Charity and Adam Stories (by BettyHT)

Summary:  Six stories — Fractured is the backstory to the Bitter Water episode and explains how Adam ended his relationship with Virginia Keith and why there was tension in his friendship with Todd McCarren and why Lem Keith disliked him so much and sets the stage for more of a story later. Wounded Hearts is a WHN for the Bitter Water episode of Bonanza as a corporation threatens the Ponderosa and the ranches in the Comstock and Lem Keith’s daughter’s anger at Adam for perceived wrongs make for a complicated scenario. Trust Me — With the Ponderosa in financial difficulties, Adam makes a rash decision to save his father’s dream and takes a job that almost turns out to be the worst decision he’s ever made. Let’s Do It — There are obstacles to Adam and Charity getting married, but Adam finds a solution after. There is a budding romance for Hoss too as the story develops. Dreams and Challenges — Adam and Charity have dreams of a family and home and have to adjust those to the reality of events over which they have no control. Sticks and Stones — It’s -five years later. Adam’s son and Hoss’ son have a new playmate who has a secret, and it’s one that will cause a major change in his family and in the Cartwrights’ lives.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  134,226


Fractured

Chapter 1

All the warning signs were there. Moody and making snide remarks, Adam also volunteered for every job that he could do alone so he wouldn’t have to be with anyone and endure conversations. Whenever he was troubled, he had a tendency to get more cynical in his remarks and less likely to find humor in anything so that teasing carried a meanness about it that left a sour taste. Little Joe did his best to avoid his oldest brother when he was in these moods knowing that the two of them could come to blows if he pushed the situation too far. Ben was grateful that Little Joe was suffering from a failed romance at the same time. Of course Little Joe suffered from a failed romance about every month or two. But it was convenient at this time otherwise he would be in a similar state and itching for a fight. Then it often took the combined efforts of both him and Hoss to keep the oldest and youngest from getting into a dispute that would end with Little Joe throwing a punch and Adam saying things he would later regret. As it was, Ben had sent Hoss and Little Joe to work together and asked Adam to work at the forge thinking that the physical labor there might help him burn off some of the anger brewing inside of him. From the epithets he could hear though, it wasn’t working. Finally at midmorning, he walked out with two large glasses of lemonade to try to break through the wall and get his tightly wound son to let loose some of what had turned him so tight.

“The iron can’t talk back, the tools can’t defy you, and the fire can only burn as hot as you make it, so the complaints I’ve been hearing must be directed at someone or something I can’t see. Care to elaborate or would you rather keep spitting and sputtering to keep us all at a distance?”

The bunched brows and the pursed lips communicated as well as the shoulders that raised up an inch or so. “It’s nothing you can help me with.”

“Did you have a fight with Virginia on Sunday? It seems that you’ve been in this foul mood ever since you got home on Sunday.”

“Virginia and I did not have a fight. We never fight. We never argue. She never complains. She never even raises her voice in anger to me no matter what I say.”

As Adam dropped his head then Ben realized that his son had said more than he intended to say or perhaps he wanted to talk and didn’t know how to initiate that kind of discussion. It was a delicate kind of discussion to have so Ben took a moment before saying anything.

“I take it that you may have purposely tried to provoke her and nothing resulted?”

“Pa, it’s as if she doesn’t care. She never gets angry with me. She never shows much of any kind of emotion with me. I could tell her today that I can’t take her to the dance tomorrow, and she’d probably say that she understood and she knows how busy I am.”

“Doesn’t that mean that she’s understanding and willing to give you the time you need to do the things you have to do?”

“Or does it mean she doesn’t care if I’m there or not?”

And there it was: the insecurity or fear that was underlying his thoughts probably for quite a while. It still didn’t explain why he had been in such a foul mood since coming home on Sunday evening though.

“Did something change on Sunday?”

“No, she was her usual very pleasant and undemanding self. Things were as calm and peaceful as they always are when we’re together. Nothing happened between us.”

“She hasn’t been hinting that perhaps you ought to be asking her to marry? After all, you’ve been courting her nearly three years. Most men would have married and had a child with a woman after that length of time.”

“Are you going to start too?”

“Too? So she was pressuring you? It is understandable, Adam. Virginia is of an age when most women are married. As long as you are courting her, no other man is going to approach her. If you aren’t planning to marry her, then she has a right to know that.”

“She’s not pressuring me.” That was said vehemently. Then more softly Adam continued. “Virginia never even drops any hints about marriage. It’s as if she’s content with our relationship the way it is. She doesn’t seem at all concerned about moving it along. It’s probably why it’s been nearly three years and all we do is go to dances and church together and not much more except for Sunday dinner. She likes having me on her arm for any social occasion. I don’t think she likes the idea of me being there permanently.”

“For some reason, is that what has you upset now?”

“No, it’s Lem.”

Frowning, Ben got a look that one would normally have while eating a sour lemon. He didn’t like Lem and never had. There was something about the man that made you want to wash your hands after greeting him. It was never anything overt, but there was still a sinister aspect to him. Once at a party at the Ponderosa, Hop Sing had said the house needed to be sanitized of evil spirits after Lem had been there. Ben was almost afraid to ask why Adam was upset with Lem. “What’s Lem done?”

“He’s the one dropping hints, and on Sunday confronted me as I was leaving and told me it was time for me to propose to Virginia. He said I had compromised her in the community because after this length of time, people would have assumed that we have been, as he put it, ‘friendly beneath the cloth’ and probably for a long time now. Pa, that’s not true.”

“Adam, he insulted you and he insulted his own daughter by saying that. I’m glad you didn’t challenge him on that, but I do think he has a point.” Ben could see Adam bristling at his comment and hurried to explain his statement. “You do need to decide what want to do about Virginia. It isn’t fair to either of you to continue the way you have been going. She may be happy now to have you on her arm for social occasions, but will she be happy a year or two from now with only that? You’re already dissatisfied with the relationship. I can tell that from your comments. Don’t you think you need to move forward with it or end it. Although I would have loved to see Virginia as part of this family, I would never pressure you to marry.”

Despite the serious nature of the conversation, Adam had a small smile at his father’s last statement, and even Ben had to acknowledge that perhaps he did push a bit on that.

“All right, I admit that I do wish that you would marry. I would like to have grandchildren. I built this ranch for my sons, but I would like to see them pass it on to their sons. The next step of course is for at least one of them to have a son.”

In an unusual moment of candor, Adam responded to that in a way Ben had never heard before that day. “I would like that very much too, Pa. I dream of a wife by my side with our child. I want it as much or more than any other dream that I have, but I need a woman who has passion, a woman with fire in her, but a woman too who has compassion, intelligence, and a sense of adventure. I want a woman who can share my dreams and walk by my side not wait at home for me to come to her where she sits in comfort and safety calmly anticipating my arrival.”

“And except for compassion and intelligence, none of that fits Virginia. None of that fits any woman that you have been with so far. I can see then why you aren’t married. Adam, are you sure you can find such a woman? That’s a standard that very few women could meet.”

“Pa, you met and married three women who could have met those standards.”

After a short pause as Ben considered each wife according to what Adam had said, he nodded and smiled. He remembered his wives and how they made his days so much more fulfilling and his nights so satisfying. “Yes, I guess they did. They were all very different, but they would have met those standards. Yes, there are women out there who have the character you desire. You know what that means for you, don’t you?”

“Yes, I guess I do. I’m taking Virginia to the dance tomorrow. We should talk and I need to tell her it’s probably the last dance we’ll be attending together or at least the last one as a couple unless something changes. I doubt that she’ll be surprised.”

“She’s an intelligent woman. I think she’ll know that this is best. I hope that you and she can remain friends if you are no longer a couple.” Ben decided to change the subject a bit. “Joe’s rather interested in her younger sister, Charity, but she hasn’t shown any interest in returning his interest.”

“He’s lucky. She’s got quite a mouth on her. Every time I’m there, she has some kind of verbal jab if not a physical jab for me.”

Ben frowned a bit at that. “She’s always seemed to have a bit of a crush on you. Are you sure that isn’t what it is?”

“Pa, she’s not a little girl any more. She must have grown out of that childish behavior by now. She’s an adult now and a fairly ill mannered one at that. Her father has indulged her so much since their mother died. She was so young that I think he thought he had to give her everything she wanted to make up for not having a mother in the house although Virginia was old enough to mother her a bit.”

“But it wouldn’t be the same.”

“No, it wouldn’t, but it’s no reason to spoil a child.” Adam stopped there because he was dangerously close to a discussion that he and his father had many times before about how Little Joe had been raised and their disagreements over how that had been handled. Instead, he steered the conversation back to the dance. “Todd still doesn’t have a wife either. He gets about the same commentary from Andy as I do from you. Sometimes I think he and Virginia would have made a better match than Virginia and I do.”

“Yes, when she came back from school and traveling in Europe, Lem didn’t invite Todd to any of those parties. You were the featured young bachelor. It was no secret that Lem was pushing the two of you together. It seemed a good match at the time. I didn’t know how you felt or how she felt. It seems that the two of you may have been destined to be friends and no more.”

“She and I will talk. We’ll decide if this is it or if we want to give it any more time, but we need to either move forward or end it. That much is clear. I’m not happy with holding it as it is even if she is, and I know her father doesn’t like it.”

That evening, Hoss and Little Joe were as skittish around Adam as they had been for days until they realized he wasn’t as ornery as they expected. They were able to relax and enjoy the evening. Neither knew why his mood had abruptly improved, but both were certainly glad that it did. The next evening, all three got ready for the dance and rode to town together laughing and talking like they had done many times. Adam went to Virginia’s home to walk her to the dance as Hoss and Little Joe moved directly to the dance hall. Both brothers had danced a number of times before Adam and Virginia arrived. Adam and Virginia danced a few dances before joining his brothers at the refreshment table where Charity stood with Hoss, Little Joe, and Todd McCarren. Todd took the opportunity to ask Virginia for a dance so Charity immediately asked Adam for a dance surprising him and everyone else. He could hardly refuse without seeming churlish so he did dance with her. She spent the time smiling and pressing herself against Adam as much as she could within the bounds of propriety. He noticed of course and did his best to keep her from getting too close although he was sure everyone else noticed. She was an attractive and shapely young woman so he didn’t mind too much. She also spoke to him asking about his work and his plans. He found the dance seemed to end quickly and was surprised that he had enjoyed it very much.

“You dance very well for an old man.”

“I’m not an old man.”

“You always tell me how much older you are than me. I’m a young woman, so what does that make you?”

“A man, Charity, I’m just a man.”

“Not just a man, Adam. I have enjoyed the dance with you. Thank you.”

“I enjoyed dancing with you as well.” He didn’t want to say that it surprised him but he did smile at Charity and took her hand to lead her back to the refreshment table. Then he saw Virginia and realized that perhaps that may have been a big mistake.

“Adam, I’d like to take a walk outside. We can talk where it’s cooler.” Virginia was surprised at how jealous she felt. She had thought that perhaps she and Adam should call off their relationship but wasn’t so sure any more. She told him that as soon as they were far enough from the hall not to be overheard.

“Do you think that being jealous is a good reason for a relationship? Virginia, there has to be more, and we don’t seem to have more.”

“Are you telling me that it’s over? Are you saying that you don’t want to see me any more?”

“Yes, I wanted to talk with you about that. Frankly, you don’t seem that interested in me other than to take you to social events and escort you to church on Sundays. You seem to have no interest in me otherwise. Virginia, I don’t see a future for us other than as friends. Do you?”

“I want to see us with a future.”

“I wanted that too.”

“Adam, will you walk me home now?”

So Adam’s courtship of Virginia Keith ended much as it began. He walked her home and she took his hand between hers to bid him goodnight before proceeding up the walk to her home. There was no kiss, no hug, and no warmth. He knew now that he should have recognized it that first night. She held nothing for him other than the affection one holds for a friend. That was all that he would ever be. The jealousy at the dance was far more over her sister than it was over him. He turned to go retrieve Sport and wait for his brothers so he could ride home. He hoped they wouldn’t tease him too much over what had happened. It was painful enough to confront without them rubbing it in with their commentary. When they finally met him for the ride home, they were remarkably understanding and quiet letting him ride home in peace. He guessed that their father had talked with them. Although it was somewhat of a violation of his privacy for his father to have breached his confidentiality like that, it was also a great benefit so he appreciated the silence.

*****

Chapter 2

When the brothers got home and went into the house, Ben was awake. He heard them all go into their bedrooms. He wished that someone would knock on his door. He had a lamp burning so they all knew he was awake. It took a short time and there was a knock. Hoss pushed the door open.

“I guess it pretty much happened the way you thought. He’s not doing too bad. Quiet, but otherwise all right.”

“Thank you, Hoss.”

“Good night, Pa.”

In the morning, Adam was still quiet and looked tired. He probably had not slept well. Ben didn’t want to assign him the job he needed to assign him, but it was his turn. “Adam, we’ve still got a problem with rustlers. I need you to head on up to the high pastures to do herd counts. You can take a couple of men with you. I don’t want you up there alone. The area where we’re losing the most cattle is where our ranch borders the McCarren ranch. I’ve talked to Andy, and he wants to work with us on this. Todd is going to be up there on their land counting and watching as well.”

“And if the count is off?”

“Then we know that they’re actively working that area again, and you send a man for reinforcements and we set out after them. We’ll go out in force once we know where to look. Some of the other ranchers are setting out men to watch too. If we get word that they’re somewhere else, we’ll head there to do the same thing. We want to hit them with so much force that we end this once and for all.”

