot just for a moment that you want to be treated just like everyone else. But I will have to explain to Ben why our guest will be working in a hot kitchen.” The three ladies chuckled at Michele’s comment and then helped to clean up the mess they had made.

Surprised that Annie wanted his help and reluctant to help her play matchmaker, Adam did have to agree that her request was reasonable. “So all I have to do is talk to Hoss and tell him to do ordinary things with Margaret and not try to impress her?” Annie nodded. “All right. I can do that, but don’t ask me to do anything more, please. I’m not comfortable with this matchmaking stuff, and Joe’s going to be upset enough. I don’t want him upset with me.”

“If you do this well, no one will ever know you did anything.”

“No one except you, Michele, and Hoss.”

“Well, yes I suppose that’s true, but we can all keep secrets.”

“While you’re plotting, is there any particular activity that you think Hoss ought to do?”

“No, if he’s himself, I think that will do it. He just has to do what he would do if the guest on the Ponderosa wasn’t the most gorgeous female I have ever seen.”

“Oh, really? I hadn’t noticed.”

That started a pillow fight that ended up the same way all of their fights did. Adam grabbed Annie pinning her arms behind her back and kissing her as he apologized for making her angry. This time it was mock anger so the whole pillow fight only lasted less than a minute. Making up took much longer and made them sleep very relaxed and warm in each other’s arms.

The next morning, Joe was giving Margaret a chance to ride one of the their horses and take him through some of the training they did with the horses. Annie wondered if somehow he had heard their conversation of the night before. Then she realized he was wearing his best shirt and had polished his boots. He was still trying to impress Margaret even if the activity of the morning would be something she would enjoy despite Joe’s efforts to make her concentrate on him. Joe wanted to end his time with Margaret on a picnic, but Hop Sing had told her he had something special for her lunch so she declined. When Joe returned with Margaret from their ride, her horse was behaving as Margaret had done a good job letting him know who was boss. Joe took care of the horses so Margaret could go inside to freshen up before lunch. Adam was working the forge and had his shirt laying over a barrel. Margaret couldn’t help but notice when she dismounted, and she kept looking back as she walked to the house. She saw Annie and Michele as she entered the house. Pointing behind her, she looked at Annie and only had one thing to say.

“You are a very lucky woman.” Blowing a puff of air out to emphasize her statement, she excused herself to go to her room to change clothes.

Annie and Michele walked to the door to see what she could mean. Michele smiled and Annie had a self satisfied look as they watched a shirtless Adam pounding away at metal on the anvil. “She is right. You are a very lucky woman.”

At his desk, Ben had to ask what they were talking about. Annie answered before she went out to talk with Adam.

“Oh, it’s just Adam working at the forge.”

Shaking his head, Ben got back to his paperwork. He was used to women stopping to stare whenever one of his sons was working shirtless. Usually they weren’t members of the family, but then he thought they probably saw it so often, they didn’t need to comment any more. He had to admit his share of staring ever since Margaret had arrived. She was certainly a treat for the eyes. A few minutes later, Hoss walked in from his morning work. He had already washed in the washroom and put on the clean shirt that Hop Sing had handed to him.

“What’s for lunch? I’m powerful hungry.”

Now Hop Sing walked out and handed a basket to Hoss. “All special food. You picnic with Missy Margaret. I promise her special lunch.”

“Well, thank you, Hop Sing, but I don’t rightly know ifn she wants to go on a picnic with me.”

Coming down the stairs, Margaret had heard. “I do like the idea of a picnic. Perhaps it is time to go down to that lake I’ve seen in the distance? Is it far?”

“No, ma’am, not too far. I can take you down to the lake. I’ll go hitch up the buggy right now.”

Annie walked back in and told Hoss that Adam had the buggy ready for him. Hoss smiled and looked over at Margaret. “Ready for our picnic?” Margaret smiled and took his arm. Hoss had the biggest grin he could manage as he walked out with her. Adam was holding the reins and tossed them to Hoss once he helped Margaret up into the carriage.

Annie came out to take Adam’s arm as she looked up at him. “Did you have that talk with Hoss?”

“Yes, I told him to be himself. He didn’t think much of the idea, but I told him you and Michele thought he should try that. He listened because you two suggested it. Apparently he has little confidence in my ability to win women.”

“Perhaps having witnessed how you did with me, he thought perhaps you weren’t the best at winning a lady’s heart and courting her?”

Thinking back to how difficult that had been for him, Adam sighed. “You may be right about that. It’s all up to Hoss now.”

At first, Hoss chatted about the weather and the trees and anything he could think of so he wasn’t talking about himself. Then he did the smartest thing he had done so far. He asked Margaret to compare where she grew up to the Ponderosa so she got to talk about her childhood which then led to the two of them comparing their experiences. At the lake, they hiked up some boulders to see the lake from where Hoss said he and Adam liked to dive into the lake. They enjoyed their lunch up there as Hoss had carried the basket with him. Then they clambered down and walked along the shore. Margaret turned out to be good at skipping stones so they had a few contests to see who could get the most skips. Margaret had more skill but Hoss was stronger so it ended up being close each time. They laughed and took off their footwear and walked in the cool water. As the sun began to dip, both of them regretted that the afternoon was over. On the ride back, they found all sorts of things to talk about. When they returned just before dinner, a perturbed Preston and Joe were waiting on the porch. They heard the two laughing before they saw them which only irritated them more, but when Margaret accepted their escort into the house, they were placated somewhat. Hoss took care of the carriage, and Annie sent Adam out for a progress report.

“Adam, we had a good time. She said she would like to think of me as a friend.” Hoss was a little discouraged by that.

“Hoss, you didn’t think you would be in love after one afternoon, did you?”

“Well, no, but I was hoping for more than being a friend.”

“She considers you a friend, and that’s a great start. Just keep treating her like a friend and see what happens. For now, she appears to enjoy your company more than the other two.”

“Really? You think so?”

“Yes, but don’t make it out to be a competition. She doesn’t want to be possessed by anyone. She’s an independent person and wants to be recognized for who she is and not how she looks.”

“It’s funny, Adam. While we were skipping stones at the lake, she was like one of them gals I went to school with instead of the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. It was fun.”

“Ah, Hoss, you are well on your way. Now, maybe I can get Annie to back off on the matchmaking. Seems like you’re doing just fine.”

*****

Chapter 7

“Where’s Hoss?” Joe grabbed Adam’s arm as he was about to pour some punch at the party. “We agreed that no one was going to monopolize Margaret tonight, and she’s gone and he’s gone.”

“Joe, it could all be quite innocent, and doesn’t the lady get some say in how her time will be spent?”

“Not when we made a deal.”

It was very clear that Joe’s temper was up. He had his shoulders bunched up and he was walking with the stiff legged toe walk he had when he was itching for a fight. To him, Margaret was a prize, and he thought he had the edge in the contest. Adam shook his head and tried to calm him down. “Joe, Margaret is a very intelligent woman. She would not be pleased to know that any of you made a deal about her. She would like to be asked and have the opportunity to make her own decision. In fact, I’m surprised that Hoss agreed to such a thing.”

“Well, he didn’t exactly. Preston and I told him how it was going to be. He nodded and smiled and walked out here. I thought he agreed to our deal.”

“And I’m thinking that the two of you miscalculated on that one. Hoss knows better than to treat Margaret like some prize to be won in a carnival contest. Now there are many lovely ladies here tonight who would appreciate some attention. Why don’t you find a willing partner and dance a bit?” Adam put his hand on Joe’s arm to see if he could get him to look at him. It didn’t work as Joe forcefully threw off his hand and stalked away. Annie came up to Adam after witnessing the altercation.

“Trouble?”

“Oh yeah. Joe wants his allotted time with our guest, and she’s nowhere to be found.”

“I think I saw her go into the stable with Hoss.”

“The stable? I wonder what they’re doing in there.” Looking at Annie, Adam grinned. “But I am definitely not telling Joe, and I’m going in there to find out either. How about a dance, sweetheart?” The two of them forgot completely about the romantic endeavors of the brothers. As soon as Adam’s hand was on her waist, Annie had no thoughts except of him. Adam felt her hand on his shoulder and the other in his hand, and it seemed like the temperature had risen exponentially. Her body pressed against his as they danced and her dress accentuated the curves of her figure quite nicely. “Is Andrew asleep?” At Annie’s nod, Adam had a suggestion. “I think we ought to go check on him.”

“In the middle of the party?”

“We’re not the guests of honor, and we’ll be back soon.”

They were back a lot sooner than they intended for as they reached the house and began to climb the stairs, there was quite a commotion outside. Annie and Adam looked at each other, shrugged, and headed back outside. To say that Preston and Joe were making a scene was putting it mildly. Apparently, with Margaret off somewhere with Hoss, Preston had been decided to put his sights on other young ladies, and when he approached Mary Ellen Martin, Joe got jealous.

Joe started the altercation and it was escalating rapidly. “You’re too old for her.”

“Maybe what she wants is a man, not a boy.” Preston’s comments hit Joe where he was most sensitive.

“You shouldn’t be chasing after her anyway as long as you’re still married.” That brought a hush to the crowd just as Adam and Annie got back outside but also when Margaret and Hoss walked out of the stable. Adam headed toward his brother and his friend stepping between them to try to stop the fight that was about to take place. Unfortunately, he stopped it in a way he had not intended as he got hit by blows from both men who had been aiming at each other of course. Adam dropped like a sack of grain. Both Joe and Preston knelt by his side immediately to see how he was but got pushed aside by Annie who pushed her way through.

“You boys! See what you’ve done with your childish games. Now get back to your corners and sit there until someone tells you it’s all right to come out.” At the efforts of the men to apologize, she sneered and said they could try that with Adam when he got his senses back. By then, Ben was there, and with Annie, managed to help Adam stagger back into the house. Hoss would have been there too but had his own problems. Margaret was still holding the kitten that Hoss had showed her. It had been orphaned and needed to be bottle fed. But more importantly, Margaret wanted Hoss to tell her why no one had mentioned to her that Preston was married. She stood looking at him with fiery eyes waiting for his response.

“Well, you weren’t spending much time with him, and I didn’t know if you knew or not.”

“That is not acceptable. If I can’t have honesty from a man, I don’t want to spend time with him. Now what’s the real reason you didn’t tell me?”

“Well, ma’am, you see, he’s getting a divorce so he won’t be married much longer, and I didn’t see it was my place to be telling tales on other folks. I figured if the two of you did spend some time together, it ought to be his responsibility to tell ya.”

“Well, I still don’t like it, but at least that answer makes sense. Thank you for being honest. Now I believe I have a kitten to feed, and at the moment, I think I would like to do it alone. I have some things to think about.”

In the house, Hop Sing had brought water, cloths, and salve for Adam as Annie wiped his face and applied cool compresses to the rising lumps on either side of his face. “Next time, would you please try not to block those fists with your face, please?

His answer muffled by the sore jaw and the cloths, Adam agreed. It was difficult to understand what he said next so Annie asked him to repeat it. “I’m just glad it wasn’t Hoss and Preston fighting.”

Walking in the front door then, Hoss heard his statement. “I’m real sorry, Adam, that this silliness got you hurt. I guess it is about time to ask Margaret if she wants to spend time with any of us. Maybe she would just like to be with the ladies. We never asked what she wanted.”

Ben stood and put his hand on Hoss’ shoulder. “Son, you have learned a lot about women these last few days. Yes, it would be a good idea to ask Margaret what she would like to do.”

“I agree.” Margaret walked out of the kitchen with a small bottle of milk and egg that Hop Sing had prepared for the kitten. He had showed her how to feed the little one, and then handed her a towel so she could sit on a chair and do just that. “Hoss, I did enjoy our picnic and time at the lake. I wouldn’t mind more excursions like that. I did like learning how to make noodles and then helping get ready for the party yesterday. I liked being introduced to this little kitten. I would like to dance too, but I don’t like men out there staring at me and practically drooling as they line up for the dance they think I owe them.”

Standing at the open door, Joe had heard it all. He walked in a bit sheepishly then. “I’ve apologized to everyone out there that I can. I owe a lot of apologies in here too. Adam, I am real sorry I lost my temper like that and that you got hurt because of it. Pa, I’m sorry to have acted that way at our party. Finally, Margaret, I am very sorry to have treated you the way I did because of how your beat. I wasn’t being respectful of you as a person, and I apologize for that.” Getting nods of acknowledgement all around, Joe thought it best that he keep quiet. He didn’t often get that impulse but knew he should listen to that inner voice this time.

By then, Adam was laying on the settee with his head in Annie’s lap. Ben decided he needed to head out to see to his guests, and with one last scowl for Joe and Hoss, he did just that. Annie looked at Hoss and used her head to indicate Margaret.

“Ah, ma’am, would you like to attend church with us tomorrow? Joe and I would be pleased if you would go with us. Maybe after church, we could take a ride to the lake but look at it from up on the ridges. It sure is pretty up there.”

“Hoss and Joe, I would be very happy to do that. It sounds like a wonderful day. Will we be able to have a picnic? I seldom have been on picnics, and this is such a lovely setting out here for them.”

Joe nodded and smiled. “Yes, ma’am, we’ll help Hop Sing clean up later, and then see if he would put together a basket for us.”

It was clear that Preston was out of the running, and he knew that too. He informed Adam later that he would be leaving as scheduled on Monday so that he could get started on the things he needed to do in San Francisco. He invited Adam, Annie, and the rest of the family to visit any time. He said he would be pleased to have them stay at his place as soon as he had one. The party concluded at a reasonable hour. Hoss and Joe got most of the cleanup duties with some help from Preston and Margaret but they often didn’t know where things were supposed to go limiting their assistance. Adam went to bed with a headache, and Annie had to take care of Andrew.

The next day, Hoss and Joe were on their best behavior especially after they saw Adam at breakfast with a large bruise on either side of his face. Annie was shooting darts with her eyes daring anyone to say anything about it. Her plans for the previous evening had fallen apart and she wasn’t at all happy about that. Adam and Annie stayed home when the others went to church. Adam did not want to have to deal with all the questions that his bruised face would cause. Hoss and Joe took Margaret on a picnic and a tour of the ridges where the views were spectacular. Hoss told her that Adam had once planned to build a house there for his family.

“Was? Why wouldn’t he build here? It’s the most beautiful spot I think I have ever seen with the lake, the trees, and the mountains. To walk out of your house every morning to this would be like living at heaven’s gate.”

“Ah, well, we had some trouble recently at the house. Adam’s worried about having Annie and Andrew out here by themselves when he’s working. Now he’s planning to build nearer to the house just beyond that grove of trees in the back.”

“What kind of trouble?”

So Hoss explained how he had fallen in love with a woman named Marsha who turned out to be on the run after moving all of a major criminal’s assets into accounts that only she could access. Then when he came after them to get to her, she ran away. He mentioned that the authorities were looking for her in New Orleans, but no one had told them if they apprehended her or not.

“How did you meet her?”

“Well I thought it was just by accident, but she knew Adam, and she probably set up the meeting with me so she could get to the Ponderosa. We think she was setting us up right from the start. If we killed Manning, she was free and clear. If Manning killed us, then the whole Nevada government would have been after him, and he would never have gotten away.”

“That’s very cold-hearted. Could she really have been that immoral?”

“Yes, ma’am, she could.” Hoss looked a bit beaten down by having to explain his whole part in that fiasco.

“Yep, big brother here sure knows how to pick em.”

“Joe, that was quite cruel to say that to your brother.” Margaret had looked at Hoss after Joe made that comment and could see that it hurt him.

“Margaret, we tease each other all the time.” Joe got a little testy at Margaret’s comment.

“Yes, I have enjoyed the banter too, but this one went too far. You should apologize, I think.”

“It’s all right, Margaret. He’s like that all the time. Don’t matter none.” Hoss was used to Joe’s barbed and sometimes hurtful comments. Unlike Adam’s comments which were sometimes funny and sometimes barbed but never hurtful, Joe’s had a way of hitting the sore spots with Hoss.

“Gees, Hoss, I didn’t know that bothered you so much. I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right, Joe, but we should think about heading home. Those clouds are moving in fast, and we’re a good hour from home yet.”

They barely made it home before the storm hit. Hoss took the carriage as close to the house as he could, and Joe escorted Margaret inside. They shook the raindrops from themselves at the front door before entering. Ben asked where Hoss was just as thunder rattled the house windows.

“Oh, he’s taking care of the horse and carriage. He told me to help Margaret to the house.”

Ben knew then that Hoss had scored another point with Margaret by putting her first, and taking the onerous job and giving Joe the easy one. Margaret asked if Hoss was going to need some help, and Joe said he could handle everything just fine. Smiling at Joe’s naiveté, Ben grabbed his slicker and one for Hoss and headed to the stable. Hop Sing brought out hot cocoa and cookies, setting a large portion aside that he said was for Mister Hoss as he gave Joe a disdainful look.

“What did I do?” Joe was wondering how he had made Hop Sing upset.

“Perhaps letting Hoss do all the dirty work, while you sit warm and snug inside.” Adam may have said it, but Annie nodded.

“Well I guess I could go help.”

Except that Hoss and Ben came in at that moment with a gust of wind. They took off their slickers and headed for the hot cocoa and cookies. Margaret slid over on the settee making room for Hoss to sit as she gave him a big grin. “Hop Sing said that plate is all yours, big man.”

Annie was sitting on the arm of the chair where Adam was, and she leaned down and kissed him because she was so happy her matchmaking was going so well and didn’t know what else to do. Adam grinned at her happiness while Joe was wondering what all the big smiles were about.

*****

Chapter 8

On Monday morning, Adam brought Preston to town to catch the stage. Preston was only mildly disappointed not to have caught Margaret’s fancy. For him, it would have been only a dalliance as he was looking forward to being with a number of women now that he was getting his freedom back.

“Didn’t you ever cheat on your wife if you were so unhappy with her? It must have been difficult to be with someone so cold.”

“No, I would not have an affair. You must remember that in college, I was very careful with whom I was seen. Now I did visit some houses to pay a fee to get physical relief, but there’s no emotional entanglement and no relationship there.”

“So, you’re looking to do the same thing now?”

“Yes, as I will be quite busy, I would think, getting a suitable residence and setting up the law and business offices for our family businesses. Thank you for all those letters of introduction. They should be a big help. And I am sincere when I say I wish that you and Annie would visit sometime. She doesn’t like me much now, but she may find I do have some qualities to be admired. I am a true and loyal friend, and my business ethics are above reproach which is getting to be more and more rare in this country.”

“As soon as Andrew is weaned, I’m hoping that Annie will accompany me on a trip to San Francisco. It’s usually at this time of year that we set up some of our lumber and cattle contracts, and I would like her to travel with me.”

“Well, I look forward to that, my friend. It has been good visiting with you and learning about the West. There is so much more to life out here than I ever imagined.”

Climbing aboard the stage, Preston nodded. He would travel by stage to Reno and then by train to California. Adam hoped to be making the same trip relatively soon. As he had talked with Preston, he had the distinct feeling that he was being watched, but each time he looked around, he saw no one that he thought was watching. After Preston left, the feeling persisted. He continually looked behind him and saw nothing. Roy stopped him as he was getting ready to head home.

“That little ruckus sure left its mark on you.”

“Roy, I should have known better. Both of them were mad and I should never have tried to step between them.”

“Adam, I done the same thing many a time and wondered afterwards if I shoulda done it, but you know, you stopped the whole situation from getting out of hand, and that’s what I’ve thought too when something like that happened to me.”

“Now you didn’t stop me to compare bruises, so what’s going on?”

“I thought you should know that they caught that gal that Hoss was so fond of. Caught up to her in New Orleans just like you thought they might. Now the problem is that she didn’t rightly break no laws. The money wasn’t hers, but as long as she turned it over, they decided to let her go.”

“Let her go! She almost got my family killed!”

“I know, I know that, boy, but you see, they had to go by the law. What she did was plain mean, but there was no lawbreaking involved. Now that Manning is gonna be hung day after tomorrow at the state prison. But that gal could walk down this street right now, and there would be nothing I could do. Just thought that you and your family would like to know.”

“Do they know where Marsha is?”

“No, they don’t, but they did say she was headed west. Now that don’t mean she was coming here, but I thought you ought to be warned just in case.”

“Thanks, Roy. I’ll tell everyone. You keeping an eye out for her too?”

“You can bet yer bottom dollar on that one. I don’t like what she done, and I’ll be watching her if she shows up here.”

Bidding Roy good day, Adam went to the mercantile for some supplies, and then to the jewelry shop to see if his gift for Annie was ready. By noon, he was ready to head for home. Five hours later on the Ponderosa, the family was wondering where he was. Hoss and Joe had finished work for the day and were sitting on the porch visiting with Margaret. Annie was very worried.

“Adam should be home by now. He said he would be done with a couple of errands and come back for a late lunch. It’s getting close to dinner now and he’s still not back.”

Ben tried to reassure her but was worried too. “Annie, I’m sure he’s fine. Maybe Hoss or Joe can take a ride to go meet him and let him know how worried you are.”

Taking the hint, Hoss immediately stood and headed to the stable. He looked back once, and then after an ‘Oh, yeah’, Joe jumped up to follow him. They saddled up different horses because theirs were tired after a full day of work and headed out as soon as possible. Joe thought they were wasting their time.

“Adam probably just found some other things to do in town.”

“Joe, he wouldn’t go grab a beer or two like me, and he wouldn’t sit in on a poker game for a few or more hands like you. Now would he? Something really important delayed him, or something’s wrong.”

After about a half hour of riding, they saw the carriage horse standing in a pasture. Hoss rode up and found it still in its harness. He dismounted and looked at the harness and found several spots where it had been cut nearly through. As soon as Adam had reached a point on the road that put stress on those weakened spots, one gave way and that caused a chain reaction of the rest of them giving way. It was all very clear to Hoss what had happened. “Harness has been cut. We better hurry along now. Adam could be seriously hurt.” Joe nodded. Neither one of them wanted to even think of the other possibilities. They found the carriage crashed down an embankment only about ten minutes later but there was no sign of Adam. They kept searching and finally Joe spotted a black clad figure leaning up against a tree.

“What happened?” Hoss dismounted and carried his canteen with him to where Adam was sitting.

“I take it you found the carriage and the horse. I felt the harness give way and knew that I wouldn’t have control much longer. With that curve and hill coming up, I decided to jump. It all might have worked out rather well except I landed on a small rock and twisted my ankle. It’s not bad, but it’s a bitch to try to walk on it.”

Joe offered to let Adam ride Cochise. “I’ll ride the carriage horse when we get back there. It’s not that far.”

“Thank you, Joe. I know that’s a big favor.” Slowly standing, Adam accepted help from Hoss to walk to Cochise and then mount up. Joe climbed on the back of Chubb with Hoss and they went slowly back to where the carriage was. “You might want to see if the supplies can be salvaged. If they’re stacked here on the side, we can pick them up rather easily.” Hoss walked down the hill carefully and salvaged what he could while Joe retrieved the carriage horse. They were on their way in less than a half hour.

“Is this going to knock you out of the bronc busting at the rodeo on Saturday?”

“No, I’m hoping Hop Sing will work some of his magic so I can do that. I won’t be racing though. That would be too much.”

“How long ago did it happen?” Joe was sliding into detective mode.

“I left town about noon. What time is it now?”

“Close to six, so about five hours ago. Well whoever cut those traces didn’t follow up. Now I wonder why. Seems like someone was intent on killing you.”

“The traces were cut?” Adam looked from Joe to Hoss and could tell from their expressions that they were serious. “I just thought one of the repairs didn’t hold up. I had no idea it was on purpose. So someone in town must have done it while I was busy getting supplies and other stuff.”

“What other stuff?”

“I saw Roy, I got the supplies Hop Sing ordered, and I checked on an order I made a week ago. I had this funny feeling while I was in town that someone was watching me, but every time I looked around, I didn’t see a man who looked interested at all.”

“What if it wasn’t a man?”

Suddenly remembering the news he needed to relay, Adam also got a strong suspicion over who might be behind this attempt on his life. “You’re right. I should have considered that it might be a woman especially because Roy told me Marsha is on the loose.”

“What?” Hoss turned in the saddle so quickly, he nearly unhorsed himself and had to work to calm Chubb down. “How could she be free after what she did?”

“Apparently no matter how unethical and immoral she was, she didn’t break any laws, or at least she didn’t break any major laws. The authorities allowed her to give up the money and walk away from it. All they know after that is that she headed west.”

“We need to alert everyone on the ranch to be on the lookout for her. She probably hates you, and she can’t have very good feelings about Hoss at this point either.”

“Joe, why would she hate Adam?”

“Cause he’s the one who gave them the tip on how to catch her. She’d be a rich woman living the good life in New Orleans except for his information. They had no idea where to look for her except for Adam’s clue. I’m guessing that someone told her they got a tip or she figured it out for herself.”

Adam finished the rest of the idea. “And now she’s disguised so no one will recognize her. The town is big enough now that someone new to town, especially a woman, can go about town with no one thinking twice about it.”

For the next two days, Adam and Annie spent more time with Margaret than Hoss and Joe did. The two younger brothers had more work to do as Adam was laid up again. Everyone on the ranch was on the alert watching for a woman on the Ponderosa who might be Marsha. Joe rode into town early on Tuesday to let Roy know what they had surmised. With that information, Roy was going to take a more careful look at any women he passed in town. Up in the second floor of the cheapest hotel in the city, Marsha watched Roy looking around at women and realized they probably knew she was in town. Apparently the trick with the harness had not done the job at getting Adam out of the way, but there was rodeo on Saturday with all sorts of opportunities. She had plenty of time to plot.

With nothing resolved by Saturday, Annie wanted Adam to stay at home and skip the rodeo. He refused to be tied to the ranch because of a threat. Ben advised Hoss and Joe not to let Adam out of their sight at the rodeo, and he talked to Candy to alert the men that there might be an attempt to do harm to Adam at the rodeo. With those assurances, Annie reluctantly agreed to attend. She would spend most of her time sitting with Andrew, and Margaret and Michele agreed to stay with her. She knew why. They suspected that a threat against Adam could include her and her son. All three ladies were given small caliber handguns that they could put in their skirt pockets. All of them were surprised when Margaret had told them she could shoot.

“Did you forget that my father was a ship’s captain too at one point? We may be wealthy but our roots are pretty basic. He taught me to shoot when I was about twelve.”

Nothing happened on the way in, and when Roy saw them, he told them that he had not located anyone fitting Marsha’s description at all. Joe and Adam went to the corral first to participate in the draw for horses for the bronco busting. The horses had numbers attached prominently to their halters. Numbers were drawn and the horses and riders were listed on a large chalkboard borrowed from the school. Joe rode in the race, but the betting was slow as most people assumed he would win, and he did. There were shooting contests and all of the Cartwright men participated. Joe and Adam won some of the pistol contests, and Hoss and Adam won some of the rifle contests. They brought their prizes to where the ladies were waiting and had lunch as a big group. Andrew fell asleep so Adam offered to sit with him while the ladies took a walk around the booths. Joe and Hoss had turns in the kissing booth which Margaret found highly amusing. Annie pushed her to buy a ticket for each one. Annie declined to buy any as she assured Margaret that the booth was not meant for married ladies. Then the big event of the day was called: the bronco busting. There was a lot of betting on this event because there were many men who did this so well that no one could predict a winner. People chose their favorites and bet.

After several riders, Joe was up and had a great ride sticking to the back of his horse longer than anyone had to that point. Several other riders had their turns until Adam was up. Joe got concerned as he watched the horse Adam was to ride because the horse seemed highly agitated. Adam got into the chute and out several times as the handlers tried to get the horse to settle down. Finally it seemed the horse was ready. Adam sat down and wrapped the leathers around his gloved hand before signaling to let him loose. It was clear from the first jump the horse made that he was out of his head. He twisted and turned, and made every effort to dislodge Adam who was hanging on at this point just trying to survive the ride. The men in the corral did their best to try to corner the animal to get Adam off its back before he got hurt but couldn’t manage to push the horse into a secure spot. Adam felt every jolt up his spine as the horse bucked harder than any he could remember. His arm was feeling like lead as his muscles ached for relief. Twisting and turning as it continued to buck, the horse threw Adam who crashed into the corral fence putting his left arm out to protect his head and managing to twist in the air so that he hit the fence broadside instead of straight on like a missile. Luckily, the two riders in the corral had managed to slow the horse down some and the throw wasn’t deadly. Hoss and Joe jumped into the corral to help pull Adam to safety as the horse continued to rear and stomp about. Annie and Doctor Martin were at Adam’s side in seconds. After a quick examination, Paul told them to bring Adam to his office for he had a broken left arm and a bump on the head that needed some attention. All in all, it had been very lucky for Adam to have survived at all. With Hoss and Joe on either side, Adam walked slowly to Paul’s office feeling every step as a jolt up his body.

*****

Chapter 9

“It’s jimson weed.” Joe and Hoss had gone to the corral where the broncos were to try to understand why the horse had acted so crazy. They had left Annie and the rest of the family at Doctor Martin’s office so Adam was well protected. Joe had walked around the corral as Hoss had looked in on the horse that was now secured in a stall inside the stable. Hoss heard Joe’s yell, and when he came outside, Joe dropped some green plant material in his hand. “Hoss, somebody fed some jimson weed to that horse.”

“Joe, how do you know that?”

“Hoss, the closest jimson weed to this town is miles away. That didn’t get here by accident, and if you look at it carefully, you can see something sticky on it. It looks like honey to me. That’s how somebody got the horse to eat it.”

“Well, how would anybody know which horse Adam was going to ride?”

Pointing at the chalkboard that still had names of riders and the numbers of the horses they had drawn, Joe looked smug. He liked being a detective even if he didn’t like the reason he was doing it. “Hoss, someone is seriously trying to get rid of Adam. Now who do you suppose it is?” But Joe knew as did Hoss who the likely culprit was. The hard part was going to be finding her they thought, but that turned out to be easier than expected. When they returned to Doctor Martin’s office, they met most of the family leaving. Annie needed to go feed Andrew, and everyone else except Margaret was going back to the picnic area for lunch.

“Adam wants to rest, and Paul said it’s the best thing for him right now. I would stay but Andrew is too fussy and would disturb Adam right now. I’ll bring him back after lunch, and he can sleep next to Adam. That will be good for both of them. Margaret volunteered to sit with him until then, and said she would have lunch with the two of you when you got back. I guess we didn’t expect you back so soon.”

Annie continued on her walk with Michele and Ben. Hoss and Joe began to fill the others in on what they had found out stopping everyone in their tracks. Ben was the first to react. “We should probably leave more than Margaret watching over Adam then. That woman has tried twice already so we should expect she won’t give up.”

“Pa, why don’t you and Michele stay with Annie and Andrew. Joe and me will make sure to keep Adam safe. If you see Roy, could you let him know what we found out?”

Agreeing that Hoss had a good plan, Ben and Michele escorted Annie and Andrew to a quiet spot where they could have lunch. Joe and Hoss reversed course and headed back to the doctor’s office. Joe said he was going around back to make sure no one was there. What he heard as he passed by the open window where Adam was made him duck down and hurry.

“You are a tough one to get rid of. Although leaving a pretty woman as your guardian wasn’t very smart.”

“Why do you want to kill me, Marsha?”

“You keep getting in the way. Without you, they never would have caught me. Now I’m back to see if I can get some help from Hoss, and he wouldn’t do that without talking with you about it. I’m just eliminating complications.”

“What about Margaret? She’s seen you and heard what you had to say.”

“Collateral damage. Can’t be helped in my business. Now I’m just going to wait until the next set of firecrackers get set off by some of those boys outside, so if you have any prayers to say, now would be the time.”

From the office, Hoss had heard everything Marsha said but knew there were a bunch of boys just outside likely to light some firecrackers at any minute. He barged into the room to delay Marsha shooting anyone and hoped that Joe would be there soon to help. Hoss shoved the door open and then stood as if in shock seeing Marsha holding a gun on Adam. Margaret was to her side looking calmer than Hoss would have expected. “Hey, what’s going on here? Marsha, what are you doing?” Knowing his presence had just messed up her plans, Hoss wondered what she would do. He waited with a forlorn expression hoping she would start talking, and she did finally but not in a ladylike way. It was mostly curses.

Thinking furiously, Marsha wasn’t coming up with any more ideas. This had been a desperate plan from the start, and now that it had already failed, she wasn’t certain what she should do. Slowly she regained her equilibrium just as Joe pushed through the door. He was unarmed so she wasn’t too worried about him. “I guess I’ll just have to eliminate the witnesses and cut my losses. There’ll be other chances in other towns.”

As Marsha pointed the pistol at Hoss, she suddenly felt cold steel on her neck. “I don’t think that’s going to work either.” Margaret had drawn a small pistol and was holding the barrel of it tight to Marsha’s neck.

“I could still shoot one of them. Do you want to take that chance? Just let me go and everybody lives.”

“You’re not going anywhere.” Marsha glanced back at Joe who had drawn the pistol he had in the back waistband of his pants. Hoss had drawn the pistol that Marsha had made him drop to the floor. Marsha swung her pistol to the bed planning to use Adam as a hostage to gain her freedom, but he wasn’t there any more. Defeated, she lowered her pistol and Margaret took it from her hand. Two men walked in the room then with pistols drawn.

“We’ll take it from here, Maggie.”

Adam stood up by the bed where he had hidden and had the same dumbstruck look that Hoss and Joe had. “What’s going on here?”

Margaret gave a sardonic little grin. “I suppose I ought to explain. My name is Margaret or Maggie to my friends. I work for the government. I was sent here as soon as we realized Marsha was headed west and that we had lost track of her. Your father knew but no one else, and I would like you to continue to keep my secret if you would please. These men will take Marsha to Carson City where she will stand trial now on two counts of attempted murder, multiple assault charges, and anything else we can find to add to the list.”

“Then you were just using us?”

“No, Joe, I was sent here to protect you. We just didn’t think it was murder that would be on her mind. We thought she was ready to do another scam, but I called for help when I realized she was more dangerous than we had assumed. Sorry about the horse, Adam, but we didn’t know what her feeding the horse would do. I guess there’s still a lot about the West that I have to learn.”

By that time, the two male agents had handcuffed Marsha and led her away. Hoss was looking crestfallen, but Adam was intrigued.

“I’ve never met someone who worked for the government and was so beautiful before.”

“My looks get me close to men a lot faster than any other method. I get information usually. It was only necessity that made me break my cover this time. I couldn’t let her shoot someone.”

“Then everything was a cover story?”

“No, Hoss, my father does know your father, and my father was a sea captain although I don’t think that the two of them knew each other then. My father sailed out of Baltimore. My father is a wealthy man and is in Sacramento right now. He knows what I do, and he supports it. There are far too many dishonest people hurting others. Hoss, is there somewhere we could go to talk?”

As Margaret and Hoss left the room, Adam lounged on the bed rubbing his upper left arm. Joe grabbed a chair and turned it around sitting on it backwards. “All right, did you have any idea about Margaret?”

“None at all. She’s very good.”

On the back porch of Doctor Martin’s office, Margaret was trying to explain her situation to Hoss who leaned against a porch support and stared off into the distance. “I know Marsha hurt you by acting one way and being another. Hoss, I’m not like her.”

“Aren’t you? You just work for the right side, but you did the same thing.”

“No, I needed all of you to act naturally around me. If I told you, you would have acted differently and that would have made it more difficult for me to do my job. Hoss, believe me, please, that when I was with you, I wasn’t acting. I do like you, and I like being with you. That won’t change now because you know what I do, will it? Please tell me that you will still want to spend time with me? You’ve become very important to me in a very short time, and I would like to see you again if you can stand it.”

Hoss dropped his head until his chin rested on his chest. He looked so forlorn that Margaret wanted to reach out and comfort him, but she was afraid he might just bat her hand away. Hoss turned to her then, and she didn’t even realize she was holding her breath waiting to hear what he would say. “So ifn I was to kiss you, you wouldn’t object?”

Margaret almost cried then, but instead stepped toward Hoss. “I would be very happy to kiss you. I had to hold back before because I had a job to do, but I think I can take some time off now and just be me.”

Reaching for Margaret then, Hoss pulled her into an embrace and kissed her with all the pent up passion he had. He wanted to see how she would react. He felt that was the only answer that mattered to him at the moment. When she met his passion with her own, he smiled even though he was kissing her at the time. He leaned back and looked into her eyes. “Can I call you Maggie?”

Smiling Maggie stood on her tiptoes and kissed him gently. “Yes, that would be lovely.”

“I think there’s a picnic lunch that was promised?”

Maggie slipped her arm through Hoss’ elbow and the two went in the house to collect Joe. He held a finger to his lips to indicate that Adam was sleeping and then whispered to them. “I better stay here until Annie gets back. I’ll join you then at the picnic area if that’s all right.” Joe got a grin from each of them. He sat back down pleased with how things had turned out. Mary Ellen Martin had watched him in the race and at the bronc busting, and he had a date for the dance with her. Adam was safe. Hoss was in love. It was a good day.

Maggie extended her stay for two weeks as she and Hoss got to know one another better. Maggie usually worked where the government sent her, but she asked for a permanent assignment closer to Virginia City. They assigned her to fraud cases especially relating to government contracts so she would no longer be working undercover which was a great relief to Hoss. The two planned to spend time together when they could and see if their relationship would develop into more. Annie began weaning Andrew, and Adam made plans for the two of them to take a week to travel to San Francisco. It was the longest he could get Annie to agree to be gone from their son. The foundation work had begun on their new house, and Adam wanted to see what items he could get from San Francisco for the interior and what he would have to order. Joe started spending his weekends with Mary Ellen and Ben hoped that meant his youngest son was thinking about settling down at least a little. As long as he was seeing Mary Ellen, there weren’t any late nights in town gambling and drinking so that much was a relief to the worried father. For a time, Ben could relax a bit and enjoy his life with a wife at his side, and his sons safe and at home.

Adam and Annie went outside for a walk, and Ben heard ‘Je t’aime!’ which he had heard a lot lately from the two of them. He didn’t speak any French but he knew what those words meant just by how they were said. That night as he slid into bed with Michele, he whispered the words to her. She kissed him soundly and whispered to him. “Je t’aime!”

*****

A Bird In The Hand

Chapter 1

Tears were slow to dry on Annie’s cheeks, and were often sliding down again as she thought of leaving her son at home. Adam held her hand and rubbed his thumb across the back of it. There was little he could do to comfort her at this point. He kept getting disapproving looks from the other people in the stage no doubt wondering what this dark man had done to upset the pretty woman so much. He couldn’t ask her to talk about it for it would only make it hurt more so he simply did his best to let her know that he understood. At the first way station, and the second, and then at the third, he asked her if she wanted to go back home. At the third station as they waited for dinner, the two walked outside away from the others for some privacy.

“Do you want to go back home? I can put you on the return stage tomorrow and head off to San Francisco on my own.”

“No, we agreed to do this, but it’s just so difficult. I never thought I could have a child, and then to have Andrew made me feel like I was as rich as a queen. I guess that’s what makes me a bit overprotective of him. He may be the only child I ever have, and I would die if anything happened to him.”

“Sweetheart, I know what you mean. When we married, I was already older than most men who marry and you thought you couldn’t have a child. Then we were blessed with our son. But we also have us and we do a better job of being his parents if we take care of us and our relationship too. This trip is important to us, and we’ll only be gone a week. He’ll probably be spoiled rotten by the time we get back with his grandparents catering to his every whim.”

With a slight smile then, Annie leaned into Adam as he wrapped his arms around her. He was hampered a bit by the light splint he still had on his left arm which was broken when he got a bad ride at the annual rodeo. Annie tried to relax and not worry so much, and thought what she would do was to try to concentrate on Andrew being spoiled as the problem they would face rather than all the other things that she feared. Annie had not been away from Andrew for more than four hours since he was born until recently when he had been weaned. He was eating solid food and her mild could not keep up with his appetite. Adam said he was afraid his son was going to grow up to look like Hoss. Ben said though that Adam had eaten a lot as a child but stayed slender until his twenties. Joe had picked up on that.

“So, what are you saying, Pa? You think Adam is fat now?”

“No, Joseph, what I was saying is that he filled out more as a man later.”

“Yeah, Joe, when he was younger, he was a skinny little snipe like you only taller.” Joe threw his boot at Hoss for that comment.

It was that bantering and those stories that Annie would miss most when they finished building their own home. The foundation was done and the frame was up. Adam planned to get a lot more done once they returned with things that he hoped to buy in San Francisco and ship home immediately. He had told her that if all went well, they would likely be in their new home before Thanksgiving. Ben had already exacted a promise that they would eat lunch or dinner with him and the rest of the family as often as they could. Adam had planned an office in his new house and hoped to start doing some architectural work. He had plans for some of the new elements that were in houses and wanted to make their house a showpiece for his work. So the trip to San Francisco was to finalize some contracts, buy things for the house, and rekindle their romantic relationship. Andrew did not fit into those plans and had stayed behind with the enthusiastic support of Ben and Michele who looked forward to a week of time with their grandson.

“I’ve been thinking about everything, and some things make me so happy, but leaving Andrew behind is just so hard.”

“I know sweetheart. But he’ll be fine, and think of how happy he will be when we get back.”

“But what if he isn’t? What if he just wants to spend time with his grandparents after we abandoned him?”

“Annie, we did not abandon him, and if you think a week will cause any less love between you and your son, then you are very mistaken. You two have a bond that will never be broken.”

“Because I spent only a short time with Mama Inger, about the same time you have had with Andrew, and she is still in my heart and Hoss’ too. He will miss you but not too much with Pa and Michele there. When you get back, he’s going to throw his arms open wide and want to spend all of his time with you.” That image finally lifted Annie from her low and made her smile just to think of it. “There, now when you’re feeling down, just put that image in your mind.”

After Annie dried her tears, the two headed inside for dinner with the driver and the other passengers. After dinner, when Adam stepped outside with the driver and the other male passenger, the two ladies pulled Annie aside for a talk.

“We’ve noticed how sad and worried you are. If that man is hurting you, we can get you away from him.”

“That man is my husband.”

“That doesn’t matter. I got my daughter here away from that abusive worthless piece of trash she married. My husband is outside, and he’ll help.”

“No, no, Adam is wonderful. I’m just sad that we left our son. He’s home with his grandparents while we take this trip, and I’ve never been away from him before.”

“But he dresses in black like some outlaw, and he looks quite a bit older than you. We thought it strange that they let him on the stage.”

“He’s a fine gentleman. He just favors black. If you like, I can have him wear his white or red shirt. He looks good to me in any color.”

Chuckling now, the other two ladies, mother and daughter, both agreed that he did look very handsome. “You are a lucky one, then, to have someone so handsome and strong. What does he do for a living?”

“He’s a rancher. He and his family own a large ranch. He’s delivering some contracts to San Francisco and will work out the last of the terms. We’re also on a buying trip for things for our new house.”

“Oh, you do have a busy life then with a baby, a new house, and a husband involved in a family business. No wonder you had to cry a bit. Now if you need to talk or such, you just know that we’re ready to listen too. You don’t have to be so quiet as you were today. Sometimes talking helps, and it sure does pass the time more quickly too letting you forget your troubles for a bit.”

“Thank you for being so kind. I will do that.”

With two bedrooms for travelers, the way station was nicer than most. The other family took the large bedroom, and Annie and Adam shared the second. Annie had to tease Adam about what the ladies had said. He recounted that he had gotten the start of a stern lecture from the men outside until he explained why there had been tears and sadness. The two of them chuckled over the impression they had made on the other passengers and the driver before nature took over and they began kissing. Kissing led to touching and undressing and a quiet lovemaking with the thin walls of the station and the apparently very observant others.

In the morning, the smell of coffee and bacon awoke everyone as the station manager intended. It was his job to keep the line running on time so he did what he could to motivate everyone to get moving. Within an hour, the passengers were on board and the stage pulled out on time and with good weather for traveling. By the time they got to Reno, all five of the passengers were well acquainted with each other. Adam and Annie bid the other family goodbye at the stage station and headed to the train station for the ride to California. The three family members watched them go and then walked to the telegraph office to send a message that the quarry was on his way.

*****

Chapter 2

“Sweetheart, what would you like to do this evening?” Adam was reclining on his back against the pillows of the bed in a hotel suite in San Francisco with Annie resting with her head on his chest. He lazily combed his fingers through her hair. He loved the soft sensual feel of her hair when it was loose like this. He always asked her to let her hair down when they made love. Today she was wearing a gold and jade necklace that he had purchased for her. That was all she was wearing.

While in the city, they had found that a bath, some wine, and no work certainly had done wonders for their romance. They had made love softly and sensuously that morning as the light of dawn slipped into the room. Then after a leisurely breakfast, they had traveled to some warehouses where they had picked out pocket doors, tiles, furniture, stoves, lamps, and molds for plaster crown molding and ceiling medallions. Arriving at the hotel, they had been hot and hungry. After a bath and lunch, they had adjourned to the bed to enjoy each other’s company. On the day they arrived, it had taken Adam about four hours to finalize the contracts for beef. Since then, they had made the rounds of shops and restaurants as well as two theater performances. They had this one last night in the city before traveling home.

“How about that restaurant you told me about that overlooks the city. We could have dinner there, and then take a nice long coach ride back here to see the city at night.”

“I’ll dress then and go make arrangements. You can rest here a bit longer but not too long because it’s about an hour’s ride to that restaurant.”

“No, I’m fine. I’ll get ready.” With one last kiss, the couple slid from the bed to dress. Adam headed downstairs to talk to the concierge as Annie finished dressing and redoing her hair that was all messed up. She liked that Adam liked to run his fingers through her hair, but it certainly did make it a mess when she had to fix it up nice enough for a fine restaurant. She was putting combs into her hair when Adam returned. He had a funny look on his face so she had to ask him if anything was wrong.

Looking at Annie with the worry lines quite prominent in his forehead, Adam was clearly concerned about something. “I saw Maggie downstairs. She had a proposal to make.”

“From your look, I would guess it has nothing to do with Hoss and a lot to do with something very serious.”

“Yes, apparently she has been working on an investigation that was going on long before she got involved. Preston has brought the Ponderosa to the attention of some less than savory people.”

“How did I know it would be Preston who would get us involved in something shady.”

“No, he didn’t do anything wrong, but apparently he has been bragging up the Ponderosa and the timber and bullion it holds which some here have decided apparently might be worth the effort to take it away from us. Maggie wants me to work with her on setting up a scheme to trap them into trying to do just that, and leaving paper evidence of their activities.”

“Adam, I don’t want you to do it. You are a husband and a father, and those responsibilities should come first.”

“Annie, they do, but do you think dishonest people are going to leave us alone because I’m married and have a son. You and Andrew are at risk just because you’re my family. We have often been a target of unscrupulous men who would rather take from others than work for something. Pa was kidnapped for ransom once. I was held as a hostage by the Paiute. We can’t help that others see us as way to achieve their goals.”

“But you don’t have to get actively involved and put yourself directly in their sights.”

“Sweetheart, we already are. Maggie said the ‘family’ we traveled with on the stage are working for the syndicate that is after the Ponderosa. They were apparently evaluating us, and looking for weaknesses.”

“But they haven’t done anything to us. What were they hoping to find?”

“Maggie doesn’t know, but she said we can meet with some of the men in this investigation tomorrow morning before we leave if we need convincing.”

“Well I am going to need a lot of convincing that you need to put yourself in jeopardy. We could head home and alert the whole family to the threat. We could protect ourselves.”

“Better to know what you’re facing than to have them come at us when we don’t know who it is or what they will be doing.”

“What about tonight?”

“A change of plans is in order. I don’t want to take you to an out of the way restaurant under these circumstances especially when we don’t know what’s likely to happen.”

“Do you really think we’re in danger?”

“I don’t know, but I have this gut feeling that there’s plotting going on that involves us.”

“Who are these people and what do they want?”

“Maggie is outside if you would like some answers.”

Shooting darts at Adam, Annie walked to the door and opened it. Maggie was leaning against the wall outside their room. Annie motioned for her to come in, and Maggie looked sorry to have to do so. She could see how worried and upset Annie was by this news. Maggie felt badly that their vacation had to end on such a sour note, but she wasn’t the one who had dragged them into it.

“First, let’s be clear that I had no intention of involving any of your family in this investigation. However, they have taken an interest in you and your property and you can expect them to move against you soon.”

Standing with her hands on her hips, Annie had one question. “Who are these people?”

“Silver, gold, timber, banking, and railroad moguls have banded together. They’re buying up Senators and Representatives or threatening and blackmailing when they can’t. They intend to control prices and interest rates so that they can use that to force farmers and ranchers into bankruptcy. They’re developing meat packing and other food industries in California to handle the cattle and crops they will soon control. Their reach has only been across northern half of California so far especially along the rivers from Fresno up to Redding. Now they apparently have decided that western Nevada would be a good place to expand their operations. They already have gold and silver interests there as well as branch banks so adding timber and cattle operations would not be a stretch for their resources. The Ponderosa would be the heart of their acquisition, and they could use it to gobble up properties all around it.”

Shocked, Annie had nothing to say. Adam asked if they would stop there.

“Not likely because they have interests in mining, banking, and ranching as far south as Arizona territory and as far east as Colorado. They intend to band together to control the whole west at this point so they can become fabulously wealthy, and there’s little reason to think they can’t do it.”

“Why all the secrecy? Why don’t you go after them directly if you know what they’re doing?”

“Because it’s an octopus already and has tentacles everywhere including the Army, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the Treasury Department. They have ordered men killed, and would kill all three of us right now if they realized how much we know. We also don’t know who the top people in the organization are. We know a number of then top people but not the ones at the top pulling the strings. Secrecy and violence are their standard mode of operation.”

“So you’ve told us enough to ensnare us in your investigation. How does that make you any better than them? You put us in danger.” Annie was very upset.

“No, you were already in danger. Your friend Preston is working with some of these people, but he is unaware of their true intentions. He has been talking about his stay at your wonderful Ponderosa, and suddenly these people decided that would be their next acquisition. We had an agent in Virginia City who was going to contact your family until he saw some of their people traveling with you. He sent messages to us, and trailed the stage all the way to Reno to make sure no harm came to you. Then he went back to Virginia City. He will coordinate operations there.”

“So what do you want us to do?”

“For now, just a few things until we see how they are going to proceed. I want you to go to dinner tonight but at a nearby restaurant so we can keep you under surveillance for your own protection. You are going to be contacted by this organization tomorrow. React the way you would normally react when someone offers you a deal that is so bad, it could ruin you. Then head home. We want to see what they’ll do next. When you’re back on the ranch, three men will apply to work for you. Hire them. No matter what names they use, they will be X, Y, and Z. That’s the code.”

Leaning back in his chair, Adam was thoughtful. “They’re going to offer us contracts with onerous provisions, and when we refuse, they will pressure us into accepting them. Once we fail at those contracts, they will have the Ponderosa.”

“Yes, that about sums up what we think will happen. But by working with us, we’ll have the evidence to show that coercion was used which will invalidate the contracts and their onerous provisions. You shouldn’t lose anything.”

“What about the three men you want me to hire?”

“One is already in Virginia City. He’s the one who alerted us that they were moving much faster than we anticipated. Originally, I was going to make a short return trip to the Ponderosa to visit. While I was there, I was going to tell all of you what was going on. But as things progressed so rapidly and you were already here, it was my job to tell you what was going on. The three men are agents who worked with me undercover. They are very good and will do their best to protect your family.”

“How will we know if you’re successful in this plan you have?” Annie was skeptical and wanted assurances.

“That’s the easiest answer. Nothing will change. Farmers will sell their crops and make their mortgage payments to the bank. Ranchers will drive their beef to market and accept the market price. Properties will be bought and sold at reasonable prices. Banks will give loans based on collateral with interest that is affordable. Criminals will be arrested, and some top businessmen will likely retire. Life will remain as it is, and I may retire from this business altogether.”

“I think Hoss would like that very much.” Adam smiled one of those little crooked smiles.

“After all this, he may not be all that interested in me any more.”

“My big brother will understand. He’s very intelligent. Now I suppose we ought to go if we’re going to have dinner at a reasonable hour. We’ll see you tomorrow morning?”

“Yes, I’ll walk out with you, and we’ll be laughing and talking. Be sure to remind me that I promised to visit the Ponderosa again, and I’ll make some vague promise to do that soon. Then one of you can remind me that we are having breakfast together before you leave. Whoever they have watching you will likely have to stay with you and will hopefully not make anything out of this conversation. Coincidences do happen.”

Dinner was delicious but Adam and Annie could have been eating plain bread for all the effect it had on them. Their minds were elsewhere even if they did hold hands and acted normally. Their minds were in turmoil, and Annie’s gut feeling was that they shouldn’t be cooperating in this investigation, but could give no concrete reason why she felt that way. They went back to the hotel but neither slept well.

*****

Chapter 3

Sitting in the bed in the morning, Annie and Adam were discussing the things they had learned from Maggie the night before. “Adam, will you at least consider the possibility of just going home?”

“Yes, if you can tell me how that helps.” Adam had been thinking of little else since the night before. He realized that his wife and son were likely in some danger as were the other members of his family. Yet he could come up with no reason not to cooperate with Maggie in her plan. This syndicate had set its sights on the Ponderosa and going home and waiting for them to strike was not a very good alternative as far as he could determine. There was a knock on the door, and Adam grabbed his pistol and stood to the side of the door before asking whom it was. Maggie answered and said she had someone with her. Adam told Annie to get down behind the bed, and he opened the door and pushed it away so that the two could enter, but he had both covered. The man followed Maggie into the room and watched Annie stand up from behind the bed with a small pistol in her hand as well.

“You’re alert and prepared. Maggie described you well. You’re going to need all of that now that some amoral powerful people have locked you in their sights.”

Holstering his pistol, Adam looked at Maggie. “And who the hell is this?”

“He’s the man you’re going to meet at breakfast in about an hour. He’s the one who’s going to make you the offer that you will want to reject, but he will threaten you with dire acts so that you will at least take the offer to your father.”

“Then why is he meeting with me and Annie now?”

“Because I wanted you to hear his story. When you do, you will have a clearer idea of what you face now.”

The man did not identify himself as he sat in a chair and gestured for Adam and Annie to sit too. Annie stood defensively with her arms crossed. The man began telling his tale. “I never went against this syndicate. I was married with a child on the way and thinking my life couldn’t be better. I came home from work one day to find my house on fire. My wife was dead inside with just her feet sticking out the front door. I ran to her and pulled her out, and I wish I never had. The look that was frozen on her face of terror and agony will forever haunt me. Her father crossed this syndicate by going to the authorities over what they had asked him to do. He was a judge. They killed him and his wife that same day that they murdered my wife, Analisa, and the baby she was carrying. They all died because the syndicate wanted to make an example out of him. Anyone who opposes them will face those kinds of consequences.”

“They didn’t do anything to you?”

“No, I wasn’t part of the family in their minds, I guess. So I went to the authorities and asked what I could do to find these murderers and bring them to justice. I have worked undercover ever since. I am part of the syndicate. I have broken almost all of the Ten Commandments, taken men’s wives to bed to get information, married a woman and deserted her, and served some time in jail for crimes I’ve committed on their behalf. I did all of that to get on the inside to get information and evidence against the men who did this. We’re almost there. With a little more time, we hope to uncover the heads of these snakes. Even if we don’t, we will cripple the syndicate by arresting those we have. After all, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. We’ll get as many as we can although I still hope we can get them all.”

“You think my wife and my son are at risk, don’t you?”

“I have reason to believe that’s true. I wanted to warn you and tell you enough to know how serious the warning is. I will make an offer to you for timber and cattle. No matter how awful you think it is, you must agree to take it to your father. If you don’t, they will want to do something to ensure that you do. If you want to get your wife home safely, please do as I ask. They have already set their plan into motion, and I can’t stop it. They want the Ponderosa and will do anything to achieve that goal. All I can do is try to make sure you and your family stay safe.”

“I’d say thank you, but it doesn’t seem appropriate under the circumstances. Annie doesn’t want to cooperate. What do you think will happen if we left now and headed home?”

“My best guess is that your wife would be threatened if not kidnapped. They have perfected kidnapping to a fine art. A number of times people who couldn’t be blackmailed were coerced into cooperation by the threat or the actual act of kidnapping of a family member. They more often kidnap children than adults.” That brought a gasp from Annie. “Children make very poor witnesses if they can identify the kidnappers at all. Adults who are kidnapped are not likely to be returned. I’m not sure if they kill them deliberately or if the grueling ordeal is too much for them, but most are found dead. By then, the people they coerced have committed illegal acts and are in thrall to them.”

Annie dropped into a chair and buried her face in her hands. Adam moved to her side and wrapped an arm around her. She looked up at him with tears in her eyes. “Oh, Adam, it’s a nightmare, but I can’t just wake up and make it go away.”

“We’ll do this together, and we’ll have the rest of the family to help too. Let’s get this first step over so we can go home. Then we’ll have to tell everyone what’s going on so we can be prepared.”

Realizing it was time to let Adam and Annie talk it through, Maggie and the undercover man left. Adam sat silently by Annie’s side until she was ready to talk. There wasn’t much left to say. They dressed and packed before going down to breakfast in the hotel restaurant. As they were sitting over coffee, the man who had been in their room showed up dressed as a businessman and pulled out a chair to sit down.

“You don’t mind if I join you, do you?”

“It might help if I knew who the hell you were.”

“Oh, Mr. Cartwright, there’s no need to be rude. I’m here on behalf of some businessmen like yourself, and I have a few offers here to do business with the Ponderosa.” Pulling a sheaf of papers from an envelope, the man handed over the offers. Adam read them and got red in the face as he did so. He shoved the papers back into the man’s hands.

“Those are jokes. We would lose so much money on those, we could just hand over our bank accounts with less trouble.”

“You don’t understand, Mr. Cartwright. You will take these offers to your father, and they will be accepted. If you don’t, who can say what will happen to your beautiful wife or perhaps your son or your brothers. Perhaps even your father will meet with an ‘accident’ if you choose not to cooperate.”

Standing so suddenly he overturned his chair, Adam grabbed the man by his collar. “Don’t you dare threaten my family.”

The maitre’de rushed over to try to end the altercation. Adam waved him off and released the man. “You can leave now.”

“I’m sorry, but you do not seem to understand. I will not leave unless you agree to take these papers back home. Perhaps you would like to travel there soon to visit with little Andrew? Perhaps to have a conversation with Michele or Hop Sing? You see we know all about your family and they are being watched. If you do not cooperate, there will be consequences. Do not go to the authorities or there will be a penalty to pay.” Said with deadly quiet tones, Adam knew how serious the threat was. He begrudgingly accepted the papers. Anyone watching would not have had a clue that they had all acted their parts as planned. It looked real. In many ways, it was real, and now Adam and Annie had the onerous task of going home to tell the family the mess in which they were now ensnared.

After picking up the papers and shoving them into his pocket, Adam escorted Annie to their room where they collected their luggage. After traveling to the train station, they traveled home in the reverse order of how they had arrived. Once they reached Virginia City, they saw the Ponderosa carriage waiting for them. Adam carried the luggage there, and Annie found a note on the seat. Hoss would be back for them if they needed assistance, or they could simply take the carriage and drive out to the ranch. Adam made arrangements for the items they had purchased in San Francisco to be delivered to the ranch, and then the two drove home. It was a quiet journey. They hadn’t talked much in the three days of travel for they were almost numb with worry. Once they were home, they could start making plans, but until then, they felt vulnerable and worried about the safety of Andrew and the rest of the family. Ben and Michele came outside to greet them and were surprised they didn’t look happy at all. Adam had a dark look and his mouth was set in a grim line.

“Adam, what’s wrong? Here we expected you two to be all excited and you look like you’re going to the gallows.”

After jumping down from the carriage, Adam helped Annie down. She had only one question. “Where’s Andrew?” Then she rushed into the house to see him even though he was sleeping in his room. Ben and Michele looked to Adam for some answers.

“There’s a lot we have to tell you. I would feel a lot safer talking about it in the house.”

With those ominous words, Adam grabbed their luggage and headed inside with a puzzled and worried Ben following behind with Michele. Once inside, Adam handed the offers he had received to this father. Ben looked at them and then looked up at Adam.

“These are a joke, aren’t they? These offers are ridiculous.”

“That’s the heart of the problem. They’re real offers and we’re going to have to accept them.”

Ready to explode in anger, Ben calmed with Michele’s touch on his arm and a simple suggestion. “Why don’t we sit down and let Adam explain.” So for the next hour, Adam explained everything that he had learned as Ben and Michele listened and were appalled.

“Son, there must be another way to take care of this.”

“Pa, I’ve been thinking about this for the last three days. I can’t think of anything else to do. Unless you can come up with something, we’re stuck following Maggie’s plan. We’ll tell Joe and Hoss later to see what they think, but I think we’re stuck with no other way out.” Adam said nothing about the dangerous undercover man they had met and that they were going to be hiring three hands who would be working undercover. He thought he had seen someone lurking near the window in back. He was suspicious that the syndicate might have someone working on the ranch because of all the information they already had. The shadowy figure in the shadow of the tree in back confirmed to him that was probably true. He planned to speak out of earshot with his father and brothers about that. They couldn’t let someone like that stay too close, but would have to tolerate his presence for the time being.

The mood in the house was very somber that night. Annie and Andrew were inseparable, and Adam spent as much time by their side as he could. In the bunkhouse, one man, Jim Dolan, was laying back in his bunk with a smile. The plan seemed to be working out just fine so far. His bosses were going to be very happy to learn that Adam had given the contracts to his father and urged him to accept them. Dolan had learned how much could be heard from the house by walking around the perimeter and leaning up against a tree in the back which was near an open window. He was surprised that the government investigator had encouraged them to participate, but then he thought that perhaps she just wanted to keep them safe, and this was the way to do that.

*****

Chapter 4

On Tuesday, Ben signed the contracts, put them in an envelope, and asked Joe to take them to town to mail. Ben was appalled that he had to do it, but like Adam, he could think of no other way out of this attempt to take the Ponderosa away from them. They had enough witnesses that they had been coerced into agreeing to the contract terms and had to hope that would be enough. On the way to town, Joe met three riders. Based on the information from Adam, he knew that these had to be the undercover agents but gave nothing away because someone could be watching.

“We’re not hiring on at the moment as far as I know, but you could go ahead and ask my Pa if you have the time to waste. Just keep riding down this road, and you’ll come to the ranch. Pa was sitting on the porch when I left. Tall, gray haired man. He’s the one you need to ask.” Joe tipped his hat and continued on his errand. Unlike the others, he rather enjoyed this cloak and dagger stuff. Life was a lot more exciting to him with the mystery as long as he had the whole family there together to face the challenge. Hoss had been so angry at breakfast over the threats to his family that Ben had suggested he might want to tackle some wood chopping or forge work to pound out some of that energy. Adam had stood next to Hoss after breakfast with neither of them saying anything. Joe had walked up and put a hand on each of their shoulders.

“We’ll do this. There isn’t anyone out there who can hurt us when we stand together.”

Adam had smiled a little smile and nodded although his fears were not so easily allayed, but he did appreciate the support of his youngest brother and his efforts to buoy their spirits.

Hoss was more direct. “Joe, it’s just so hard when you don’t know who the enemy is, and when they might come at ya. It’s like when we’re out hunting. If ya run across signs of a wolf pack, it isn’t as scary as the tracks of just one lone cougar cause you know that pack will come at ya direct, but that cougar will lay in wait on a tree branch, in some brush, or up on some boulders jumping ya when ya least expect it. That’s what this feels like. I’m worried about what’s gonna happen next. I just think that they know more than we know, and that’s a big problem.”

“Hoss, we just have to be alert and ready for them. As long as Pa signed these contracts, there shouldn’t be any trouble right away.”

Leaning over Ben’s desk, Adam spoke softly. The window over the desk was closed. “What about Dolan? Now that I described who I thought I saw outside, Hoss and Candy have confirmed that the description only fits him. He’s a new hire so it all makes sense, but I don’t like him being so close.”

“Adam, I know how you feel. I’ve alerted Hop Sing to watch for him sneaking around the back. Candy is watching him too. For now, son, I think we have to tolerate him. I wish the men who were going to be here to help would arrive soon. Maybe one of them can give us some advice.”

So as Joe rode to town with the contract offers signed and ready to be mailed, he knew his father would welcome the three men. All he had to come up with was a plausible reason to hire them when they weren’t hiring. But Joe knew that sometimes his father would hire some men for a week or two to do some task simply because he couldn’t bear to turn them away without a stake. He figured there would be three more men in the bunkhouse by that evening. As the three men entered the yard of the Ponderosa, Ben stood to greet them. He thought he probably knew why they were there but waited for the whispered code word. When they stated their business and dismounted, Ben walked up closely to them to explain they were not hiring. One whispered very quietly the x, y, and z code. Adam walked out at that point and asked what the three men wanted.

“Adam, they would like some work, but I told them we’re not hiring.”

“Maybe the ranch isn’t, but I am.” Dolan perked up at those unexpected words. He was listening from his position near the corral where he was supposedly fixing loose rails and was relieved with the next words though for it made sense. “I’m building a house and I need some men to do some heavy lifting and carrying as well as putting on the roof and the side walls. Are you familiar with a hammer, nails, and saws? In other words, do you have any carpentry experience?”

“Not too much, but we did help a rancher build a bunkhouse once, and of course we’ve had to do repairs on stables and such at ranches where we’ve worked.”

“Good enough for me, Pa. They can do the rough work as well as anyone else I can hire.” Looking directly at the men, Adam introduced himself and asked their names. When the introductions were done, he asked them to walk with him to the building site. Once out of earshot of the house, he explained about Dolan and asked what they should do.

“Dolan is a wanted man in California. If Maggie gets here, she would recognize him right off and arrest him. Then you could get him over to Carson City for extradition to California. They probably sent him because things are too hot for him in California right now. He got in trouble in Fresno killing some people. The syndicate doesn’t have enough clout there yet and he’s low on the totem pole so he’s expendable. They sent him here to watch you, and they won’t mind that much if he gets caught.”

“Don’t they need to have someone watching us?”

“They do. They’ll be sending someone else, and we have a pretty good idea who it will be. It will be someone you know who’s let them get their tentacles around him. He’ll probably have mixed feelings about what he’s doing. We’ll see how it works out. Meanwhile, Maggie is on her way. You should be receiving a wire soon. I hope she’s still welcome here?”

“She is. She isn’t responsible for this mess, and hopefully she can help get us clear of it.”

“I’m glad you think that way. Maggie means the world to us, and we would hate to see her get hurt. Now I suppose you ought to get us set so we can work tomorrow. We’ll be bringing more firepower as soon as we can. This building location ought to be good to store it as soon as we can raise a few walls and get that roof on.”

“We’re going to need more firepower?”

“In a few weeks, when those contracts are due, you know you’re going to court to challenge them. Maggie and a few others will be there to testify that you were coerced into accepting them. Throwing down that gauntlet will cause a major reaction. We don’t know what it will be, but it will be something big. They cannot let anyone challenge them successfully or their whole scheme falls apart as others will challenge until they lose all the control they’ve built up. So yes, we may need more firepower. We don’t know what they’ll do.”

“Should we send the women and my son away so they’ll be safe?”