“What if they know that, and they set up a fake activity to trigger the raid but actually move in to steal cattle in another spot that will be severely undermanned because you’ve drawn off so many men?”

“To do that, they would have to know our plan, and the only way to know it would be for the rustlers to have a member in the Cattlemen’s Association. That’s not possible so your worry is groundless.”

“I wish I was as sure of that as you are.”

“Adam, we’ve talked about this before. I don’t like your insinuation that one of the members is working with rustlers. These are all friends of ours and most we’ve known for years.”

“All the worse to think that one of them could be doing this.”

“Enough. You have no evidence to back your suspicions. Now please do as I say. It’s the plan we’re using, and you need to do your part. Hoss and Little Joe have already taken their turns. I’ve waited to assign you because of your attitude, but it’s not fair to expect them to do it again when you haven’t done your part yet.”

“I’ll go. I was only stating my concern.”

Once Adam had packed up what he needed and left, Hoss asked his father why Adam suspected that one of their neighbors might be part of the rustling.

“It’s because of the pattern that it follows or seems to follow that makes him suspicious. They never hit the same ranch twice in a row. They seem remarkably well organized. When one of the ranches set out watchers, that ranch wasn’t hit until they thought they were safe and pulled their men in. It’s as if they know what’s going on. I think they have very good scouting. Adam thinks they have an inside man.”

“Pa, ain’t it possible that Adam’s right?”

“No, Hoss, I don’t want to believe it is. Which one of our friends and neighbors would you like to accuse? No, they have to be watching us very carefully. They must have a lot of men to work this system.”

While Hoss still looked worried, Little Joe endorsed his father’s point of view. “So we’re going to hit them with a lot of men. It sounds like a good plan to me, Pa.”

“All right, let’s head to church. Maybe we can learn something from the other ranchers this morning. It would be good to get some good news about this.”

“Pa, we haven’t lost any cattle in two weeks. It probably means we’re due to get hit again. Do you think maybe I should head up to help out Adam?”

“No, the more we have watching, the less likely they’ll try something. We’ll be ready though to head up there to help as soon as he sends a man.” Ben paused to think for a moment about what Hoss had said and about being further away by going to church. “Perhaps you could stay home from church services just in case. Tell the men to keep their horses saddled and their gear ready too. They have the day off unless we need them. Tell them that I’ll pay extra for them doing that.”

“Thanks, Pa. I feel better about things already.”

Hoss’ worry was premature for nothing happened on that Sunday, and nothing happened on Monday or Tuesday either. Ben was beginning to think that their plan was never going to work, when word arrived with a speedy rider that the rustlers had hit the Marquette ranch and that Ross and his father had gotten their men ready to ride and were waiting for the others to join them. The rider told them where the others were headed and then rode off to notify the next ranch. Ben, Hoss, and Joe mounted up to lead their men to the designated spot. They were jubilant because they thought the plan had worked and the rustlers’ threat would be neutralized by that evening. Up in the higher pastures, Adam and Todd had seen what they thought were the indication of a large number of horses. Old friends, they had decided to work together soon after they had both arrived so they told the men that they were going to follow those tracks to see where they led. Unfortunately the rustlers were watching them and didn’t like them following. They set up an ambush in a valley in which they had taken cattle, run brands, and then moved the cattle to market under their new brand to buyers who weren’t too concerned with brands that some might question. Because of that, the tracks moved off in many directions at that point. Adam dismounted to look at the tracks more closely and Todd followed a set of tracks up toward the tree line. When he did, shots rang out because the rustlers didn’t want him to get to cover. First turning to flee, Todd wheeled his horse around when he heard Adam cry out in pain. He raced back to him and grabbed his rifle and canteen before dropping down to help Adam stumble to the limited coverage of a boulder.

“How bad is it?”

“Not too bad, but my leg was numb at first. It must have hit the bone and then ricocheted off. At least I don’t think it’s broken, but the damn thing hurts like hell now that the numbness is starting to wear off already.”

“Here, wrap my bandana around yours and try to stop the bleeding. Hopefully some of the men will hear the shooting and ride hard to help us. Otherwise, we’re soon going to have a few more of those holes to wrap.”

“You should have ridden out of here. Now they’ve got both of us.”

“Virginia would never have forgiven me if I let them kill you.”

“I don’t think Virginia would mind much right now.”

“Oh, you two have a fight?”

“It’s over. We called it off on Friday night.”

“You called it off after almost three years? Are you a lunatic? She’s a great gal. You aren’t going to find another one like her.”

“Maybe not, but it wasn’t working out for either of us. Now let’s see about keeping us alive until we can get rescued. How about letting me use the rifle?”

“I grabbed it for you. You always were a lot better shot with that than I am. I don’t mind shooting at deer or antelope with it. They don’t shoot back.”

“Let me get set and then keep them busy. I want to see where they are so I can line up a shot on one of them. If I can take one of them down, they may not be so anxious to get any closer.”

“I don’t have much ammunition.”

“My pistol is loaded and I have more in my coat pocket. Our only hope really is to have the men come to help us anyway so use what you have to make them think we’ve got all the ammunition we need. Otherwise they’ll ride us down.”

“Yeah, we wouldn’t stand a chance if they come at us from more than one direction.” As Adam worked his way into a firing position, Todd prepared to fire. “Ready?”

At Adam’s nod, Todd fired off a few shots and got several in response giving Adam the location of several of their assailants. He aimed carefully and fired. They heard a yell and both men smiled. He had hit one of them. The men up there would be more careful now. They did the same maneuver three more times, and had one more success.

“I’ve got three shells left.” Todd looked morosely down at Adam’s pistol in his hand. They couldn’t do much more.

“I’ve got two shots left. I was rather hoping that the men would have heard the shooting by now and come to check it out. We can’t make a run for it. Even if I didn’t have this bad leg, that’s a hundred yards of open ground to the next cover. It’s too far to try it.”

Miles away, the hands were riding hard to return to help the two men. They had been summoned away to help where the rustlers had made the ranchers believe they were going to be pulling off their next raid. As they rode down the mountain, they heard some shots and thought that Todd and Adam had shot at some game. However when there were more shots, the Ponderosa hands pulled up.

“I know you men joked about Todd not being much of a hunter, but Adam ain’t never needed that many shots ever in his life. They’re in trouble, and we’re heading back.”

Riding as hard as they could, they had many more miles to cover and most was uphill. They heard shots periodically as they rode and then ominously heard no more.

“Where are they?”

“We have to keep going in the same direction. They have to be further up ahead.”

About that time, there was a lot of activity in the tree line above Todd and Adam who knew their time was almost up. They readied themselves as well as they could, but with no help coming, the rustlers felt confident. Todd and Adam hadn’t fired any shots in quite some time because they only had a few shots left. They were keeping those for the charge they expected the rustlers to make. Their only hope was to kill or wound enough of them to make the others stop. If they failed, they knew they would die. As usual, Adam met the inevitable with his typical response.

“Don’t fire until you can see the whites of their eyes. I know you can’t hit anything until they’re that close anyway. If I miss with the shots I have, just make sure that you get at least one of them. I’d hate like hell to let them all walk away from here.”

“That’s all you’ve got to say. No noble last words?”

“Well, I do wish I could see my father’s face one last time especially so I could say I told him so. They must have drawn our men off somewhere else while they were here planning to steal cattle until we blundered right into the middle of their operation.”

“How do you think they’ll do it?”

“Probably have one or two men start firing to pin us down while the others ride hard at us from two directions.”

As if to underscore that Adam was correct in that evaluation, shots began to hit the boulder that was their only protection causing both of them to crouch down further behind it. Adam held the rifle at the ready though. As soon as he heard horses, he planned to move into position to fire regardless of the hail of bullets flying their way. The men up there had proven not to be too accurate. It must have been a lucky shot that hit him. He had jokingly told Todd earlier that the man had probably been aiming at his chest. Todd had shaken his head as he usually did when Adam made remarks like that. They heard horses and Adam was going to aim and fire except the horses were behind them. Todd grabbed Adam’s arm and yelled. Adam grimaced in pain at being pulled to the side so roughly but then had to smile. The McCarren and Ponderosa hands were riding hard into the valley with guns at the ready. The rustlers had turned to retreat. Soon there was a gun battle, but Adam fired off a shot and called to the men to pull back.

“You’re too evenly matched. I don’t want any of you men shot and killed. Now that they’re on the run, that’s good enough for now. Thank you.”

The men brought Sport and Todd’s horse up then. Once they bandaged Adam’s leg more tightly, they helped him on his horse and slowly made the ride back to the camp they had made that morning. They got Adam settled comfortably on his bedroll before one of the men opened the bandage to take a look at his wound.

“It’s a through-and-through. Looks like it nicked the bone but it’s not broken. I need to pour some alcohol in here though. It’s gonna burn something awful. You ready?”

One of the other men handed Adam a piece of leather on which to bite. He nodded then before grunting in agony when the alcohol burned the wound. The bleeding wasn’t bad so they bandaged the wound as well as they could with a clean shirt Adam had in his saddlebag, and then tied that in place. One of the men had been sent to the Ponderosa ranch house to let Ben know what had happened. They expected to see a wagon by the next morning. One of Todd’s men headed to the McCarren ranch to let Andy know what happened too. The rest of the men took turns on guard duty that night not sure of what the rustlers might do. The night passed peacefully though, and as expected, shortly after breakfast, they could see a team and wagon approaching in the distance. Adam had a fever and was in some pain. He had not slept much and the fever and the exhaustion had made him weak. By the time Ben arrived and knelt by his side, he didn’t even have a smart aleck remark to make. He whispered only one thing to his father before he closed his eyes and let others make all the decisions. Soon he was in the back of the wagon and headed home. Todd could see the guilt that Ben carried.

“He’s going to be all right, Mister Cartwright. He said he did want to see your face when he told you he was right.”

“He was too. I don’t know how he does it. He figured it out with no evidence at all.”

“I know. Sometimes he seems to know things that the rest of us don’t know.”

“Todd, Adam told me that you saved his life. I don’t know how I can ever thank you enough for that. You have been a very good friend, the best. If ever you need anything, you let me know.”

“It’s what friends do, right, Mister Cartwright?”

“Right. Now get on home. Your father is probably worried too.”

Soon, the only evidence that anyone had been there was a fire ring. The rustlers were scared off for the moment, but everyone knew they weren’t defeated. They would be back, but now the question was to find who was helping them or possibly even leading them.

*****

Chapter 3

Knowing it was time to do it now that Adam was feeling better after being home for three days, Ben made an admission that wasn’t easy for him to make. “I have to apologize to you.”

“It’s not necessary to apologize for losing every chess match. You gave me a good challenge with each one. It’s not like you lose in the first ten minutes.”

“No, it’s not that.” Although an apology for that was the last thing on Ben’s mind. He was irritated that he had lost three chess matches in a row over two days. He was determined to win this one, but now Adam had him upset and that was going to interfere with his concentration. Undoubtedly his eldest son knew that. That small smile indicated that he was well aware of the impact of his seemingly innocent statement. “I meant to apologize for not listening more when you said there was someone working with the rustlers. I should have considered that possibility as more reasonable. I didn’t want to believe that one of our friends or neighbors was willing to do that. It made me ignore the logical. You didn’t.”

“I wish logic could tell us who it is.”

“Yes, one of the problems is that now we have to determine whether it’s someone who is actively helping them or inadvertently letting information slip that they can use. We know that not everyone can keep things close to the vest like you can.”

“That’s going to be difficult to determine. It will have everyone suspicious of everyone else. At least that might keep them all more careful of what they say and to whom they say it.”

“Roy has started to check into who has financial difficulties that might make them consider doing something like that to their friends and neighbors. That should help us narrow it down if someone is actively helping or leading this endeavor.”

“Has anyone thought to follow the tracks of those cattle that they rustled to see where they’re selling them? That might give us an idea too. We could alert the authorities on the other end to watch for rustled cattle. With as many as they’re taking, they need to sell them to a big operation somewhere.”

“Hoss had that same idea, but once he tracked them to where others were driving cattle through the mountains, it’s impossible to tell where one herd goes compared to another.”

“Yes, unless we could mark them some way, there would be no way of telling them apart if the brands got changed.”

“Yes, by now they’re probably quite good at running brands. We need to stop them on this end. We aren’t likely to have any luck catching them on the sales end.” Seeing Adam grimace as he shifted position at the table, Ben had to ask about his leg. “Does it still hurt quite a lot?”

“It’s not too bad except when I sit for a long time like this. It seems to bother me the most then. I need to sit with my leg up for a while, I guess. If you don’t mind, we can take up this match again this evening.”

“I should get some work done anyway. Hoss and Little Joe should be back from town soon with an update from Roy and the wagon load of supplies.”

Walking rather gingerly and leaning on a cane, Adam made his way to the settee where he sat carefully positioning his left leg up on a pillow. He leaned back with a book but soon fell asleep. Ben walked over and took the book from his hand and set it on the table. Adam stirred a little.

“Here let me take that pillow out so that you can lay back and get some sleep. You need it or you wouldn’t have fallen asleep so quickly.”

Without any argument, Adam complied which was further evidence that he was overtired. Ben moved back to his desk to work and about an hour later heard Hoss and Little Joe arrive home. He waited for them to come into the house. Hoss was the first one in and announced rather loudly what he and Little Joe had seen in town without realizing that Adam was on the settee because he couldn’t see him.