“If we knew of someplace where we could be sure they would be safe, yes, but unfortunately we don’t know just how far their tentacles have already extended. For now, we need to work here where we know all of you can be protected. We have about three weeks to think of ways to protect you and your family. Any suggestions you have, we’ll listen. Anything you can do to protect yourself is a good idea too.”

“Well, first, getting Dolan out of here is a must. I’m not comfortable with one of them right in our midst. Let’s go back and I’ll show you where to bunk in and where you can put up your horses.”

The three men walked with Adam asking questions about the house he was building and about the ranch so that when they walked past Dolan, it seemed like any three hands talking with the boss. Dolan relaxed. He was facing the rope in California so he needed to keep this job of informant and watchdog. He knew the syndicate would not accept another failure from him.

About lunchtime, Joe returned and he had news. He handed his father the telegram he had picked up in town. Ben read it and handed it to Hoss who smiled but looked worried too. Maggie had asked if she would be welcome to visit again. Adam had already informed Ben and Hoss that she would be back. Hoss had some mixed feelings that he had to sort through before he saw Maggie again. He loved her, but he didn’t like her working in such a dangerous occupation. He had thought that once she was no longer undercover that she would be in a safer position but had found that was not true. He asked if he could be the one to meet Maggie in town. Ben smiled and agreed, but Adam saw the troubled eyes and asked Hoss later if he wanted to talk. The two brothers walked outside quietly and ambled over to the corral. Leaning against the fence, Adam said nothing letting Hoss think through what he wanted to say.

“Adam, I love her, but I can’t stand what she does to make a living. I can’t see a future for us with her doing that.” Adam nodded and said nothing. “Well, ain’t ya going to say nothing? Even one of your smart mouth comments?”

“Hoss, there’s only one answer as far as I can determine.” Looking hopeful, Hoss waited. “You’ll have to marry her and get her to live here.”

Shocked beyond measure, Hoss only stared for a moment. “It’s like you can read my mind. It’s kinda spooky. I was thinking just that, but I didn’t know if it made sense to do it with a gal like Maggie.”

“Why? Are you thinking she’s too beautiful to live on a ranch or are you thinking she’s too beautiful to marry you?”

“Mebbe both, at least a little.”

“Maggie is a very intelligent woman and saw the true worth of you as a man right away, well as soon as you stopped trying so hard to impress her. She’s happy when she’s with you. That counts for a lot.”

“So you think I should ask her?”

“That’s your decision, but I would support you completely if you decided to go that way and help you in any way I could.”

“Thanks, Adam. You’re a really good older brother and an even better friend.”

It would be two more days before Maggie was due to arrive. Other guests showed up unexpectedly. The next morning as they sipped their coffee, all of the Cartwrights were discussing what had happened. The sound of a carriage arriving was a surprise, and everyone walked to the door wondering what was going on. Annie and Michele didn’t know who it was, but Adam groaned a little so they knew he wasn’t happy to see the new arrivals. Ben walked out first to greet the group and a little girl jumped from the carriage and ran to throw her arms around Adam’s legs.

“Good morning, nephew. And to what do we owe this surprise visit?”

“Uncle, I’m in trouble and I need your help.” With that, Will tied off the reins and climbed down before helping Laura and Aunt Lil from the carriage. Ben smiled and escorted them into the house.

Looking at Adam’s pained look, Annie had to ask. “So now we have the woman who cheated on you with your cousin, and your cousin too?” Adam nodded but Peggy was upset.

“My Mama does not cheat. Who are you anyway?”

Everyone inside heard Peggy’s comment and knew this was not going to be a pleasant situation. Ben asked everyone to please be seated and asked Will to explain what had happened.

*****

Chapter 5

For the next hour, Will had center stage though. “I was doing well in business until those typhoons last year sank one of the ships in which I had invested heavily. That led me to mortgage my shipping business to the hilt hoping that the profits on the other cargoes would make me solvent again, but the bank called my loan before the ships got back to port. It was all a giant set-up to get my business and me. They had me do just a few favors for them at first, and then they had me ship in some cargo that turned out to be stolen. I was going to be arrested, and I would have had no defense because all the pertinent documents were signed by me. It was another great set-up. They interceded on my behalf, and I was cleared. What I didn’t know was that they used blackmail and coercion to get that done for me. I am complicit now in all sorts of crimes. I was still going to stand up to them except they threatened my family. I said I couldn’t do what they asked, and then they said they had another job for me. I was to travel here to keep an eye on you and your family and report back to them. Uncle, they already have someone else here reporting back to them. They know you are working with a government investigator, and that doesn’t seem to bother them at all.”

“Will, what do you plan to do next?” Ben needed to know where they all stood.

“I’m not sure. Aunt Lil still has property in San Francisco, but I didn’t want to leave her there because of what they might do to her when they find out I’m not following their orders. Somehow I need to find a place where Laura and Peggy and my son can be safe too. I agreed to come here because we’re family, and we’re all in this mess now.”

“Will, tomorrow that government investigator gets here. We’re hoping that she can help us deal with some of this.”

“She? The investigator is a woman?” Laura was more shocked than Will. She had been used to being the only woman in a gathering of Cartwrights, and now there were two more with Michele and Annie with a third was on the way.

“Yes, her name is Margaret or Maggie, and we are very fond of her. In fact, one of us is very fond of her.” Hoss blushed a little so that everyone who didn’t know now knew who was sweet on Maggie. “She has been a great help to this family, and is coming here to help us again. It’s going to be a bit crowded here with everyone, but we’ll find a way to make everyone fit. Lil can have the downstairs room, but she’ll have to share with Peggy. Will, you and Laura can have the guest room upstairs that used to be Adam’s room and your son will have to stay there with you.”

“I thought perhaps our son could share a room with Adam’s son?” Laura was hoping to have a more agreeable stay without their son in the same room.

“No, that small room will have to be for Maggie. Andrew will move in with his parents when Maggie arrives. As I said, it is going to be a bit crowded with everyone here but we have room.”

Besides being crowded, the tension in the house was palpable. Adam was not comfortable with Laura and Will being there. In addition, Peggy tried to reinstate her old relationship with Adam who felt that it was inappropriate for Peggy to treat him as her father when she now had a stepfather who should fill that role. Annie couldn’t help a few hostile comments directed toward Laura, and Aunt Lil was trying to figure out a way to manipulate the situation to her niece’s benefit. All of that added to the stress created by the situation that the syndicate’s threats and actions had already caused. Hoss was relieved to escape to go pick up Maggie in town, and Joe rode with him because Ben said no one in the family should travel alone under the circumstances.

As Hoss rode to town, his mood lightened just at the thought of seeing Maggie regardless of the circumstances. Joe and he chatted about how uncomfortable the atmosphere in the house had become and how Maggie might help with that. Soon Joe was teasing Hoss about Maggie and asking him what his plans were in regard to Maggie.

“How come you’re so sure I got plans with Maggie?”

“Hoss, every time someone mentions her name, you sit up straight, and if they say anything about you liking her, you blush. I know you must be thinking about something that could make you blush so spill it. What are you going to do?”

“I’m not sure exactly but I got some ideas.”

“You’re going to ask her to marry you, aren’t you?”

“Now, Joe, how did you get that from what I said?”

“It’s not just what you said. I saw you when you came back inside after you and Adam had that talk. You looked so sure of yourself then that I thought you probably had made that decision. What you said right then made me think that again.”

“You and Adam gotta stop reading my mind. It’s doggone spooky.”

“All right, but no hints or nothing. I want to ask her in my own time and my own way. So you better be just like Adam and keep it all to yourself or I’m gonna pound you into a fence hole and string barbed wire round you and leave ya there till next spring.”

Adopting a more serious mien, Joe pulled his horse to a halt which cause Hoss to stop the carriage too. “Hoss, I am really happy for you. I would never do anything to jeopardize that. You know you can always ask for my help if you need it, don’t you?”

“Yeah, guess I do. Thanks, Joe. You and Adam are a lot alike.”

“Don’t go telling him that and getting him mad.”

“Why would it get him mad? He already knows it.”

The two brothers finished the ride into town and waited for the stage. When it arrived, Hoss lost all of his resolve to remain calm and in control. He helped Maggie step down from the stage and then leaned forward to kiss her on the cheek. Although surprised, Maggie did not object and smiled. Hoss leaned down and gently kissed her on the lips then. Joe leaned back on the bench where he was sitting and enjoyed the looks of townspeople who stared at what must have been the most beautiful woman they had ever seen kissing Hoss Cartwright right out in front of everyone. Joe knew the rumor mill would be busy for the rest of the day and probably the rest of the week. The ride back to the ranch was pleasant as the two brothers filled Maggie in on the recent developments and some family history so she could better understand the dynamics of all the people in the house.

When Maggie arrived, she was shocked though at the change in atmosphere in the home. When she had been there last, everything had been so relaxed. She had been informed by the undercover man in San Francisco that Will would be sent on this task but had not realized he would bring his entire family with him. Apparently the syndicate men thought he was cowed enough to do their bidding but had been very wrong in that. The other big shock for Maggie was seeing Dolan walk into the bunkhouse as she arrived.

“Do you know that you’ve hired a wanted man and one who works for the syndicate?”

“Yes, we know. We were hoping you would have a solution for that.”

Adam was very direct and Maggie appreciated that. Sometimes people tended to try to make it appear that they had things under control when they did not. This honesty from the Cartwrights was so refreshing, but Maggie guessed that perhaps she had been spending too much time in the company of dishonest people and had lost the sense of the innate goodness of most. As things were explained to her, she was sitting on the settee with Hoss at her side. It made her feel comfortable and welcome.

“I should go arrest him right now. I have the authority to do that. Then I should take him to Carson City. This thing is too complex already to have another variable we can’t control. Who wants to come with me as backup?” Hoss never said a word but stood up. Joe and Ben did as well even as Ben put a hand on Adam’s.

“Stay with your family. We have enough to do this.”

Nodding in response, Adam looked at Will who got the same but unspoken message from Ben. The two men had more lives to think about than just their own. Dolan had seen Maggie arrive and they found him hurriedly saddling his horse. He had taken the time to pack his meager possessions and that was all the time needed for him to be apprehended. Hoss led him back to the bunkhouse where he had the men tie his hands and feet and then lay him on his old bunk.

“I’ll take him to Carson City tomorrow. Who can come with me?”

Again it was understood that Hoss would go. Joe volunteered but Ben nullified that. “Hoss and Maggie should have a chaperone. I’ll go.” That ended that discussion. Hoss shook his head though for apparently his father had drawn the same conclusion as Adam and Joe. He decided he better ask Maggie soon before everyone knew except her.

Dinner was served in shifts because not everyone could sit at the table at once, and Hop Sing would have trouble having food ready for twelve people at once for every meal. Adam and Will ate with their families first so that the children could go to bed early enough. With Annie busy feeding Andrew, there was less tension between her and Laura.

Ben sat with his sons and Maggie for the second serving and discussed their next steps. Maggie explained that they would leave Dolan in custody in Carson City and perhaps his dire circumstances might get him to talk. If the authorities didn’t hang him, the syndicate would kill him assuming that he had turned on them. Knowing that, he might talk in order to get a lesser sentence. Even though giving a murderer a twenty-year sentence instead of an execution was odious, it could also mean that many less people would die or be ruined so the trade-off was likely to occur if Dolan was agreeable.

“Mr. Cartwright, the next step is to file a petition with the court to have those contracts invalidated due to coercive methods. That will alert the syndicate that we are ready to stand against them, but it also means that the heads of the snakes may have to show themselves by meeting together to decide what to do about your challenge. If that happens, arrests will be made, charges filed, and this whole thing can be left to the courts to finish.”

“That’s a very big what-if. What do we do if there is no meeting?”

“Then we still plan to move ahead with arrests. It will be disappointing to get the lower level operatives and not those who put this plan into motion, but we have too many people undercover now and at risk as well as your family and others. It’s time to end this, and if we have to take just the bird in hand instead of the two in the bush, then that’s what we’ll do.”

“That seems to me to be the more likely scenario.”

“The way things have been going, Mr. Cartwright, it does to me too.”

After dinner, Hoss asked Maggie to walk outside with him as the Adam and Joe grinned at Hoss causing him to shake his head. Annie slapped Adam on the arm to stop him, but Joe had no one to make him behave until Ben gave him a light slap on the back of the head.

“Hey, what was that for?”

“Just a reminder to mind your manners. Now find something to do and no spying on your brother.”

Outside Hoss was unaware of Ben’s admonition to Joe but would have been grateful if he had known. He walked with Maggie and took her hand. She gripped his in return.

“Maggie, I know this ain’t the best time to bring this up, but there’s something I just gotta say to you. I don’t like the job you do and the danger you’re in. Now I know you might not like hearing me say this, but I worry about you. I don’t want nothing bad to happen to you.”

Quietly and hoping she knew the answer, Maggie had only one question. “Why do you feel that way, Hoss?”

“Dadburnit, Maggie, cause I love you. There now I done said it so you know what kind of crazy fool I am, but I can’t help how I feel.”

Without saying a word, Maggie answered him. She pressed one hand softly to his cheek and wrapped the other around his neck pulling against him. Hoss didn’t need much convincing. He leaned down to kiss her as he wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her tightly to him. The kiss deepened and lasted. When they finished, both were nearly breathless.

“Wow, now that is not what I expected, but dadburnit, you just made me the happiest man in these parts. I just never believed until this moment that somebody as beautiful as you could ever care for a man like me.”

“Hoss, you intrigued me from the first time we met. Once you started acting like yourself instead of like a moon bear, then I found I liked everything about you. You make me feel like a woman and not an object. I like being with you. I like doing things with you.”

“Maggie, when this is all over, would you like to do things with me all the time? I mean, would you like to live here?”

“Hoss, what are you asking?”

“Dadburnit, I wish I was smooth like Adam, but what I want to ask is will you marry me?” That question was answered with a kiss too, and then a whoop from an upstairs bedroom. “I’m gonna kill him. That little whippersnapper is gonna get it.”

“Hoss, won’t it be easier walking inside if everyone already knows?”

“Yeah, maybe you’re right.”

“So for now, you don’t have to do anything to Little Joe, but it would be fun if you acted like you were going to. I wouldn’t mind seeing him run.” With a wicked glint in her eye, Maggie smiled at Hoss who suddenly knew how well she was going to fit into his family.

*****

Chapter 6

When Hoss and Maggie entered the house, everyone was trying to hold back grins but a few were not very successful. Adam looked over the top of the book he was holding to greet Hoss and Maggie.

“So, how was your walk? Pretty nice out there tonight, isn’t it? With all that moonlight, one could almost be expected to wax poetic.”

“Dadburnit, I know you all know. I was thinking we could all have some champagne or wine or something to celebrate once I get done throwing Joe into the horse trough.” Hoss turned to Maggie who was looking as upset as Hoss was because Joe had preempted their announcement. Hoss began to excuse himself so Joe used that moment to race toward the kitchen and safety outside. Hoss yelled after him that he was coming to get him but never moved from Maggie’s side. Maggie grinned at Hoss.

“That was fun. Is he always that easy?”

The first to understand, Adam was the first to congratulate Hoss and give Maggie a bow. “Bravo, my lady, you are going to fit into the family quite well. I shall look forward to your next performance.”

Soon there were congratulations all around and a lot of laughter at the prank they had played on Joe. Joe opened the front door at one point to see if it was safe to come back in and Hoss made to chase him. Joe ran once more. He was outside another half hour before he tried it again. By then, Hoss and Maggie were seated on the settee in front of the fireplace in quiet conversation with everyone. Joe ventured in nervously and said he was going up to bed. Everyone wished him goodnight, and he went up the stairs relaxing now that Hoss wasn’t chasing him and everyone was smiling. It would be weeks before anyone told him he’d been the victim of a prank.

Laura was on edge. She wasn’t happy with Will and the trouble he had brought to her and their children as well as Aunt Lil, but she could hardly chastise him in front of Ben and the others without making herself seem like a shrill wife. So instead she baited Annie.

“Well, now that you and Adam have one son, Annie, when are you two planning to have more. I can’t imagine Adam being satisfied with just one son. He always wanted the best of everything. I would think he would want to have more before you get too much older.”

Will and Laura did not know how sensitive a subject that was. Adam did and suggested that it was time to head up to their bedroom. Annie went peacefully but Adam could see how upset she was. When they got to their room, he pulled her into a strong embrace. They had to whisper because Andrew was asleep in their room.

“I wanted to claw her eyes out. I could have easily smashed her in the mouth.”

“Thank you for showing restraint. We have enough trouble around here already.”

“What did you ever see in that woman? She is shrill, tiresome, boring, irritating, and generally so self-centered as to be useless.”

“Well, what do you really think?” Adam tried to lighten the mood with humor but failed. So he tried sincerity and love. “But you’re the one I married. You’re the one I need. You’re sweet, fascinating, capable, smart, and all those things I needed in a woman and didn’t know until I found you. Or rather, you found me and saved my life. I love you, Annie, and never forget that. I love you more than life itself.”

“Oh, don’t say that. That’s too extreme.”

“But I mean it. I can’t see how I could live without you.”

“But you would have to because we have Andrew. We live in our son no matter what.”

While they were talking, Adam had been unbuttoning the shirtfront dress Annie was wearing. The more he unbuttoned, the less angry she was and the more amorous. Soon she was unbuttoning Adam’s shirt and they forgot all about Laura and her biting comments and reveled in giving and receiving pleasure. Adam kissed his way down her neck and along her shoulder as his hands held her and caressed her. Annie leaned into him allowing him to touch her as much as he wanted for she loved how those strong hands could be so gentle. They had a very invigorating time together although they had to be quieter than usual so they wouldn’t wake their son and bring a sudden halt to the lovemaking.

In the morning when Adam walked downstairs with Andrew on his hip and with his arm around Annie’s shoulders as her arm was wrapped around his waist, everyone else was already downstairs. Ben and his sons smiled to see the family so relaxed, but Laura had a sour look. She had never had Will walk her down the stairs like that. Of course if he had tried, she would likely have pulled away thinking he would demand more of her. When she saw Adam and Annie stop at the bottom of the stairs to kiss their son, she was even more dour.

Adam volunteered that he and Annie with Andrew would eat breakfast by the fireplace so that everyone else could sit at the table. Adam sat in the blue chair and Andrew stood between his legs with a hand on each knee. Adam leaned forward and alternately fed himself and his son. Annie sat with a plate of food watching her son and husband with undisguised love and pride. Soon almost everyone at the dining table was watching the scene by the fireplace and smiling. Hoss leaned over to his father.

“Dang it, Pa, those two should really have more children who would be so lucky to have those two as parents.”

“I know, Hoss, but Andrew was quite a miracle. It’s probably too much to expect that there will be any more.”

Picking up on that conversation, Laura had her first ammunition to use against Annie and realized why Adam had suddenly decided that it was time for bed the previous evening. Her intent to needle Adam had struck at Annie instead. Well as far as Laura was concerned, that was fair. She was an unhappy woman, and found it very difficult to see others happy. She had to live with Will and Peggy who seemed happy most of the time, and loved Johnny. Even Johnny’s happy disposition was sometimes irritating to his mother. Even her Aunt Lil seemed happier than she was and often counseled Laura to be appreciative of what she had instead of still desiring what she didn’t have. But Laura was determined to be unhappy and dissatisfied with her life. She would wait for her opportunity to make sure others felt that too. This latest mess in her life she blamed on all of the Cartwrights, and she thought that they deserved to have to pay for what they had done.

After breakfast, Hoss got four horses ready for the trek to Carson City. Hop Sing packed food for them, and Ben and Maggie got Dolan from the bunkhouse. Maggie had handcuffs with her so the ropes were removed and Dolan was cuffed with a rope running from the cuffs to the saddle horn. Hoss would lead his horse so he couldn’t bolt on them. They planned to be gone until the next day.

“Adam, remember to file that petition with the judge. And don’t travel alone. We don’t need them taking a hostage, and Maggie thinks they may try to do that before this is all finished.”

“Pa, I know, and we’ll make sure to keep guards on the perimeter especially at night. The three new men we hired are good at that.”

The last statement made Dolan sneer. He had heard them refer to Maggie the night before, and that familiarity let him know they were undercover agents, but he also knew one of them better than the others. He didn’t know if it would do him any good, but he was getting desperate. Once Dolan was delivered to the authorities in Carson City, investigators went in to lay out his options for him. As expected, he turned on the syndicate. The deal was that he would serve his time in a state prison outside of California and Nevada, and he began spilling names. Maggie sat in on the questioning hoping to find more clues to follow in the effort the syndicate was making to acquire the Ponderosa. The next morning, as Dolan began to tell even more secrets in exchange for an even lighter sentence, she was shocked to find that one of the men Adam had been told to hire was a double agent. He was working for the syndicate. Once she heard that, she rushed from the jail to send some wires and then to contact Hoss and Ben for they needed to get back as soon as possible.

That same morning, Adam was in town filing a petition with the judge to invalidate the onerous contracts due to coercion used to get them to sign. The judge seemed agreeable and offered to hold the hearing that afternoon. Adam and Joe went to get some lunch, and then headed to the courtroom at one to get what they hoped would throw those contracts out. Instead, the judge was very short with them and told them they would have to honor the contracts. He said they had signed them in good faith, and that it would be a travesty of law to set aside perfectly agreeable contracts just because someone changed their mind. Adam was incensed.

“What happened to the reasonableness of terms that you referred to this morning, and the stench of corruption surrounding such odious terms. You have completely ignored the coercion that was used. Threats to life certainly ought to be enough by itself to get you to throw these contracts out.”

“Threats to life happen out here all the time, and men make their decisions and live with them all the time. Every one of us faces such choices. You made your choice, and now you have to live with it, just as I and my family have to live with this one.”

As Adam was ready to say more, he halted. Something in the judge’s words gave him pause. He looked at the judge and then at Joe who was staring at him wondering what he was going to say. “It’s no use. He’s just an ignorant circuit court judge. We need to take this to a higher court. C’mon Joe, let’s go.”

Following Adam from the courtroom leaving the judge and bailiff alone, Joe grabbed his arm halting him and had to ask what that was all about.

“Joe, did you see his expression and the way he kept glancing at the ‘bailiff’? I’ve never seen that man before either. And do you recall what his last words were as he said he and his family would have to live with this one? Joe, we need to get over to see Roy. The judge and his family are in danger.”

“Adam, you got all that from those couple of sentences he gave us? You sure it isn’t just your suspicious mind at work?”

“Maybe, but first let’s make sure the judge and his family are safe.”

They headed to Roy’s office and found both Roy and Clem there discussing hiring more deputies. Adam filled them in on everything that had happened with the judge that day especially his rapid reversal of opinion, and then the man acting as bailiff that neither Adam nor Joe recognized.

“Now, you boys sometimes get a mite suspicious, but I have to agree with ya on this one. Judge Henry is a reasonable man and would never talk that way to someone in his court filing a reasonable petition. As far as I know, his bailiff Darcy is in fine health and I saw him just the other day in town. Ain’t no reason for another bailiff to be there.”

Roy instructed Clem to find some men and deputize them to go to the Henry home and see if the family was all right while Roy went with one deputy to see about the judge. Adam and Joe offered to accompany Clem on his task. Adam had one more thought before they left.

“Roy, if they were able to act so quickly, they have more men in town than we thought. They’re getting ready to take over so be real careful who you hire.”

Assuring Adam that he was always careful in his hiring, Roy was determined that this time he wouldn’t hire anyone he didn’t know and told Clem to do the same. Clem hired a couple of out-of-work miners as he walked with Adam and Joe to the Henry house high up on the hill. Joe and Adam volunteered to swing around and come in from behind the house asking Clem to slow up a little to give them time to get into position.

Once behind the house, Adam and Joe could see into the kitchen of the house. Mrs. Henry and her daughter were tied there. There looked to be a body on the floor, and both assumed that was probably her son. It was no longer a mystery why the judge had acted as he did. What he apparently didn’t know was that hostages never survived a kidnapping by the syndicate unless they were small children. Anyone else was killed to eliminate witnesses to some of their more brutal tactics. Slowly Adam and Joe worked their way down the hill into the backyard of the Henry house and then to the back wall of the house. Adam held up three fingers to Joe. Then he counted down one, two, three so the two of them would rush into the house at the same time. No one else was in the kitchen, but they heard a commotion in the front parlor. Soon they heard Clem’s voice calling for any more men to come on out. Adam yelled back that there were no more that he could see. Quickly, Joe untied Mrs. Henry and her daughter, as Adam checked for signs of life from the son. He found a heartbeat and told Clem someone needed to get the doctor there quickly.

In the courthouse, Roy asked to speak with the judge and as the fake bailiff turned to lead him to the judge’s chambers, Roy stuck his pistol in the man’s back.

“Now jest raise your hands all careful like and my deputy here will relieve you of your sidearm.”

The judge rushed out into the hallway when he heard the commotion. Seeing a deputy put handcuffs on the man who had been guarding him since the morning, Judge Henry was devastated. “They said they would kill my family if I said anything.”

“Don’t you worry too much there, Judge Henry, cause I sent Clem and some men to your house to see to your family. Adam and Joe Cartwright went with em.”

“I felt so badly saying what I said to them, but I was hoping that one or both of them could read between the lines. Thank you, and can we go see if my family is safe?”

When Roy and Judge Henry got to the Henry house, Doctor Martin was working on the young Henry boy. He had a through and through but had lost a lot of blood lying on the floor. After a short time, Paul came out to say that barring any unforeseen complications, the boy should live but would have a long recuperation. Judge Henry told Adam and Joe to file for a new court date but before anything more could be done, the runner for the telegraph office showed up with a wire for Adam. Adam read it and told Joe the contents. They ran from the home down the hill to their horses and raced home. Roy picked up the discarded telegram and read it. He told Clem that they probably needed to get some men together to go out to the Ponderosa as soon as possible.

*****

Chapter 7

As Adam and Joe raced into the yard at home, they saw two bodies laying off to the side of the bunkhouse. There was still blood flowing from each so they knew whatever had happened had been only minutes ago. Both drew their pistols and edged toward the house. The front door opened, and a masked man stood there with a gun to Annie’s head.

“C’mon in, gentlemen. We were just about to tell everyone the terms of a new agreement.” He used to head to indicate they should come with him and then backed up without releasing Annie. Once Adam and Joe were inside, they saw that Will was being tied to a chair as was Laura. Michele wasn’t around nor was Hop Sing which made them worry. They were told to drop their pistols and had little choice in the matter. The masked men held the advantage. Crying silently, Peggy ran to Adam and threw her arms around his waist. Another masked man walked down the stairs holding Andrew and Johnny.

“Which one we supposed to take? They said to get Adam Cartwright’s kid but there’s three kids here.”

“That girl is my daughter and the older boy is my son.” Laura rescued her children with no regard for anyone else. Annie would have liked to really scratch her eyes out as well as punch her in the mouth then, but all she could do was gasp as the masked man set Johnny down to concentrate on Andrew. Any effort to buy time was gone now. Both Adam and Joe knew that Roy was likely on his way, but it looked like the men would be gone with Andrew before he got there.

“I’ll go. I won’t cause you any trouble either. Just let my son be. If he’s safe, I’ll do whatever you say.” Adam hoped to bargain but also buy some precious minutes back now that Laura had taken the other opportunity away. The man who held Annie looked at him and thought about what he had said. He would feel better with an adult hostage too rather than taking such a small boy. He knew from being here for a few weeks that the family would be just as cooperative with Adam as a hostage as they would with the little boy.

“You know what it means, don’t you?”

“Yes, I know. But my family is more important to me.”

“All right, you’ve made your choice. Tie everybody else up, and let’s get out of here.”

Within minutes, Annie, Laura, Aunt Lil, and Joe were also tied. Annie was in conflict because her son had been saved but her husband was being taken. She could think of nothing she or anyone could do to stop that. Adam said ‘Je t’aime’ before he left the house with his hands tied behind his back and a rope leader tied around his neck. For ten minutes, the only sounds in the room were the quiet sobs of Peggy and the more boisterous crying of the two boys who didn’t understand why no one was coming to take care of them, and then Roy arrived with a posse. They found Michele tied up behind the house in the garden, and Hop Sing was tied in the kitchen. Everyone else in the great room was freed. Joe wanted to rush out after the men who had taken Adam.

“Joe, I know you want to do that, but if we get too close, they’ll kill him. They won’t think twice about it. They know you’re gonna fight em now so it’ll be no holds barred.” Roy was trying to think of a long-term strategy but was out of his element facing this syndicate.

Holding and soothing Andrew, Annie had a question. “What did they mean when they asked Adam if he knew what his going with them meant?”

No one wanted to answer that, but Joe had heard enough from Maggie and Adam to know. He felt he had to be honest with Annie. “They’ve never let a hostage live once their purpose was served. The only way Adam lives is if we find a way to rescue him. He knew that when he volunteered to go.”

There was more commotion in the yard. Ben, Hoss, and Maggie had returned. They rushed in with guns drawn after having seen the bodies outside. Roy and Joe turned toward them and assured them all was well at the house. Joe had his arm around Annie trying to offer what comfort he could. Will was standing next to Laura but not touching her. The look on his face said a lot though as he was very disappointed in her. She hissed at him.

“You could at least show some compassion for me and our children after what’s happened.”

“I do have compassion for them but not for you. You were unbelievably selfish. If Adam dies, it’s on your head.” He walked over to talk with the others to see what they could do.

Aunt Lil came over to Laura and the children wrapping her arms around Peggy. “Aunt Lil, can you believe what Will just said to me?”

“It needed to be said. You put yourself and what you wanted ahead of everyone. I think that Adam and Joe knew that the sheriff was coming behind them. They would have tried to buy some time, but you took that away from them. I’m ashamed of you. Finally you show some gumption again, and once more, it’s for all the wrong reasons. It’s time you grew up and acted like a woman, a wife, and a mother. I have to take some blame for you being such a spoiled selfish woman, but it’s time for you to step up. You are not a child any more even if you persist in acting like one.”

“But I’ve had so much to deal with.”

Annie had listened and had heard enough. “Everyone in this room has had to deal with a lot. You have been protected and helped through everything. It’s about time you paid some of that back or you’re not welcome here any more.”

Looking at Ben, Laura was going to try to use tears once more. “Uncle Ben?”

“From what I’ve heard, Adam’s life is at risk mainly because of you. If anything happens to him, you better be far away from here before I get back. Will and the children are welcome to stay as is your Aunt Lil, but you need to pack.” Those words let everyone know that Ben knew too the grave danger his son was in. He would not be in a forgiving mood until he knew Adam was safe.

Hoss and Joe decided to track the group with Adam. “We’ll try to get as close as we can without being seen. If anything happens, one of us can come back and let you know. We need to know where he is at least.”

“All right, son, but don’t let them see you. If they do, you know what might happen.”

“I know, Pa, I know. Joe and me will be real careful. We don’t want nothing to happen to Adam. You know that.”

Roy said the posse would travel well behind the two brothers to be available if needed. Some of the hands joined the posse so there would be no contest if it turned into a gunfight. They liked Adam and the whole Cartwright clan. They would do what they could to help. Hoss and Roy set up some mirror signals, and then Hoss and Joe headed out. Will and Ben stayed with the rest of the family.

“Uncle, did you mean what you said about Laura?”

“I did. I wouldn’t turn her away if she was in danger, but otherwise it would be best if she was never here again. She has caused enough grief for Adam. It’s time to close that chapter entirely, and banning her is the only way I can see to do that.”

“That, and I may kill her myself.” Annie stalked out of the house with Andrew on her hip. She felt deeply helpless and profoundly scared and didn’t like either feeling. Ben watched her go.

“She means it, too. She loves fiercely, and she would do anything for Adam.”

“She’s a good match for him. Now we have to hope that they can get him back safely.”

Maggie walked up at that point and said they should talk about a strategy. Her idea was daring and could fail, but it was the best they had. She got a horse from the stable and rode out with Will as her escort. They could only hope the authorities in Carson City agreed with them. Alerting some hands to protect the house and its inhabitants, Ben rode to Virginia City to try to work the other part of Maggie’s plan.

On the trail, Adam was doing what he could to slow his captors. He swayed in the saddle and when they got to a particularly steep stretch, he fell off his horse. They grumbled a lot but he reminded them that he had no way to hang on with his hands tied behind his back. Of course he could easily have leaned forward and gripped with his knees but wasn’t volunteering that information. He fell off again when they led his horse too close to some brush and a branch snagged his arm pulling him from the saddle. That wasn’t his fault, but they had tired of him falling so they threw him over his saddle like a sack of grain and tied him down like a pack. It was intensely uncomfortable riding that way and he lost his hat as well.

When they finally reached their destination which turned out to be one of the Ponderosa line shacks, they tied Adam in the stable after giving him a beating out of their frustration. All Adam could hope was that Hoss would be able to track them here, but he knew this line shack, and it was impossible to approach it from any direction except above without being seen a long way away. The men took turns guarding him in the stable. He asked for water and food but was given nothing. One of the men laughed when he asked.

“What do you want water and food for? You ain’t going nowhere. We find it easier to take care of people when we don’t feed em and don’t give em water.”

In a perverse way, it all made sense to Adam. Without food and water, he would get weaker fast. Without a blanket out in the stable, he would be cold and uncomfortable and unlikely to sleep decently. They also wouldn’t have to worry about untying him to do his business because he wouldn’t have to do anything. If he hadn’t been sure of it before, he was sure now that they never meant for him to live beyond the court hearing over the contracts. Once those were upheld, the Ponderosa was theirs and there would be no need to keep him alive. He closed his eyes and pictured each member of his family at a time saying goodbye in his mind.