“Pa, you’ll never guess who we saw walking all around town with Virginia Keith: Todd McCarren. Adam’s gonna bust a gut when he finds out. He courted her for three years and now his best friend is sniffing around already.” Hoss finally noticed Ben’s frantic efforts to get him to stop talking. Then he looked and saw Adam sitting up on the settee with a pained expression. “Aw, Adam, I never meant for you to hear that. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for you to get hurt by hearing that.”

“That didn’t hurt. It’s my leg that hurts, and now I need to make a long walk to take care of business. It may take a while so don’t come looking for me right away. It’s embarrassing enough to be hobbled like this. I don’t need any keepers.” With that, Adam grabbed his cane and slowly walked from the house.

“Pa, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know he was there. I never woulda said nothing ifn I woulda knowed he was there.”

“I know, Hoss. He knows too. He’s not upset with you. I think he already suspected that Todd was interested in Virginia. It hurt to have it confirmed.”

Little Joe looked confused. “I don’t understand it. If he broke off his courtship with Virginia, why does he care who she sees? He doesn’t want her any more.”

“Little Joe, Adam cared about Virginia a great deal and for a long time, he thought that they had a future together. When you end a relationship like that, it takes some time to get over it. You don’t walk away like you do when you have only been seeing a girl for a month or two and didn’t plan on a future together. To have your best friend move in so quickly hurts, and for Virginia to seem to care so little that she would immediately welcome the attentions of another man probably hurts him too. Does that make sense to you?”

“Not really. I guess maybe when I get older it might. Right now I don’t see it.”

“Well, best accept what we say about it and let it ride. Maybe in a few months or so, you can say something about it, but right now it’s too raw. Let him be.”

Outside, Adam was fairly sure that he was at least part of the conversation going on inside. He paused to let them talk as well as to give himself time to rest physically and to think about what was happening. He wasn’t the type to get jealous. He knew that Virginia was which was one of the things that did irritate him about her somewhat. At the same time, he was hurt to think that she could so easily turn away from him and look to another man. He wondered and actually hoped that perhaps this was a ploy on her part to make him pay by trying to make him jealous. It would hurt less to think that was what it was. What hurt more was to think that Todd would be so insensitive as to immediately chase after her. He had suspected for some time that Todd was interested in Virginia. He always seemed to have compliments for her that were far more than what a friend might offer. He always seemed very interested in everything that Adam said about her. Most men weren’t that interested in other men’s romances except if they were willing to share salacious details that he wouldn’t; not there were any to share anyway. Virginia had kept him at arm’s length for their entire relationship. He had to be satisfied with relatively chaste kissing and hugs as she wasn’t willing to allow anything more than that. To hear that in less than a week after breaking off his relationship with Virginia, she and Todd were walking about town as a couple had been a shock. He guessed that Hoss wouldn’t have said anything if he had known he was there. In a way, it was better this way. He knew and had a chance to adjust to the information. It would have been more difficult to arrive in town and see it for himself with no warning. By the time he was ready to walk back into the house, he had assumed a more relaxed demeanor and asked Hoss about his meeting with Roy.

“Well, Roy said it helped and didn’t help. We got a list of possible suspects, but it’s a long list. With the bad winter we had, there’s about ten ranchers who are behind on their payments to the bank. Eight of ’em are in real trouble. Now all of them been hit by the rustlers so we can’t narrow it down that way ifn you was thinking that. Roy already checked that out. Ifn it’s one of ’em, they’ve been smart enough not to stick out that way.”

Adam’s suspicions were aroused by the two who had gotten some money to start getting out from under their debt load. “Which two are not in so much trouble?”

“Levi March and Tom Jacobs both made some payments this spring. Roy said that Levi being a Mormon got some of his Mormon friends up in Utah to loan him some money to bail him out until he can get back on his feet some. Tom musta had a decent spring drive cause he came back with a good sized check to pay down some of his debt too. Neither one got out from under though.”

Ben was interested mostly in one name. “Tom has mostly high pasture. He would have had to sell off most of his stock to bring in a big check from a spring drive.”

“I mentioned the same thing to Roy. He said it ain’t right to be suspicious of a man only for that when there could be a lot of explanations.”

Cynical by nature, Adam didn’t think Tom could explain. “He would have a difficult time explaining that one.”

“Roy said he talked to Tom and he said he’s raising a lot of the calves and the heifers down close to home cause he sold off so many cows.” Hoss looked like he found that farfetched.

Openly skeptical, Adam snorted. “Yes, heifers and calves that wouldn’t be branded if you took them from other ranches when cows were being rustled. You could certainly build your herd back up that way without getting caught. By next year, he’ll have another good herd to take to market and pay off his debt and be in the clear.”

Ben felt he had to intervene. “Adam, granted, it is suspicious, but you’ve charged, tried, and convicted the man based on very little. We need far more than what we have here. If he is involved, there still are far more men involved. Tom was with us the morning when you were shot so he isn’t actively working with the rustlers if it is him.”

Wondering what was next, Hoss had to ask. Ben said they ought to discuss their ideas with Roy and with the few ranchers they could be sure were not involved such as Andy McCarren and a couple of the others who owned larger ranches and had been hit hard by the rustlers. “I think we have to assume that whoever is helping them is probably not one of those. We should call them here for a meeting. We can’t meet in town or the others will wonder why they’ve been excluded. Hoss and Joe, I’ll need you to be discreet and invite them here for a meeting tomorrow evening. You can ride out in the morning to make the invitations.”

“Pa, I’ll take a trip to town and talk with Roy.”

“Adam, you can’t ride yet with that leg.”

“I’ll take the carriage. It’s my left leg so it won’t bother me doing that, and I can keep it up while I’m in the carriage. I need to get out of here and do something.”

“All right as long as you get enough sleep tonight. I don’t want you to do this if you’re tired.”

“Pa, I don’t need to be coddled. I can take care of myself.”

Ben rolled his eyes which only got Hoss and Little Joe to start laughing especially when Adam scowled. Things were definitely getting back to normal.

*****

Chapter 4

The next morning, Hoss and Little Joe hitched up the carriage for Adam after they saddled up their horses. They each had two ranchers to see, and Adam would talk with Roy who might also attend the meeting late that afternoon. It was decided that a late afternoon meeting would likely draw less attention because the men could be seen as being out and about doing business as they would on any normal business day. An evening meeting on the Ponderosa would be a bit unusual and draw perhaps some unwanted interest. Hopefully all of the men could attend and they could come to some kind of agreement on how to proceed.

As Adam drove the carriage to town, he had plenty of time to think and much too much time to regret the decision to go to town. He knew that there was a possibility that he might see Virginia. She liked to stroll around town on any nice day and visit with people. One of the things that he had liked about her was that she was so social and engaging, so open. However, the day before when he was upset, he had thought he wanted to confront her, but that had been his heart speaking to him. Now his mind was in control again, and he realized it would be better if they didn’t talk for a while and let the hurt heal more or at least let the pain fade away. Instead he had foolishly volunteered for this. All he could hope was that he could go to Roy’s office without seeing her, and then hopefully he could drive out of town again without seeing her. However if she saw the Ponderosa carriage, he knew it was unlikely she would go home without stopping to at least ask how he was knowing that he had been wounded. It was almost as soon as he arrived in town that he saw the first member of the Keith family but it wasn’t Virginia. Charity waved to him and moved toward the carriage. He knew it would be rude to ride past her, and she had done nothing to deserve that kind of treatment.

“Adam, I heard you were shot. I’m very pleased to see that you’re already able to get around under your own power although you’re riding in a carriage like my father likes to do.”

As usual, Charity had been able to inquire about him and irritate him at the same time by comparing him to her father. The impish look she had meant that she had done it purposefully too. “I was shot in the leg which makes it difficult to ride. The carriage is only a temporary requirement.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean to insinuate that you were getting old or anything like that. I’m so sorry if I hurt your feelings. Perhaps I should do something to make it up to you. Perhaps I could come for a visit to the Ponderosa and bring you a nice pie or something like that. We could talk, and I could be nice to you.”

“You most certainly will not.” Lem Keith walked up behind his daughter, and the look he had made clear his feelings toward Adam. “He’s already done everything he could to ruin the reputation and the future of one of my daughters. I will not have him anywhere near another especially one so young and innocent as you. Now, get on into the store to get those things you said you needed.”

Reluctantly, Charity turned to the store but looked back at Adam with a look that said she was sorry for causing the confrontation with her father. Adam nodded to let her know he held no hard feelings over anything she had done or said. Lem however wasn’t finished.

“How dare you approach my daughter? Haven’t you done enough harm to my family? Virginia has been beside herself since Friday night. She can barely bring herself to face leaving the house.”

“Then it must have been a great chore for her to walk about town with Todd McCarren yesterday.”

“If she was with Todd it was because Todd stopped by to see how she was doing. He’s a family friend, and your friend too although I can’t see why. He saved your life from what I heard. You would be dead if not for Todd. I would think you would be grateful instead of spiteful.”

“I am grateful, but I was talking about Virginia, not Todd. If she can walk about town with him, she must be doing all right.”

“So that makes the damage that you did inconsequential, is that it? You ruined her reputation, and that’s all you care about it?”

“I didn’t ruin her reputation. I courted her, yes, and then we decided that it was over. Nothing happened that could in any way reflect negatively on Virginia.”

“Except to be spurned by the most eligible man in the territory after he courted her and only her. Now everyone is questioning why that happened and what’s wrong with her. There isn’t a man around here who will want to marry her now, and it’s all because of you. She feels her life is hopeless, without a future. That’s the damage you’ve done.”

Anger was rising in Adam and he lashed out in the same way he was being targeted. “Or is it that Virginia’s father hates to see that she isn’t marrying into the wealthiest family in the region, and he hates to see all that money slipping away?”

“If you weren’t a damn gunslinger, I’d have to call you out for saying something like that. But know that from this day forward, you are my enemy, and I will do everything that I can to bring you down. You will pay for what you did to my daughter. Someday someone is going to make you pay, and I’ll be there laughing when they do. You aren’t always going to have Todd or someone else there to hand you a rifle and watch your back. Someday you’ll be alone and even a shot to the leg will be enough without someone there to help drag you to a boulder to hide.”

“We were working together. Todd and I are friends. Friends do things like that for each other.”

“I doubt that you would have done it for Todd if you were riding away with bullets flying and he was the one down and unable to get away. You would probably have left him there to die. You care only for yourself. You showed that by how you treated Virginia. You used her to have someone on your arm when it suited you, and now that you’ve tired of her, you discard her like she is nothing. Well, you stay away from Charity. She’s an innocent young woman, and I won’t have you ruining her reputation too.”

Shocked by most of what Lem had said but especially by Lem thinking that he was pursuing Charity, Adam defended himself against that charge. “I am not chasing after Charity. She hailed me, and I was being polite. It was nothing more.”

“Yes, with you it’s always nothing more than what suits you. Stay away from us, from all of us.”

Lem was done spewing his venom, and Adam was still furious with him, but his mind was churning too wondering how Lem had known all of those details. Lem stalked away. Waiting for a moment in thought, Adam drove to Roy’s office carefully avoiding pedestrians. He spent some time with Roy explaining his theory about who might be helping the rustlers and told him about the meeting on the Ponderosa that afternoon. Roy was already committed to some other tasks but said he would send Clem to the meeting. Clem was intelligent and logical so Adam thought that would work out well. Adam said nothing about his concern about Lem Keith knowing so many details about the rustlers’ ambush, but on the trip home, that was what most occupied Adam’s thoughts. When he arrived home, his demeanor and his frown let his father know that something was troubling him. Ben pushed a little wondering what it was and thinking that Adam had probably seen Virginia.

“No, but I did see Charity and then I saw Lem.”

“I take it that those meetings didn’t go well.”

“Actually, Charity was more pleasant than I expected. She stopped me to ask how I was after being shot. However her father came up and accused me of trying to start up something with her and of essentially ruining Virginia’s life. He thinks what I did was completely unacceptable. I suppose it wasn’t fair to her. I should have backed out long ago when I realized there was no passion, no love building in our relationship, but I hardly took advantage of her. She never pushed for anything more either.”

“I suppose that perhaps Virginia may have sensed how you felt or perhaps felt the same in that there wasn’t a strong enough bond between you to sustain a marriage. I do wish that the two of you would have come to that understanding a long time ago though.”

“I know it was disappointing to you, Pa. It was disappointing to me too. I guess I thought that because I liked her and that there was nothing objectionable about her that somehow I would learn to love her. I should have known that wouldn’t happen with me even if it’s happened with others who have come to love the one they’re with. Did you know, each time, did you know it was love or did you have to wait to learn what your feelings were?”

The raw emotion of that question was so unlike Adam that Ben was surprised and took time to carefully word his response. “I guess that I knew as soon as I took the time to accept how I was feeling. Each of those women challenged me in some way that made me think at first that I could not love them, but then I found that it was that spirit, that courage and spark of life that drew me in like a moth to the flame as soon as I opened myself to it. Yes, I knew it was love fairly quickly. I may kid Joseph about how quickly he falls in love or claims to do so, but that was how it was for me with all three women whom I loved and married.”

“Maybe that’s the way it is with us Cartwrights. Maybe I’m denying my heritage thinking that there’s some careful logical process that will bring the right woman to me. Perhaps I need to find a way to let my heart lead the way.”

“What I think you need most right now is time to let the pain fade. I know it was your decision, but I know too that it wasn’t an easy thing to do. I saw how you reacted when you heard that Todd was already squiring her around town yesterday. Take some time for yourself. Heal your heart before you try to open it to another.”

Before they could discuss any more, two men rode in and Ben moved to greet them. The first arrivals for the meeting were there. There would be no more personal discussions, and Ben suspected that by the time the meeting was over, Adam’s walls would be back in place. He would once again have buried his feelings and the hurt and insecurities inside. At least he had given his father a moment of closeness. Those were rare with Adam, and Ben appreciated each one as a treasure. By the end of the meeting, the general feeling was that Tom Jacobs was a likely candidate for the rustlers’ inside man. Todd McCarren had come with his father and offered some evidence that added to what Roy had found.

“His ranch borders ours. I knew he was having some problems, and we had some extra calves and heifers after the spring roundup and drive. I offered to sell some to him at a very reasonable price. It was Pa’s idea. I went over there, and he seemed to have quite a few. In fact, he had some that were short-horn and Hereford mixes which surprised me because I thought only the Ponderosa had any of those. He said he had gotten some from a seller, but I don’t know anyone around here who would have any calves to sell. You might get a bull for one or the other if you had thousands of extra dollars to spend, but Tom is in financial trouble. We all know that.”

Clem stepped in then. “So you’re saying if he has any, he got them from the Ponderosa?”

Todd nodded as did several of the other men. Turning to Ben, Clem had a question. “Ben, did you sell or give any calves to Tom Jacobs?”

“No, I did not. I didn’t know he was in as much trouble as I’ve learned in the last two days. He and I haven’t seen each other anywhere except at Cattlemen’s Association meetings.”

“Well, that might be grounds enough to arrest him. I would have to talk to Roy about it, but it certainly would be enough to question him.”

Ben intervened though. “Perhaps it would be best to let Roy go talk to him and try to see what a little pressure might do. Let Roy handle it. He does a good job of making people sweat when he has information and they don’t know how much he knows.”

The other ranchers agreed with that strategy as well as with a plan to keep a closer watch on the other men on the list who had financial difficulties because they couldn’t be positive it was Tom Jacobs. He could be telling the truth. They hoped that with more vigilance, they could find out who was working with the rustlers and gain the advantage on them. As the meeting was breaking up, Todd asked to speak to Adam privately.

“Adam, I got a big favor to ask of you. Now that you and Virginia have called things off, well, I was hoping you wouldn’t mind if I called on Virginia. You see, I always thought a lot of her, and honestly, I thought you were the luckiest man in the world to have her as your gal. But now that you two aren’t together, well I would like to see her and see if she would consider being my gal. We’ve always been friends, the three of us, and I’d hate to lose that, so I’m asking as a friend.”

“What if I said that would bother me?”

Todd dropped his head. “Then I guess I’d have to back off. I wouldn’t want to lose you as a friend, Adam.”

Not sure if Todd was sincere but relieved that he had actually responded that way, Adam relented. “It’s all right, Todd. You have my blessing. I hope that you and Virginia make a go of it. You two are probably better matched than she and I ever were anyway.”

“Gee, thanks, Adam. You really are a great friend. I have to tell you though. It won’t be a three year courtship. If she’s willing, I want to move a lot faster than that. I don’t know about you, but I want to get married before I’m thirty.”

“We’re only twenty-eight now, Todd.”

“Almost twenty-nine. It’s time for me to have a wife. I’m ready, and if she’s willing, she’s going to be my wife.”

“You’re moving very fast.”

“Maybe I am, but there are a lot of other things I want to do too. I’ve been talking a bit with her father. He’s been out of town a lot, but he got back this morning and sent a message to the ranch that he would like to talk with me about some ideas he’s come up with. He’s got some ideas too about what I can do with the ranch to make it better. Pa hasn’t been feeling well lately and I’m going to have to step up and do more.”

At the mention of Lem Keith, Adam grew wary. He was especially interested to find that Lem had been out of town and only returned that morning. When he had seen him in town, he had been dusty like he had been riding. He couldn’t have been back for long. “Be careful of her father, Todd.”

“Now, you were being so nice about things, Adam. Don’t go ruining it now.” Todd mounted up then and rode out to catch up to his father who had left in a carriage.

Watching him go, Adam had one more thing to concern him. He was frowning even more when he went back into the house, but he wasn’t ready to talk about things yet. He needed time to think.

*****

Chapter 5

The next day, Adam insisted that he could ride and could do some regular work. By that afternoon, he had to ride in and admit that his leg was hurting too much to continue. Having to concede that only added to the foul mood he was in already. After a number of surly comments at the dinner table which had followed many others that morning and then again before dinner, and Ben had had enough.

“Listen, I know your leg is hurting. I know that you are still bothered by what happened between you and Virginia, but that is no reason to make the rest of us suffer with you. We feel sorry for your pain, but we don’t need you to make us feel miserable too. If you can’t say anything civil, then perhaps you could say nothing at all.”

For the rest of the meal, Adam was quiet. He knew he had been at fault doing what he often did striking out verbally when he was frustrated. He found apologies difficult so took his time formulating what he had to say. When dessert was served, he knew it was time to serve up his apology as well.

“I’d like to tell you all that I’m sorry for the way I’ve been acting. I didn’t mean to offend.”

Hoss immediately smiled and accepted. Adam could see that his father and Little Joe were still a bit irritated with him. He accepted that and hoped it wouldn’t interfere with what he had to say next.

“Part of the reason I’ve been so ornery is that I’ve been wrestling with a dilemma. I’ve got something I think may be true, but it’s going to look like I’m only casting aspersions on someone because of what’s happened between us especially lately.”

“Aspershuns?”

“Derogatory remarks. Slanderous statements.” Hoss frowned. “Saying nasty things.”

“Well why didn’t you say that right off. All right, who you gonna say nasty things about anyway?”

“Lem Keith. I think he may be mixed up with those rustlers.”

Silence and shocked expressions of disbelief met that statement. No one knew how to respond at first. Ben finally decided to ask Adam why he would think such a thing about a respected businessman from Virginia City.

“This morning when he confronted me, he knew details about me getting shot that I don’t think any of you know. Todd would know and the rustlers would know but no one else.”

Hoss had to ask. “What didn’t you tell us?”

“Only the details, Hoss. I told you Todd saved my life by helping me to cover when I was shot. I didn’t tell you that he was riding away when I was shot and came back for me grabbing his rifle when he dismounted because he knew that I would need it because Sport had bolted. He pushed me behind a boulder and that’s where we were until the hands rode in. Todd had to practically drag me to that boulder because my leg was numb when I was first hit. Lem knew that too.”

Little Joe was openly skeptical. “Todd was playing the big hero to the family and probably told them all about it.”

“That’s just it, Joe. Todd told me that Lem has been out of town and only got back this morning. Even if Todd told the story with all the details to Virginia, there was no chance for her to repeat it all to her father. Virginia is rather squeamish and Todd knows that. I don’t think he would tell her that whole story. If he did, I don’t see Virginia repeating that kind of story anyway. Do any of you? You have gotten to know her rather well in the last couple of years. Does she seem the type to repeat any of the details of a story like that?”

“No, but Charity would.”

“Hoss, you’re probably right about that, but Todd can’t stand to be anywhere near Charity. He’s told me on a number of occasions that he wished that Lem would send her east to school or to Europe to travel so she wouldn’t be around for a while. He would hardly engage in conversation with her if he could help it.”

Hoss leaned back in his chair. “It’s kinda looking like you might be on to something there. You gonna tell Roy and the others about it?”

Looking at his father, Adam smiled. “Pa, you’re not sure even now, and you were openly skeptical when I first said it. Little Joe had the same reaction. If that happens with two-thirds of my family, what would happen if I said this to anyone else?”

“Son, you can’t say this to anyone else. What you’ve said is logical. You have some evidence this time, but you’re right. People would scoff and think it was some kind of sour grapes. With Todd seeing Virginia now, they would likely think it was for personal reasons, and that you’re trying to make trouble for the Keith family and indirectly for Todd. We can’t say anything directly about Lem. However, we can watch and see what we can learn. It would be interesting to see if Lem has any dealings with any of the ten ranchers who are on our list of possible suspects. I would especially like to know if he has had any contact with Tom Jacobs.”

That was exactly the kind of thing that made Little Joe excited. “Pa, I could watch the Jacobs place and see if he ever goes there. I could be a spy.”

“Joseph, you will not do anything of the sort. If Tom Jacobs is involved in this, then the rustlers are also going to be on his place at some point. I do not want you in the middle of that, young man.”

“Yes sir, but how will we watch him, then?”

“We can keep men at work in the pasture nearest the road. If one of them happened to be up on that hill overlooking the crossroads at all times, well then, if anyone rode toward the Jacobs ranch, I guess we would know, wouldn’t we?” Little Joe smiled then. “But, young man, you will stay on the Ponderosa at all times, and you will keep our men in sight too. I do not want you alone for any reason. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Pa. I’ll do exactly what you said. Exactly.”

“I’ll send Shorty out with that crew to report back to me if you don’t.”

Little Joe’s face fell at that making both Adam and Hoss laugh until their father’s look silenced them although when Little Joe left the table, Ben had a small smile for his older sons’ benefit. The next day, Ben had planned to go to town to discuss the situation with Roy but remembered that he had to go to Carson City to discuss some prospects for timber bids. With Hoss busy on the ranch and Little Joe already committed to watching for Lem visiting the Jacobs ranch, Ben had to ask Adam to go to town again.

“I’m sorry, son. After what happened of couple of days ago, I was hoping that I could go do this, but I can’t. Will you be all right going in to see Roy? You might see Virginia or you might see her father again.”

“I know. I guess the worst of that is over. Lem already lambasted me. He can’t say much more than he already has. If I see Virginia, well, she’s got the upper hand now with Todd on her arm, so I’ll have to eat some crow, but I don’t think it’ll be too bad. She certainly probably feels that she came out the winner in this.”

“Do you really think she’s thinking about it that way?”

“Yes, I think she is, but it’s all right. This way she won’t be angry and bitter. We’ll still be able to be friends. I’m not so sure about me and Todd though.”

“I thought you told him it was all right with you for him to call on Virginia.”

“Oh, I did, but he was already seeing her before he ever said anything to me. That was only a formality and probably something Andy told him to do to calm the waters. The way he brought it up to me, Pa, I don’t think my answer was going to make any difference to him at all. He told me he wants to marry her.”

“Marry her? He’s hardly seen her more than a few days.”

“You see what I mean. Asking me was nothing more than a courtesy and after the fact. He’s also getting in close with Lem and taking advice from him. Pa, Todd’s heading down a crooked path. I don’t think I can follow him there. I doubt that our friendship is going to survive this.”

“I’m very sorry about that, Adam. You’ve lost Virginia, and now you may have lost your friend too.”

“Before this is all over, I can only hope Todd doesn’t lose even more than that. I wish Andy was in better shape. I was surprised at the meeting the other day to see how poorly he was getting around. Todd had said he wasn’t feeling well, but I had no idea it was progressing so fast. He can’t ride a horse any more.”

“Yes, his mind is sound, but his body has betrayed him. If he keeps going like this, I have to wonder how much longer he has. He’s failed a lot in the past year. I really do need to get over there one of these days. I’ll bring him one of those packages of tobacco that I got in San Francisco. He’ll like that. Once this mess is cleaned up, I’ll take a day and go see him. Right now though I need to get going. The boys have the carriage ready for you too. Don’t worry about unhitching the team when you get back. One of the hands can do it when they come back.”

“I’m not crippled. I can still work.”

“Good, I’ve got a bunch of figures that need to be entered in the ledgers. You can do that when you get back.”

A scowl was his answer for that, but he knew Adam would do it. About two hours later, Adam was sitting with Roy and Clem asking if they had found out anything new. Roy had talked to Tom Jacobs.

“Tom stuck to his story of buying them calves from a seller. He had some papers that looked like they could be real. The only way I could know would have been to take them and checked with the seller. I couldn’t do that, but I have sent a wire to the seller asking if he sold a large number of high priced calf stock to Tom. It may take a few days to get a response. Ifn the answer comes back as a yes, then I got nowhere to go with this. But, I have to tell you that Tom did seem nervous.”

“Tom always seems nervous.”

“Adam, you’re right about that, but he seemed more nervous than usual. I wonder if there ain’t more going on than what we know.”

Pausing for a moment, Adam thought about what Roy could be implying. “Do you mean the possibility that someone might be threatening Tom to get his cooperation?”

“That’s a possibility, now, ain’t it?”

Adam had to agree that it was. They talked for a time about who might be doing that, and then Adam shared his theory about Lem Keith. Roy was openly skeptical of Adam’s theory.

“Now Lem Keith is a respected businessman who is not in any financial difficulty as far as anyone knows. Why would he get mixed up in something like cattle rustling?”

“Do we know all the ways that Lem has made money?” Roy raised his eyebrows in preparation for an objection, but Adam went on quickly before he could respond. “Roy, we know that a lot of businessmen not only walk perilously close to violating the law but some cross over all too often when it suits them. They have enough power that they rarely get caught. It gives them impunity. It wouldn’t be that unusual for Lem to do the same.”

“But ifn they do it’s in fraud and paper crimes, or they hire some rough characters to use their guns to scare folks. They don’t go stealing cattle and stuff like that.”

“Not usually but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.”

“No, it doesn’t, but it makes it pretty unlikely, and with what little you got to go on, I’d say it’s a big jump from what’s possible to what’s happening.”