Almost a mile away, Joe and Hoss made a cold camp in the treeline watching the line shack up above. There wasn’t much movement there but enough that they could see that it was occupied. It had to be where the group was, but they couldn’t advance any closer to find out without being seen. They talked as they watched and knew the only way to approach that shack was from the ridgeline that was about one hundred feet above. It was unlikely anyone of them could make that descent.

“Joe, the only one who could probably do it is Adam after all that climbing through the hills he did with those Paiute when he was younger. We never did that kind of thing, and that’s a right tall cliff to climb down.”

“Hoss, that’s it! That’s the solution.”

“What? Adam’s a hostage so he can’t do it.”

“No, the Paiute. There’s a lot of em that like Adam. He brought them cattle when the winter was so hard this year. He’s done everything he can over the years to try to help out.”

“Joe, we’d need em here real soon. Can you ride well enough in the dark?”

“I can backtrack and then head north. The last I heard Adam say something was that they were up on that plateau that we never use because the cattle are so hard to herd up through those cuts and then back down again. He said there was a camp up there. If I ride through the night, we could be back here by this time tomorrow or rather up there by then. We’ll use mirror signs. I’ll tell Roy what we’re doing and see if he can find a way to buy us some time. Wish me luck.”

“I’ll be doing more than that. I’m figuring on praying for a good part of tonight that your idea works. Joe, if we can, we need to get some of those men alive.”

“There’s only one I want to be sure we get out of there alive.”

Nodding in agreement, Hoss watched Joe slip away in the darkness and then he concentrated on the shack up on the hillside above the tree line. About two hours later, Hoss heard someone coming up behind him. He went on alert until he heard his name called and he called out softly in reply. Candy was by his side a short time later.

“Brought some food and water. Roy’s holding the posse out of sight but close enough that they can be here fast if we need em. Figured we could take turns sleeping.”

The two men settled in for a long night as Joe rode as far as he could before he and Cochise needed some rest. The posse bedded down in a cold camp waiting to be summoned. Tied to a post in the lean-to stable, Adam shivered in the frigid, damp air and slept fitfully. He was cold, tired, sore, hungry, and thirsty but still alive. If the court case was decided the next day, he knew that was his death warrant. He hoped they had found a way to delay that.

*****

Chapter 8

Early the next morning, Judge Henry convened his court. He was all set to rule on the contracts Ben Cartwright had been forced to sign, but Ben stood up saying he wanted to withdraw his petition. Judge Henry looked pale and was sweating though. He told the bailiff to get him a glass of water. He drank it and said he was ready to rule on Ben’s motion, but then suddenly began retching. The bailiff grabbed a waste basket and just in time as the judge threw up his breakfast and the glass of water he had just had. Doctor Martin was summoned and told some men that they needed to get the judge over to his office immediately. Soon there was a quarantine sign on the doctor’s office. He came out and stood on his porch saying that Judge Henry had the flu, and would someone please go check on his family.

In the crowd outside the office, Ben could be heard complaining that they were going to need to get a another judge in here because he needed that motion to withdraw his petition approved as soon as possible. Most in the crowd didn’t know what he was talking about, but two men left and one was soon riding out of town as the other was at the telegraph office sending a message about the latest development.

At the line shack when the man from town got there, there was consternation. The men walked back to the stable where Adam was tied.

“What kind of game are you people playing?” One of the men kicked Adam in the leg to get his attention.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” In this situation, Adam actually could tell the truth.

“The judge was supposed to rule in our favor this morning, but suddenly he’s sick. Your old man was there spouting off about how he wanted that ruling right away, but now we gotta wait. It’s a trick, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know. I’ve been tied up here and certainly couldn’t have been in on planning any trick. Did it look like the judge was really sick?”

“I’m asking the questions here.”

Motioning to two of the men to come forward, the man gave instructions. Adam was pulled to his feet after he was untied from the post. His hands were left tied behind him. He had little feeling in his hands and worried that he might not be able to use them if they were untied. He did make an offer though.

“I could write a note to my father telling him I’m still alive and to please do what you say.”

“No, I don’t trust you at all. No, we’re going to find out what you know right now.”

One of the men hit Adam in the back with a vicious blow. He dropped to his knees but was hauled upright again. “Now, what kind of trick is your father pulling?”

Gasping with the pain, Adam paused before answering because he had a very good idea what his answer would cause. He was correct and was down on his knees again. Hauled to his feet once more, he took a pummeling from two of the men. Unable to block any blow or even prepare for them, he was soon down on his knees again.

“Now tell me what your old man is doing.”

Through rapidly swelling lips that were bleeding, Adam shook his head negatively in that he didn’t know. They thought he was refusing to talk, and the beating continued until he lost consciousness. When he awoke later, he was still lying in the dirt of the stable. They had not tied him to the post believing that he wasn’t going anywhere in his condition. He did his best to look around with the one eye he could open and saw that they didn’t even have a guard on him any more. He tried to roll over to sit up and realized why they were so sure of themselves as the pain caused him to black out once more. By the time he awoke again, it was getting dark. He tried to remember where he was and couldn’t. The lack of food and water with exposure and then the vicious beating had completely disoriented him. He saw some people moving toward him in the dusk and cringed. He didn’t think he could survive another beating. They left him alone though and watered the horses and gave them fresh grass. Adam’s mouth was so dry his tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth. Once the men left, he began to laboriously crawl the ten feet or so to the buckets of water set out for the horses. He pushed himself along using his feet and had to stop after every few inches of progress to let the pains diminish a bit before he pushed himself a little further. He almost laughed at one point thinking it would be morning before he got to the water and by then they would be outside again and deny it to him. He kept pushing though. He had to do something to try to stay alive and choosing to lie still in the cold would probably be his last decision. As he worked to get to the water, it helped his mind to clear a little, and the effort of moving was keeping him warmer or he was developing a fever. He decided it might be both.

The next morning, Hoss was surprised to see Dolan ride by their concealed location. He thought he would not be getting out of jail for many years. A short time later, Maggie and his father joined them. Hoss had to ask.

“What’s going on, Pa?”

“Dolan gets an even shorter sentence. He’s going to tell them he escaped and wants to help so that they’ll help him get away. Meanwhile he’ll tell them that he saw one of their other men in town and that the court hearing will be in two days as the judge is recovering. He’ll also be the one man up there who has a vested interest in keeping Adam alive. Any word on Joe’s plan?”

“Saw some mirror signals early this morning. I think they’ve got some people working their way down the cliff. Every now and then, we think we see some movement up there, but without a spyglass, it’s too hard to tell.”

Maggie pulled out a small telescope at that point and set it on a small tripod. Sighting in on the cliffs, she smiled. “There are at least three men climbing down. I doubt they can be seen from the cabin there. If they look straight up, the slight angle will be cover enough. As long as they don’t make something tumble down the slope, they should be able to get down without being seen.”

“Can you sight in on the cabin and see if you can spot Adam at any point?” Ben was very worried, and knew that Annie must be sick with worry by this point.

“There’s no movement at all. They seem to be inside the shack yet. Take a look for yourself. You must have some experience with one of these.”

Ben sighted in on the cabin and drew the same conclusions as Maggie. Now they had to wait to see what the Paiute might accomplish.

“Now what to we do?” Ben looked to Hoss to be filled in on the rest of the plan.

“Joe will signal when the Paiute get down to the cabin. Whenever he tells us, we gotta be ready to ride.”

“Hoss, I think we should send someone back to alert Roy. Those Paiute are nearly at the bottom now. Soon we’ll lose sight of them as they move toward the cabin.”

Candy volunteered. He said he would alert Roy and then make sure their horses were ready to go at a moment’s notice. From the top of the cliff, Joe watched the Paiute descend and then move into the brush. He spotted them a few more times as they approached the cabin. Then inexplicably they went into the ramshackle little stable instead of advancing on the cabin and its occupants. Soon he saw why. Two of them came out of the stable carrying a black clad figure. Joe couldn’t tell if he was alive or dead, but he could tell he wasn’t moving. One of the Paiute stayed behind to cover the rescue, and then moved quickly into the brush with the others. Once they were well away from the cabin, they signaled to Joe to alert the others to approach the cabin. Joe pulled his mirror up and sent the signal to the others concealed in the treeline.

Inside the cabin, the syndicate hirelings suddenly realized they were facing an attack with a rush of men on horseback headed their way. Several ran to the stable to grab the hostage and were shocked to find him gone. Heading back to the others, they were told to go find him. They ran to the brush behind the stable thinking it was the only place he could be and were soon on the ground with wounds from arrows. The men in the cabin opened fire on the riders hoping to slow them down or stop them, but there were too many. They fled out the back of the cabin only to have rifle shots from the ridge hit the dirt in front of them and saw two of their men lying dead with arrows protruding. They knew they were beaten as horsemen raced around the sides of the cabin to confront them. They asked the men not too politely where Adam was, and when they said they didn’t know, they were soon on the ground from blows from Hoss.

“Now I want to know where he is and you better tell me. Ifn he’s hurt or dead, you’re gonna wish you was.”

Numaga led the Paiute from the brush and told Hoss and Ben that they had Adam. Father and brother rushed to see him. He was bloodied and bruised, but when he saw his father and brother, he was able to smile. The Paiute had been giving him water and that was reviving him although the pain of his injuries was going to prevent him from walking or doing much of anything else for a long time. Ben noted that his hands were so swollen that he could not hold the skin of water. The Paiute passed it to Ben as he knelt at Adam’s side. He gave him water, and wet his handkerchief to wipe some of the dried blood from his face.

“Hoss, he isn’t going to be able to ride. Would you go back to the ranch for a wagon? And I’m sure Annie would like to come along too. You know what to bring with you.”

Soon Roy was back with a blanket from the cabin. Between the two of them, they eased Adam onto the blanket. Then with the help of Candy and some of the other men, they carried Adam to the cabin. As they got there, Hoss was hitting one of the prisoners and knocked him to the ground. Then he stepped to the next one and slammed a fist into his face as well. Roy yelled out to ask Hoss what he was doing.

“Roy, these men are resisting arrest. I’m just making sure they don’t get away.”

“Well, as long as you got a good reason. Just one punch each, though, ought to do it.”

“I’d like to do more, Roy, but I can live with that.” The third man fell to the ground when Hoss pulled his arm back. “On the other hand, seeing em hang ought to be enough I guess.” Hoss grabbed Chubb and headed back to the ranch then as the prisoners were rounded up and taken back to town by Roy and his posse. Maggie went with them.

Inside the cabin, Ben and Candy worked to strip the filthy clothing from Adam. Then they set about bathing him and bandaging the wounds that needed it as well as strapping his ribs which made it a lot easier for him to breathe. Adam was still very thirsty so every ten minutes or so, they gave him more water. With his lips so swollen and his jaw so sore, he needed some soft food and they didn’t have any. They assumed Hop Sing would send some along with Hoss and Annie. It would only be a few more hours.

After about an hour, Joe arrived and was shocked at Adam’s appearance but very glad that he was alive. He had left the top of the ridge as soon as he had sent the signal and worried all the way there. He had greeted the Paiute thanking them and sending them with a couple of the hands to get the fifty cattle he had promised them. Then he had come inside to see his brother. “You look a little worse for wear there, older brother. Annie might be too scared to take you home with her.”

Adam smiled a tiny smile because it was all he was capable of doing. Then he mumbled something, and Joe had to ask what he said so Ben translated. “He said thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I want you to know I was on top of that ridge behind the cabin. There aren’t many people I would do that for.”

But Adam didn’t hear that part for he had fallen asleep. Warm and feeling safe, he had given in to the exhaustion. Ben pulled a chair up next to the bed to sit with him. Joe and Candy began looking for what they needed to cook up some hot food. Within a short time, they had a small pot of coffee brewing, a pot of beans soaking, and had some hot water ready for tea or whatever else Hop Sing might send. Then all they could do was wait.

*****

Chapter 9

In town, Judge Henry had recovered from the emetic that Doctor Martin had given him. He was feeling a little queasy yet, but had some work to do. He went to his courtroom and with his bailiff’s help and with Roy and Paul in attendance, he invalidated the contracts Ben had been forced to sign. Maggie sent telegrams out to a number of cities and arrests commenced in all of those locations simultaneously. By the end of the day, there would be well over one hundred people from the syndicate in custody, but not the top leaders. There would be pressure applied to those they had arrested to see if they could get those names. For the time being, they had to be satisfied to have the bird in the hand. The syndicate was broken and would not be able to be fixed. It would have to be enough.

After putting in a print order for wanted posters on Dolan who had slipped away during the confusion, Roy asked Maggie what to do about the two men who had been killed. He had been told by Ben that they were undercover agents who had been killed by the third who was a double agent. Maggie said she would know by the end of the day because she had sent that information in a wire as well. The two men did not have any immediate family so Maggie told Roy they would probably be buried in Virginia City. Then she went to get some lunch and wait for answers to her messages.

Driving up the hills to the line shack, Hoss was encouraged by Annie to go faster. “Sis, ifn you want this wagon to be in one piece so we can bring Adam home, then we cain’t go no faster than this. Now he’s gonna be fine. He does look worse than he is, but that’s what happens when people hit ya in the face.”

“How bad does he look?”

“Reckon the two black eyes and a swollen lip are the worst of it. He didn’t get no food or water either, and they left him outside in the stable overnight. Pa was gonna clean him up, bandage what needed it, and then get him into a warm bed to rest. He was giving him all the water he wanted too.” Hoss didn’t say that there was some likely kidney damage, and that Adam was barely able to stay conscious. Annie would learn the rest soon enough. He just wanted her to be ready for how Adam looked. Adam had been through worse and come out of it all right. Hoss had to assume that would be true again. Hop Sing was in the back of the wagon and had brought a lot of his special drinks, salve, and food along in a basket. There was a real possibility that Adam wouldn’t be moved until the next day, so they had brought another very large basket filled with food and other items.

“Was the doctor there for him?”

“Nope, he was in town tending to Judge Henry. He made him sick so he would have a good excuse to delay the hearing and give us more time. He’s probably on his way right now. Might beat us there, but maybe not.”

Doctor Martin did not beat them there. Annie and Hoss arrived first. Annie almost leaped from the wagon to run up the hill when they cleared the tree line and Hoss had to slow the team to avoid damaging the wheels on rocks. “Sissy, we’re almost there. A couple more minutes ain’t gonna make any bit of difference to Adam but could make a lot of difference to this team and this wagon. Just hang on. We’ll be there in less than ten minutes.”

“Oh, Hoss, my heart hurts so much. I just need to see him to know everything will really be all right.”

Wishing he could wrap an arm around Annie to soothe here, Hoss had to be content to offer his reassurance and keep the team moving up the hill. As soon as he began to slow the team near the line shack, Annie did jump out and run to it. Ben opened the door to greet her and prepare her for what she would see, but she wasn’t waiting a second longer. She pushed past Ben and moved to the bed in the corner. She had to hold back a gasp when she saw Adam. If anything, the swelling had increased on his face, and he was pale. He was also still sleeping. Annie very gently embraced him and held herself against him. When she pulled away, Adam was looking at her. He tried to say something, but his voice was very weak so she leaned close to hear him. He struggled to say three things.

“Je t’aime, sweetheart.”

“I hope I didn’t hurt you, but I had to touch you to be sure you were really here.”

“It felt good.”

“What do you want me to do? I’ll do anything you want.”

“Just stay by me.”

“I can do that. Hop Sing is here now too, and he’ll brew up some tea and some broth for you. Just rest now, and I’ll tell you about our son’s latest antics.” So for the next ten minutes, Annie entertained Adam with stories about Andrew. As his eyes began to droop, she told him he had to try to stay awake until Hop Sing’s concoctions were ready. She leaned down to hear what he had to say to that and had to smile.

“That may make me want to sleep even more. Have you tasted those teas he makes me drink?”

Loud enough for Hop Sing to hear, Annie answered. “Yes, I have tasted a number of Hop Sing’s concoctions, and I found them to be quite delicious.”

“You’re buttering him up now.”

“Hop Sing doesn’t need any buttering up. He’s just wonderful the way he is.”

Just after that comment, Hop Sing brought a cup of broth and a cup of tea for Adam. He set them on the small table next to the bed allowing Annie the pleasure of making sure Adam drank both. With the warm soothing drinks, Adam wanted to go to sleep, but Doctor Martin walked in the door then eliciting a groan from Adam instead. Paul was concerned about that.

“Is he in a lot of pain?”

“No, that’s just his special greeting for doctors.” Annie smiled down at Adam who scowled at her but couldn’t hold it.

“Yes, I’m familiar with how the Cartwrights feel about doctors when they’re the patient. They always like me a lot better when I’m treating another member of the family. And if I asked him how he was, he would say he was fine too.” Everyone but Annie left the line shack then to let the doctor do his examination. He concurred with everything he had been told except he thought the bruising of the kidneys was serious, and that the cracked ribs were more of a problem too when he found one soft spot that indicated to him that part of one rib was slightly displaced.

“The kidneys will heal but he needs complete bed rest. That rib may not be a problem as long as it doesn’t move. It could press on the lung or even puncture it which could be extremely serious.”

“Can I go home?”

“Preferably, I would like you in bed in one place for a week, but I have to admit this line shack is far from ideal for that. So I’ll give a guarded yes to you going home. I want you to rest here until tomorrow morning. Now I can see an argument building just by your look, but I have a very good reason. It’s already afternoon. By the time they got you loaded in the wagon and headed home, they would have to hurry more than I would want. If you leave tomorrow morning, the wagon can travel slowly and even stop to give you a few breaks during the trip. You may think it isn’t necessary, but tomorrow you may thank me for it.”

Annie looked down at Adam and smiled. “That’s reasonable, isn’t it? I’ll be here with you, and Hop Sing has all sorts of good things for you. You’ll be stronger by tomorrow morning too with a good night’s sleep and plenty to drink.”

Giving in to the pressure, Adam simply nodded and closed his eyes to rest. He knew all too well that if he argued, his father and brothers would take the doctor’s side, and he was in no shape to try to do anything on his own at the moment. His fingers were almost painful, and he couldn’t even sit up by himself. He hated being an invalid but really had no choice. Almost as if the doctor was reading his mind, he began massaging Adam’s right hand showing Annie how gently he wanted it done. Soon it was Annie’s soft gentle fingers working the muscles in his hand and bending the fingers to restore flexibility and feeling. He had to admit his hands felt better after she finished, and he heard the doctor say that it should be done several times more that evening to increase the circulation to help reduce the swelling. Annie applied cool wet cloths to his face especially to his eyes soothing the pain and swelling. Whenever Hop Sing prepared a tea or broth, she spooned it for him until he had to go. Luckily Doctor Martin had thought to bring a brass urinal so he could take care of his necessary business without leaving the bed although someone had to place it and remove it for him. He told Annie how much he didn’t like the feeling of helplessness and being cared for like a baby, but she reminded him that there was no alternative for him to which he had to reluctantly agree.

After Doctor Martin returned to town, and Joe and Candy returned to the ranch to take care of things there, sleeping arrangements for everyone else needed to be established. Adam wanted Annie to sleep beside him saying the bed was wide enough. She was a bit embarrassed to do that with the other men in the same cabin but Hoss and Ben took care of that by tacking a blanket to the ceiling to act as a makeshift wall next to the bed. Hoss had packed two mattresses in the back of the wagon for Adam’s return trip and those were brought in for Ben and Hop Sing to use. Hoss used blankets, bedrolls, and a saddle to make a comfortable sleeping pad for himself in the wagon so he wouldn’t disturb the others with his snoring. A lantern was left burning low on the table next to Adam’s bed so that they wouldn’t have to fumble in the dark when he needed something during the night. Adam was asleep before they finished preparations, and his soft snoring was reassurance to everyone that he would be all right.

In the morning, Adam was even more stiff than the day before but could open both eyes and asked for something solid to eat. Hop Sing obliged with a soft scrambled egg and a biscuit with more tea. Adam said he had enough tea to float a boat, but that only brought laughter and no sympathy. Although Adam claimed he could walk to the wagon by himself, that was proven wrong when he was unable to even swing his legs out of the bed. Annie and Ben helped him into a nightshirt after replacing any bandages that were soiled, and then Hoss and Ben got him to the wagon and stretched out on a mattress. He was exhausted just from that and fell asleep almost immediately which was a relief to Hoss who knew the first part of the ride home would be the bumpiest and least comfortable. If Adam could sleep until they reached the soft grass of a pasture and then the road, it would be a far more pleasant ride home. Hop Sing assured Hoss that Adam would sleep at least that long and be comfortable.

“You put something in his tea, didn’t you? No wonder you were so insistent he had to drink it all this morning.” Hoss had wondered at Hop Sing’s persistence in getting Adam to drink the tea that made him grimace with every sip.

“Only put in tea what he need.” Hop Sing was offended to think that Hoss believed he might have done something wrong.

“Oh, Hop Sing, I know you did. I’m just remembering his sour face when he drank it. When he figures out what you did, you’re gonna have a heck of a time getting him to drink any more of your tea.”

“I add sugar, lots of sugar next time. Maybe honey too. He not know.”

Chuckles all around lightened the mood and made the long slow trip home more pleasant. By late in the afternoon, Adam was in his own bed. The only unpleasant note was that Andrew was scared of him, and only would go near him if Annie was holding him. He heard the voice and recognized it, but Adam’s face was too bruised and swollen yet for him to be able to recognize him. It would take a few days for Andrew to relax around his father. Then he enjoyed that his father was there all day and in bed needing company. After two days, they even began taking their naps together. Adam did grouse about being confined to bed for a week, and then being confined to the house and forbidden to do anything for another week, but his wife and son did their best to keep him occupied.

Will and Laura had moved back to California with their children and Aunt Lil, and Will hoped to rebuild his business. Ben offered some financial assistance, but Will said he needed to do this on his own. At the end of two weeks, Maggie had officially concluded her investigation and submitted her resignation. She was staying at a boarding house in town until she and Hoss married. Coming home from a visit with Maggie, Hoss was waving a newspaper when he arrived in the house.

“Pa, Adam, ya gotta read this. A Senator from California and some members of Congress from Colorado and a slew of other politicians have resigned. They all have health or family issues requiring their attention. The heads of a couple of big companies in California have retired and are going on a grand tour of Europe with their families. It says here they don’t plan to be back for several years. I asked Maggie if this was because of her investigation, and she just smiled. Ya think that means yes?”

Adam wanted the paper and read the whole article carefully. He handed it to his father then who did the same. When Ben finished reading, he looked at his sons and smiled. “Yes, Hoss, I think that is exactly what it means.”

*****

Chapter 10

Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Annie picked up Andrew so they could go outside to watch Adam chop wood. It was three weeks since he had come home, and just a week before, the sound had been a weak Thud! and then he would wait until the pain and weakness passed until he tried another blow. It had taken him a whole afternoon that first time just to fill the wood box by Hop Sing’s stove. Each day, he had done more and this morning, he was chopping away with abandon. Annie smiled as she walked past Ben as he smiled in return. She did worry that Adam was getting too enthusiastic and might have a setback if he did too much, but when she saw him working with his shirt open and smiling when he saw her and Andrew, she knew he was fine.

It was good to have life returning to normal. Hoss and Joe were moving the herds to the lower pastures and would be separating out stock to drive to market. Maggie visited often except she had not been there that week because Hoss was up in the high pastures. She and Hoss had decided to live in the ranch house with the others. It would be crowded a bit until Adam’s house was completed, but Maggie had never lived in such a bustling family and found it all very enjoyable. Hoss asked her if she would be bored living on a ranch and her answer pleased him greatly.

“Hoss, my life has always been too exciting. Growing up, there were parties and balls and constant social expectations. Then when I was recruited to find information for the government from powerful men, an element of danger was added. Then this last investigation almost cost me the life of my fiancé’s brother. I have had too much excitement. I look forward to a more peaceful and natural life with you.”

“That’s what I aim to give ya then, darling. All you need to do is to promise to tell me if it gets too predictable or doesn’t interest you. I never want you to feel you’re missing something.”

So Maggie and Hoss began planning the wedding except most of the decisions were made by Maggie after consulting with Annie and Michele. They planned on a Thanksgiving wedding, and if all went well, Adam and Annie would move to their new house then too.

Adam’s injuries had prevented him from doing any work on his new house for almost two and one half weeks. But earlier that week, when he was strong enough, his father and brothers had given him a ride to his new home. The walls were up and windows and doors were in. The plastering had been done, and the house was livable. Stoves were installed as were a new bath tub and wash tub with drains to the outside. Finishing work like the crown molding and ceiling medallions were not done, and the equipment for the water closet had not yet arrived, but as Adam got stronger, he could do more of the finishing work. By the time that Hoss and Joe were home from the fall drive, Adam had begun to make headway on the finishing work in his house installing interior doors and crown molding. Annie and Michele were sewing curtains for the windows and quilts for the beds to match. Maggie came out to help as often as she could.

As plans for the wedding progresses, Adam and Annie got ready to move into their new home vacating the two adjoining bedrooms for Hoss and Maggie to take. Hoss wondered why they couldn’t stay in his bedroom, but his father and Adam clued him in.

“Son, if you’re married, you will likely need that second bedroom eventually so it makes sense to claim it now.”

“What? Oh.” And Hoss blushed a little but smiled too. The thought of having his own child was pretty exciting.

“And, big brother, you might find it’s nice to have some privacy too. In addition, if you snore too loudly, Maggie can escape into that second bedroom for some quiet so she can sleep too.”

“I don’t snore that loud.”

“In comparison to what? A herd of cows stampeding?” Ben had to chuckle at Adam’s question even as Hoss struggled to think of a comeback. Hoss’ snoring was legendary but never having heard himself, he continued to think they were just teasing him when they complained. The whole family was waiting to see what his reaction would be when Maggie mentioned his snoring.

As the wedding day approached, guest rooms were readied for Maggie’s brother and his wife, Matthew and Priscilla, who were coming from Texas and traveling through Denver where they would meet their sister, Martha, who, according to Maggie, was the pretty one in the family. No one could even imagine that. Hoss helped Adam and Annie move into their new home and arrange furniture which kept his mind off the wedding day until the night before.

In the afternoon of the day before the wedding, Maggie’s brother and sister arrived. Martha was as pretty as Maggie but in a different way much like both Adam and Joe were handsome but in different ways. Where Maggie was a beautiful woman, Martha was the cutest girl any of them had seen for quite a while. She had green eyes which set off the blond hair she had like her siblings. Where Maggie was tall and almost statuesque, Martha was petite. She joked that as the youngest, she never got enough to eat because Maggie and Matt grabbed it all, and she was too small to fight them for it. Hoss said that’s funny because it was the same thing that had happened to Joe. Normally Joe would have taken offense at that comment but he was so smitten with Martha that Adam quipped that he wasn’t even hearing anything they had to say.

“I’ve been hearing you two morons, but I’ve chosen not to lower myself to your level. For now, I prefer staying up here in heaven with an angel.”

Adam made fake gagging sounds and Hoss acted like he was retching. Nothing seemed to get Joe to respond so they finally gave up. Hop Sing had prepared a sumptuous dinner of fish and noodles for everyone. He told them it was for abundance and prosperity. Adam picked up three small boxes he had brought into the house then. He handed one to Hop Sing, one to Annie, and one to Maggie.

“Originally, I had one made for my wife, but with everything that happened, I was not able to pick it up for her birthday. By the time I got to town, I had them make two more for very deserving people.”

Opening his first, Hop Sing found a jade figurine of the river dragon holding aloft a large fish. “You remembered story I tell you as boy. It is for abundance and prosperity. I thank you.” Ben was standing closest to Hop Sing and could swear he saw tears in the man’s eyes as he returned to his kitchen.

Maggie opened hers next. It was a silver fish with emerald eyes. “I hope you don’t have something new already for your wedding. Now all you need is the something old, borrowed, and blue.”

Opening hers with anticipation after seeing the others, Annie was not disappointed. It was a golden river dragon with ruby eyes. She kissed Adam more passionately than the others usually saw her, but understood all the feeling behind that kiss. “It’s going to look wonderful with my dress tomorrow. Thank you, sweetheart.” After dinner, Adam and Annie left with Andrew to spend their first night in their new home as the guests settled in to the extra rooms with Maggie and Martha sharing Hoss’s old room while Matt and Priscilla were downstairs.

The next morning, everyone had breakfast together and then went to dress. Hoss went to Adam’s house because they invited him and because all the ladies said he could not see his bride in her dress until the wedding. Hoss was very nervous so Adam asked him to take care of Andrew while he and Annie dressed. He dressed as slowly as he could hoping that Hoss would get his mind off his upcoming wedding and be able to enjoy some time relaxing with Andrew who adored him. Then finally it was time to go to the house for the wedding. Once inside, Hoss stood nervously staring at the top of the stairs as guests milled about and Adam and Joe made sure everyone knew where they were to be for the ceremony. When Maggie appeared at the top of the stairs, Hoss was mesmerized and the crowd took a collective deep breath at the beauty she was especially all decked out in her hand embroidered and stitched wedding dress. Matthew escorted his sister down the stairs to stand beside Annie and Martha as Adam and Joe stood with Hoss.

Later, Hoss did not remember the ceremony but did remember the kiss to seal their marriage as the minister presented them as Mr. and Mrs. Eric Cartwright. There was the wedding feast, dancing, and lots of congratulations and toasts. All of it made Hoss more and more nervous. He was worried that when they got to the bedroom, Maggie might be disappointed in him as a husband. He had nothing to fear for she welcomed his gentle touches and kisses, and returned his passion with her own. They walked down the stairs the next morning arm-in-arm with their family sitting at the dining table. Hoss remembered the times he had seen Adam and Annie walk down just that way and now knew why they seemed to glow when they were together like that. He felt a fire inside that he was sure caused his skin to glow too.

At Adam’s new house, he and Annie were working on their own glow again that morning. They had enjoyed the privacy of their new home the two nights they were there and the mornings. Andrew slept a little later here, and they assumed it was because it was a quieter house, and that his bedroom was on the opposite end of the hallway from theirs. Annie rested her head on Adam’s chest and listened to the soothing sound of his steady heartbeat.

“It’s all been worth it, hasn’t it, Adam? All the trouble and everything have just made us stronger.”

“Yes, but I could do with a bit less everything and a whole lot of good things happening. Speaking of good, how good a cook are you? I’m starving.”

“Well, I’m not really hungry. I may just have some toast and tea, but I’ll make some eggs and bacon with biscuits for you and Andrew. Maybe.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong. I must have just overdone it with the food and dancing and everything last night. Just the thought of fixing that food made my stomach flip. I’ll be fine just as soon as I have some toast.”

Annie slipped out of bed, put on her robe, and headed toward the kitchen. Adam got up and put on his robe but with a thoughtful expression as he walked down the hall to pick up his son. It was a new day, and the first day of his brother Hoss’ married life. He was looking forward to going to the house to tease him. He also hoped to tease Joe about his infatuation with Martha, but so far Joe had seemed impervious to such teasing. Annie had asked him if Joe was in love again. Adam had said he wasn’t sure because he fell in and out of love so fast. They would have to wait and see on that and on other things.

*****

A Time for Everything

Chapter 1

The spot next to him in bed was cool and there was no warm body snuggled up to his. Early in the morning, Adam awakened and found himself alone in bed which was quite unusual. Annie usually liked to sleep in and he would often stay in bed longer himself enjoying the feeling of her snuggled up to him and sleeping so peacefully. He immediately got up and walked to the end of the hall to see if she was in Andrew’s bedroom but found his toddler sleeping peacefully. Relieved that their son was not the cause of her early rising, he began to search for her. He found her in the washroom rinsing out rags and crying. The day before she had found that once again her queasy stomach meant that her flow had arrived and there was no pregnancy. Hoss and Maggie had announced at the previous Sunday’s dinner that they were expecting and that the doctor thought it might be twins. In approximately five months, they would know. At one point, Annie had despaired that she would ever have a child, and she and Adam had married thinking that was true. When Andrew arrived though, Annie’s attitude had changed. She wanted another child so much. She prayed and hoped, but had been disappointed so far. Adam walked in the room and slid his arms around her. She resisted a little at first but gave in and slumped into his embrace.

“Am I losing my touch? That’s not much of a hug back.”

His gentle words brought forth more tears. She only had her flow once or twice a year, and each time she was very emotional and often nauseated. So it had been this time and about six months earlier. Adam had found that he waited with as much anticipation as Annie did when she first started feeling queasy, but he did not have the overwhelming sadness when it was not a pregnancy. Adam had thought he might never have a child and to have one as wonderful as Andrew had made him content in many ways. He didn’t know how to convey that to Annie who felt that somehow she was failing as a wife for not being able to produce another child.

“Sweetheart, we have a wonderful son. We are so happy with each other. We have a beautiful home and a big family who love us. Can’t that be enough?”

“Of course it could be enough, but each time I’m so hopeful and sure it’s the same feeling I had when I was with child, but then it is so heartbreaking to realize there is no child growing inside me. Adam, I want that so much. I pray and I pray, and I almost beg God to please let it be true.”

“Annie, I think we have to relax and just let it happen. It worked out once when we weren’t even trying. Maybe if we could not think about it so much, it would just happen again.”

“Now you sound like Doc Martin. Have you been talking with him about me?”

“Not at all. Maybe we just think alike on this.”

“Michele says the same thing. She said she’s never had a child, and wishes it could happen but knows it probably won’t. She says she’s happy with all the stepchildren she has, a grandchild, and maybe two more on the way.”

“You used to think much the same way. You thought you couldn’t have a baby.”

“I know, I know, count my blessings, and, Adam, I do, but I still want another baby very much. I don’t know how not to want that now.”

Not knowing if there was anything he could say to make things any better, Adam pulled Annie close to him and kissed the top of her head and she rested against him. Gently he took her hand and led her back to their bedroom. He slid in the bed and flung the covers wide so that Annie would be able to get in bed unimpeded.

“We can’t do anything, you know.”

“Yes we can. We can hold each other and take comfort in each other’s arms. We probably have another hour before Andrew wakes up and it’s Saturday so we don’t have to rush anywhere. C’mon.”

So Annie moved into the bed and into Adam’s arms. He pulled the covers up and held her close. As she rested her head on his chest, he began singing a slow low lullaby and was rewarded about ten minutes later with soft gentle breathing that let him know that Annie had fallen asleep. Smiling, he closed his eyes and enjoyed the comfort of being with a wife whom he loved more than life itself. It felt so good to be able to comfort her in her sadness. He was sad too but would never let Annie know how disappointed he was each time as she was. He needed to be strong for her so he was. When he heard Andrew’s call, he went to get him after changing him into dry clothing. Then he slipped him into bed next to Annie and told him to kiss her. Andrew loved doing that so that was how Annie awakened with kisses and a smiling toddler. Her mood immediately improved and she got out of bed slipping her robe back on and took Andrew downstairs to get him something to eat as Adam shaved.

After breakfast, the three headed to the main house. Adam was going into town with Hoss to get supplies, and the three ladies had plans to do some baking as Hop Sing took the weekend off to celebrate a wedding and a birth in the Chinese community in Virginia City. Usually the ladies had to do things like baking or learning how to make a new dish in Annie’s kitchen but had Hop Sing’s kitchen for the weekend and had to prepare meals anyway.

As Adam walked in the door, Ben looked up from his chair where he had been reading the paper. He had to smile every time he saw Adam and his family. He had worried at one time that Adam might leave because he felt unfulfilled with ranch work. Annie and then Andrew had given Adam a brighter perspective on the ranch as he thought of it now as a place to be with his family. His new house had gotten a lot of attention too because of some of the modern design and the amenities he had incorporated into it. He was now designing two houses for people in town and had the interest of others. For Ben, this could not have worked out better. That his grandson adored him and would run to him as soon as his father set him on the floor was a huge and welcome bonus.

“He still walks and runs like a drunken sailor, but at least he doesn’t knock things over any more and he hasn’t gotten any more black eyes lately either.” Adam smiled as he said it though watching his son propel himself across the room into his grandpa’s waiting arms.

Soon Hoss, Joe, and Michele were there too with Andrew being the center of attention and enjoying that a great deal. Adam looked at Annie and smirked.

“He must have gotten that from you. I never liked having everyone looking at me like that. It usually meant I was in trouble.”

“Yes, Jeremy has told us tales about you, Annie. He says you used to dance around and sing for everybody until they gave you hugs and kisses.” Hoss loved his sister-in-law and couldn’t resist teasing her.

“Hey, Hoss, now that they got their own house, maybe she does that for Adam.”

“Joseph, that is not appropriate. You should apologize to Annie right now.”

“It’s all right, Papa. I grew up with a brother and I know what a pain in the behind they can be.” Annie smirked in Joe’s direction knowing that Ben would never chastise her for her comment no matter how much he wanted to do just that. He would defer to Adam on that score.

“Speaking of which, someone’s bottom might just get that spanking she so richly deserves if she keeps up that cheeky talk.” Adam tried a stare down with Annie but she was in a mood to stand up to him so they both had to give up after a few minutes when it was clear neither would win. Annie wisely decided to change the subject though.

“Where’s Maggie?”

“She’s feeling poorly in the mornings. Hop Sing said if she would stay in bed and drink some tea and eat some of those biscuits he makes when your stomach is sour, well then, he said she’d feel better. She’ll be down in a bit. It usually only lasts an hour or so.”

No one could miss the sad look that came over Annie. Adam wrapped an arm around her but said nothing. He knew she would have to work this out for herself. She couldn’t get sad every time someone said something in reference to Maggie being pregnant. Instead Hoss said he would go get the wagon ready so he and Adam could head to town. Ben said he had some mail ready to go and would get it, and Joe offered to go help Hoss before he headed out on his own errands. After a few minutes, Annie told Adam she was all right, and he needed to get going if he planned to be back by dinner because Hoss would not forgive him for making him late when his wife was cooking dinner for him. With a smile and a kiss for Annie and then Andrew, Adam took the mail from Ben to join Hoss.

In town, Hoss and Adam dropped their list off at the mercantile, and then headed to the saddlery and the jewelry shop. Adam was going to help Hoss pick out a piece of jewelry to give to Maggie when the baby was born. After that, they dropped off the mail, and then had lunch. By the time they got back to the mercantile, their order was ready, and they packed the wagon.

“Older brother, we did all of that in record time. I think it would be a good idea to congratulate ourselves with a beer or two.”

“Bigger brother, that sounds like a wonderful plan. Let’s go.”

Being married now, neither brother was in a saloon much any more except on trips like this. Hoss couldn’t help it and told a few friends that he was going to be a father. That led to congratulations and a lot more than one or two beers for the big man. Adam had two and surmised that he would be driving the rig home as Hoss slept in the back. It usually seemed to happen that way. A couple of miners in the back of the saloon did not take part in the celebration. Mines were laying off workers again, and they were in a sour mood. One decided to see what he could do to shut down the celebrating.

“Hey, Hoss, that’s great. Too bad your older brother can’t seem to make that happen with his wife.”

Adam bristled at the statement, and Hoss put a hand on his arm. “Adam, maybe we should go now?”

“Yeah, you better get him outta here. He ain’t much of a man so his brother has to take care of him. What’s the matter, Cartwright, can’t plow deep enough? Hey, if you ain’t man enough, I got five kids already, and I could stop by and take a turn with your wife.”

Hoss grabbed Adam then with some help from a couple of cowboys who didn’t want to see Adam get in trouble. The miner’s next comment made them let him go though.

“Maybe you weren’t even the father of the first one. Who done her for ya that time?”

As Adam launched himself at the offending miner, several other miners decided to help their friend so Hoss stepped up to help Adam and the whole thing escalated from there. Roy got to the door as fast as he could when he heard there was a ruckus with the Cartwrights in the saloon. What he didn’t expect was that Adam was in the middle of it, and Little Joe was nowhere to be found.

“Now that’s enough of that.” Roy fired off his shotgun then and stopped the melee. “Now who started this?” The loudmouthed miner was the first to speak as Adam was standing trying to get his breath back and stop the bleeding from his nose.

“Adam Cartwright started it. He threw the first punches, and when my friends tried to help me, Hoss Cartwright stepped right into it too.”

“Adam, you started this?” At Adam’s nod, Roy looked to Cosmo.

“With what Buck said, I was ready to hit him. Adam was goaded into it, and any man would have reacted the way he did.”

Walking to the bar, Roy asked Cosmo what was said. Quietly, Cosmo told him. Looking at the miners, Roy told them that they were not welcome in town for two weeks. “Ifn I see you anywhere in town except church for the next two weeks, you’re going to jail. Is that clear?”

One miner was going to object, but the others grabbed his arm and hustled him out of the saloon. Roy looked over at Adam and Hoss then. “I understand what happened, but ya still started a fight. By rights, I should probably fine you for disorderly conduct, but considering what was said to you, I’ll settle for you paying for the damages. It don’t look like too much except for the shotgun blast in the ceiling. Cosmo has fixed a few of those in the past and knows how much it costs. Cosmo, you got an idea on damages this time?”

“I think about thirty dollars this time. No glass and no furniture got broken.”

Pulling money from his pocket, Adam paid the thirty dollars and added a generous tip for Cosmo. He thanked him before he and Hoss left. Roy shook his head and followed them out. He figured anything he said to them at that point would pale in comparison to what they would hear from their wives and from Ben so he just watched them walk to the wagon and head out of town before he walked back to his office.

In the saloon, a bearded man in nondescript clothing was smiling. It had all been very entertaining, and he now had a plan for bringing down Adam Cartwright. They could not rebuild the syndicate, but they had other plans on a smaller scale, and there were people who were going to be removed to set an example for anyone else who tried to get in their way. After Adam, he would take care of Maggie Cartwright although he didn’t like the idea of doing away with a pregnant woman so she could wait until after the babies were born. Then, when that was done, Ben Cartwright would be in the crosshairs. The deaths of the three of them would be an adequate warning not to mess with the plans they had, and the Ponderosa was still part of the overall scheme.

*****

Chapter 2

The bearded man took a room at one of the small nondescript hotels in town. He dressed in such a way as to not draw attention. He worked his way around a couple of saloons until he had the name and then the location of the antagonist from the brawl with Adam Cartwright the day before. Then he moved to the Ponderosa taking up a position in the trees where he could observe the ranch houses and see who was coming and going. When he saw Adam ride out alone headed southwest on his third day of watching, he packed up his meager possessions and headed toward town. Once near Virginia City, he dressed all in black and pulled a rifle from its scabbard with a large silver C in the stock. He walked until he was in position and waited until his target walked outside his small ramshackle house. Buck never knew what hit him as the bullet entered his chest and penetrated his heart. He fell forward and his five children and wife raced outside to see to him. The bearded man waited in the shade of the tree until he was sure the family got a good look at him. As they looked up the hill and saw a tall man all in black with a rifle that looked to have silver in the stock, he walked away up the hill and disappeared into the trees.

On the Ponderosa, Adam had just begun to ride the fence lines. He was hoping that by the time he returned home, his wife and his father would have forgiven him for the fight in town. Both had been frosty toward him ever since he returned home with a bruised and battered face and bloody knuckles. He knew Annie was sensitive at this time and should have known his appearance would cause tears and then anger. What surprised him was his father’s reaction that was stronger than he expected. Finally he had realized that his father had come to love Annie like a daughter and felt that Adam had hurt and disappointed her. Adam and Hoss had not shared the specifics of what had been said but only that Adam had been repeatedly insulted and had blown his stack. Repetition of those insults would have hurt Annie deeply. Adam had opened up to Hoss on the way home about how sad Annie was not being able to bear another child yet.

“I’m so sorry, Adam. I didn’t know our good news would upset her so.”

“No, Hoss, don’t feel badly. It’s just that Annie is sensitive about it especially when it’s her time. No, you should be happy and celebrating. It’s great news. I just wanted you to understand why Annie may be less than enthused when you and Maggie talk about it especially about Maggie feeling nauseated. That was the only symptom Annie had that let her know she was with child. That’s why we went to see Paul. Now every time she gets a queasy stomach, she’s hoping and then her hopes get dashed.”

“It must be real hard on her.” Thinking for a bit, Hoss had realized that they shouldn’t talk then about what had happened. “So ifn we say why we was fighting, it would hurt her.”

“Yes, it would hurt her. So we’ll just blame the fight on my temper and pride. She’ll buy that. In a few days, hopefully, she’ll forgive me for my lapse in good judgment, and we can put this behind us.”

“Pa may have a few words for you too.”

“I know, but it isn’t like he’s going to take me outside for a ‘talk’ now.”

“Sometimes the way he looks at me hurts worse than those tannings did all those years ago.”

“I know what you mean. When those eyebrows push down and the mouth tightens up, you know he’s thinking that you disappointed him very much. Heck all I have to do is bring Andrew with me. That will stop all his thoughts about being angry.”

“Yeah, I’ve noticed how he dotes on your son. Do you suppose he’ll be that way with mine?”

“Oh, probably worse because you’ll have two of them. One for each arm, and if it happens to be girls, he’s gonna be in heaven.”

“You think it could be girls?”

“Of course. It must be even odds whether they’re boys or girls. Which would you prefer?”

“The best would be one of each, but I have to say that with Maggie, I hope they’re girls. Can you imagine how beautiful two girls would be?”

“Yeah, Hoss, but have you thought about what it might be like if they looked like you? Two girls wide in the beam and towering over the men in the area?”

“Adam, now don’t you go talking like that. I may have to pound you a little myself.”

And the two brothers had laughed and continued to home where Adam’s reception was a bit frostier than he had expected. Annie was concerned that Andrew was getting old enough to notice Adam’s damaged appearance and know what caused it. Indeed, Andrew did.

“Papa fight?”

“Yes, Papa was in a fight.”

Looking at Hoss, Andrew had another question. “Papa fight Unca Hoss?”

“No, if I had a fight with Uncle Hoss, I would look a lot worse than this. Now why don’t you go to Grandpa so Mama can help me clean up?” Looking over at Annie and how she looked, Adam wasn’t so sure she wanted to, but she got up and walked to the kitchen ahead of him. She said nothing at first, and Adam hoped that would mean she wouldn’t, but she was just getting fired up and it took a while for the steam to blow out of her ears.

“How dare you? You’re a father now and you have responsibilities to your son. You’re not supposed to go out there and risk yourself. What would happen to Andrew if you got yourself killed?”

“It was a barroom brawl. I wasn’t going to be killed.”

“And how many men have thought that before the knife ripped into their belly or a bullet tore into their chest? If you fight with angry men, bad things can happen, and don’t you dare patronize me like I don’t understand what happens in barroom brawls.”

“I’m sorry. I guess I should just stay out of saloons. I never meant to get in a brawl. It just happened.”

“Mister, I never meant that you can’t go in a saloon especially with your family, but I just wish you could control that temper of yours and set a better example for our son. He knows you were in a fight. He adores you, and you know he’ll want to be like you. Do you want him fighting with his fists every time he doesn’t like what someone has said? Do you want him to be a saloon brawler like his father?”

Wanting to explain but knowing he would lessen his own pain but increase Annie’s exponentially, Adam remained silent and nodded his head as Annie cleaned up his knuckles and spread salve on them. Then she carefully wiped his face and made sure that the slight abrasions were clean before putting salve on them too. Her gentle touch belied her fierce words, and he knew she loved him and would forgive him even if it took a few days in her heightened sensitivity. He smiled a little crooked smile at her, and she shook her head before leaning down and giving him a brief but gentle kiss.

As Adam rode the fence line, he thought about that conversation. He had lost his temper, and that likely could mean more taunts the next time he was in town. He did need to control that temper of his, and he planned to tell Annie that when he got back in a few days. As he rode late in the day, he thought about whether to push on to get to the line shack or just camp out. He decided on the line shack because of the bunk for sleeping and didn’t get there until it was dusk. He cooked a small meal of beans and bacon leaving enough to have for breakfast. He felt relaxed. Although he often didn’t like the boredom of ranch work, being out here riding and able to think with peace all around him and fresh grass and pine smells to soothe him made him more content than when he labored at a desk drawing plans. He guessed he had the best of both worlds now with the drafting to keep his mind rolling and the ranch work to make him feel free. He finished cleaning up and then he rolled himself into the comfort of a bed and slept until dawn not knowing what turmoil there was in town and at his home.

“Roy, you know that my husband would never bushwhack anyone. Whoever said he did is lying.” Annie was incensed. She had been called to the main house by Hoss who said Roy was there with bad news. Leaving Andrew in the care of Michele and Maggie, Annie had gone to the great room to find everyone looking upset.

“Now, Annie, I know that, but you see I got six witnesses who say it was Adam. Now I gotta go by the evidence and right now it all points at Adam. He had a fight with Buck, and now Buck’s dead and his wife and five kids all say it was Adam who done it. I ain’t got no choice, Annie, I really don’t. I need to know where Adam is. I gotta arrest him.”

Looking to Ben, Hoss, and Joe, Annie wondered how this could possibly be true. Hoss was the only one to say something. “Annie, we didn’t say nothing about where he is. We want to talk to him and get him to ride in on his own.”

Standing in thought for a bit, Annie agreed. “Yes, and I want to be with him, and we’ll get this whole ridiculous mess straightened out. I can’t believe you’re doing this, Roy. I can’t believe you aren’t trying to find the real murderer.”

“Annie, there was tracks the killer made and they was from the Ponderosa and then there was tracks that headed right back here. All the evidence points at Adam so I’ve got no choice. Now Buck had a lot of friends and there’s a lot of anger in town. You better get Adam in there soon as you can. He’ll be safe in the jail. I can’t promise he’ll be safe anywhere else.”

Realizing that none of the Cartwrights were ready to tell him anything, Roy left then hoping that Adam would make it safely to town the next day. When he left, the whole family gathered together to discuss what to do. Maggie and Michele offered to care for Andrew, and the others all planned to go to Adam and then ride into town with him. Ben tried to convince Annie to go to town to wait for them, but she had an answer to that.

“If they’re so angry at Adam, do you think I would be safer in town alone or with you and my husband?”

Bowing to her logic, everyone retired for the night expecting to get an early start in the morning. Ben wasn’t surprised the next morning when Annie walked in the main house before dawn with Andrew in her arms. She put him in the downstairs guest room to sleep before sitting with Ben to wait for Hoss and Joe as well as for the sun to rise. They said little as both worried about what the day would bring. Hoss joined them first.

“Do you think he’s at the first line shack?” Ben was beginning to make a plan for the day’s ride.

Hoss answered. “I would bet on it. It’s a long day’s ride to get there, but he don’t like sleeping on the ground. He would want that bunk in the line shack unless he got hung up with too many fence repairs and couldn’t get there.”

“Then that’s where we’ll head first. If he went there, he’s got a lot of fence in that area to check, and he’ll probably still be in that area by the time we get there.”

“If it took him a day to get there, wouldn’t that be enough to prove he couldn’t have shot Buck Davis?”

“Unfortunately, no. It’s a roundabout route if you follow all the fence lines. We’ll ride directly there and it’s only about two hours. About two hours from there to town too.”

Annie dropped her head. She didn’t know how they were going to extricate Adam from this. She had hardly slept and her thoughts were all about the six witnesses against him and how hard it would be for them to prove his innocence in the face of that kind of evidence against him. All she said though was one thing that Ben and Hoss understood completely. “Damn those barroom brawls.”

*****

Chapter 3

Getting up at dawn, Adam quickly made coffee and had breakfast. He left all of his gear in the cabin because with all the fences in this area, he could spend a second night in the line shack. He headed out to start the day’s work and had worked about two hours when he heard horses riding toward him. He loosened the tie on his pistol but relaxed when he saw Hoss and Joe riding out front and then Annie and his father right behind them although he feared why they would be coming to see him as a group. As they neared, he voiced his greatest fear.

“Is Andrew all right?”

Dismounting, Annie ran to him with tears in her eyes increasing his fear until she spoke. Adam dismounted to take her in his arms. “Andrew is fine. Nothing has happened to him.”

“Then why are all of you here? It can’t be good news.”

“Oh, Adam, Buck Davis was shot and killed. His family is saying that they saw you. Roy says you have to go to town and be arrested.” Annie couldn’t hold back the tears, and Adam wrapped his arms around her as he looked to his father and brothers.

“What? That’s ridiculous. I haven’t been anywhere near town since that fight happened.”

But Ben filled in more of the evidence Roy was using. “They found the gunman’s tracks. He rode in from the direction of the Ponderosa, and then he rode back in this general direction. With that and his family saying they saw you, he thinks he has no alternative except to arrest you.”

“You don’t think I could have done something like that, do you?”

“Of course not, son, but Roy was at the ranch to arrest you last night. I told him you would come in on your own. We’re here to ride with you to show everyone that we stand together on this. We’ll hire a lawyer and get this mess all straightened out. I certainly wish I had not asked you to do this job. If you had been anywhere else, you would have alibi witnesses. I don’t suppose you’ve seen anyone out here?”

“Pa, a party of Paiute came through hunting, but I doubt anyone would take their word for seeing me. Other than that, there was a miner and a mule that I sent packing. I don’t know his name, and I doubt he would be in a mood to help me out even if you could find him.”

“Adam, you tell me what he looked like and where you saw him, and I’ll find him. He’ll tell the truth too.”

“Hoss, I saw him just after the duck pond where the beaver always try to build that dam. He was using the water from the pond to run a small sluice. You’ll see it there. I broke it up after I sent him on his way. He wasn’t finding anything anyway so he was less troublesome than he would have been if he had found some gold. He’s a short man with a full beard, and had a buffalo robe tied over the back of his mule with all the various packs you usually see miners carrying.”

“As soon as I can, I’ll ride there to see what I can find. I was thinking I oughta ride into town with all of ya.”

“Hoss, if you can find that miner and get him to tell the truth, that would help even more than riding in with me.”

“You got it, brother. I’ll be back as soon as I find him.” Hoss wheeled his horse to head in the direction of the duck pond and hopefully a trail to follow.

“I’ve got my pack and supplies at the line shack, but I guess I won’t be needing those where I’m going. Just tell whoever comes up here to finish the job that there are already supplies up here.” Slowly Adam pried Annie’s arms from around his waist. He pulled a handkerchief and wiped her eyes and cheeks. “Sweetheart, we’ve been through worse. At least I didn’t get shot this time.” With a brave small smile, Annie nodded. “We need to get going before Roy decides he needs to send a full fledged posse after me. Some of the men who volunteer for those have mighty itchy trigger fingers.” Annie nodded again and Adam helped her mount up. He climbed up on Sport, took a deep breath, and turned his horse toward town. He had a lot of feelings churning inside but the greatest of them at the moment was fear. From the simple scenario laid out by his father with what Roy had told him made a very good case against him, and he was very worried that being innocent might not be enough. He couldn’t say anything like that at the moment because Annie was upset enough already and it would do no good to voice his fear because there was a good chance they had all thought exactly the same thing before they even saw him today.

As the four of them rode into town, there were lots of stares and murmuring among those who saw them. As they neared the sheriff’s office, angry calls rang out. Apparently there were a number of people who had come to the conclusion that Adam was guilty as he would be charged. Adam swung down from his horse and took Annie’s hand after she dismounted. The two of them walked in together ignoring the taunts from the crowd although Annie had to wonder at the content. What did their having only one child have to do with this? Once inside, Roy greeted them somberly. He knew how difficult this had to be.

“Adam, I’m real sorry about this, but I ain’t got a choice. I reckon your pa told you what the evidence against you is and it’s just too much for me not to have to do this. So ifn you would take off your gunbelt, I’ll hang it on the rack here, and you can have it once this mess gets all straightened out.”

Stepping forward at that point, Ben had a question that was almost a challenge. “Do you have to arrest him? Shouldn’t there be an inquest or something first?”

“Ben, Judge Walker held an inquest this morning at my request. The Davis family came in and every one of em said they saw Adam on the hill with a rifle standing by a tree. Buck’s friends were there and testified as to what happened at the saloon five days ago.”

“Well they certainly wouldn’t be reliable witnesses. They’re his friends.”

“Ben, even if I brought Cosmo in for his side of it, it would have been the same. Any man would have been pretty darn mad if that stuff was said to him. Every single man on that inquest jury had the same feeling about it. They said it was murder and that Adam was the one who should be charged. Now I just ain’t got no choice in the matter. You need to go get your lawyer over here fast as you can. Judge Walker ain’t one to tarry when it comes to a serious case. He’ll want to start this tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? That’s not enough time to get ready for a serious case like this.”

“Well unless your lawyer can come up with a reason to wait, Judge Walker has called for the case to start at ten tomorrow morning.”

“Pa, maybe you and Joe ought to go see about that lawyer. I want to talk with Annie for a bit in private if that’s all right with everyone.”

“Adam, I can lock her in the cell with you. I’ll close the door and the two of you can have some private time.” Roy was assuming that Adam wanted to console his wife who looked thoroughly shaken by the experience, but Adam had a different agenda entirely.

“Sweetheart, I think I’m going to be convicted.” As Annie was about to protest, Adam put his finger lightly on her lips. “Quiet for just a moment, please. I may not have much time to say this. Annie, if I’m convicted, I’m not staying here. I’ll find a way to get away. I will not hang for something I didn’t do.”

“But where will you go? What will we do?”

“We’ll work the details out if it comes to that. Now just tell Hoss that I said I would find a hole in the wall to hide. Please remember to say that.”

“Adam, you talk as if this is all set. You get to have a trial. You’ll have a lawyer. There must be a way to defend an innocent man against a charge like this.”

“Annie, think about it. Whoever shot Buck Davis dressed like me for a reason. Someone set me up for this, and Buck paid the price. Talk to Maggie when you get back. She may have some ideas.”

“You think you know who did this, don’t you? You think the syndicate is reaching out for you because of what you did to destroy their plans.”

“I am. And Annie, if I’m a target, then so are Maggie and Pa and perhaps even you. These men don’t have any moral qualms about killing women. Please be careful and convince everyone in the family to be careful. This isn’t going to stop with me.”

“Adam, it’s been six months. Why would they do this now?”

“They took some time for the remnants of the syndicate to regroup, and I would guess they have another plan, and the Ponderosa is still probably part of it.”

“If you have to escape, where would I go to meet you?”

“I have friends in California, Arizona, and Mexico. I would probably choose one of those for you to go to so I could rendezvous with you at some point. I don’t have any definite idea on that yet. First we have to see how the trial goes, and then I have to find a way to get away if it goes as badly as I suspect it will.”

There was some commotion then in the outer office and a knock on the door. Adam called out to Roy that they were ready. Ben and Joe walked in with the family lawyer and another who was more skilled in criminal cases. Adam knew that his father and their lawyer knew just how bad things looked. They pulled some chairs and a bench to the area outside Adam’s cell and began to talk strategy as Roy retreated to his office closing the door behind him. Clem came in to say the mood in town was ugly especially among the miners. Roy sent him out to hire two more deputies and tell them that they would all be on duty until dawn. It might be a long night for everyone.

Inside the cell area, the mood was just as negative. The lawyers had no idea how to defend this case other than to have Adam take to the stand to defend himself. But with six witnesses against him and others who would swear to the altercation in the saloon and with no alibi witnesses, his case looked bleak. Adam voiced his theory about the syndicate, and everyone hoped that Hoss could find the old prospector for it would at least create a little doubt as to Adam’s guilt. It was a very serious group as they broke for the night with the lawyers planning to get up early in the morning to see what they could come up with for a defense. Ben grasped his son’s shoulder as Adam leaned against the bars to say goodbye. Joe mumbled a goodbye as well.

Then it was time for Adam to say good night to his wife and he couldn’t get any words out. Annie was in the same position. They held each other and silently communicated their love. Adam feared that it might be the last time he got to hug his wife but would never say such a thing to her, but Annie was feeling the same fear.

“You have to go now. Tell Andrew I love him and give him a hug for me.” Annie couldn’t speak. Adam called out for Roy to open the cell, and reluctantly, Annie left. Ben and Joe were waiting for her outside. The three of them rode home.

The next morning, there was more bad news. Hoss returned after having lost the prospector’s trail on the road. There was no telling where he was. All of them poked at their breakfasts and then dressed for the ride to town. Hoss and Joe went to the stable to get the carriage ready and saddle a couple of horses because everyone wanted to be there. Hop Sing was going to watch over Andrew who enjoyed the cook’s company. Maggie had been told of Adam’s suspicions but she had no ideas on how to proceed. She planned to send some telegrams as soon as she got to town, but they all knew that any help was likely to arrive too late to do any good.

In the stable, Joe kicked a pail, a bale of hay, and some loose tack. Hoss looked at him wondering what the temper was all about. He himself was very depressed, but he knew anger could develop at any time because of what was happening to Adam. He just wondered why Joe was already so upset.

“Because things just couldn’t get much worse, now could they? Adam is sitting in jail framed up for a murder and you know what could happen in the next day or two. Martha went back to Denver, and I haven’t heard a word from her even though I sent three letters already. Some criminals are out there plotting against the Ponderosa and Maggie and Pa might be in danger, and maybe even Annie. And we still don’t know who’s behind any of it, and we don’t know what they’re planning.”

Hoss noted how Martha’s absence was right in there with all the other problems they were facing. Joe had been more emotionally involved with Martha than he wanted to admit. When she said she needed to go back to Denver to take care of a few things, Joe had been very upset which had led to Martha being upset. The two had not parted on good terms, but Joe realized his mistakes quickly and had written an apology and then two more letters but there had been no response from Martha. Now with all the turmoil surrounding Adam and the possibility of some severe consequences that Hoss didn’t even want to think about, Joe was very upset.

“Joe, I gotta tell ya something. No matter what happens, Adam ain’t gonna hang. I won’t allow it.”

“What are you gonna do? Break him out of jail?” When Hoss didn’t answer, Joe knew. “You might need some help, and you better ask me when you need it or I’ll kick your butt all the way to town and back.”

“Ifn I need you, I’ll ask. For now we can pray it don’t come to that because it might tear our family apart and it could cost us the Ponderosa, but our brother is not gonna hang for something he didn’t do.”

Nodding, Joe picked up the harness and began preparing to hitch up the carriage for the ladies and their father. He and Hoss would ride their horses into town. At least now he felt they had a plan. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was some hope in an otherwise hopeless situation.

*****

Chapter 4

There were dark circles under Adam’s eyes and he looked haggard, but at least he was cleanly shaved and in clean clothing when Annie walked in to see him in the morning. The rest of the family gave the couple about ten minutes of private time before they all moved into the cell area to discuss their plan of action with the lawyers. All the lawyers could hope for was a one day delay, and would approach the judge on that first. If that was denied, their only hope was that Adam could take the stand and be convincing to at least create some doubt as to his guilt. Without that, there was no hope of an acquittal. That plan lasted as long as it took to get to the courtroom and ask. Without a solid reason to support the delay, Judge Walker was not inclined to grant a delay. He had a lot of cases to move onto the next week in small towns near Virginia City. So the prosecution began its case by bringing the miners in to testify as to the nature of the conversation in the saloon.

All night long, Adam had dreaded this part of the trial but knew there was no way to avoid it. He had hoped someone could keep Annie from the courtroom but knew that was a futile hope as well. The miners testified to the comments about Adam and Annie having only one child and that Adam might not be the father of Annie’s child. Every man on the jury saw Annie’s tears as they wet her cheeks and knew they would have defended their wives’ honor as well as their own in similar circumstances. No one begrudged Adam the fight, but that also meant they accepted the prosecution’s premise that the comments created the anger that led to the shooting. Adam’s head was bowed for he knew the pain his wife was suffering and knew that would be the case. When he turned to look at her sitting behind him though, she smiled at him. He knew then that at least the fight in the saloon was forgiven even if it had cost Annie pain to get to that point.

Next up were the Davis family members with Mrs. Davis and her oldest son testifying that they saw Adam next to the tree after Buck was shot down. The judge asked is all four of the other children were going to say the same thing, and had them sworn all at once to save time. The trial broke for lunch then, and the case against Adam looked solid.

It was a somber group that gathered at the jail to eat although hardly anyone could get more than a bite or two down. Lots of coffee sufficed to assuage their appetites. The two lawyers looked to Adam and told him it was all up to him now. His testimony was the only way to put a crack in the prosecution case. The men on the jury knew him. If he could convince at least some of them that he was telling the truth and being framed, then perhaps they could hope the jury would not find him guilty. Adam took the stand after lunch.

“I have killed men, yes, but I would never kill a man from ambush. I have only shot at men and sometimes wounded or killed them to protect myself or others. Buck and I settled our differences just the way any man here would have. It was over especially after the comments I received when I got home about brawling in a saloon.” That brought a chuckle or two from the jury as well as the gallery. Asked where he had been when Buck Davis was shot down, Adam answered that he had been riding fence and only saw a Paiute hunting party, and an old prospector he had run off the property. Unable to find the old prospector, Adam had no witnesses for his alibi.

Once the closing arguments concluded, it was nearly five and the judge adjourned for dinner. The jury was out for hours after dinner, and then adjourned until the next morning. Adam’s lawyers were hopeful that meant the jury was divided, but the next morning, all that they got was that the jury found him guilty. The judge said he would take the matter under consideration, and adjourned the case until Monday morning because he said he would never sentence a man late on a Saturday. What almost everyone took that to mean was that he was going to sentence Adam to hang and would not force him to wait all day Sunday until Monday for the sentence to be carried out.

Annie burst into tears as Adam was led away in chains by Clem with the assistance of the other deputies. The crowd outside was surly with a lot of miners there who had hoped that Adam would already be sentenced to hang. Clem didn’t put up with anything and got Adam to the jail safely. Roy stood by Ben to offer his condolences but no one in the family was in the mood to accept any. Once the street began to clear, the family headed over to the jail to see Adam. Roy turned to Judge Walker.

“You know this case stinks to high heaven, now dontcha?”

“I know it does, Roy. I’ve known these Cartwrights for a long time. I saw Adam grow from a boy to a man, and I know he would never have done this. Whoever set this up is a master at it, and I have to think it’s not the first time they’ve done something like this.”

“What can we do about it?”

“Not a lot, I’m afraid. I have to rule according to law. I wish I could sentence him to a life term but in a case of premeditated murder like this, it would be inappropriate. I hate what I’m going to have to do on Monday.”

“The way they framed him up, he wouldn’t last long in prison. It wouldn’t take them long to find somebody to finish the job they started here.”

“I know, Roy, but we’re bound by the law. I wish there was another way, but I can’t think of a darn thing I can do.”

“Somebody has to poke a hole in this case somehow, or I’m afraid there’s no way to save Adam. I wish someone could find that prospector he described. It may be his only hope now.”

At the jail, Adam had some instructions for the lawyers. He wanted everything in Annie’s name with Hoss as her legal partner if a man’s signature was required on any document. He told both lawyers that he wanted them to expedite the transfer of property to Annie and signed a statement witnessed by Roy that he was giving permission with no coercion and was of a sound mind to do so. Then he asked for some private time with his wife which everyone was glad to give him even though all of them wanted to spend as much time with him as they could. Maggie got return messages to her telegrams and could offer little hope.

“An investigation has been started, and will tie into the investigation that is still trying to find the people who were at the head of the syndicate. The lower level people are mostly in custody, and people who were bought are retired or resigned. But we still need to find the rest of the syndicate especially now that it appears they are beginning another plan. But investigations like this take time, and we don’t have much of that, do we?”

“Maggie, what about our telegram to the governor to set aside the verdict and get a new trial?”

“Papa, they said no. They would grant us a stay but nothing more.”