“I’m not saying that it’s true, but only saying that it’s cause to watch him. That’s all we’re going to do. Other than you and Clem, we’re not going to say anything to anyone.”

“Well, that’s good cause you could stir up a might big hornet’s nest with accusations like that. You best stay away from Lem Keith anyway. He’s been talking pretty negatively about you in town the last two days. Seems he’s pretty riled about you breaking it off with his daughter. Folks are thinking that you aren’t such a gentleman to have done it the way he said it happened and put his daughter into such a sad state.”

“The only one in a sad state about it is Lem. He’s sad to see that his connection to the Ponderosa bank accounts has been lost. Virginia is already seeing Todd McCarren. Confidentially, Todd plans on marrying Virginia, and from what I can tell, she’s agreeable.”

“One of your best friends and your former gal getting married? You all right with that?”

Nodding, Adam told them of his conversation with Todd and his belief that Todd was a better match for Virginia. Then he took his leave to head back to the Ponderosa. When he got outside, Charity Keith was leaning up against his carriage.

“You and the sheriff seem to have a lot to talk about these days.”

“We do.”

“I suppose the problem with those rustlers is still a big issue for you and your family.”

“It is.”

“Well, when you and Virginia were together, it seemed you had more than two words to say to her when the two of you were talking. Is it that you dislike me so much?”

“I don’t dislike you.”

“Well, there, you doubled up on the words. That’s an improvement. Maybe we could go for six in your next reply.”

“Do you have to do that?”

“See, I knew you could do it, and what do you mean by do that? Do what?”

“You seem to like to challenge me with every sentence you utter.”

“Sometimes I do. It’s fun to challenge you. You are one of the few men who can parry back and forth. Most men are defenseless with words.”

Adam had to smile then. Charity was honest to a fault even if she could be irritating. “Do you ever think about what you’re going to say before you say it?”

She smiled in return then but with an impish look. “I do. But then I say it anyway to see what reaction I’m going to get. Life is more fun that way.”

With a smile, Adam was about to respond until he saw Lem Keith exit the bank across the street. He was in conversation with Tom Jacobs. The sight of the two men together made him change his expression immediately and Charity noticed.

“Now why does the sight of my father make you look like that?”

“You should know, and you should probably be on your way, or there will be another unpleasant confrontation as there was a few days ago.”

“I can talk to whomever I wish.”

“I doubt your father will see it that way.”

As Lem saw his daughter talking to Adam, he hurried across the street and addressed her directly telling her that her admiration for Adam was misplaced. “Furthermore, if you persist in in this behavior of seeking him out which I have no doubt you did, then I will carry through on my threat to send you to live with your aunt in Philadelphia. My sister owes me many favors with me supporting her and her family in style for the past ten years, and she will see to it that you learn to act like a young lady and stop throwing yourself at this man. Then perhaps a grand tour of Europe will show you how genteel people act. You certainly don’t see models of proper behavior here especially with Adam Cartwright.”

“Papa, you’re being unfair. Virginia told you that she was just as happy that Adam ended things. She wanted to do it herself. She told you that. You were the one who pressured her to keep her with Adam. She’s happier with Todd and you know it.”

“That’s enough! You will not speak of family matters in the street like some common hoyden. Now get on home. We’ll talk there.” Without another word, Lem ushered his daughter down the walk and away from Adam. As he left, Adam was wondering where Lem Keith got the money to do the things that he did. He was a businessman, but he didn’t have any enterprise that brought in large sums of money. He had enough to live comfortably, but some of what he had revealed indicated a far larger outlay than what he should have been able to afford.

*****

Chapter 6

That night at dinner, Little Joe was very disappointed to say that he had not seen Lem Keith riding to the Jacobs ranch. However he did report that Tom had headed in the direction of town and then gone back toward his ranch several hours later. Each time he had been alone.

“He wasn’t alone in town. I saw him come out of the bank with Lem Keith.” Adam’s statement had the effect of silencing his family for a moment. “I was talking with Roy and when I came out, Charity was waiting by the carriage. We talked for a couple of minutes, and while I was there, Lem walked out of the bank talking with Tom. They seemed to be in a very serious conversation that ended when Lem saw Charity talking with me.”

“I’m guessing that Lem wasn’t happy seeing you with his younger daughter.”

“No, Pa, in fact, he was very unpleasant about the whole thing. He threatened to send Charity to live with her aunt in Philadelphia to go to a finishing school before going on a grand tour. Pa, he also said he’s been supporting his sister and her family there for ten years. How does a man like Lem get the money to live well here, send a daughter to school in the east and on a grand tour, send a second daughter to do the same, and support his sister’s family? He doesn’t seem to have that kind of income.”

“No, he doesn’t but we don’t know all the details of his investments. Perhaps he has some major investments elsewhere.”

“If he does, he lied to Virginia about them. He told her that he sold everything he had in order to purchase what he has here.”

“Pa, Adam may be on to something here. Ifn he’s spending so much then maybe he is doing things like stealing our cattle or squeezing Tom for money. There’ve been other yahoos like that here. Just cause he dresses fancy don’t make him honest.”

“Now, hold on just a minute. We can’t assume anything. We still don’t have any evidence. All we have are some very strong suspicions. As we have been doing, we will watch for what Lem is doing and what Tom is doing. We need far more than what we have. Adam, did Roy say anything about Tom?”

“He talked to him and said he had bills of sale. Roy is checking on those. He said Tom seemed more nervous than usual.” Then Adam had to admit something he knew his father wouldn’t like to hear. “I mentioned my suspicions about Lem Keith to Roy and Clem.”

“Adam, I didn’t want you to do that. I wanted to keep that within the family.”

“I thought Roy had a right to know what I was thinking. He can judge it on its merits. He has enough experience and knows me well enough to know I wouldn’t say something like that to be petty. If we’re going to get to the bottom of this, there’s no reason to hide anything from Roy. He can observe Lem better than we can. If there’s something to see, Roy may see it.”

“Well. What’s done is done. Was there anything else you have to tell me?”

Knowing his father was perturbed about that, Adam had nothing more to say about that which would irritate him at least. “Other than what he had to say about Tom Jacobs, Roy had nothing new. No one has reported any cattle stolen since I was shot. It’s bound to happen soon.” Hoss wondered where it would be. Adam was cynical in his response. “You can bet it won’t be the McCarren or Jacobs ranches.”

Even more perturbed by that remark, Ben got a bit testy in his response. “Adam, that is beneath you especially to talk that way about the McCarrens. We need to go out looking for where those rustlers might be. We know they’re working with a big crew. Tomorrow, if you feel that you can ride for at least a half day, why don’t you go see if Todd will ride with you again to try to locate any tracks of the rustlers. Hoss and I will head out on our land to do the same. Little Joe will go back to his sentry duty.” The only one not happy with his assignment was Adam who wasn’t that anxious to be with Todd, but Ben thought the two of them needed to be together to talk. It didn’t work out as he had hoped.

When Adam arrived at the McCarren ranch the next morning, he found Virginia there. She was in no better mood than Todd it seemed for both frowned when they saw him, and their greetings were cool.

“I’m sorry to barge in on you. Pa thought that perhaps, if you had time, you wouldn’t mind taking a ride to look for tracks of those rustlers. If they’re checking out your herd or ours, we might find tracks along our property lines.”

“I have a lot of other things to do, Adam. Don’t you think that perhaps it’s your turn to risk your life? I already risked mine. Now I’m thinking that we should probably be leaving this to the sheriff and the men hired to hunt outlaws and to men like you who seem to like taking risks like that. I don’t.”

“Todd, when we rode out that morning to take a look around, I wasn’t thinking that we were taking any kind of risk. I had no idea those rustlers were so close. Neither did you. If we did, we wouldn’t have done what we did by following those tracks. If we would see any tracks today, we wouldn’t follow them. We would head back and alert the others now that we know these men are willing to kill.”

“Well, and you don’t know what they would do today either if you got close to them. No thanks. I’ll stay here. My father can’t run this ranch any more. If anything happens to me, then he could lose the ranch. Or is that what you want? To have the Ponderosa swallow up another one of its neighbors who fell on hard times?”

Bristling in anger, Adam managed to hold his temper in check but only barely. “Todd, we’ve been friends a long time so I won’t do what I should do with an insult like that, but you’re stepping dangerously close to pushing me over the line. I don’t think you want to do that.”

“Or what, Adam? Would you shoot your best friend? It’s one of the reasons that I’m glad you broke it off with me. It’s why I could never let you get too close to me. You’re dangerous. You carry that anger and that danger with you wherever you go. You should know too that you need to stay away from my little sister. Charity is infatuated with you like a silly schoolgirl. You must be so flattered by the attention, but she’s a child.”

“She is not a child. She’s a young woman, but I have no designs on her. I have simply had two conversations with her. Nothing more. I know she is too young and knows too little of the world, but she is intelligent, caring, and insightful.”

“I suppose you’re saying that I’m not.”

“No, we were talking about Charity. You called her a child and silly. She is neither of those. I was not comparing her to you at all. I have no idea why we are even having this conversation.”

“We are having this conversation because father is very upset with you pursuing Charity, and has threatened to send her to Philadelphia. They had quite a row about it last night, and this morning again. She thinks that you are attracted to her and will come to her aid. Father has assured her that you will not help her. I told her the same. Would you deny that?”

Caught in a trap, Adam had no answer. He wanted to say he would help Charity if she needed his help, but that would be tantamount to admitting an attraction to her as far as Virginia was concerned. He knew what he had to say, but it felt bitter coming from his mouth because he was sure that Virginia would delight in repeating it to her sister and her father. “No, I wouldn’t interfere in what a father wanted to do with his daughter. It is none of my business if he is not harming her.” He could imagine how those words would likely hurt Charity if she had hoped he would help her. He despised Lem Keith and could imagine how difficult it was for Charity to live under his rule, but it wasn’t his place to interfere in that family especially now that he was no longer courting Virginia. Sadly, he knew that Todd was likely to endorse Lem’s plan to ship Charity to the east where there would be an effort made to break her spirit and mold her into the type of lady that would please Lem, a lady like Virginia. Adam shivered inside.

With nothing more to say, Adam took his leave then. He rode the boundary lines of the Ponderosa and McCarren ranches until early afternoon making his leg ache. He had to ride home then slowly and didn’t arrive there until nearly dinnertime. Ben and Hoss were worried and waiting for him. Hoss was in the stable thinking about saddling up Chubb to go look for him when he rode in. He dismounted and sank down on a stool grimacing in discomfort and exhaustion.

“Pa’s been worried sick. We thought you woulda been back hours ago.”

“I suppose you were out here keeping Chubb company just for the heck of it.”

“Well I was worried too. Why are you so late?”

“Things didn’t go well over at the McCarren place so I ended up riding alone. I was mad and took some time to settle down. I didn’t find anything, and by the time my leg hurt enough that I knew I had to head back, I was so far out, I had a long slow ride home.”

“Me and Pa found tracks. I already was in town and told Roy. He’ll be out here tomorrow with a posse good and early. We’re heading up to where we saw the tracks. We figure they may hit us tonight or tomorrow, but the tracks were real fresh.”

“That’s good news. We can get them finally.”

“Not we. You’re not in any shape to ride where we’re going. There’s something else you may want to do anyway.”

“What’s that?”

“When I was in town, I stopped in the general store real quick just to get some peppermint sticks. Lem Keith was in there with Charity. I overheard them talking, or rather I heard him talking. He said that if she kept flirting with you, she was definitely getting sent back out east, and if you did anything to respond to her flirting, then it was gonna go doubly bad for you. I was thinking maybe you want to try to make peace with him before this all blows up in her face. She’s a nice enough gal. I’d hate for her to get hurt. She was crying when they left that store.”

“I don’t know what I could say. I got a similar lecture from Virginia today. She was with Todd.” Adam repeated what she said and told Hoss what had happened that morning. Hoss was in dismay at what was happening to Todd since his association with Lem Keith. Adam fully understood what he meant, and after Hoss again urged him to go try to calm things down between him and Lem, he agreed that perhaps he would try to talk with Lem and try to calm things down before Charity was hurt. Later Ben added his endorsement to that idea.

“Perhaps your suspicion of Lem has colored all of our thoughts about him. Tomorrow we’ll track down those rustlers, and then we’ll get to the bottom of this whole mess. It certainly would help if you could try to make sure that Charity and perhaps even Virginia are not hurt by this. I’m sure you don’t want either of them hurt by this.”‘

The next day as a result, Adam found himself walking up to the Keith home. He knocked, and when Charity came to the door, he asked politely if he could speak with her father. He waited on the porch until Lem stepped out to talk with him. It went better than expected with Lem unexpectedly being somewhat conciliatory and explaining that now that Todd and Virginia were getting married, he no longer was concerned with what Adam had done. Adam hid his surprise at that news that apparently Lem had gotten the previous evening. When they finished talking, Adam and Lem shook hands. Adam was surprised by that and saw Charity watching them from a parlor window. He couldn’t wave or acknowledge her in any way without ruining the peace he had made with her father. He instead left quietly but full of questions. Quite a bit of what had happened had surprised him. It didn’t made sense to him even if it was explained as if it was logical and reasonable. When he got home, he was surprised again when he found his father and Hoss already back.

“What happened? You couldn’t have tracked down the rustlers already, could you?”

“Nope. The tracks we found yesterday were gone. All brushed out. We searched for a couple of hours and found nothing. They moved on and left nothing to let us know where they went. As far as we know, they could be anywhere now. How did it go with you?”

So Adam told them of the meeting with Lem and how he had taken a complete change of heart it seemed treating Adam with respect and acting as if everything was fine between them again.

“Now that’s darn odd considering how he was talking against you jest yesterday when I heard him in the store.”

“It is odd. There is so much that is odd here. I can’t figure it out. It’s a puzzle and we’re missing some of the pieces.”

*****

Chapter 7

Almost a week later, Hoss returned from town with supplies and a letter for Adam. It had been left for him at the general store. There was no name on the outside or an address so it had come from someone in town. The writing looked like it could be a woman’s so as Little Joe giggled, Hoss’ teased him a bit about having an admirer who wanted him now that Virginia was out of the way. Adam took the letter and moved to the blue chair to read it. When he finished, he had a dark look and stared into the fireplace even though there was no fire there. Hoss knew better than to ask him a question at that point. Little Joe wanted to tease him about it more, but Hoss stopped him before he could start.

“You let him be. That look he’s got says it ain’t no letter from a lady about no romance. It’s something serious.”

It was at the end of dinner before Adam revealed most of what had been in the letter. “The letter is from Charity Keith. Lem sent her away to the east to live with her aunt, and he told her that I suggested that it was a good idea on that day that I was there to talk with him. She thinks it’s my fault that she’s gone. She thinks I wanted her to stop bothering me because that is apparently what Lem told her. She’ll miss her sister’s wedding, and she didn’t want to go at all. She’s very upset.”

The whole family was surprised at first, but then not so much when they considered that Lem was the one responsible. Ben was the first to say anything.

“What do you plan to do?”

“I’ll ask Virginia for Charity’s address in Philadelphia and I’ll write to her. I don’t know that I can help her be any happier with what’s happened, but she deserves to know the truth about it.” What Adam didn’t reveal was the end of the letter when Charity revealed her hurt and the blame she placed on Adam for it. I thought what I was feeling for you was love. I’m not sure what love is, but I admired you, respected you, and looked forward to seeing you. If that’s not the basis of love, then I don’t understand it at all. I didn’t know you hated me so much though that you wanted me banished from your life and all the way across the country. When I saw you shake my father’s hand, I was surprised, but when I found out why, I was shocked to my core. He said that you agreed to let all the trouble between the two of you be gone if only he would send me away. You and Todd agreed it was best to have me gone. Todd is twisted around my father’s thumb so I know why he would agree, but I don’t know why you would do that. I can only hope now that someone will hurt you the way that you have hurt me. You tore out my heart and did your best to break my spirit. I’ll find a way to fight back. I don’t know how, but you better watch yourself if I ever get back home, and whatever my father has planned for you, I guess I no longer care. You made your choices, and now you have to live with the results.

Now some of what had happened with Lem Keith made sense. He had been putting on a show for his daughter so that he could condemn Adam with it later. Adam had to wonder if there was any other ulterior motive to Lem apparent good humor and friendliness. It was masking what he wanted to accomplish. Adam wondered too if Lem knew that Adam suspected him of involvement in the rustling. Surely if Roy was asking questions, it was possible that Lem had heard enough to have guessed that he might be suspected. Adam began to wonder what he would do if he knew he was in that position. He didn’t hear his father addressing him because he was lost in thought. He apologized and asked what his father had asked.

“I asked if you planned to go to town tomorrow then. You could ask Roy if he has gotten any information yet on Tom Jacobs and those bills of sale he said he had.”

“Yes, I’ll go. No one has reported any cattle missing. I wonder what’s going on. Have the rustlers given up because we were getting too close to catching them?”

“Roy thinks so. He thinks that whomever was directing the operation has been scared off. At this point, we’re probably never going to know who did it.”

“So we’ll be looking at our neighbors and wondering.”

“Yes, unless something happens that gives us more evidence or lets us apprehend the rustlers, then we will likely continue to wonder about those ten men who are in debt and may have been working against their friends and neighbors.”

The next day in town, Roy had just received telegrams back from two sellers. They had not sold any stock to Tom Jacobs making his bills of sale bogus. Roy planned to go out to talk to him that afternoon. First though he had other information for Adam.

“There’s been some rustling of herds now in eastern California. It seems the rustlers may have moved on. Maybe they weren’t working with anyone in particular here. Maybe it was only one man here and his men doing the damage. Tom’s men have quit. Seems he couldn’t pay them or that’s his story according to the Cattlemen’s Association. It could be that they didn’t want to hang around and pay the price for rustling.”

“If he can’t pay his men then he must be about to lose the ranch to the bank too.”

“I would think so. Desperate men do desperate things sometimes. Clem is coming with me cause I’m not sure what to expect when I confront him with what I know now.”

“All right, Roy, I’ll let Pa know. Let us know how it turns out, would you? We’re almost on the way back from the Jacobs ranch.”

“I’ll do that, Adam.”

The next stop for Adam was the Keith home. He didn’t expect a friendly welcome, but it was frostier than he expected. Virginia had clearly been crying. When she opened the door and saw Adam, she looked like she thought about closing it immediately.

“Father isn’t here. It seems the two of you have done enough.”

“Virginia, I had nothing to do with sending Charity away. I would like her address in Philadelphia so that I can write to her and explain.”

“Why should I believe you? Father told me the things you said, the terrible things you said.”

“Virginia, you know me. You should know I would not say terrible things about Charity.”

“He said you were saying terrible things about me!”

“I would never say terrible things about you. I courted you. It didn’t work out, but that doesn’t mean that I have anything but respect for you as a person. You put up with me for almost three years. I hope that you and Todd have a wonderful life together.”

“Still, Adam, it would probably be best for Charity if you leave her alone. The more contact you have with her, the more father is going to be upset with her and with you. You need to go now. I can’t help you. I’m sorry.”

About that time, Lem Keith arrived home. He was calm and reasonably polite, but said that Virginia was upset and that because she was now engaged to be married to Todd, that Adam should not be there. He apologized if that sounded harsh and asked for Adam to be understanding. His effort to be gentlemanly didn’t ring true after what he had done to Charity and after what he had told Virginia, but Adam didn’t stand to gain anything with an argument with him. He simply acquiesced and left. By the time he got home, he was equally angry and frustrated with no answers and no target for his anger or his frustration. He pushed it down inside and let it simmer. It was bound to sit there for months before the suspicion and anger boiled up once more with Lem Keith as the target. Until then, he had no evidence on which to base any accusation.

A few hours after he returned home, Sheriff Coffee rode into the yard. He was alone surprising Adam who had expected to see Clem with him. An explanation soon cleared that up.

“Clem took Tom Jacobs body to town. We found him hanging in his stable. Looks like he hung himself. There was no note or anything, but we found a bundle of running irons there. No one needs those unless they’re in the habit of changing a lot of brands. We took a quick look at those calves he’s got. It’s clear some of them had the brands changed, and there were two there that still had Ponderosa brands on them. Looks like we were right all along. Tom was the one leading them rustlers all along.”

Ben was shocked. “But why kill himself?”

“He had a big loan payment due this week. He had to stop the rustling cause we was closing in on him. He was gonna lose the ranch anyway. The men all left him. He was left holding the bag for all of it. I guess he knew I’d find out about them bills of sale of his. Once I knew that, he’d be arrested. To him, I suppose he thought he had nothing left.”

Shaking his head, Adam leaned back against the porch column. Roy noticed as did Ben, but Roy was the first to comment.

“Now, Adam, you was the one who was the most suspicious of Tom to begin with.”

“Yes, I thought he was probably providing inside information, but Tom Jacobs wasn’t smart enough to run an operation that worked so efficiently. Someone else ran it. He’s taking the blame now so someone a lot smarter walks away clean.”

“Now, I suppose you’re gonna say Lem Keith again even though you got no proof of any kind against him. Adam, you can’t say things like that.”

“I’m not saying anything, Roy. I can think whatever I want to think though.”

“Just don’t go making any trouble that you can’t work your way out of is all I’m saying. Ben, you know what I mean. Lem is a powerful man. He’s got a lot of influence here too. It won’t sit right with a lot of folks if Adam starts badmouthing him with no evidence he did anything wrong.”

“I know, Roy. We’ll talk.”

“All right. I got to get back to town. There’s a lot of paperwork to get done with this. I’ll be seeing you.”

Roy mounted up and rode out as Ben and Adam stood silently. Ben looked at Adam.

“Lem may have gotten away with it this time, but we’ll keep watching, son. When we get the evidence, we’ll make sure we get justice.” Surprised, Adam looked in astonishment at his father and then smiled. “Son, I can be logical too. Lem was involved in this up to his eyeballs but was smart enough to let Tom take all the blame. He’ll pay someday. Now, let’s see if there’s a way for you to write a letter to Charity. That girl has the right to the truth.”

Working together, Adam and Ben managed to use their connections with Mark Twain and a few other newspapermen to locate an address for Charity’s aunt in Philadelphia. Adam wrote a letter to her explaining as diplomatically as he could what had happened, and he let her know that he had never suggested in any way that she be sent away nor did he think it was a good idea. He assumed she had learned that her father bought Tom Jacobs ranch from the bank and paid the back taxes on it. Lem sold his house in town moving to the ranch with Virginia who was betrothed to Todd McCarren. The young couple planned to marry the following summer. It was all very respectable of course except Adam explained the sad demise of Tom Jacobs and the strange circumstances of it. He had learned some information from Doctor Paul Martin who examined Tom’s body and did say that Tom died from hanging which made his death officially a suicide as Roy had surmised. However, Paul had found a lot of bruising on Tom’s body. Adam and Paul discussed the possibility that Tom had been forcibly hanged. Without any evidence, they couldn’t convince Roy to consider that possibility, but the thought that Tom had been murdered lingered with both of them for a long time. Adam included only the minimum about that in the letter to Charity. He didn’t think she needed to know all the terrible things that he thought about her father, but she might read between the lines. What he didn’t know was that the letter never reached Charity because her aunt intercepted it. However those details were discussed by Adam and his father. Hoss and Little Joe agreed with their theory about how Tom died.

“So someone could have pushed Tom into helping cause he was desperate for money. Then when things got real tense and it looked like Roy might be getting close to catching them that was doing the rustling, they killed Tom and left the running irons there to let all the blame fall on him so no one would look any further.”

“That’s about it, Hoss. Someone very clever was in charge of this.”

“And you and Pa both think it was Lem Keith.”

“We do.” Adam answered as Ben nodded.

“Dang, I sure wish we could catch him at something.”

With a hand on Hoss’ shoulder, Ben did his best to reassure him as well as Adam and Little Joe too. “We will, Hoss, we will. Sooner or later, he’s going to make a mistake. He’s got some rough characters working for him at his ranch. I have to wonder if those are the men who were doing the rustling.”

“Ya really think he would hire those men? That’s really being a yahoo.”

Adam showed his frustration as well as his determination. “Yes, I think he thinks he’s smarter than all of us, and why not. He’s managed to pull it off so far and get away with it. But he’s going to make a mistake. I know he will. We have to be ready when he does.”

But Hoss had another worry. “He may drag Todd into it too.”

Ben let them know they would continue to be good neighbors but was philosophical about the situation with Todd too. “We’ll do our best to help Todd, but he’s a man. He needs to decide which way he wants to go.”

“Yeah.” Was the response from his sons.

At the Jacobs ranch which was now the Keith ranch, Lem was organizing the men and sending some of them to Texas to get more cows. He had a small herd the men had brought from California, but he wanted more. He wasn’t too worried how they got them either. He needed to build up a larger herd quickly and wanted some hardy stock so Texas longhorns seemed like a good idea to him. He didn’t know much about things like Texas fever and ticks. He was going to learn a lot about that very soon. Meanwhile he had a few deals he wanted to get his future son-in-law to do especially one that would harm the Ponderosa. He looked forward to that one the most. It was too bad about Tom Jacobs. The man had been very cooperative at least until he felt the pressure closing in at the end. Then unfortunately he was going to run to the law and beg for mercy. That couldn’t be allowed, but resolving that had opened up this wonderful opportunity. Lem had wanted to be a big landowner, and this was a good start. With his daughter marrying the McCarren boy, they would more than double the acres they had, and then they would border the Ponderosa with all those square miles of land. Lem almost drooled at the possibilities.

*****

Wounded Hearts

This story follows the Bitter Water episode of Bonanza. Here is a quick synopsis if you don’t remember the details:

A neighbor, Andy McCarren, is a good friend of Ben Cartwright, but his son, Todd, influenced by his future father-in-law Lem Keith, wants to sell their mineral rights to a mining operation. If that goes through, it will pollute the water that flows onto the Ponderosa violating the water rights agreement that Andy and Ben made years ago. Though Todd and Adam were once best friends, they have grown out of that phase in their lives and become more rivals than friends. Andy McCarren and Ben Cartwright have always been friends, but Andy is in poor health and thinks it’s time to hand the reins over to Todd. The problem is, Todd is easily manipulated and letting the wrong people influence him. He’s in love with a decent girl, Virginia Keith, who has a father who is willing to do anything to get money. Todd and Virginia plan to marry. Adam courted Virginia for nearly three years but that relationship ended. Meanwhile, Keith has brought diseased cattle from Texas and sees an opportunity to ruin the Ponderosa. He has his men plant the diseased cattle within the Ponderosa herds starting an epidemic there. Suspicious of Lem Keith and the men working for him, Adam goes to the Keith ranch to confront one of them. The man draws, Adam wounds him, but Lem Keith steps in to shoot and kill the man claiming he was defending Adam. Then his daughter knows too that her father is a killer. Once the Cartwrights see what is happening with their cattle, they know that desperate measures are needed, and Ben decides to put all their cattle through a sulfur dip. Meanwhile, Keith and Todd are trying to whip the other ranchers into a frenzy to attack the Ponderosa. At the confrontation, Virginia brings Andy, and the two of them confront Lem Keith and Todd. When the truth comes out, a furious Keith draws to fire on Adam who kills him. The truth does finally come out, Todd is sorry, and Ben offers to help all the other ranchers to run their cattle through sulfur dips too to kill the ticks that carry the disease. Todd and Virginia still plan to be married.