Ben looked at the lawyers. They nodded and went to get the stay approved. All they could hope to do was get time after the sentencing and delay the carrying out of that sentence which they feared would be a sentence of death by hanging. They were not aware of the judge’s concerns with the case. The judge had sent off his own inquiries asking what the legal limitations were on his sentencing powers in this case. He hoped to have his answer by Monday morning. Roy sat slouched at his desk. He was miserable as all he could do was unlock Adam’s cell to let his wife in or out. Michele and Maggie went to get some dinner for everyone. Hoss and Joe were feeling powerless so when Hoss suggested they make one more attempt to find that old prospector, Joe nearly jumped to his feet. The two headed out immediately telling the ladies what they were doing before they left. Ben said a silent prayer that they might be successful. The group had a very quiet dinner with each lost in their own thoughts.

In the cell, Adam and Annie were no longer talking. They had eaten their dinners and had said everything that needed to be said. They had made some plans but were not going to tell anyone what they were. Adam held Annie close to him trying to memorize how it felt to hold her and how her body touched his. He inhaled the scent of her and let the warmth of her seep into him. He kissed her a number of times but it wasn’t an amorous type of kiss. The kisses were gentle but sensuous. They might not see each other for a very long time, but neither even wanted to acknowledge that it might be never. Finally it was time to say goodnight but there weren’t any words, and if there had been, Annie would just have cried anyway. She preferred to hug and then slowly let his hand drop as she left the room without looking back. She couldn’t bear to have the picture of Adam standing behind bars be the last view she would remember. She left quickly as Ben walked to the back to say goodbye. Michele and Maggie went with him.

When Adam said goodnight to his father, he told him that he needed to trust Annie, and to know that whatever she did, it was in Adam’s best interest. Ben wanted so much to ask questions. He felt left out now that Adam’s confidante was his wife. He wondered too why Adam had made Hoss the cosigner with Annie. Adam always had a reason for doing things, but Ben was puzzled by that one.

“Pa, sometimes it’s better not to know things. Just trust us on this one, please.”

“Adam, I always trust you, but sometimes I don’t agree with what you do. Please can you tell me that you aren’t going to do anything illegal?”

“Pa, it’s better if I don’t answer that question. Now please keep my wife and son safe. Once they’ve got me out of the way, I think that you, Maggie, and Annie are going to be targets. Please be very careful. And don’t let anyone go anywhere alone. Where are Hoss and Joe?”

“Trying to find that old prospector. They’ll scour every camp in that area and every stream until they find him or have to admit he’s moved on. They have until Monday morning.”

“To find a needle in a haystack. I’ve given up any hope that they’ll find him.”

“Adam, don’t give up hope. It’s all we have sometimes. Once the lawyers get the stay, we can keep working on it. I’ll hire detectives on Monday morning and get them working on your case. There has to be something we can find to poke a hole in this. I just wish I knew why the Davis family was so sure it was you, but we’ve been ordered by the judge to stay away from them. Apparently they are staying with friends so we don’t even know where they are anyway.”

“The stay won’t do much good. Whoever set this up did a great job of framing me. If we don’t get to the bottom of this, there isn’t much hope, and Maggie must have told you how long an investigation could take to uncover the truth. I don’t think I’m going to be given that time.”

“All we can do is hope and pray that we can get a break. All we need is one thing to get the judge to declare a mistrial and grant you another trial.”

“I’ll try to hope and pray, but I don’t think it’s going to be enough. Now take care of Annie and Andrew, please. Try to get everyone to get some rest. I have a feeling it’s going to be a rough week.”

With his head downcast, Ben said goodnight and went to escort the ladies home. They stopped at Adam’s house so that Annie could collect some clothing for her and Andrew. They were going to move into the guest room in the main house. No one found it easy to fall asleep that night. Andrew was fussy and didn’t want to leave his mother’s side. Apparently he could sense the sadness and worry from everyone no matter how much they tried to hide it. In the early morning hours, everyone finally fell into a fitful slumber only to be awakened just after dawn by a pounding on the front door. When Ben got downstairs to unlock the door, he found Roy there with a couple of deputies.

“Roy, what are you doing here? Haven’t we had enough trouble?”

“Adam escaped. Now Ben, ya gotta tell me. Is he here?”

*****

Chapter 5

Standing at the door of the guest room holding a groggy Andrew in her arms, Annie had to grin. Adam had said he would and he did. Now they would have to try to do all the other things he had asked her to accomplish. She wished that Hoss was home so she could give him the message from Adam, but it would have to wait. Adam had said that only Hoss would understand the message. She listened as Roy grilled Ben on the whereabouts of Joe and Hoss. Ben suddenly understood why Adam had said it was better for him not to know anything. He could stand there and tell that to Roy and swear on a Bible that he was telling the truth because he was. Annie could not be compelled to testify against her husband, and Joe and Hoss weren’t even around when Adam escaped. None of them could be held accountable for what Adam had done. He was a fugitive now though, and wanted as a convicted murderer. He was far from safe, but he was free. She listened as Roy explained what had happened.

“Well Adam was sitting on his cot looking all sad and almost sick, I guess. According to my deputies, he was all bent over and had his arms wrapped around himself like he was real cold. My deputies asked if he needed anything, and he said a pistol to put a hole in his head. Now they thought he was really depressed so they decided to get him something to drink and eat and an extra blanket thinking maybe that would help. When they opened that cell door with their hands full, he pulled a pistol on em. Now according to them, it was a small caliber handgun, but you know at that distance, it could still do a lot of damage, and everyone knows how well he can shoot. Well it was just before the sun came up, and I was walking to the office and I saw Adam run out and jump on a horse. I yelled for him to stop, and he looked at me and said pretty as you please, ‘Roy, you won’t shoot me.’ Well then he wheeled that horse around to ride out of town.”

“Roy, you didn’t shoot him, did you?”

“No, Ben, you know I didn’t. He was right. I could never shoot him. Now those two deputies of mine fired some shots after him. He went down low against that horse’s neck, and Ben, I don’t rightly know if he was trying to avoid getting shot of if one of them deputies hit him with one or two of those shots. I told them to stop shooting, but they didn’t hear me right away.”

Annie gasped then. She had never expected Adam to be shot while escaping and just knew that is what had happened. Now it was even more critical that Hoss get the message. Adam likely was going to need his help desperately.

“Ben, I gotta go after him. It’s my job. Now I know we’re gonna have a tough time finding him unless Hoss would be willing to track for us so we can catch up to him and get him back safely before those miners catch up to him.”

“Get him back safely so he can hang? Roy, you know Hoss would never do that. Besides, Joe and Hoss haven’t come back from looking for that prospector. I expect to see them sometime today. And what do you mean the miners catching up to him?”

“Well, I told them not to, but those miners got together their own posse and they’re trying to find Adam too. Now none of them are much on horseback and certainly not any good tracking, but Ben, if they find him, I don’t think they plan to bring him back.”

“Roy, I don’t know what to say. He isn’t here, and I can’t help you find him either, but, as God is my witness, I want him to be safe.”

“Well, I gotta get on with my job. If I find out anything or if we find him, I’ll send word.”

“Thank you, Roy. I’ll be here.”

Shaken, Ben turned from the door as Roy left. Annie, Maggie, and Michele stood there next to Hop Sing. All were extremely worried. Annie had done as requested and wondered now if it had been enough. She had gone out late at night with Sport fully packed with things that Adam might need and had left the horse at the line shack closest to town. Adam intended to switch from whatever horse he could steal to Sport and then ride to the location that only Hoss knew. But if he was wounded, she worried if he could make the trek that far. Annie knew he meant to get across the California line so that the posse couldn’t follow, but now there was a group of miners chasing him too who wouldn’t stop at the border. She took Andrew back into the bedroom to see if he would sleep a bit more, and Hop Sing prepared breakfast as everyone dressed for the day.

Later at the breakfast table, no one wanted to ask Annie what she knew for if questioned, they would have to tell the truth. All they could do was offer prayers that Adam was safe and uninjured. That part of their wish was not true though. Adam had been hit as he rode away. The bullet was lodged in his back and had struck his left shoulder blade. He was bleeding a lot and when he released the stolen horse, he had seen that the saddle was wet with his blood. When he was at the line shack, he shoved some cloth inside the back of his shirt and pulled his jacket on to hold it tight to his back, but he had no time to rest. He immediately rode west heading for the high country. The pain was excruciating as every step of the horse jarred his shoulder blade that was cracked if not broken. His life depended on making steady progress so he kept going all day and well into the night. He had to stop to rest. He had far outdistanced the posse that had no real idea where he was going, but he still had many miles to go to reach his planned hideout. He could only hope that Hoss would be there before he lost too much blood or developed a severe infection. He ground tied Sport and rested against a rock until there was enough light in the early morning to continue his flight. Later that day, the posse found the blood on the rock where he had rested.

“Sheriff Coffee, he’s headed to California, and as dry as this blood is, he’s well ahead of us. We’ll never catch him up here.”

“Clem, I think you’re right. Let’s head back to town. No need to keep going on a fool’s errand.” Roy turned his horse back toward Virginia City, and sent a silent prayer up that Adam would survive the climb into those mountains. It looked like some bad weather coming in too, so any tracks would soon be lost, but that also meant to him that Adam’s odds of making it had gotten worse.

Miles ahead and nearing the California border, Adam wasn’t sure he was going to make it to his destination. The air was cold but everything seemed to be shimmering like desert mirages. He knew his vision had been affected by his fever and hoped he would find the tunnel with all the problems he was having. He was swaying in the saddle and hanging on to the saddle horn to keep his seat. Pain made him sit stiffly which didn’t help at all. When he finally saw the brush that covered the mouth of the tunnel entrance, he almost cried with relief. Sport had been here before and knew the way so he had to just point him in the right direction. Rain drops had been hitting them for the previous hour and it would soon be a deluge by the looks of the clouds. He hoped to be inside before it got that bad. He was still lucid enough to know that the rain would obliterate his tracks, and no one would be able to follow him.

Behind Adam and still on his trail, the miners knew it too. They had followed the posse at a distance because no one among the miners could track very well. When the posse turned back and the miners saw the rock with all the blood dried on it, they thought they must be close, but with the rain, it had become a hopeless quest. As soon as the rain began falling heavily, they gave up and turned their horses back toward town. For Dolan, it was the best decision they could make. He couldn’t join Roy’s posse and risk being recognized so in his nondescript clothing, he had claimed to be a miner and headed out with the miners who wanted revenge. Now those men who were mostly inept with a gun were turning back and Dolan was close to his quarry. He wasn’t too worried about the rain. It would wipe out tracks but to him it was clear that Cartwright was heading toward California. If he followed that route, Dolan would likely pick up Adam’s tracks again and perhaps even sight him up ahead. Bleeding that much, Dolan assumed he couldn’t be traveling fast and would likely be fighting infection and fever as well. He smiled thinking this part of his job was nearly done. He had his slicker on and looked for a stand of trees for some shelter.

In the tunnel, Adam had unsaddled Sport although it took almost the last of his strength to do it. The cave or tunnel opened into a closed canyon on the other end. There was grass and water there. For now, both of them stayed inside where it was dry. Adam pulled out his bedroll and sank down on it gratefully pulling a blanket over himself and sending up a prayer that Hoss might be there before it was too late.

On the Ponderosa, Hoss was already headed toward him as fast as he could go. He knew the shortest route to Adam’s destination. The two of them had found the tunnel during a hunting trip. It had appeared that even the Native American peoples had never seen it for there was no sign of human habitation. Brush nearly covered the entrance and the opening to the tunnel was small. Inside it was wide and the rock was solid. As soon as Annie gave him Adam’s message that he was going to go to a hole in the wall, Hoss had known where he was headed. Now heading cross country, he hoped to be there by nightfall. Adam had already spent one night out in the elements, and Hoss was afraid because Roy had told his family that he didn’t know if his deputies had hit Adam with one or more of their shots. The way Adam’s luck had been running, Hoss was worried that it was the worst case scenario. He had everything along to take care of him as long as he was still alive. Hop Sing had seen to that having a bag packed with essentials before he and Joe had returned empty handed from their search for the old prospector. He had food, clothing, and money for his brother. He prayed as he rode. When the rain started to fall heavily, he kept riding. He knew this country well and rain wasn’t going to slow him down unless it got so heavy he couldn’t see. Just before sundown, the rain let up. Hoss guessed he was no more than two miles from his destination. He smelled whiffs of wood smoke and wondered who else could be up here so high in the mountains, but he didn’t have time to search out the camp. He needed to get to Adam and when he did, he was shocked. Adam was laying on his bedroll shivering with his face shiny with sweat. He heard Hoss enter and forced a small smile. Hoss knelt at his side knowing he had correctly anticipated the trouble they would be in. Adam had a bullet in him that had to come out and was already suffering from a high fever that was probably the result of infection. He pulled out the bag Hop Sing had given him, started a small fire to heat water, and prepared to do what had to be done.

Up on a hill only a half-mile away, Dolan sat on his horse and waited. For him, it had been the best of luck to see Hoss Cartwright ride through the terrain and head into the side of the mountain. Dolan knew then that he would never have seen that entrance and would likely have passed right on by on his way to California. Instead, he now had Adam trapped, and only needed to come up with a plan to kill him, and as a bonus, kill his brother Hoss too.

*****

Chapter 6

“Oh, Lordy, Adam, this is gonna be a mess. You bite down hard on that piece of leather cause I gotta pry that bullet loose, and I know it’s gonna hurt something fierce.”

Hoss had removed Adam’s jacket, shirt, and the wad of cloth soaked with his blood. He had probed into the wound causing Adam to writhe in pain and groan even though Hoss knew he was holding back as much as he could. Then when Hoss had opened the wound enough to find the bullet, he realized it was stuck in the bone so it was no wonder that Adam was suffering so. Hoss wished he had some other tool but all he had was a knife so he would have to pry the bullet loose instead of pulling it out. He put his knee on Adam’s lower back and his left arm across Adam’s shoulders. Pressing him down into the bedroll, Hoss began the task of removing the bullet and didn’t stop even as Adam spit out the piece of leather and screamed and yelled for him to do just that. Hoss had sweat running down his face and into his eyes but he couldn’t stop. He didn’t know if he had the courage to do this again. It had to work this first time.

Finally Hoss had the bullet out and pulled away from his brother to wash his hands and get some clean cloth to press against the wound. Adam was making almost a whimpering sound as the waves of pain washed over him. Hoss wished that he had brought some laudanum, but they had not had any to send. To stop the bleeding, he pressed the wad of cloth down on the wound causing Adam to jerk and groan again. Finally and mercifully, Adam lost consciousness from the pain, the blood loss, and the exhaustion. Hoss rather wished he could join him in that state for he now understood the agony that Adam had suffered when he had to remove that bullet in Joe after accidentally shooting him. Hoss’ hands were shaking even though he had them pressed to the wad of cloth over the wound. It took a long time for his heartbeat to slow down. For a long time it seemed, he had trouble breathing and felt lightheaded. Gradually Hoss felt close to normal again, but he didn’t think that this memory could ever be buried deep enough. Once the bleeding slowed sufficiently, Hoss tied a bandage around Adam’s chest and shoulder to hold the wad of cloth in place over the wound. Then he did his best to clean Adam up and sponge him with cloths soaked in cool water. The next day would be crucial in fighting the infection and the fever. He had plenty of food along and began cooking up some beef to make a thick broth just the way Hop Sing had instructed him. Somehow Hop Sing had sensed that all of the things he sent would be needed. Hoss didn’t know how he always knew these things but was so grateful he had.

Once Adam seemed to be resting comfortably, Hoss saw to the horses letting them roam free in the little enclosed canyon. He filled the canteen and the coffee pot with cool water and headed back into the tunnel. He sensed something wasn’t right almost immediately, and when he heard a pistol cock, he knew what it was. They were no longer alone.

“I should just shoot both of you and be done with it, but I’m kinda hungry so you get a few more minutes. Set that down by the fire and put your pistol down when you do it. Now move back and sit against the wall.” Dolan had watched from the tunnel entrance, and Hoss had been so engrossed in what he had to do that his senses had failed him.

“As long as you’re eating our food, maybe you could tell me what this is all about. You must have been the one to frame Adam, but why? Is revenge so important to you that you would risk your life coming back here?”

“You talk a lot, big man, but as long as I’m eating your food, I got time to tell you. Daniel Lash hired me. He holds a lot against the Cartwrights, but he has bigger plans for the Ponderosa and the railroads. He means to put a line right through the ranch and haul all that timber to California. He’ll use hydraulic mining on the slopes then and free up all that gold and silver you Cartwrights have been sitting on. Now I was supposed to get rid of him first as a warning, but Lash and the others will hardly object to another Cartwright getting removed. Then I’ll shoot your pappy and your pretty little wife. She won’t be happy anyway when she realizes you’re dead.” Dolan’s overconfidence and his desire to erase his humiliation from his earlier encounters with the Cartwrights caused him to talk too much.

With what Dolan had said so far, Hoss wanted to jump up and throttle Dolan, but he had to keep a lid on his temper. He had seen Adam open his eyes and blink in a rhythm at him. He knew Adam intended to do something, and Hoss had to be ready so he continued engaging Dolan in conversation. Dolan had not realized yet that Adam was awake for he was facing Hoss and not Dolan. “Who are the others?”

“Well the most obvious, wouldn’t you think? I would have thought you would have worked that out by now: his partners in the railroad and his sons although Lash is the power behind all of them. They controlled everyone else in that syndicate. They’re the real bosses. Everyone else was told what to do.”

“Why come after us now?”

“Well all that trouble you made along with that pretty wife of yours has forced them to scale back their plans for now so they decided to take the Ponderosa first and use those resources to rebuild. They know they got a traitor in their organization too, and they’re trying to flush him out. Different people have been getting different information. When the government makes a move based on the information they get, then they’ll know who the government plant is. Now enough talk.”

Dolan raised his arm to fire at Hoss but Adam suddenly jerked his body kicking his legs through the fire and showering sparks, ash, and hot water on Dolan. It was all that Hoss needed to get his pistol and fire. Dolan wouldn’t be making threats ever again. As soon as Hoss determined that Dolan was dead, he tended to Adam despite the ringing in his ears.

“Now look what ya done. You tore open that wound again and got ya some burns on your leg. Now what am I gonna do with you. You’re just the most difficult patient I ever had.” Hoss had a light teasing tone in his voice as he slowly slid Adam back on his bedroll and then redid the bandage on his back. He cleaned the slight burns on Adam’s leg and put salve on them. “There now, those ain’t gonna hurt you no more than a bit of sunburn. You just had to do it, now, didn’t you? I come all the way here to save your life, and you gotta turn right around and save mine. You can never let me be the one in charge, now can ya?”

Grimacing with the pain, Adam couldn’t say much but grabbed Hoss’ hand and squeezed.

“I know. I was just teasing ya a bit. Pa always said that ifn there was humor, then the person was gonna get better cause nobody would joke ifn a man was dying.”

Squeezing Hoss’ hand once more, Adam let him know how much he was appreciated.

“Now if you’re gonna be all right for a bit, I got some trash to move outta here.”

Adam held onto his hand and tried to talk so Hoss leaned close to hear what he had to say. “Put him in my shirt and jacket. By the time somebody finds him, they might think it’s me.”

“You’re always thinking, aren’t ya? I’ll drag him far enough away so critters aren’t drawn to us here and put him closer to the road. Somebody might see some buzzards and check to see what they’re interested in. I’ll be back in a bit. You just rest easy now.” Hoss pulled Dolan’s shirt off of him and threw it in the fire. Then he grabbed Adam’s bloody shirt and his jacket quickly putting them on Dolan’s body before dragging him from the tunnel. About a half hour later, Hoss was back. “Now I think I was getting you some lunch when this all happened. I need to go get some water again. You keep this pistol with you. Anybody coming in that opening is not probably a friend of ours.”

There were no more visitors. Hoss was relieved that Adam was able to eat some thick broth and then sleep. His fever was still there but didn’t seem to be getting any worse. People with wounds just naturally had some fever so Hoss hoped that’s all it was, and that removing the bullet and cleaning out the wound had taken care of the infection issue.

In Virginia City, Annie had gone into town with Ben. She met with the attorneys and began liquidating many of Adam’s investments as he had instructed her. Roy came to the lawyers’ office to tell them the bad news. Adam had been sentenced in absentia and the sentence was hanging. His escape had pushed the judge to handing down the harshest sentence for he no longer thought that Adam was innocent, and he had also authorized a reward for Adam’s capture. Roy expressed those doubts and never got to say anything more as Annie unleashed her temper on him.

“You’ve known Adam since he was a boy. I’ve only known him a few years, but I know he could never have done such a thing, and you ought to know it too or don’t call him your friend. He’s out there now as a hunted man because you and the law failed him. He hasn’t hurt anyone. He took a horse but released it so he’s not even guilty of that. You can tell that judge to go to hell. Adam will never return here to be hanged for something he didn’t do. I’ll be leaving here too as soon as I can get the money together to do that.”

It was the first that Ben had heard that Annie and Andrew would be leaving. He was shocked but guessed he shouldn’t have been. If Adam left, Annie was going to follow, and she would never leave her son behind. He hoped to convince her not to leave too soon, but had no doubt that she and Adam had worked this all out before he left. Adam had left a coded message for Hoss as well. The three of them were in the middle of this, but Annie could not be forced to testify against her husband. Hoss could be in a lot of trouble though when he got back if they could prove that he had helped Adam. After Roy left, Ben sat back and watched Annie. He remembered when he had first met her. She had been quite a feisty woman and that’s what had seemed to attract Adam more than anything. Now she had that look again with her chin in the air almost daring anyone to say anything. As soon as they left the lawyers’ offices, Annie asked Ben to help her get accounts set up at the bank so that money could be transferred to San Francisco or any other major city. As they drove back to the ranch, Annie told Ben that she was going to visit friends of Adam in Stockton, California, and if the case wasn’t resolved, she would continue on to San Francisco to take a ship to meet Adam.

“Where will you meet him?”

“Papa, I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you. It’s the same reason that Adam didn’t tell you anything. If you’re questioned, you would have to tell the truth or end up in jail. I’m the only one who knows. Hoss doesn’t know anything either except when I told him the location that Adam was going to use to hide out for a bit. I’ll be in California trying to contact people to help him. He’ll be in California too at some point somewhere but I won’t tell you these things, and I hope you understand.”

“I do understand, but I’m not comfortable with Adam ignoring the law like this. He lectured me on more than one occasion in the past to go to the law and trust it, but he isn’t doing that now, and it’s convincing a lot of people that he’s guilty.”

“Would you rather see your son hang for his principles? He knows that sometimes the law is only as good as the men who make it, and in this case, it’s rotten at the core, and you know it.”

“Don’t get me wrong, I understand why he’s done what he’s done. I just wish there was another way.”

That evening, Annie informed the family that she would be leaving by the end of the following week. She went to her home to start packing what she wanted to take with her and what she would ship. The rest could stay. She told Maggie that if she and Adam were not back in a few months, she and Hoss should move into the house that Adam had built.

“Oh, Annie, we couldn’t do that. It would be like saying that you and Adam were never coming back.”

“Maggie, it is, but if this isn’t settled, we won’t be back. We have plans to keep our family safe, and if the law here can’t do it, then we’re going somewhere else.”

“You’re planning to leave the country, aren’t you? No, no, don’t tell me. Deniability is important in situations like this. If I don’t know, I can’t tell anyone. But Annie, know that my thoughts and prayers are with you and Adam wherever you go.”

Annie and Maggie hugged, but Annie was very worried. Hoss wasn’t back, and he had gone because they thought Adam might be hurt. The longer it took for Hoss to get back, the more she thought it likely that one of those bullets had found its mark. She knew that sleeping was going to be a difficult thing. Andrew was already out of sorts sensing how unhappy she was. She knew that things were likely to get even more difficult before they got better. After three more days of waiting like that, she thought she would ride out herself to go to Adam except she had no idea where this hiding place of his was. Instead she went to town to send the messages Adam had told her to send when she was ready to travel. She bought stagecoach tickets and arranged for some freight to be shipped when she called for it. Roy came over to the telegraph office after Annie left.

“Where is she sending messages?”

“Now Roy those are private.”

“And I’m the sheriff and I’m looking for her husband. Where did she send the messages?”

“Stockton, California. To a family named Blake there. She told them she was coming and needed help.”

*****

Chapter 7

There were three words that Annie hated to say and she would have to use them now. Slowly, Annie began sharing her immediate plans with her family. She knew that Roy probably knew she was going to the Blake ranch near Stockton. Adam had met Dave Blake years earlier, and they shared a lot of interests. He had not seen him recently, but both had pledged to help the other if it was ever needed. Now Annie would have to say goodbye. She would have to say that someday she still had hope that they would be able to return. But she also had to admit that it might be impossible unless things started to change rather dramatically. Goodbye, hope, and impossible were three words that sounded depressing to Annie’s way of thinking.

“I’ll go with you, Annie. No doubt Hoss is taking care of Adam, so it’s only right that I help you. Adam would never forgive me if anything happened to you.” Joe’s tone of voice and look did not allow for Annie to say no so she nodded yes and frankly was grateful not to have to do this alone. If it was just her, she would not have been worried, but with Andrew, she was much more concerned. Jeremy had already said he would help if he could, but Joe was definitely better with a gun and more suspicious by nature. He would make a better traveling companion than her brother.

“Thank you, Joe. You’re a wonderful brother. We’ll be leaving in a few days whether Hoss is back or not. Is that all right with you?”

“I’ll follow your lead. I know you can’t tell me anything, but all you have to do is ask, and I’ll do what needs to be done. Adam and I butted heads on more than one occasion, but I love my brother as much as anyone can, and I’ll do what it takes to keep you and him safe.”

Several days later, Annie and Joe packed up for travel. Ben didn’t ask anything about her specific plans for he knew Annie wouldn’t tell him anything anyway, but he was very worried. Hoss was still not back although, as Annie had pointed out, that was kind of news of a sort. If anything really tragic had happened, Hoss would be back, and if it was minor, Hoss would be back. So the conclusion was that it was serious but Hoss could take care of it. They all prayed that was the case. They were exactly correct of course but had no way of knowing that.

In the tunnel where Hoss had cared for Adam for days, the two brothers were parting company. Adam could take care of his basic needs, and if no one had found the tunnel by now, they weren’t looking any more. Adam planned to spend another week there and then head to California to see Annie if he could and to find out more about the conspiracy against them. Hoss had advised Adam to lay low and let the investigation proceed, but Adam was too worried about Annie’s safety at that point.

“You take care, now, and don’t try to ride out of here until that week is up. If there’s anything you should know, I’ll find my way back here without being followed. Now are you sure there’s nothing you need right now?”

“I’m past the stage for needing laudanum, there’s enough food, and Sport is happy in his private pasture. I’ll be fine.”

Reaching out, Hoss enveloped Adam in a big hug. He wasn’t sure when or if he would ever see him again the way things had been going and had to do it even if it made Adam uncomfortable. Having drawn the same conclusions, Adam hugged back however even if it was limited by his injury. Then they said goodbye, and Hoss headed for home.

Hoss ended up going by a circuitous route though. Almost halfway home, he spotted a miner’s camp on the Ponderosa and what looked like a primitive sluice box. He headed there to run the prospector off the land and was amazed to see a buffalo robe piled on top of supplies. He got down from his horse and walked to the stream where the sounds of rushing water had covered his approach.

“Old timer, I’m glad to see ya.”

“What? What! Oh, gosh, I was afraid you was one of them Cartwrights. One of em already done run me off of the Ponderosa, but you know they got a lot of gold here, and I just want a little of it. Didn’t find any yet, but, but I know I will.”

“Yessiree, you will find most certainly find some gold. Ifn you ride back into Virginia City with me and tell the Sheriff about that Cartwright running you off the ranch, then I will make sure you get yourself a good handful of gold coins.”

“Why, why would I want to do that? And, and why would you give me money for telling the sheriff I was trespassing? Not, not that I want to do that of course.”

“Because the Cartwright that run you off the ranch is my brother, and he needs you to tell people where he was on that afternoon. Don’t you worry none about the trespassing. That’s all forgiven, then and now.”

“Then, then you must be one of them Cartwrights. Why, why should I trust you?”

“Have I done anything threatening to ya? My brother is in a lot of trouble and you could help a lot. Now you coming along peacefully, or do I have to tie you down on the back of your mule?”

“I’m, I’m coming. I don’t want no trouble now, no trouble. I’ll go with you, I will, I will.”

By the afternoon, Hoss and the old prospector were in town, and the old man gave his story to Sheriff Coffee and then repeated it in front of the judge.

“There, ya said you needed an alibi witness for Adam, and there he is. Now can we get all this foolishness about my brother taken care of?”

“It’s not enough.” The judge actually looked disappointed when he said it for he was.

“What do you mean it’s not enough? He done told you that Adam was on the Ponderosa that afternoon. Now my brother is capable of a lot of amazing things but he can’t be in two places at once.”

“Mr. Cartwright, it would have probably helped your brother’s case with the jury, but for me, I have six members of the Davis family who say it was Adam, and one man here, with less than a healthy respect for the law apparently, who claims he saw Adam that afternoon. The preponderance of the evidence still supports the conviction. I cannot overturn it simply on this man’s word.”

“Adam is right. He said the law in this case is rotten, and he didn’t have no choice but to escape. Ifn he hadn’t, I woulda helped him because there ain’t nobody here it seems who’s willing to help us.”

“Now, Mr. Cartwright, I have no doubt that you have been with your brother since he escaped, but please for your sake, don’t say any more and implicate yourself in the aiding of a fugitive. I would very much hate having to put you in jail too.”

“You don’t know nothing. I coulda been out looking for this old prospector this whole time, unless you want to railroad me too like what happened to Adam.”

“Mr. Cartwright, I am going to ignore that outburst and not cite you for contempt, but one more word, and I may not have any choice.”

Seeing Hoss ready to say that word, Roy put a hand on his arm and one on his mouth. “Hoss, we can’t help Adam if you’re in jail. Your family doesn’t need any more trouble either. Now let’s go.”

Outside, Hoss walked the old prospector to the bank and got him a handful of gold coins that he said he would get once he signed a written statement with the sheriff. The old prospector asked why, and Hoss told him they might need it in the future if they were able to get more evidence to support Adam’s innocence. Within an hour, Hoss was headed home with a mixed bag of news.

About that time, the stage passed within a half mile of where Adam was hiding but neither Joe nor Annie knew that. Each of them was lost in their own worries as they sat on the bench seat with Andrew sleeping between them. Joe had his hand across the little boy’s ankles as his head rested on Annie’s lap and she gently stroked his hair. Joe mentioned that Andrew took after his father on that one because Adam liked to sleep on a stage journey too. Annie gave a wistful little smile and wondered when she would see Adam next. She couldn’t even let the thought that they might never be together again enter her mind.

On the Ponderosa, Hoss got a mixed bag of greetings although everyone was happy to see him. Maggie wrapped her arms around him or as far as she could reach, and didn’t want to let go. She had been worried about Hoss and the trouble he could get in, but at the same time, she wanted him to help Adam. Ben, Michele, and Hop Sing greeted Hoss with relief as well because they had been worrying about the brothers, but if Hoss was back safely then Adam had to be all right too.

“Maggie, Dolan is dead. He’s the one who framed Adam but we didn’t get enough from him to work on that judge. He did say that Daniel Lash is the head of the syndicate and that they’re aiming to take the Ponderosa for the timber and gold to finance rebuilding their syndicate to what it was. Maggie, he also said they know they got a spy in their group and they’ve been feeding different information to different men. Once the government acts against them, they’ll know who the spy is. It’s gotta be the man who helped you and Adam before, ain’t it?”

“Oh, my, Hoss, I have to get to town to send a message. Can you help me saddle a horse?”

“You sure you should be riding in your condition?”

“Hoss, it’s only six months. I can ride yet.” Seeing his worried look, she amended her statement. “I’ll take the carriage if you prefer.”

“Yes, and ifn you wait, I could go with you.”

“No, you’re tired enough. I’ll ask Candy to go with me. We’ll be back in time for dinner.” With that, Maggie was on her way. Once she left, Ben looked at Hoss.

“I want to see Adam.”

“Pa, you know I can’t do that. If Roy was to ask you where he is, you’d tell him.”

“I want to see my son, and Roy and the law be damned. Too much has happened in the name of the law, and my innocent son is a fugitive, and my grandson is gone, and I don’t know when or if I will ever see him again. I want to see Adam. Michele and I have talked. There is a higher power we’re going to be judged by, and He would understand.” Sitting at Ben’s side, Michele was quiet but kept a hand on Ben’s shoulder in reassurance.

“All right, Pa, we can go tomorrow. Now, Roy and the judge know I’ve been with Adam even if they can’t prove it. We’ll have to be real careful so we ain’t followed. You got a plan for that?”

“No, but I’ll have a plan by morning. Now, I bet you would like to get something to eat. Tell me all about what you and Adam have done the last few days. I know Dolan is dead. Which one of you had to do that?”

“Pa, I shot him. He was gonna kill both of us. I put Adam’s shirt on him and his jacket. Maybe by the time somebody finds him, they’ll think it’s Adam. It would take some of the pressure off Adam if they thought he was dead.”

“How is he? Was he shot?”

Nodding and grimacing, Hoss recalled those painful minutes when he had made Adam suffer so much. Knowing it was necessary didn’t help either. “Pa, I ain’t done nothing harder than that in my life. I will never forget how he cried out when I had to pry that bullet out.” Hoss shuddered remembering what he had to do. Ben put his hand on Hoss’ shoulder to reassure him that he had only done what was necessary. “He begged me to stop and he was just squirming with the pain. I had to kneel on his back and lean on his shoulders. It was like torturing him.” Reaching to rub his neck, Hoss continued. “Just talking about it makes the hairs on my neck stand up and sweat’s running down my back.” Getting his composure back, Hoss talked very matter-of-fact. “Lucky that deputy was a ways away when he shot, or Adam might have died. The bullet hit his shoulder blade and stuck. He lost a lot of blood and it hurt him something awful. But he’s all right now.”