*****

Chapter 1

On a bright warm day in June, Virginia Keith looked beautiful on her wedding day even if she was a trifle sad because she had no family there for the most important moment of her life. Her mother had died years earlier, and her sister Charity was living with their aunt in Philadelphia. Adam Cartwright had shot and killed their father, Lem Keith, which had led to significant financial difficulties for the two sisters. What it meant was that Charity couldn’t afford to move back home yet because she had to help her aunt and her family who had no means of support with Lem Keith dead. It also meant that Virginia had been forced to sell the ranch and pay all of their father’s debts that had turned out to be substantial. The cattle on the ranch were rustled so they were taken from her. She had been left with barely enough to support herself until her marriage to Todd McCarren. She knew she shouldn’t resent Adam Cartwright, but she found that she did. It was unfair because it wasn’t his fault, but every time she saw him, she was reminded of all the pain and the loss she had suffered. He must have sensed it because he seemed to avoid her too. Todd had confided in her that he had much the same feeling. He too knew that it was unfair to blame Adam, but each time he saw him, he was reminded of his losses.

As the wedding day progressed, that was apparent to Adam. He also heard several thinly veiled derogatory comments about the man who had killed the bride’s father not being welcome at the wedding. Ben tried to reassure Adam that he shouldn’t let the petty commentary affect him, but Ben knew too that it still bothered Adam that he had been forced to kill Lem. He didn’t mourn the man, but he was sad that he had taken the life of the father of two women for whom he did care, Virginia and Charity Keith. The only truly welcoming face that Adam saw that day was Andy McCarren, but all of the Cartwrights were shocked at Andy’s appearance. He had visibly deteriorated in only a few months. He was thin and pale. Andy needed help to move his wheelchair around the church and later at the social hall. It was fairly clear that he was not going to live much longer. He was in a good mood though.

“Now, Ben, don’t look so sad. We all have to go sometime, and I have the opportunity to know when it is so that I can prepare. So many men go suddenly and never get to say goodbye or make things right before they go. I’ve had the chance to take care of things. I’m ready now for the Good Lord to take me. Todd and Virginia are married. They have the ranch and a bright future. We’re hoping that soon Charity will have enough money to be able to come back home too.”

That grabbed Adam’s attention. “Enough money? Is there a problem?”

“Oh, I shouldn’t have said anything, I suppose. It’s a family matter, but she took a job in Philadelphia to help support her aunt’s family until they can get themselves settled somehow. They were living on money that Lem sent to them. Without his money, they lost everything. Now they have to get jobs and work. It’s been a shock to them.”

Ben nodded and smiled but without much sympathy. “I bet it has, but why does Charity feel that she has to help them if they’re capable of working?”

“She did live with them for a few months until the money ran out. She’s paying them back. That girl is very independent and doesn’t want to owe anyone anything. When she can afford it, she’ll be back here. I wish I could afford to send her the money to travel here.”

With a look from Adam, Ben made the offer to Andy. “I could give you the money for that. She certainly helped us out by giving us some information. No one need know where the money came from, Andy.”

“Ben, that would be wonderful. You are a great friend. Thank you.”

Carefully, Ben took money from his wallet and put it into his napkin. He placed the napkin in Andy’s wheelchair when he wheeled him toward the refreshment table so they could get a few more things to eat. Andy smiled and pocketed the cash. He planned to have Todd wire the money to Charity as soon as possible. He only had to come up with an explanation of where he came up with the extra cash.

Standing and watching Ben push Andy across the room, Adam was soon flanked by several men from town who repeated some of the same barbs that Adam had been hearing that day. Rather than risk the possibility of an altercation, he excused himself and told Hoss and Little Joe that he was leaving. Hoss knew why, said he understood, and would tell their father. Once outside, Adam could relax a little. He had felt tense even before he arrived at the church for the wedding knowing that he made people uncomfortable in this situation. He guessed that time would make things better, but at that moment, emotions were too raw yet. He entered the livery stable intent on getting Sport and riding home. He never expected trouble.

“You got a lot of nerve showing up at her wedding after killing her pa.”

Whirling around in surprise, Adam was confronted by several of the men who had apparently followed him from the social hall. It was clear that they didn’t intend that he would leave that livery stable unscathed. He didn’t. After a sound thrashing though, they left him. He pulled himself up and wrapped a handkerchief around his right hand to cover his bleeding knuckles because he never gave up without a fight. He looked down at his white shirt now stained with blood.

“I should have worn black. It fits my mood better, and Hop Sing wouldn’t get mad at me. Now I’ve ruined another shirt.”

Despite sore ribs and various other aches and pains, Adam managed to saddle Sport, mount up, and ride toward home. As he rode out of town, two well-dressed men stood at the doors of the International House.

“Good. It looks like the men followed their instructions to the letter.”

“Yes, he’ll stay away from the McCarrens now. Divide and conquer.”

“Indeed.”

“Now do we have the offers ready to give to them on Monday?”

“All set to be delivered to every rancher in the area. The terms are clearly spelled out and the price is stated as absolute. They will sign over their mineral rights and imperfect usufructuary rights at one dollar per acre and no more.”

“So they’ll say no.”

“Undoubtedly.”

“That’s when we apply the pressure.”

“Yes, that’s when some unfortunate Cartwright is going to get shot. If the Ponderosa bows down, all the other ranchers will bow down too.”

*****

Chapter 2

With a shiver, Charity inched away from the man trying to talk to her. She didn’t want to talk to any man. She pushed herself as far to the side of the stagecoach seat as she could making it clear she didn’t appreciate his overtures. He got the message and gave her a sour look. She didn’t care what he thought of her as long as he left her alone. All she wanted to do was get to Virginia City and out to her sister’s ranch. It had been so long since she had been home. Her father had been killed. He was accused of terrible crimes and couldn’t defend himself of course. Virginia had not said much about it, but her aunt had been spewing vitriolic complaints against the man who had killed Lem Keith and the things that he had said about her father. She knew her father was greedy and manipulative but the things that had been claimed were so extreme that she couldn’t bring herself to believe them. She needed to hear what Virginia would say and perhaps what her husband Todd could add. She hoped that somehow she could make peace with what she learned because she had hatred in her heart, and it made her angry all the time. Adam Cartwright had encouraged her father to send her away, and then had killed her father and accused him of doing terrible things. She wanted to think that he wouldn’t do those things but couldn’t deny the facts. Lost in thought, she almost didn’t realize how close they were to the city until she heard the driver yell out to the passengers to hold on tight because he was going to have to slow down suddenly. The coach lurched then and she was thrown slightly forward. The man offered his hand to help her, but she refused assistance. The touch of any man was repugnant to her at this point. When the stage stopped, she was the first to escape its confines eager to breathe fresh air and be free of the enforced contact with others. Virginia wasn’t there waiting for her disappointing her tremendously.

“Well, howdy there, Miss Charity. I didn’t know you was heading back to these parts.”

Taking a deep breath, Charity turned slowly and greeted Hoss Cartwright grateful beyond measure that he appeared to be alone. “Hello, Hoss. Yes, I was expecting to see Virginia here. I expect that she and Todd will be here soon.”

Hoss got a sad look then. “Maybe they’re kinda tied up, Miss Charity. I hate to be the one to tell ya, but Todd’s pa, Andy McCarren died yesterday. He’d been sick for a long time, but from what I heard, he took a real bad turn for the worse real unexpected like and was gone before they could even get the doc out there. I only got the buckboard, but I could give you a ride out there ifn you didn’t mind riding with me.”

“But if they’re on the way in to meet me, then it would be for nothing.”

“Ifn they’re on the way in, we’d see ’em as we’re heading that way. There ain’t but one way from here to there lessen they plan to go in a circle.”

Reluctant to go with Hoss because she anticipated that he would talk about Adam but not seeing another alternative, Charity agreed. She knew that she was safe with Hoss, and she wasn’t sure if she would be safe in Virginia City. It was larger and more congested than she remembered, and she didn’t recognize most of the people she saw. Hoss smiled and picked up her two largest bags. She took the two smaller ones and followed him to a buckboard loaded with supplies that was a short distance down the street. He put her bags directly behind the seat and helped her up into the seat. He must have felt how stiff she got because he apologized for hurting her. She said it was all right as if he had but offered no explanation.

“Adam is gonna be tickled pink that you’re back. He felt so bad about you being sent away like you was.”

Surprised that Hoss would say it like that, Charity had to disagree. “I don’t know why he would. He told my father it was a good idea.”

Hoss looked down at her in surprise. “Nah, didn’t you get that letter he sent. He and Pa worked real hard to find your address so he could send you a letter. He said you had a right to know the truth, and Pa agreed. He wrote a real long letter. I never read it, but I seen him writing it. It was thick. He sent it off to you. I think he was hoping to get a letter back but never did. He tried to tell you that he never said nothing bout you being sent east. That was all your pa’s doing. Adam thought it was a darn shame sending you off like that when you didn’t want to go.”

“I never got a letter from Adam.”

“You didn’t? Well that’s a darn shame. Well, I guess it musta got lost. It did have an awful long way to go. That’s a real darn shame. Adam’s gonna be even more upset to hear you never got his letter explaining things.”

“It’s all right. Some things just can’t be explained away.”

“No, I suppose not, but some things are better explained than not explained.”

“Hoss, if you don’t mind, I’d rather not talk about that. Now what happened to Andy. Virginia did write and she did tell me that he was ill. I knew that before I left, but what made it get so much worse so quickly?”

“No one seems to know that. He went downhill fast these past few months, and then with all the trouble over the mineral rights and such, well that pressure couldna helped none.”

“What trouble is that?”

“Some big ole company come in here and they’re trying to pressure all the ranchers into giving up their mineral rights and their timber rights for next to nothing. They expect us to sign away our rights on the Ponderosa for one hundred thousand dollars. Now that may seem like a lot of money but what they would do would ruin the land forever so it’s really not. They would do the same to every ranch here.”

“Well, if no one is giving in, then why are they even still here?”

“They’re putting pressure on folks. Making threats and such. Nobody quite knows how far they’ll go. Pa and Adam been working with our lawyer trying to come up with a plan to make it harder for ’em, but, well, Todd ain’t exactly wanting to cooperate and some of the other ranchers are always suspicious thinking that we’re trying to pull something over on ’em. It ain’t going well. Andy was upset about it all. That probably made his heart work even harder until it give out.”

“His heart gave out?”

“I guess. They went in to wake him in the morning and couldn’t. He passed before they could get the doc there to try to do something for him.”

“And now I come home. I suppose they won’t be all that happy to see me either.”

“Oh, I think you’ll be a big help to ’em. They’re gonna need someone around to help ’em. You know their news now, dontcha?”

“News?”

“Well, we’re almost there now. They’ll be telling you all about the changes that are happening. Now ifn, you could hang on, I’ll make the turn here and we’ll head on up to their house.”

As Hoss drove up to the McCarren home, Todd was outside with some of his hands. Virginia came outside and then put a hand to her mouth when she saw Charity. It was clear that she was embarrassed to have forgotten that her sister was arriving. She moved as quickly as she could to the wagon and waited for Charity to climb down. The sisters embraced, and Charity could easily see what news Hoss had thought she knew.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“By the time I was sure, you were already planning to move back here. I thought my letter would only make you worry. I’m only now past the quickening. It’ll be another four months till I have the baby.”

“You and Todd must be so happy.”

“We were. But now with Andy dying and all the things going on, it seems to be one more worry among many. But now let’s go inside. You must be tired. Oh, Hoss, thank you for giving Charity a ride. Could I offer you a drink before you go?”

Hoss thanked her but declined saying he needed to get home. He had unloaded Charity’s bags and Todd directed one of the hands to bring them into the house, but then asked if Hoss could wait a moment.

“Hoss, Virginia and I have been talking. And with Charity back home especially, we think it best if Adam not come to the my father’s funeral tomorrow. It’s going to be hard enough for me. I don’t want my wife and her sister to have to face the man who killed their father on the same day. I hope you understand and I hope Adam doesn’t mind too much.”

“Todd, now that ain’t right, and you know it. Adam and Andy were friends. You and Adam were friends for a long time. I don’t know why you done turned your back on him cause he ain’t done nothing to deserve it. I’ll give him your message if you insist, but I think it’s a right awful thing to do.”

“He’s the one who walked out on our wedding early.”

“I don’t blame him none after the way you was treating him, and the things that people was saying to him. Some men followed him to the livery stable and give him a pounding just for being at your wedding. Did you know that? He managed to get home on his own, but when we got there, Hop Sing was doctoring him up. He was pissing blood for a couple of days cause of what your friends done.”

Shocked by that, Todd was apologetic. “Hoss, I didn’t know anything about that. I’m sorry about that. I had no idea anything like that had happened. Is that why Adam is hardly ever in town?”