“He’s still hiding in the same place?”

“Yeah, Pa, we found it one year when we were hunting. We were pretty young then, and we swore to keep it as our secret hideout. We’ve been back there a few times hunting over the years. It’s got a narrow opening with brush growing up right beside it and all around. Once you get inside it opens up like a big hall with a wide opening to its own private canyon with a pool right smack dab in the middle of it. Adam was always talking about the special rock formation that it was, but I don’t remember those terms he used.”

“I’m just so thankful that you’re both safe for now. I worry about what’s going to happen next though.”

“Pa, I found the old prospector.”

“Well, where is he? Did you send him to town to tell everyone that Adam is innocent?”

“Pa, I took him there, but the judge says it ain’t enough cause there are six people in the Davis family who say they saw Adam there.”

“Well, that’s just ridiculous. They should know that Adam is innocent.”

“I reckon maybe they do, but I can see the sense of what they’re saying. Six against one isn’t too good.”

By dinner, Maggie and Candy were back. Maggie had sent a coded message so that the undercover man could be warned. Over dinner, Hoss told Maggie that he was taking his father to see Adam. “We need a plan though because I think Roy and the judge know I was with Adam. They might be watching to see if I head out again. If they follow us and get Adam, he’ll hang.”

Maggie looked at the men and knew. “It’s a fairly simple idea. Have two men dress like you and ride your horses. Have them lead a pack animal and head out at an angle to the direction you’re really going. Wait at least an hour, and then dress differently and riding other horses maybe with a couple of other riders for a bit, and then when you’re sure you’re not being followed, split off and ride.”

“I get the disguise and the last part, but why have them ride away at an angle? Why not have them ride out the opposite way?”

“Because too many people do exactly that. If there’s any hint that there might be a decoy, whoever is watching will go the opposite way of the decoys.”

“Maggie, have I told you how amazing you are?”

“Hoss, I believe you have. Now would you like to take a walk in the garden?”

Ben and Michele had to smile for they knew that euphemism. Candy did a fine interpretation of an Adam smirk. They had all used that line at one time or another. At dawn the next morning, the subterfuge worked well. The two men Roy had sent to trail Hoss followed the decoys away from the ranch house. Just over an hour later, Hoss and Ben left although it hardly looked like them. They had borrowed clothing from men in the bunkhouse although Hoss had to wear one of his better shirts to get a color not usually associated with him. By midday they approached the tunnel where Adam was hiding. Hoss entered first and then Ben only to be met by Adam’s voice from the dark recesses of the tunnel demanding they drop their weapons.

“Well, I would do that, son, if you thought it was necessary.”

“Pa?”

As Adam had seen men entering the tunnel, he had quickly hidden himself in the dark area away from his campfire so he could see them clearly, but they wouldn’t be able to see him. He did not recognize his father and Hoss until Ben spoke. Then it all made sense. They had worn disguises so they couldn’t be trailed to him.

“Pa, I’m surprised to see you, but very glad you came.”

“Adam, I didn’t know when I would next see you. I had to come.”

“And if Roy asks you where I am?”

“I’ll tell him you’re up in the mountains. He knows that already.”

“How is everyone?”

But Ben knew that Adam really wanted to know about Annie and Andrew. Annie and Andrew headed out to Stockton yesterday. Joe went with them. He wanted to make sure they arrived safely.”

Nodding, Adam smiled. “Please thank Joe for me when you see him. It may be a while before I see him. That was a wonderful thing for him to do.”

“Your brother loves you very much, and we all love Annie and Andrew.”

“I know, and thank you. I know how hard this has been on everyone. I wish there was another way, but frankly, I still haven’t come up with a way out of this other than for the syndicate to be defeated. Pa, I think Annie and I will go away for a while until this is over. Who knows how long that will be, and I can’t live in the wilderness until that happens. I want to be with my family.”

“Son, I wish you could be with your whole family, but I know it isn’t possible now. Where will you go?”

“For now, Pa, I’d like to keep that to myself. Annie and I will leave the country by different means and then we’ll meet. When that happens, we’ll make the rest of the plan. We have a few ideas in mind, but the safest seem to be going south. There are a lot of places we could go where they wouldn’t care what my story was.”

“I’ve been in Nicaragua. There are a lot of real pretty places south of here. Why not Mexico?”

“I’m assuming there are wanted posters on me. Bounty hunters follow fugitives into Mexico all the time. I wouldn’t be safe there, and before you ask, not Canada because they would return me to the United States if they found out I was there. We have an extradition treaty with them.”

“Will you write?”

“It’s not a definite thing that we’re leaving the country, but it is certainly an option we’ve discussed. If we have to leave, we’ll write when we’re settled and sure that we’re safe. I have to make Annie and Andrew my top priorities now.”

“I know you do, son, and I wouldn’t expect anything else from you, but know that we’ll be worrying here until we know you’re safe. Every day has been difficult since you escaped from jail. That’s only about a week and it was hard to endure. Now you’re talking about being gone for months.”

“Or years.” Neither Hoss nor Ben had anything to say to that. They knew it was true but had hoped not to have to face that possibility.

“Are you staying tonight or heading back out?”

“Pa wants to stay, but I want to get back home. Ya don’t mind, do ya?”

“Hoss, you did so much for me. Thank you. And you need to get home to your wife. She especially needs you close by now. With Pa and Joe gone, both Michele and Maggie would probably appreciate you being there.”

So Hoss left, and Adam showed his father the enclosed canyon where the horses could graze and get water. Then the two of them cooked up some dinner and laid out their bedrolls. As they lay back relaxing after dinner, they got to talk about a lot of things.

*****

Chapter 8

“Hope, goodbye, and impossible are the three words Annie said she never liked to use.” Ben was lounging on his bed roll enjoying the opportunity to visit with Adam. When Adam was young, he was Ben’s nearly constant companion. They had talked a lot. Then Marie had entered their lives, Adam had gone away to college, and Hoss and Joe grew to be men too. There were few opportunities for Ben and Adam to relax and talk. Once Adam married Annie, father and son had not had one extended conversation. Ben had a lot to say, and hoped that Adam would want to talk too for he wasn’t sure how many chances if any there would be for them to do this.

“I understand the goodbye and impossible, but I wonder why she doesn’t like hope.”

“She said if you’re hoping, then something bad has happened and you just thinking how good it would be if things were better.”

“Well that makes perfect Annie-sense.”

“Annie-sense?”

“She has a unique way of looking at the world sometimes. It isn’t right or wrong; it’s just different so I call it Annie-sense. For example, she liked me because we argued. Now to a lot of people, arguing would mean a couple didn’t get along, but in Annie-sense, it means you care.”

“So when the two of you argued so much about almost every little thing, she took that to mean that you liked her, and she argued back to let you know that she cared about you?”

“Yeah, that about sums it up. Annie-sense is a mystery in origin but really is logical even if it takes a bit of a leap of faith sometimes to accept it.”

“A leap of faith?”

“Oh, yeah. She told me that by breaking out of jail after I was convicted should show people I was innocent. She said I stayed in jail because I assumed that as an innocent man I would be found not guilty, but when I was convicted, I had to escape because the system wasn’t working properly so I had to get out to prove my innocence. She said that to let myself be hanged would be accepting that it was all right for the law to be wrong.”

Watching Adam staring into the flames of the small fire, Ben knew who was at the center of Adam’s thoughts at that moment. “You love her very much, don’t you?”

“Pa, I never thought I would ever love anyone like I love her. I’ve opened my heart to her like no one else. She knows more about my weaknesses and doubts than anyone. She listens to me no matter what I have to say. I find it difficult to sleep when she isn’t by my side. When I think of something interesting or see something that is beautiful or magical, I think of telling Annie. When I get an idea, and I’m not sure of myself, I want to tell Annie. I can’t imagine life without her, and sometimes I find it difficult to even remember what it was like to live without her at my side.”

“Adam, I loved your mother like that. She nurtured my dreams and hopes for the future cultivating, encouraging, and helping me to develop my confidence that I could do the things that were only thoughts and desires at the time.”

“Did you love Inger and Marie the same way?”

“No, they were all very different types of women. Your mother was strong in intellect, confidence, and courage. She told me to let nothing ever stand in my way of reaching my goal. Now Inger was warmth, tenderness, and down to earth practicality. She taught me to appreciate those around me. I was a better father to my sons because of her. Marie was excitement and joy never letting anything important happen without an exuberant celebration. They all gave me so much especially my three sons.”

“Pa, I don’t know how you survived the loss of all three of the women you loved so much. Every time I think about losing Annie, I can’t imagine how I could live without her.”

“You would do it because Andrew would need you. He would be part of Annie that you would have forever.”

“Or until he gets in trouble with the law and has to run away.”

“Yes, there is that. Adam, I can only pray that the investigation doesn’t take years. Can you wait a few months and give them time to finally bring this syndicate down? They have names now and they have evidence. I have to believe it can’t take too much longer.”

“The problem with that is that Annie is in danger too. They tried to make an example of me, and to get me out of the way. Pa, none of the family is safe. How will you protect them all and yourself too?”

“We are being careful. That’s one of the reasons Joe traveled with Annie and Andrew. Hoss found that old prospector. We have his testimony now. If we can get just one more piece of evidence, your conviction will be overturned.”

“Pa, the only other help for me are the Paiute I saw, but you know they will never accept the word of the Paiute against the word of six whites.”

“Hoss said Dolan admitted some things before he was killed. Maggie sent that information off to her former boss. She thinks he will be able to move the investigation forward more rapidly because of it. We aren’t sitting in as hopeless a situation as we were a week ago. Eventually Hoss and you too can testify to what Dolan said.”

“Yes, but now tell me about my son and my wife. How have they been holding up with everything that has happened?”

So Ben told Adam everything he could remember about the family over the past week and how they had managed with all that had happened. Finally he asked Adam about his plans.

“I’m going to try to see Annie and Andrew in Stockton. Then I think I’ll be heading south to find a place to lay low until this works itself out or doesn’t. If not, Annie and I will rendezvous to decide what to do next.”

The next day, Adam and Ben talked more and took the horses out for a ride in the hills. The day after, Ben and Adam hugged before separating as Adam headed through the mountains toward Stockton, and Ben headed back to the Ponderosa.

On the Blake Ranch, Annie and Andrew were saying goodbye to Joe who had escorted them to the ranch and had stayed over for a day to help them settle in and make sure they would be safe.

“Watch for Adam on the way back home. He said he would be heading this way as soon as he could.”

Hearing the tremor in her voice, Joe tried to be reassuring. “He will be. If there had been anything too serious, we would have heard by now. I’m sure he’s on his way.”

Annie nodded even though she didn’t feel that confident. Hugging Joe, tears formed but she did manage not to cry. Andrew waved as Joe rode out on a horse he had purchased from the Blake Ranch. Dave had a number of very fine horses and Joe had purchased one to add to the breeding stock of the Ponderosa. Dave had an old saddle he let Joe have, and told him if he saw his brother to tell him to hurry because his wife and son missed him terribly. Joe agreed to do that and then rode for home following a trail that he thought his brother might use if he was trying to avoid people. He made camp that night high in the hills with only peaceful night sounds around him. He woke later when a hand pressed down on his shoulder, but his heart rate stopped climbing when he heard that familiar baritone voice.

“Sorry, but I had to be sure who it was. You weren’t riding Cochise so I waited until I could check things out.”

“Damn, Adam, I wish you could have checked things out without nearly stopping my heart. Damn, it’s good to see you though. Annie is very worried about you, and I’m glad to see you’re all in one piece.”

“I’m rather pleased with that myself. Annie settled in with the Blakes all right?”

“Definitely. They have a little boy too so Andrew is having fun having someone to play with. He waved goodbye when I left. He really is a tough little guy to handle all this so well.”

“I wish he didn’t have to, and I wish I hadn’t put Annie through so much. I don’t want her to ever regret marrying me, but this has got to be rough on her.”

“The only rough part for Annie is that she’s wondering where you are and if you’re all right.”

“I’m going to try to see her. I don’t want to be too direct about it though and bring any attention to her there. I have to keep her safe.”

“Do you want me to ride back there to tell her you’re up here?”

“No, Joe, that’s the kind of thing that would draw attention if anyone is watching. Thank you for all you’ve done. Pa told me you went with Annie, and I was relieved to know you were watching out for her.”

“You finally got yourself married. I have to do everything I can to see you stay that way.”

Adam grinned. “I’ll get my horse and we can get some rest. We’ll talk in the morning?”

“You bet. I have a lot of questions.”

The next morning, Adam and Joe talked for quite a while. Adam explained things to about the same extent as he had done with Hoss and with their father. He was worried about telling his family members too much and putting them in a position where they might feel they had to lie. By mid-morning, the two brothers prepared to go their separate ways. Adam reached out to touch Joe on the shoulder and that was all it took to get Joe to grab Adam in a hug. Unashamedly Joe cried a few tears as he said goodbye. He was afraid in his heart that this might be the last time he ever saw his oldest brother.

“Joe, I’ll be back. I can’t say when, but I’ll be back with my family when it’s sage to return home.”

“The Ponderosa is home then?”

“It always will be even when I’m not there.”

The two brothers parted then and spent the rest of the day lost in thought as they rode. There was another homecoming on the Ponderosa. Martha returned and surprised her sister and Hoss.

“Why didn’t you write that you were coming?”

Raising her right hand then, Martha showed them the cast. “I haven’t been able to write a thing, and I couldn’t even ride for a while. Finally the doctor gave me permission to travel and I came right here.”

“Sis, what happened?” Hoss was as worried as Maggie.

“I went for a ride, and tried a jump I’ve done about a hundred times before. Something went wrong and I landed on my head and shoulder. Didn’t know anything for a few days until my mind recovered from being scrambled a bit. My shoulder was so sore I couldn’t move my arm at all which turned out to be a good thing because I broke bones in my hand, wrist, and forearm. When the swelling went down, they took the splints off and put on this cast. Then I could travel and I didn’t waste any time getting here. I figured Joe would be upset. I got all of his letters in one day. Where is he anyhow?”

For the next hour or so, Hoss and Maggie began telling the story of what had happened since she had left. Michele and Ben sat by and added in details as everything was explained. Martha was in shock as she listened to the tale and heard what each of them had done.

“When do you expect Joe to get back?”

Everyone looked around wondering that themselves. Ben gave the only answer that anyone could. “Any day now, he should be back.”

In two days, Ben was correct. Joe walked in the house and saw everyone sitting by the fireplace. “Hello everyone. I’m starved. I’ll be out to talk as soon as I get something to eat.” He turned to go to the kitchen to get a late dinner when he was shocked to meet Maggie coming out of the kitchen. “But Maggie, I just saw you sitting next to Hoss.” Joe turned and was amazed when Martha stood up. She was wearing Maggie’s robe.

“Aren’t you even going to say hello to me?”

Seeing Martha there, Joe was shocked but then a huge grin emerged. Not only was he thrilled to see Martha, he had just gotten an idea. Martha spoke first.

“Joe, I thought you were ignoring me. My trunks haven’t arrived yet so Maggie loaned me one of her robes. I’m sorry I didn’t write, but I hurt my hand.” Martha raised her right hand which was still heavily bandaged, but Joe seemed excited instead of concerned.

“Hoss, that’s it! Damn, it was so obvious. It was right in front of us the whole time.”

“Joseph, watch your language in front of the ladies!”

“Oh, Pa, sorry, but Pa. That’s it. Don’t you see? That’s it. That’s what we’ve been looking for all along.”

The next afternoon, Joe had assembled the judge, the Davis family, the prosecutor, Roy, Adam’s lawyers, and his family at the Davis home at the very spot where Buck Davis had been shot down in cold blood. He had assured all of them that he had someone important for them to talk to, and then he whistled and looked up the hill at the tree where the assassin had stood.

“That’s him! That’s Adam Cartwright.” The oldest of the Davis children pointed.

Mrs. Davis gasped and put her hand to her mouth. “What is he doing here? What kind of game are you playing, Joe Cartwright?”

“No game, ma’am. This is too serious.” He waved then and Clem walked out from under the tree. He was dressed in all black and was holding a set of spurs next to his rifle.

“Well you just wanted to trick us. We know now that it isn’t Adam Cartwright, but what does that prove?”

“Well I wanted to see if you could tell the real Adam.” Joe whistled again and another figure stepped out from behind the tree. The Davis family all looked very carefully at him, but Mrs. Davis said she didn’t think that was Adam, so looking dejected, Joe signaled once more. When the third man stepped out to stand beside the tree, Mrs. Davis looked at Joe with a challenging look.

“There, now, that’s him. You see, you couldn’t fool us.” All five children then agreed with their mother that the man up there was Adam Cartwright.

At Joe’s signal, the man walked forward and pulled off his hat. It was Candy wearing Adam’s clothing. Mrs. Davis whirled on Joe. “You tricked us. You told us that one of those men was Adam so we had to believe it was the third man.”

“No, I just said I wanted you to see if you could tell which one was the real Adam. It’s pretty clear to me that you can’t. You saw the black clothes and hat and the general build and assumed it was Adam because of the fight, and your kids accepted your conclusion and saw what you saw. Except it wasn’t my brother.”

Judge Walker stepped forward at that point. “Well I said that one old prospector’s claim wasn’t enough to set aside the testimony of six people. I now withdraw that opinion. It is more than enough. I hereby set aside the jury verdict and declare Adam Cartwright innocent of the charge of murder in the case of Charles “Buck” Davis. I will have all the necessary papers drawn up as soon as I can get back to town. Sheriff, it’s time for you to withdraw those wanted posters from circulation so Adam can come home.”

*****

Chapter 9

There was just darkness and silence. Adam listened for crickets or night birds and heard nothing. He wondered if it was possible that they had all sensed him and quieted or was there some other threat out there that he couldn’t see? Carefully and quietly he approached the Blake house. When he neared the porch, he stood upright and walked into the light thrown by lanterns hanging in front of the house. He climbed the porch steps and knocked on the door seeing light in a room toward the back of the large home. Soon someone walking with a lamp approached the front door. Just as the door was opened, shots hit the porch exactly where Adam had been standing seconds before.

“Get inside quick, Adam. Hurry.”

Shoving the door closed and dousing the lamp, Dave Blake pulled Adam to follow him. On reaching the kitchen, Dave told them to turn down the lamps and get low. He grabbed a pistol from his rig that was hanging on the wall next to the back door of the house. With Andrew huddled protectively in her arms, Annie slid over to Adam and quickly kissed him. “Cowboy, you sure do know how to make an entrance.”

Leaning down, Adam kissed Annie in return and then kissed Andrew. “You two stay down and safe. I think I need to find out who tried to kill me out there a minute ago.” Looking toward Dave who was crouched down by the kitchen door, Adam had to ask. “You ready to help me find out who’s out there?” Dave had been in the Union Army following a stint as a Marshal. Better than most with a pistol, he had retired to this horse ranch when he married and had a son. He was very capable of handling this type of activity. The two of them cautiously exited the house and worked their way around to the front where they thought the gunmen might still be waiting. They were not disappointed. Gunfire erupted as soon as their furtive movements were noted. The men out there weren’t nearly as experienced however. Dave or Adam would purposefully draw fire so that the other could fire where they saw the pistol or rifle flash. In just a few minutes, they had shot two of the would-be assassins. They heard one ride out.

“They just don’t respect you, Adam. They only sent three to shoot you. You must be losing some of that intimidating reputation.” Most of the sarcasm was lost on Adam who wanted to ride out after the third man. “Not even you can track a man in the dark. He’s gone. Let’s go inside so you can see your wife and son. I’ll get my helper to keep watch. I’m surprised he isn’t out here already.” Dave soon found out that his stable hand had been locked in his room and couldn’t get out. He was too large to fit through the small window in his room, and someone had stacked bales of hay against the door. The assassins must have suspected Adam would be here on this night and set a trap. It was only luck and timing that had made them fail in their task.

At the Lash mansion on the outskirts of Sacramento the next day, the one assassin who had escaped would meet the wrath of Daniel Lash. Lash had sent men to look for Dolan and to see if Adam Cartwright had been eliminated so they could move into step two of their plan. Instead the men found Dolan’s body. There wasn’t much left of it, and at first, they had thought it was Adam. He had what looked to be Adam’s shirt and jacket. But they pulled the boot off what was left of his right leg and found four toes. They surmised that Adam had killed Dolan and dressed him in his own clothing to try to throw off pursuit. What he didn’t know was that Dolan had lost a toe in the War and only had four left on his right foot. It was definitely Dolan so they had searched the area until they found the tunnel where Adam had been staying. He had recently left. When they reported all of that to Lash, he had sent three men to wait at the Blake ranch for he assumed Adam would go there. They had been watching Annie and had trailed her there. They would have followed Joe and killed him except Lash hadn’t ordered that. They would have been sorely disappointed if they had known that Joe met Adam. They could have killed both if they had followed their inclination.

“Damn that Cartwright. He’s like a blasted cat with nine lives. Now what do we do. They know we know where he is. I found out today from our men in Virginia City that the wanted posters on him are being withdrawn so we won’t have any bounty hunters to help us out either.”

“Mr. Lash, can I suggest something?”

“Go ahead and spit it out.”

“Well, I was thinking that cause he shot and killed two of your men tonight, that you could get him charged with murder here in California. Put up a big reward so people will be climbing all over themselves trying to be the one to collect.”

“You know no murder charge will stand up with Dave Blake as his alibi. They’ll claim self defense, and any jury would accept it.”

“Mr. Lash, you don’t need to worry about it going to trial. If you put up say about ten thousand as a reward, dead or alive, he won’t never make it to a jail even. Somebody is bound to shoot him for that kind of money. And it would all be legal.”

“Ah I do like the sound of that plan. Get it done. We still own enough of that sheriff in Stockton for him to do this for us. If he loses his job over it, tell him we’ll get him a new job. If he balks, remind him that his wife and children have no protection when he’s at work. While you’re at it, hire some men to replace the ones we lost. Get Darby to do it. He should be good at finding the kind of men we need.”

Darby liked the assignment. He knew exactly whom he wanted to hire. It was all coming together now. Maggie’s news had allowed him to avoid being detected and he managed to get another man blamed for being the government spy. Lash had that man killed and Darby had witnessed the whole thing as Lash’s son shot the supposed spy in the head just after Lash ordered it. With the new hires, they would be ready to take Lash down. Darby didn’t know about the plan for making Adam a highly sought after wanted man. If he had, he would have made his move sooner. As it was, it did goad him into the action that would finally bring down the head of the snake and finish the syndicate completely.

At the Blake Ranch, Adam spent a lot of time with Andrew who didn’t want to move from Adam’s lap once he was there. Adam had to lie down next to him when he went to bed so that he would sleep. As soon as Andrew’s breathing became soft and regular, Adam slipped away from him to join Annie and the Blakes. He was leaning toward the plan that he had made with Annie for them to leave the country. Tonight’s close call made both of them know they were under surveillance by the syndicate. They had to wonder how much longer their luck would hold, and now Dave could be in trouble for harboring a fugitive. They didn’t know that Adam had been cleared of all charges in Virginia City. A telegram would arrive the next morning with that news but only after Adam had left and Annie was on her way to San Francisco. But then they found out very early that wanted posters were going up in California with a ten thousand dollar reward for Adam Cartwright, dead or alive.

Standing on the porch the next morning and drinking coffee, Adam and Dave received a copy of the wanted poster from Dave’s stable man who had gone into town for supplies.

“Damn, Adam, they know those charges won’t stick so they made the reward big enough to get somebody to kill you for it.”

“Dave, can you get Annie and Andrew to San Francisco safely? She’s not wanted so traveling with her would be legal for you.”

“Of course I can do that. Then what?”

“Annie knows our plan. With these wanted posters, I need to get traveling fast. I’m going to have to say a quick goodbye which may upset her terribly, and Andrew is going to be tough to handle when he realizes I’ve abandoned him again.”

“Adam, if you can keep yourself safe for just a while longer, I’m sure that the charges will be dropped. I can get lawyers working on it today.”

“I’ve had lawyers working on it. All that got me was a death sentence. These wanted posters will just make it happen faster. Dave, I have to keep my family safe, and I need to do this. I know I’ll be a fugitive, but we’ll be safe. I can make a life for us elsewhere.”

“You’re leaving the country.” It was a statement not a question and Adam said nothing more. He turned to go inside to say the gut wrenching goodbyes again. Then he mounted up and rode south. Dave had a pretty good idea where he was going, but he didn’t ask. If questioned, he could truthfully state he that Adam didn’t tell him where he was going. Within an hour, Annie had packed so Dave began the journey with her and Andrew to San Francisco. By the end of that week, Adam was in Mexico looking for a ship to take him to the Sandwich Islands, and Annie was boarding a ship in San Francisco harbor booked for the same destination. She had bank drafts with her and a fair amount of jewelry and cash. They would have plenty to start a new life somewhere. They would discuss the exact location when they had a chance to talk again.

There was one more crisis for Adam before he could leave. He had apparently been trailed from California. Luckily for him, the bounty hunter had not bribed the ship’s captain and crew ahead of time and Adam had. Not only had he paid for his passage, he bought a large amount of alcohol for the captain to distribute once they reached the Sandwich Islands and paid the captain a handsome extra amount to make sure he got there safely. He told the captain that he would get a nice bonus too when Adam arrived in port. The captain had asked why he couldn’t be paid in advance.

“Captain, the rest of my money is on its way to the Sandwich Islands already. By the time I get there, I hope it is safely stored in a bank. And sorry to say, sir, but I don’t know you and an additional payment I hope is enough to get me there safely.”

They shook hands on the deal, and the captain showed Adam to a cabin down below. It was cramped and none too clean but it would suffice. Fugitives seldom could be picky about their accommodations. When the bounty hunter attempted to come on board to take Adam into custody, the captain had him thrown into the harbor. Unfortunately for him, he couldn’t swim and no one was in a mood to save him. The crew threw off the ropes, unfurled the sails when the breeze came up as expected later in the morning, and sailed out of the harbor with a nice wind pushing them at a reasonable speed. Within three weeks they sailed into Honolulu harbor. They had been detained by a storm that blew them south and had to tack into the wind to get to their destination.

With more favorable winds, Annie’s ship had arrived a week earlier. On her arrival, she followed Adam’s instructions and had their money safely stored. She rented a small home on the beach, and every day, she waited under the shade of a tree next to the harbor as Andrew played and napped. Luckily he was blessed with Adam’s darker complexion and quickly tanned in the tropical sun. Each ship that entered the harbor caused her to stand and watch until every passenger had disembarked. Finally at the end of the week, she saw a disheveled man walk off a ship with the ship’s captain. He was dirty, bearded, and dressed in gray shirt and pants, but she would know that walk anywhere. She grabbed Andrew’s hand and began to hurry toward him. She saw the grin long before she reached them. She flew into Adam’s arms after he stooped to pick up his son who wasn’t so sure who it was until his father said his name. Adam kissed Annie, and then Andrew, and then Annie again. Then he turned to the captain.

“Annie, this is Captain Alvarez. He kept me safe and got me here. I promised him a bonus.”

“Senor Cartwright, you have paid enough. Now that I see you with your family, I do not need that bonus. Perhaps up above, they will give me credit for this act, and forgive me for some of my sins. Good day, senor and senora, and best wishes for a safe journey.”

Reaching out to grasp the captain’s hand, Annie thanked him and said that they would be honored to host him at dinner that evening once Adam had a chance to clean up and get some better clothing. The captain agreed and then departed.

“So, sweetheart, where are we living at the moment?”

“Right this way. I have a romantic little cottage right on the beach. It’s only two rooms and there are no windows, but then I didn’t expect we would stay here long. I paid the rent for one month.”

When they arrived, Adam was pleased with their temporary residence. He had expected something dark because Annie said it had no windows, but she was being literal. There were two large openings toward the ocean, and comfortable sleeping pads in one room and chairs and a table in the other. Annie smiled when she saw Adam’s reaction.

“There aren’t any mosquitoes here, and we face away from the direction of any storms blowing in. The overhangs protect us from any rainfall, and the morning sun will wake us.”

“It’s perfect. I am so glad to see you safely here. Now I want a bath and a shave. What kind of facilities are there for things like that?”

First grabbing a towel and telling Adam to grab his shaving kit, Annie led Adam a short distance from the cottage to a small pool fed by a tiny stream. He looked and she nodded. He slipped off his clothing and settled into the pool to wash. For the first time Annie saw the terrible scar on his back and knew how close she had come to losing him. She couldn’t bear to look at it, so she went to the cottage to get a mirror, a bowl and a towel for Adam to use to shave. By the time she returned, she had regained her composure. She found Andrew was in the pool with Adam, and they were splashing water and laughing. Annie had to smile and then laugh too. For the first time in over a month, she felt they were safe and that they had a future together.

*****

Chapter 10

“Pa! Pa, you gotta come hear the report Maggie just got. It’s great news, Pa.” Hoss got everyone’s attention with that. He and Maggie had gone to town so that she could talk with Doctor Martin about some concerns with her pregnancy. While they were in town, they had stopped to get the mail and there had been a thick package for Maggie. Opening it, she found a report on the demise of the syndicate. The undercover man Darby had come forward when Lash was about to set in motion some assassinations. He had targeted Ben Cartwright among others now that Adam had slipped away from him. Darby had managed to get other government agents hired by the Lash syndicate so when Lash gave some orders that they could not legally follow, they had turned on him. As authorities moved on his mansion to arrest him, he had killed himself. His sons and other employees had tried to shoot it out but had died in the effort. The sheriff in Stockton had been among the others arrested as the final nail went in the coffin of the syndicate. All charges against Adam were dropped as information was produced showing he did not commit any crimes. All wanted posters had been called in. There would be a fear for some time that a poster was still out there, and that some bounty hunter would try to act on it though.

Sitting on the arm of the red leather chair that Ben favored, Michele put her hand on Ben’s shoulder for she could see his eyes were shiny with tears. Joe and Hoss got a little choked up too seeing how their father had reacted. Adam was now safe from prosecution, but no one knew where he was. He didn’t know that Martha was back and that Joe had asked her to marry him. She had agreed. Joe said he wanted to wait for Adam to be home for the wedding, but each day, they began to question whether or not he would be home. They planned to tell the family their news soon whether Adam was back or not. Everyone hoped that Adam and his family were all right, but they had no way to tell him that he could come home. He had fled to be safe and to keep his family safe, and all of them knew he had likely left the country. So for the family, the big question was where he was for they very much wanted to get in touch with him. Hoss decided they would share their other news as well.

“Pa, Michele, you know how concerned we all were with Maggie getting so large and still having more than two months to go? Well Doctor Martin gave us some good news too. We’re gonna have twins.”

That did lighten the mood and everyone congratulated Hoss and Maggie on the good news. Instead of fears that the baby would be very large making the delivery very difficult, there would be two deliveries. Joe and Martha looked at each other and looked at Ben who, although smiling, still had some sadness in his look. With a small smile and a nod, Martha gave Joe permission to tell them their news.

“Pa, because it’s a time for celebration, Martha and I have some good news too. We decided on getting married. We want the wedding to be here in a month. It’s gonna be a big party, and we wanted to have it when Maggie could still enjoy it.”

That led to another round of congratulations, and it seemed Ben had shaken the sadness away, but brought it back on himself with his next statement. “Brothers marrying beautiful sisters and one of those sisters who will bring two grandchildren onto the Ponderosa in a couple of months. I have to say that a few years ago, I wondered if any of my sons would marry, and if I would ever have any grandchildren. Now I have all three sons married, a grandson, and two more grandchildren on the way. How could things be any better than this?” And then he stopped for all the worry and sadness because of Adam’s flight came rushing back in on him. Everyone knew that no matter how happy they all were, there would be that concern and sadness until they knew that Adam and Annie were safe.

In Honolulu, Adam and Annie were making plans. They had decided that they would use the situation as an opportunity to travel. The biggest concern was extradition. They didn’t know which countries in Europe would honor extradition for a murder charge. So they were thinking about China and Australia for an adventure.

“If we want to live in reasonable comfort, I would need to work or make investments with the money we have available. For a while, we might need to do both.” Always practical, Adam realized that to live the way he wanted his family to live, he would need an income as well as the wealth they carried with them.

“So that would make Australia the more logical choice for us. I would like to see some of those animals that are described in the books. I find it hard to believe that there is a half mammal and half duck animal, or an animal with a pouch to carry its baby. It could be so much fun to show those animals to Andrew. He loves to wade in the surf here and see all the colorful fish swimming about. We saw a whole school of tiny bright blue fish yesterday. Australia could be a lot of fun.”

“Yes, and we speak the language too. I’ll make arrangements for travel if you agree that’s the place for us to visit.”

“Yes, and perhaps if we spend enough time there, the trouble at home will be resolved, and we can return.”

“That’s exactly what I was thinking. I’ve wanted to travel since I came home from college. This takes care of that and keeps me from having a choking sensation in my neck.”

“Cowboy, I really don’t need any more reminders of all of that. Perhaps we could pledge not to talk about that any more unless we need to?”

Nodding, Adam picked up his shirt and slipped it on. He had been going shirtless on the beach every day that they had been there. Annie didn’t mind the view at all, and it was cooler to do that as well. They were doing a lot of swimming and had met some of the native people who invited the family to join them frequently when they found that Adam and Annie accepted them as equals. There weren’t many whites who would do that and the natives found it refreshing to know that not all whites were so prejudiced.

The first week they had been on the island, Adam had penned a letter to his family to tell them that all three of them were together and safe. Now he planned to send a second letter telling them that they were going to travel and when he could, he said he would give them their location and an address for correspondence. Adam met with some of the people they had met in Honolulu and got information about Australia from some who did some trade with that continent. Within a week, he had booked passage to Australia and made arrangements to ship their possessions there as well as soon as the freight arrived from San Francisco. Almost a month to the day that Annie had first arrived in Honolulu, the family boarded a ship bound for Australia. Neither of Adam’s letters had yet made it to the Ponderosa.

As the ship sailed out of the harbor, Adam stood at the rail with one arm around Annie and Andrew in his other arm. He finally had his dream of travel. He had seen parts of Mexico he had never before seen, he had lived on a beach in the Sandwich Islands for almost a month, and now was headed to Australia with all its exotic creatures. He should have been elated, but all he felt was sadness that he had torn his wife and son away from their only home because of his needs. He pledged to himself that he would do everything he could to make them happy. Annie could feel the tension in Adam and how stiffly he stood there beside her.

“It’s not your fault. We’re in this together, and lots of evil men made us have to make these decisions. Do not blame yourself. I’m looking forward to this adventure almost as much as you are I think, and Andrew is a happy boy. Just look at him. He has everything he wants right here now.”

With a smile, Adam kissed her and then kissed his son. They spent most of the day on deck watching the islands shrink away behind them and then watched whales breaching in the afternoon when the ship came upon a pod of them. One large whale repeatedly struck his tail on the water creating huge splashes that they could still see long after they had passed by the whales. They had been fascinated by the sight. Andrew had wanted to go in the water with them not realizing how big they were nor how deep the water was. Living in a shallow lagoon had not prepared the toddler for the dangers of deep water. Adam and Annie knew they needed to keep close contact with him for the rest of the trip. Within a week that was primarily Adam’s responsibility because Annie was sick almost all the time. They had run into a series of small storms, and apparently Annie was not well suited to riding a ship that pitched and yawed in the large storm waves. By the time they sailed into Sydney Harbor, Annie looked at Adam as they stood at the rail and made a declaration that surprised him.

“Well here’s our new home.”

“Annie, I thought this was temporary until we could go back to the Ponderosa?”

“I thought so too until that trip here. I will never get on a ship again, so we better get used to living here.”

Adam smiled then but he wasn’t at all sure how serious she was. Meeting them at the gangplank was an employment broker. He met all the ships coming in and tried to find people for jobs that were available. He asked Adam if he was interested in employment. When Adam replied positively, he asked him what he could do.

“Mining engineer or architect would be my first choices.”

“Well, I’m afraid I don’t have anyone looking to fill those jobs. Can you shoot? There’s a job for a sharpshooter. If you can ride, there are a lot of jobs on stations here.”

“I’d rather find some work in the city so I can stay close to my family and enjoy what the city has to offer.”

“Well if you can do engineering and architecture, then I would assume you are well educated. I do have a job as a schoolteacher available. It would be teaching math to young gentlemen for the next two months until summer break.”

Mentally adjusting to the idea that summer would be opposite what he was used to at home, Adam thought the job might be good until he could secure work he wanted to do. “If you give me your card, I’ll give you an answer tomorrow. I would like to get my family settled first.”

“Of course, of course. I’m sure the school would be happy to employ you. I will get the particulars of the job. Where will you be staying?”

“We hope to get some rooms at a hotel here. We have several recommendations from some people in Hawaii who have done business here.”

“If you don’t mind the advice, it would be cheaper to rent a small cottage on the outskirts of the city, and more comfortable for your wife and son too. If you walk up the street there about two blocks, there’s an office with properties for sale and rent.” Handing over his card, the broker moved on to talk to others who were disembarking.

Adam hired a hackney so that they could travel more comfortably and had all the luggage put in the back. They stopped at the office that had been recommended and made an appointment to look at several properties, some for sale and some for rent. Then they proceeded to a hotel that had been recommended and took a room there. The last thing that needed to be done was to go to a bank and set up some accounts. By the end of the day, they were tired but relaxed. Everything had gone well and the banker had made some suggestions as to investments. Adam was going to meet with a broker the next day as well. Everything seemed to be falling into place. When he wrote a letter to his father, he couldn’t keep the excitement out of the letter. Within a week, he was penning another letter. It seemed that the sickness Annie experienced on the ship was not just the result of the wave action for she continued to be sick on land. A visit to the doctor confirmed what they had hoped. Annie was with child. Adam sent their address too for he was fairly confident that no one was going to come this far to get him and he had purchased a small home on the outskirts of Sydney and had accepted the job as a schoolteacher. He was to start the next day.

*****

Chapter 11

“Nakes, Mama, nakes!” seemed to be a common cry Annie heard around the house. Adam had killed a snake in their yard. It had shaken all of them, but Andrew now saw snakes in every thing that moved in the grass. Adam had told him that the snakes were dangerous and could kill so that he must be very careful. It had caused him to fear going outside unless he was carried. For the time being, that was fine until they got used to the dangers of their new home, but Annie knew it bothered Adam to have his son so afraid. Annie had been terrified at first of the giant bats that flew about until she learned they ate fruit. There had even been an occasion where some had flown over their house at night and dropped fruit. The banging on the roof had frightened them too until the next morning when Adam had discovered the fruit remnants on the roof. He had laughed and said perhaps they ought to train the bat to bring fruit. They had not yet seen a platypus but people told them that the little creatures were elusive. All three of them had been fascinated the first time they saw kangaroos. They had been warned not to get too close as they could be dangerous. Koalas ambled about from gum tree to gum tree, and kookaburras were their friends they were told for they would kill and eat snakes.

Neighbors helped them learn about the animals that were a threat and warned them away from the beaches because of sharks. Swimming was done in small pools not in the beautiful waters of the large harbor. In return, Adam told tales of the American west with gunfighters and gangs that robbed banks and trains. He told them of the Paiute and Shoshoni as well as the cougars, grizzly bears, and antelope. Many nights were spent learning about Australia from their neighbors and sharing recipes. Once the two crates of their personal belongings arrived, their home felt more like home.

Each day it seemed that Annie’s tummy bump grew larger. She still had about five months to go by her best guess, but Adam suggested that it might be four which would explain her being larger than she was with Andrew at about that same point in her pregnancy. She hoped it was true because as it had gotten warmer and warmer, she was more and more uncomfortable. Adam purchased an extra large tub.

“Is that because I’m so huge?”

“No, sweetheart, you are not huge, but more water will fit in here and you can lounge longer to get relief from the heat.”

“And that’s the only reason you got it extra big?”

“Well I did think that if you wanted to invite me in some evening, that there would be enough room for me and perhaps enough room for some pleasurable activities.”

Smiling, Annie leaned back in her chair. “I’m glad we have a house on the outskirts. The breezes up here help too.”

“Yes, it can get beastly hot in that school, and I have to wear that darn suit and the tie tied tight up against my neck. But at least we have income right away even if it isn’t much. Over the summer, I want to travel a bit and see if I can get some work as a mining engineer or as an architect.”

“How far would you travel?”

“Only up to the blue mountains. That’s the furthest I would go. They’re developing some mines there, and I want to see what kind of terrain and rock they’re working with.”

Within two months, Adam had a couple of jobs consulting on mining projects as well as contracts to design two homes. It was freelance work, and at this point, he preferred that. He could spend more time with his family working at home, and he did not have to make any long term commitments. It also meant that he did not need to go back to the teaching job although they had asked him repeatedly if he would. Qualified instructors in math were difficult to find. Eventually he told the school headmaster that if he did not have enough work, he could help them out in the second term. He didn’t ever go back to teaching much to the dismay of the school headmaster. His first two home designs were built and as the structures neared completion, there was a lot of interest in the style that Adam had developed. It was a combination of things he knew from studying architecture adjusted for the climate and environment of Sydney. Soon he had all the work he wanted designing homes and some public buildings. He continued consulting on mining projects, and their bank balances grew exponentially it seemed with the investments he had made as well. Annie was able to hire a woman to help her with the cooking and laundry as her delivery date neared.

When Annie woke Adam to let him know it was time for their second child to be born, he was more calm than he had been with Andrew. Both of them missed not having family there for support but friends helped out. By late that day, Adam heard a baby’s cry from the bedroom and waited anxiously until the doctor stepped out to tell him he had a daughter. Adam scooped Andrew up in his arms.

“Mama had a little girl. You have a sister now. Do you want to go see her?”

Not waiting for an answer, Adam carried Andrew into the bedroom to find an exhausted Annie holding their daughter. She smiled at Adam and asked him to take his daughter.

“Annie, are we agreed on the name now?”

They had had a number of discussions about the name. Adam wanted to call her Hope but Annie had pushed for Elizabeth or Ingrid. She just didn’t like the name Hope. Finally Adam looked at her and asked. “Why not Hope?”

“Hope is something you want but don’t have. I want something more solid for her name. Something that says she’s ours and precious to us.”

“How about Joanna, gift from God. Joanna Hope Cartwright?”

“Yes, I like that.”

So Andrew got his sister Joanna. He wondered why she was so small and was shocked to see how his mother fed her. Adam told him he had done the same, but Andrew said that couldn’t be true. He ate from a plate and knew how to use a fork and a spoon. Annie laughed and told Adam he was going to have fun explaining the facts of life to Andrew when he was older.

Adam penned another letter to his family wondering why they had not heard anything yet. He began to worry that something worse had happened. Two months later he finally got a letter in answer to his second letter home. He assumed the family was probably getting his third letter about the same time. He waited until he reached his home before he slit the thick letter open and read it out loud to Annie as she nursed the baby. Andrew was napping in his room. When he finished reading, both of them were amazed at all the news. Hoss and Maggie had twin girls, all the charges against Adam had been dropped and he was exonerated, and Joe had married Martha. Adam looked at Annie expecting a smile but saw only her frown.

“What’s wrong? That’s all good news.”

“Yes, it is, but Adam, we’ve made commitments here, and Joanna is only two months old. It’s too soon for her to travel, and now that we know more about sailing out here, we know we shouldn’t travel from August through January because of all the storms. We need to wait almost a year before we can seriously consider going home.”

With all the work Adam was doing with the upper echelon of Sydney society, he and Annie were being invited to parties frequently. There was also a rich cultural life in the city that they enjoyed. Andrew made friends with neighbor children who often came to the house to play. They were almost too busy to be homesick. As Adam’s wealth grew, he hired a man to watch over his family and work as a caretaker of the grounds. They now had two people dependent on them for their livelihood. Fully immersed in Australian life, they seldom thought of home. Letters began to be exchanged on a more regular basis with Nevada until after nearly two years had passed, and they got a letter that changed everything.

“When will you come home?”

Adam stared at the words at the end of his father’s letter. All the hope and longing of a father to see his son came through in that simple sentence. Annie walked up behind Adam and placed her hands on his shoulders as he sat lost in that thought.

“What did your father say that has you so pensive?”

“Been using the dictionary to look up words to use again?”

“Don’t do that. I’m serious so don’t try to distract me. What did your father say?”

“He wants to know when we’ll come home.”

“This is a lovely place to live. Our children are so happy here, and our new one will love it too.” Adam turned and placed his head against the small bump that was just starting to show on his wife. He caressed her stomach. They had begun their marriage thinking they would never be blessed with children, and now the third was on its way. Annie stroked his hair and then rested her hand on the back of his neck. “But this will never feel like home to us when we have a home on the Ponderosa. If we’re going, we should go soon. This one could be born at home.”

Looking up at Annie, Adam could see how serious she was. “You want to go? Just like that, we pack up and head for the Ponderosa?”

“Can you give me one reason right now that we shouldn’t?”

“The only one would be that when you stepped off the ship here, you said you would never get on one of them again.”

“That’s because I was with child and was sick every single day on board that blasted floating cork. But this time we can wait for the biggest fastest ship they have, and I’m past the morning sickness. Now is the time to go. How long would it take for you to wrap up your business concerns here?”

“So that’s it? We’ve made up our minds?”

“Haven’t we? We knew this day was coming. It’s time.”

Standing then, Adam pulled Annie into a tight embrace. “The children have just laid down for their naps. Perhaps we could go seal our pact with a kiss and maybe a bit more?”

“Oh, I’m thinking there’s going to be a whole lot more. We better do as much as possible before we leave because your son is too inquisitive and curious for us to do much of anything on board a ship. I remember how close those quarters are.”

Grinning, Adam scooped Annie up in his arms and carried her to their bedroom, where in fact, a lot more did happen. Although he did ask her why is was his son and not theirs whenever there was something she didn’t like in his behavior.

“Oh, perhaps it’s because that’s when he reminds most of you.”

“You are definitely pushing toward that spanking.”

“Oh, you’ve been threatening that for years. I don’t believe you’ll ever do it.”

“I’d do it right now except your tummy would make it too difficult to hold you over my knee.”

“Oh really, that’s the only thing stopping you?” And Annie had laughed as she did every time she was teasing him for she knew what was coming next. He would kiss her to stop her sass and then that always led to more.

*****

Chapter 12

“Perhaps you should have written to your father that we were coming back. He might have wanted to get ready.”

“Annie, the letter would have traveled with us on the ship, and then probably on the same conveyances as we have used to get here. Don’t worry so much. We’ll be there soon. It’s going to be crowded there unless they’ve added on or Joe has his own home.”

“We promised Andrew a new book, and both children need to be fed before we head out to the ranch. I could use a good meal myself.”

So Adam walked his family to the mercantile where Andrew found a book he wanted, and Adam picked up a couple too. Then they headed to the International House for a meal. As they were finishing their meal, Annie gasped and pointed out the window. Hoss was climbing down from the buckboard in front of the mercantile. Adam stood so fast he almost knocked his chair back. He had tried to seem so calm about going home, but his action gave him away. Annie smiled as Adam rushed outside to hail Hoss who turned and ran across the street. Adam was worried about the big man slamming into him, but Hoss drew up right next to him and pulled him into a bear hug.

“Dadburnit, why didn’t you let us know you was coming. I near had a heart attack when I saw you over here. Where’s Annie and Andrew? I heard you got a little girl too so now where is she?”

Smiling, Adam hugged back before answering. “They’re all inside. C’mon in and meet my daughter. She’s going to love you. Andrew is a lot bigger now too. Thinks of himself as quite the mature older brother and tries to tell Joanna what to do.”

“Sounds like you taught him to be just like you.”

“Now you sound like Annie.”

By then, they had reached the dining room, and Annie stood to get a hug from Hoss. She introduced him to Joanna who had a big grin for him. Then they turned to Andrew who was quietly observing the whole scene.

“You must be Andrew, but the last time I saw you, you was only about as tall as my knees and couldn’t hardly walk by yourself. You’ve really grown up a lot.”

“You’re really big. Is Papa going to be as big as you when he grows up?”

Patting Adam’s middle which had grown some from sitting at a desk and then more with the enforced idleness of an ocean voyage as a passenger, Hoss laughed. “Well he ain’t never gonna be as tall as me, but ifn he keeps eating like that, he could be just as wide.”

Right then and there Adam committed himself to losing those extra pounds and getting back into shape. He guessed there would be more physical activity for him here than he had usually experienced in Australia. By then Hoss’ attention had shifted to Annie’s sizable tummy bump.

“Annie, really? You wanted another one with this older brother of mine. I would think two of his would be enough to handle.”

“But, Hoss, they could be more like me.”

“Sis, I don’t think that would make it any easier.”

That made Adam laugh out loud as Annie gave him one of those looks that said she was going to get even somehow. He stifled the rest of the laughter but would remember that look on her face for a long time.

“You want to ride back with me? I got the two seater buckboard cause Candy was using the other one to repair some fences.”

“We have a lot of luggage. Will you have room for everything?”

“I only got a short list from Hop Sing. I’m thinking I ought to add a bit more to it, but there should still be plenty of room. Where’s your luggage?”

“At the station. We could take the wagon there to pick it all up when you’re ready.”

“I’ll be ready soon as I have me some lunch.” So Hoss sat with them and got the first stories about their adventures in the Sandwich Islands, in Australia, and on the voyages there and back. “Pa is gonna be so excited, and I know he’ll want to hear all them stories too.”

“How is he, Hoss? He sounded kinda sad in the last letter.”

“He’s been feeling a bit down lately. You coming back ought to help snap him out of it though. He’s doing less on the ranch now, and I think it bothers him some, but when he tries to do more, he gets so sore he can hardly walk the next day. His back has gotten pretty stiff over the last couple of years. You know it wasn’t so good even before you left. But having more grandchildren around and listening to your stories ought to perk him up some.”

“I hope so although after a day or two, he might wish there weren’t quite so many grandchildren running about. It’s going to be a bit crowded in the house.”

“No, it really ain’t. Joe built himself and Martha a nice little cabin not too far from the main house. Pa invited Candy to move into the main house because there was so many empty rooms. Adam, you gonna want your house back real soon?”

“Not at all, Hoss. I have some ideas for a house and I need more room now especially with another one on the way. I also plan to continue doing architectural work so I’m going to need a good sized office in my house. No, if you and Maggie want to, you can keep the house. It’s yours.”

“Dang, that’s just about perfect. Maggie really likes the house, and I do enjoy that indoor water closet. Makes it a lot easier with the girls too. Maybe you could put one in the main house for Pa and Michele. I’m sure they’d like that.”

“If they want one, we can order the parts when I order for my house. I may order another of those oversize tubs too. I did miss that.”

With Annie blushing a bit with that, Hoss guessed that they had used it like he and Maggie had used it on occasion. He didn’t say any more about it not wanting to embarrass her. They finished lunch, and went to the wagon. Andrew wanted to know where the top of it was.

“Well, out here, we don’t put tops on our wagons.”

“What do you blokes do when it rains?”

“Blokes? Is that a good word or a bad one?”

Annie smiled. “Andrew is not allowed to use any bad words. That simply is a term for men. He’s picked up a few Australian phrases. I’m sure you’ve noticed that he has a bit of an accent. Joanna has one too, but because she spent most of her time with me, she doesn’t have much of an accent and none of the slang that Andrew learned when he traveled with his father.”

“Oh. Andrew, we have slickers to wear, or we use a carriage with a top.”

After picking up the luggage, Hoss turned the team toward home. Andrew sat beside him on the front bench, and Adam and Annie sat on the back bench with Joanna between them. Hoss took the long way home so they could see the lake view. It was nearly dinner time before they pulled up to the ranch house. Ben came walking out without taking a good look.

“It’s about time you got back. Hop Sing has been complaining for …” He stopped his speech and all movement as he stared.

“Hi, Pa. Sorry about no advance warning, but we traveled as fast as a letter would have.”

Ben rushed forward as Adam climbed from the wagon. He shed tears unashamedly as he pulled his son into an embrace. “I have missed you so much. I didn’t think it would be as difficult as it was. Every time someone asked about you, it hurt. Now you’re here. Oh, you’ve made me so happy. And, Annie, I am so glad to see you. Oh, and this must be Andrew. I hardly recognize you, Andrew. You’ve grown so much. Is this Joanna? Pleased to meet you, my dear.”

Seeing his father look quizzically at Annie’s tummy bump, Adam nodded. “Yes, Pa, there’s another one on the way. The doctors could not have been more wrong about Annie not having children. I’ll help with the luggage if you’ll take Annie and the children inside.”

Smiling like he hadn’t since Joe’s marriage and the birth of the twins, Ben took Andrew’s offered hand and led him into the house with Annie and Joanna following behind. Hoss and Adam heard the squeals of delight when Michele realized Annie was back. By the time they carried in the luggage, the two ladies were sitting together on the settee with Joanna as Andrew sat in the blue chair and looked around the room that he found vaguely familiar.

“Do you remember this room, Andrew?”

“I think I should. I don’t know. It’s very confusing.”

Hearing Ben’s question and Andrew’s answer, Adam walked over, picked up his son, and sat down with Andrew in his lap. “You weren’t even two years old when we left. So your mind might remember a bit, but not many people have clear memories of things that happened before they were two years old. You did sit in the chair that the two of us sat in all the time though.”

A bit proud of himself for that one, Andrew sat up proudly until Hop Sing came out with cookies and milk. There were three glasses of milk, a big plate of cookies, and four cups of coffee. Hoss declined the coffee saying he better go get Maggie and the girls and that they would tell Joe and Martha too. Hop Sing was ready too.

“I make big dinner celebrate number one son come home. I make chicken and now make ham too. It be good welcome home dinner. You see.”

It was a boisterous celebration when Maggie got there with the twins, and then Martha and Joe showed up too. There were so many stories to share, there wasn’t time for all of them. Ben asked Joe to explain how they got Adam cleared in the Buck Davis shooting. Adam told Joe how impressed he was with his detective work. Then Adam explained how he had gotten to the Sandwich Islands and then how they got to Australia. Andrew piped in with his version of ‘nakes’ stories before Annie said it was time for the children to go to bed. She got them settled upstairs in two of the guest rooms. She and Adam took a room between the two of them. Candy was using Hoss’ old room so it worked out well. Candy had volunteered to move back to the bunkhouse but Adam said he would only be there temporarily which elicited a worried look from Ben.

“We’re home, Pa, but we would like our own house. With another on the way and my architectural business, we’re going to need more room.”

“You designed this house. Why don’t you redesign it and add on what you want. It’s big enough and there’s room for expansion. It’s a lot of house for just Michele and me. Even with Candy staying here, it seems kind of empty.”

Looking at Annie, Adam nodded. “We’ll talk about it.” That got a smile from Ben. Jeremy and his wife had the furthest to travel so they said their goodbyes first. Then Joe and Martha left. Finally Hoss and Maggie left saying they had to get the twins to bed. Candy bid them goodnight saying he had an early morning coming up. It was much quieter with only Ben and Michele with Adam and Annie.

“You’re not so sure you want to live in this house, are you?”

“Pa, it’s not that. I need a big office, and Annie wants a water closet for us as well as one for the children to use. To do what would need doing, would mean that part of the roof would literally have to be raised, and part of the main wall of the house would have to be removed to make way for the expansion. The back staircase and the porch would be removed. It would be a huge inconvenience for everyone.”

“I like the sound of it though.” That statement by Ben shocked Adam and to a lesser extent surprised Annie. They weren’t so used to Ben accepting change that quickly or easily. “Now don’t look like that. I’ve had a couple of years to evaluate how I’ve handled things. I decided to make a few changes. Michele and I talked often of you and Annie returning. We didn’t know there would be another baby but we knew you had two children. We correctly guessed that to get you to stay here would require expanding the house so you could have your privacy. We agreed we would make sure that happened. It does seem right that the eldest son live in the main house of the family ranch. When you’re ready to raise the roof, I think I may take my wife on an extended and belated honeymoon. Those Sandwich Islands sound just about right. If we were gone a couple of months, would that be enough time to make the changes you need to make?”

Leaning over to look in Adam’s face, Annie was hopeful. She saw the look of intense concentration and hoped it would lead to the answer she wanted to hear. Adam frowned at her and she sighed deeply in disappointment. After a few minutes of silence, he looked at his father. “I think that will work.” Annie hit him in the shoulder then.

“You big lug. You made me suffer and you intended to say yes. You’re going to be sorry you did that.”

Adam laughed and said it was probably time they went to bed for their children were early risers. He stood and offered his hand to Annie who rebuffed him and headed for the stairs without him. He caught up and slapped her derriere. She turned quickly and saw that Ben and Michele had not seen that. She whispered a quick warning. “You’re gonna get it when we get in the bedroom.”

As they walked up the stairs, he answered her very quietly. “Sweetheart, that’s what I’ve been hoping. It’s the first time in nearly two months that we don’t have our children sleeping in the same room with us.”

“You’re insatiable.”

“That may be my middle name. Now let’s get to bed. I have some exercising to do to get back into shape.”

*****

Chapter 13

The next morning, Adam and Annie lounged in bed for a while talking about the future until Adam said they needed to get down to breakfast so they wouldn’t anger anyone. By the time they got to the table, Candy had eaten and left, and Ben and Michele were enjoying coffee.

“We went ahead with breakfast. We thought you might sleep in a bit after all that traveling. Hop Sing is keeping plates warm for you whenever you’re ready.” Ben was being very gracious and both Adam and Annie thanked him for his thoughtfulness.

Annie was surprised by one thing though. “Usually our children wake us up when we have a chance to sleep in, but I haven’t heard a thing.”

Michele smiled. “They were up almost before dawn. Joanna wasn’t sure which room was yours and came into ours instead. We told her that we would get up with her, and she should let you sleep, and by the time we got to the hallway, Andrew was there too. So I helped Joanna dress, and then Ben took both of them downstairs for breakfast that Hop Sing had already prepared. That man continues to amaze me with things like that. The children are out on the porch now watching the hands work some stock in the corral.”

“They are something. They keep Annie and I busy. We talked, and we decided we liked the idea about redesigning this house. We won’t do anything to the front facade, but I want to add bedrooms, water closets, and an office to the back and take better advantage of the view that we only see from the dining room now. How does that sound?”

“Son, it’s pretty much what I thought you might want to do. I have one request though. Michele was going to use one of the guest bedrooms as a sewing room, but she could use more light for that work. Could you add windows to the guest bedrooms in back for more natural light? And if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, could you add a water closet to the washroom down here?”

“I’ll start doing some preliminary drawings for your approval. Once we can agree on the design elements, I’ll order materials. How does that sound?”

“It sounds wonderful. Candy wants to move back to the room off the bunkhouse. I would like to make that a nicer place before he does that. Michele has some decorating ideas, but perhaps you could look at the room and see what improvements you could make so that it’s more comfortable? I do want Candy to stay here.”

After Adam and Annie finished breakfast, they went to see their children and then to look over the room at the end of the bunkhouse. It didn’t take Adam long to have a couple of suggestions. He wanted to put a door in the back of the room, and add a small porch in the back so Candy could relax in private if he wanted to do that or even entertain a guest without everyone watching his every move. Annie thought a lamp instead of a lantern would make it more homey, and she and Michele agreed on window coverings and matching bed linens to make it look more like a home than a room. They emptied one of the trunks that Adam had used to ship design plans home and put that at the foot of the bed. Some shelving and a dresser completed the furnishing because there already was a table with chairs in the room. Within a few days, the other simple changes had been made. Candy was touched that they would do all of that for him, and did admit it looked more like a home than it had before.

That project had kept Adam busy, and in the evenings the family gathered for stories as everyone wanted to know what the others had been doing. Ben enjoyed these days very much. Many decades before, this had been his dream: to have a large ranch and a loving family living on it. Now he had it all. Everyone seemed so happy that he just knew it had to end, but he wasn’t sure what the first argument would be. He was very surprised when it was Annie and Joe who had the first angry exchange.

Very busy getting horses ready for a contract, Joe had spent little time with Adam. He thought to remedy that by asking Adam to help him break some horses. Adam tried to decline, but Joe knew him too well. A few barbs about being old and not being able to do man’s work any more, and Adam said he would be at the breaking corrals in the morning. Then the children asked if he would read them a story because Annie had told them it was time for bed. He went up the stairs with Andrew and Joanna, and Annie whirled on Joe.

“If he gets hurt or killed, I will make your life miserable, Joe Cartwright. You will wish it was you instead of him.”

“Aw, Annie, it’s just a couple of mustangs. He’s been breaking horses since he was in his teens. He knows the risks.”

“He hasn’t done it in over two years. He’s been hurt before when he did it, and now he’ll be rusty too. He’s been riding but not the kind of riding that prepares him for this.”

“Annie, it’ll be fine. You don’t have to mollycoddle him. He’s a man, and he knows what he can and can’t do.”

“Really! After those things you said, he could hardly decline. Now I’m going up to kiss my children good night.” Storming up the stairs, Annie left no one in doubt as to how she felt.

“You did goad him into it, Joe. Maybe it would be better if he came with me to the branding. He could kinda work his way into things gradual like?”

“Hoss, he’s a man. He can make his own decision tomorrow.” On that sour note, Joe and Martha bid everyone goodnight and left for their home.

It was quiet in the room for a bit. “I guess I knew it was too good to last. Well it was very enjoyable for a few days at least. Let’s all get some sleep. Tomorrow could be even more interesting.” Ben stood then to start turning down the lamps, and Hoss and Maggie gathered up their sleeping twins and headed home.

Adam heard a bit from Annie too. “Men! You just have to try to prove you’re better than each other. Can’t you just forget about it, and do what you’re good at?”

“I’d like to, but I sense you’re not in the mood for that.”

“Cowboy, don’t try to be cute about this. It’s serious. You could get hurt or even killed.”

“Annie, I’ve been busting broncos for twenty years.”

“Actually, eighteen because you haven’t done it for two years now. You’re out of practice, and I know your father has talked about you getting hurt doing it. He said one time you took a nasty blow to the head, and he wasn’t sure you would survive it. How many times do you think you can get hit on the head like that and wake up again? Can you tell me that?”

“Annie, it will be fine. I’m sure Joe isn’t going to give me the worst ones to ride. He knows I’m out of practice too. He’s my brother. He won’t knowingly put me in danger.”

“Famous last words? I don’t like it.”

“Annie, I promise you that I won’t take any unnecessary risks. You can kick my butt if I do.”

“If you do, there may not be any butt to kick.” Tears threatened then, and Adam pulled her into his embrace. “Adam, I don’t know what I would do if anything happened to you. Two years ago, I was sick with worry about losing you. Now that you’re safe and we’re home, I thought the worry would go away, but it hasn’t.”

The next morning breakfast was rather quiet as even the children sensed the tension. When Adam got up and went to put on his chaps, Andrew had all sorts of questions. “Annie, will you bring Andrew down to the breaking corrals later?” Annie didn’t respond. “Please?” All Adam got was a very quiet affirmative before he grabbed his old hat and headed out.

Ben tried to placate her. “Annie, I’m sure it will be fine. Joe won’t expect too much of him today. If you want, I could take Andrew down there for you.”

“I would like that. Maybe I’ll come with you, but I could use some moral support on this one. I’m so afraid for him.”

Looking at Michele, Ben got a small nod from her. She would work on Annie if Ben took Andrew down there. With their silent communication complete, Ben asked Andrew if he would like to ride in the wagon to go see what his father and Uncle Joe were doing. Andrew was excited and quickly looked to his mother for permission. Annie nodded but Andrew could see she was troubled.

“Mama, are you mad at Papa? I heard you arguing last night.”

Annie held out her arms and Andrew rushed into them. “Aw, sweetie, I’m sorry you heard us. We weren’t arguing as much as disagreeing. Your Papa wants to do something today that could be dangerous, and I didn’t want him to do it.”

“Is it dangerous like ‘nakes? Could Papa die?”

“No, no, I’m sure he won’t. I didn’t mean to frighten you either. Perhaps you should go with grandpa before I make things even worse.”

After Ben and Andrew left the house to hitch up the wagon, Michele asked just one question. “If Adam is distracted because he’s thinking about your worries, won’t that make it more likely that he might get hurt?”

“Will you watch Joanna?”

Michele smiled and put out her arms to take the two-year-old. “I’ll take her over to see Maggie and the girls. Miranda and Maureen will like to play with her. You can find us there when you get back.”

With a quick thank you and a mention that she would be back to see Andi and Mo too, Annie hurried out of the house to ride with Ben and Andrew to the breaking corrals. When she got there, she saw Adam standing on the bottom rail of the corral fence with Joe as they looked over the horses. She asked Ben to stay with Andrew as she walked to the fence and stepped up to be beside Adam. He looked at her a bit apprehensively, but she pulled him to her for a kiss. “Do us proud, cowboy.” Then she hopped down off the fence to sit in the wagon with Ben and Andrew to watch. Joe looked at Adam as he turned back to the horses.

“We are very lucky men, aren’t we?”

*****

Epilogue

The ranch house was expanded although riding up to it, one would not likely have noticed the changes. But in the back of the house a new wing extended back about thirty feet with two more bedrooms on the second floor. Between the bedrooms was a walkway across the room down below that was a large gathering area with two stories of windows that showcased the view of the lake, the pines, and the mountains. On one side of the first floor was a spacious office for Adam and on the opposite side next to the back of the massive chimney that would provide a lot of warmth in the winter was a sewing room with a floor to ceiling window that was the twin of the one in Adam’s office. Extending out from the annex was a large deck area for picnics or sitting in the sun on warm days.

Ben and Michele took that trip to the Sandwich Islands and found that little house that Adam and Annie had used. They rented it for a month and lived on the beach walking in the surf and reading with the soft wave action in the background. They took a trip over to the big island and saw the lava flow from active volcanoes. By the time the month was up, they thought about staying longer but missed the grandchildren and were anxious to see the changes to the house. They boarded a ship and four months to the day that they had left, they returned to Nevada where the air had turned chilly and hinted at the snow that would soon be there. Arriving at the ranch house, they found it fairly quiet and wondered where everyone was. It didn’t take long to find out. Their telegram had arrived with just enough time for the family to arrange a party to welcome them home. The whole family was there as well as Roy, Paul, and Candy with his love interest. Annie was in a new rocking chair with their youngest grandchild, Aurea. For a man who had raised three sons and lived with only men for nearly twenty years, all these females were making a dramatic difference in Ben’s life. Adam walked up holding Aurea’s brother who was older by twenty minutes. Michael John or MJ was much more fussy than his sister and required lots of walking and rocking. Hoss was there with Maggie who sat on a settee with their daughters Mo and Andi. The news was apparent when Joe and Martha turned to greet them. The tummy bump was pronounced and unmistakable. It was a baby boom on the Ponderosa. Ben sat in the new brown leather chair Adam had picked out just for him, and Michele sat on the arm of it. Ben sighed deeply. It was good to be Ben Cartwright.

***The End***

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