“So you noticed that, didja. Yeah, that’s about it. He’s letting things cool down some. He don’t want no trouble.”

“I am sorry about all that, but Hoss, Virginia doesn’t want him here tomorrow, and I doubt that Charity would want him here either.”

“All right, I’ll tell him, but it’s gonna hurt him again. He’s been hurt a lot. I hate to do this. There needs to be an end to this.

“Hoss, once this has settled down some, I guess that Adam and I need to talk. Tell him that, would you?”

“Thanks, Todd, that’ll help some.”

With that concession made, Hoss headed for home. As he expected, the news bothered Adam although he did his best to act as if he expected it. What he had not expected was the news that Hoss had about Charity. That his letter had not reached her bothered him far more than anything else that had happened recently. He could imagine what she thought of him, and that hurt. Ben said that he, Hoss, and Little Joe would attend the funeral, and Ben said he would try to talk to Charity. Adam thanked him for that, and then said nothing more about it.

*****

Chapter 3

The day after Andy McCarren’s funeral, Adam rode to town to meet again with the family lawyer to see if he had made any progress in coming up with a method of resisting the conglomerate that threatened to swallow the ranches in the area. Charity Keith was coming out of the general store when he rode by. She saw him and her insides clenched and her heart began to race. She had confronted Virginia about several things that she had been said about their father asking if they were true. For each one, Virginia refused to be forthright saying she couldn’t be sure because no one was sure and she wanted to think the best of their father not the worst.

“We were only trying to protect you.”

“There was no one trying to protect me in Philadelphia. I was alone.”

“I’m sorry about that, and I never wanted you sent there. That doesn’t change what father did here. He made mistakes.”

“Mistakes or crimes?”

Over and over, the two sisters had wrangled with the issues of what their father may or may not have done finally settling on not speaking of it again. Now seeing Adam though made all the turmoil boil up again in her thoughts. Charity dreaded the answers she might get yet wanted to know the truth. Her feelings of anger toward Adam and what she had thought he had done though colored her thinking and her emotions so much that as she approached him, she felt an illogical desire to strike out at him and hurt him. She used his absence at the funeral as a point of attack.

“Were you so afraid of seeing me and Virginia that you couldn’t show up and pay respects to your old friend Andy McCarren? Despite the things I have thought about you over the last months, I had never thought you were that much of a coward.” She watched as Adam’s expression that had seemed perhaps a bit friendly and hopeful if guarded turned to stone.

“I did not attend the funeral because Todd sent a message with Hoss that I was not welcome apparently at Virginia’s request for her benefit and for yours. Seeing the man who killed your father was apparently too much for the two of you to tolerate especially on the day Virginia saw her father-in-law buried. Out of respect, I stayed away. My father expressed my condolences for me. My brothers were there in my stead.”

“You always seem to have an explanation for everything. I suppose you have something just as smooth to explain to me why you killed my father. I never got to say goodbye. Now I have no family left except Virginia, and she has Todd and soon they’ll have a baby. They won’t want me around then. So I have you to thank for looking at a future all alone. What smooth line do you have to explain that away.”

“I can’t. All I can say is that Lem Keith pulled his pistol first. If I didn’t draw on him and shoot, I would likely be dead now. I was not willing to let him kill me. He would have gone to the gallows anyway if he simply shot me so it made no real difference in the long run except I’m alive which apparently you and your sister regret.”

“Why did you tell my father to send me away? I saw you shake hands with him, and then he came inside to tell me that you agreed that it was best for me to be sent east. How could you do that to me?”

“The issue was never brought up to me. I never would have recommended it if it had. He manipulated me into making it appear that I had done that in order to hurt you and hurt me in your eyes. He wanted to drive us apart, and apparently he succeeded very well in that. I sent you a letter, and I’m very sorry that it never reached you. I did try to explain some things to you. If ever you wish to speak with me civilly and talk about what really happened, I would be more than willing to talk. Right now, I have legal matters to discuss with our attorney, and I’m already late. I have to go.”

Everything Adam had said had been delivered in an almost emotionless voice and that expressionless face until that last plea. He looked open and vulnerable then before closing up once more. Charity didn’t know what to think. She didn’t get to say goodbye because he left too hurriedly dismissing her. She knew she had deserved that. In the previous year, she had been hurt by a number of things and by several people, and now she wondered who had hurt Adam and how much. She didn’t know about Regina and Ruth or about what had happened with Ross Marquette. Most people didn’t know. With the way she had approached Adam, she knew he wasn’t likely to open up to her anytime soon either because she assumed that she had ruined what little good feeling remained between them.

In Hiram’s office, Adam found that he couldn’t concentrate as well as he wanted. Hiram had to repeat things several times. Finally, Hiram concluded the meeting with a warning.

“Adam, doing what you want to do will work legally by entangling the rights so effectively that their lawyers would have a dickens of a time trying to sort it all out. It wouldn’t be profitable to them especially for the timber rights and the silver prices have been dropping too. It could delay this long enough for the whole thing to collapse.”

“So the only real danger would be to me if my name was on all of those options?”

“Yes, if you were the one holding the options, then you could be in great danger if these men are willing to use means other than legal means to achieve their goals. With the veiled threats that people have received already, I wouldn’t be surprised that there might be some heavy handed pressure applied soon.”

“Well, I’m not in any danger yet because you and I and my family are the only ones who know about us concocting this strategy.”

“Yes, I’ve even drawn up the documents myself instead of having my clerk work on it. It is our secret. I have taken the papers home with me at night. I don’t even trust the safe here in the office. It isn’t that good if these people have men who can open safes.”

“You think they are that well organized with those kind of resources?”

“Adam, don’t underestimate them. I think it is a pack of wolves, and we have seen one lone wolf checking out the territory. The others are there and are quite powerful.”

“I’ll be careful. I’ll let Pa know what you said, and we’ll start talking to the other ranchers. If we can convince a few to join us in a pool, then the others will join in. This corporation won’t be able to get us all if we band together.”

“No, I don’t think they will, so their strategy is going to be to try to keep all of you apart. My guess is that they will try to take the Ponderosa first too. If you bow down, the others will all give in to their demands.”

“We won’t.”

“Good luck, Adam, and take care.”

On the ride home, Adam tried to be vigilant, but his thoughts kept turning to Charity and what she had said. She had looked so forlorn that he had wanted to go to her to comfort her, but her words had put an effective barrier between them. He could tell that she was hurting emotionally, but he was still wounded too by all that had happened in the previous year. Todd’s spurning of their friendship had hurt too, but Hoss telling him that Todd wanted to talk had helped some. There was at least hope that their friendship could be salvaged although it would never be as close as it once was not after all that had happened. As he often did, he took a shortcut riding cross-country on the way home. He didn’t see the carriage leaving the Ponderosa, but he heard all about it when he got home. His father could not have been angrier.

“They dared to threaten me and my family. They said I had three sons, and if I wanted to keep them safe, I should consider their offer. They said one hundred thousand dollars would go a long way toward keeping my sons safe. You know what that means, don’t you. They threatened you and Hoss and Little Joe! How dare they! Right here in my own home!”

“I suppose they said it in a way that we can’t even go to Roy to file a complaint.”

Ben’s scowl was the answer to that. Hoss and Little Joe weren’t even home. “You should go get your brothers. We need to talk about this.”

“Pa, what did you say to them? What answer did you give them? You postponed your answer like we talked about, didn’t you?”

Somewhat chagrined, Ben blew air out and slumped in his desk chair. “No, they got me so mad. I told them it would be a cold day in hell before they ever got one piece of kindling or a pebble from the Ponderosa. I told them to leave before I had the hands string them up. They left in a hurry. I never got to amend my statements.” Adam dropped his head. “I know. I may have pushed them into taking the next step, whatever that is. That’s why you need to go get your brothers. We need to talk about this and work out what we can do now. Go ahead. They’re in the southeast pasture fixing fences near the road. You must have seen them on the way home, didn’t you?”

With a worried look, Adam grabbed his hat and rushed out the door, checking the saddle on Sport, and mounting up to ride away without another word. He hoped he would get to his brothers before those corporation men could decide to take their next step because he was scared about what it might be after what they had said to his father. He knew that he was placing himself in jeopardy by riding out, but his younger brothers were already possibly in grave danger and didn’t know it. He took the road this time as the fastest route to where his brothers were working. He heard shots before he got there and could only hope they were defending themselves and not being shot. He had some relief when he neared the location and saw Hoss firing up at men on the hillside who were hiding in the boulders. Adam quickly rode to the ridge higher than where those men were, dismounted, and pulled his rifle. It took two rapid shots to kill one, wound another, and send those ambushers into retreat. As soon as Adam saw those men fleeing, he mounted up again and rode to where he had seen Hoss. As he rode, he insides were clenched in fear for he had not seen Little Joe yet.

“They shot him, Adam. Shot him in the back. Help me with him, Adam. I got to stop the bleeding.”

Hoss was frantically pushing his handkerchief against a bloody wound in the upper right side of Little Joe’s back. Adam pushed Hoss’ hands away gently so that he could take a closer look at the wound.

“Don’t push too hard, Hoss. The bullet hit his shoulder blade. It’s bleeding so badly because the bullet shattered and made a mess. Let me get his shirt off and we’ll use that as a pad for a bandage. Give me your sleeves to tie it in place. Then we’ll get him home.”

“Why is he out cold then?”

Adam leaned down and looked closely at Little Joe’s face. “Was he working on that fence pole when he got hit?” Hoss nodded. “Looks like he got slammed into it by the bullet hitting him. He’s got a big egg on his forehead. Probably knocked him senseless. Good thing too. This probably hurts like hell. I think he’s going to be all right, Hoss, but we need to get him home and get this cleaned up.”

About that time, Ben rode up with some hands. It had taken him that long to saddle Buck and catch up to Adam. He rushed to his sons and asked how Little Joe was, and then asked what had happened as they were lifting Little Joe and carrying him to the wagon that Hoss and Little Joe had driven out that morning. Supplies and tools were thrown to the ground so that Little Joe could be laid in the bed of the wagon. Ben climbed in first so that his youngest could rest in his arms for the ride home. Hoss climbed up to drive the wagon. Adam stayed behind to go collect the body in the boulders and go to town to talk to Roy. One of the hands had already been sent for the doctor. What Hiram had warned about had started to happen.

On the McCarren ranch and on other bigger ranches that day, the same two men delivered much the same kind of messages. Todd was given the message except his wife was threatened in the same way Ben’s sons had been. Each family had someone threatened. What the men expected was that the families would hear about what happened to the Cartwrights and would know that the threats were very serious. They thought that the first ranchers to bow down would be happening fairly soon.

*****

Chapter 4

The men sent by the corporation to try to enforce their will on the ranchers in the Virginia City area ranchers were from San Francisco. They had thought that they were very clever and intimidating. Their ambush of the Cartwright sons was the key to making all the ranchers give in. It worked in the city making those they wanted to intimidate cower in fear. These ranchers though were not so easily intimidated. When they saw Adam Cartwright bring the body of one of their men to the Sheriff’s office they were surprised. When they found out that he was demanding an investigation, they were shocked. By being in town and demanding something like that, he was risking his life. They didn’t know if he was incredibly stupid and foolish or incredibly brave and daring them to come out to face him. For the time being, they assume it had to be the former and laughed at his foolhardiness. However because that first step of intimidation had not done what was intended, they proceeded to step two. Men were sent to lie in wait to kidnap Virginia Keith. The plan was to hold her until Todd signed over his rights. One way or another, these men wanted one rancher to sign over the rights and get the process started. However the men they were threatening were more likely to turn to one another than they were to give up without a fight. Todd McCarren rode to the Ponderosa knowing he had some apologies to give and knowing he had no right to ask for help, but at the same time knowing that Ben would expect him to ask and that help would be offered. He was surprised when he got there to find Doctor Paul Martin’s carriage in front of the house and the men standing guard. He almost turned to ride back home when he found out what had happened not wanting to burden the family with any more trouble until he heard Ben’s voice.

“Todd, what brings you here? I hope you haven’t had any trouble like this?”

“No, Ben, I haven’t, but I’ve been threatened, or I should say, they threatened Virginia. They said she could be gone for a while and how would I feel about that. Ben, they shot Joe. They would do it, wouldn’t they? Take Virginia, I mean.”

“They could try, Todd. You have our help. I assume they probably have threatened others. We’re going to set up guards for the family. I never should have let Adam go to town, but I’ve sent a couple of men to escort him back home. You need to do the same. Neither you nor Virginia should go anywhere especially alone. Do you have enough men to adequately guard your place?”

“I could use a few more, I guess, but I don’t have the money to hire any more right now.”

“Don’t worry about that. I’ll send a couple of men with you to make sure you get home safely, and they’ll stay there to protect you and Virginia. Now, how does that sound?”

“Ben, I’ve been such a jackass, and you’re being such a good friend. There isn’t an apology big enough to cover everything I need to say, but you need to know that I’ve got my head turned the right way again. I know now why my father was upset with me. He knew the value of a good friend, and it was worth so much more than a few quick dollars here and there. Now I’ve learned my lesson. It’ll stick this time.”

“Todd, everyone makes mistakes. It takes a big man to admit them and learn from them.”

“It takes a bigger man to accept an apology too. Please ask Adam to forgive me. I have wronged him more than anyone else. I guess I wanted someone to blame with the pain I was feeling, and unfortunately he was too easy a target. He was too good a friend to fight back. He let me strike out and didn’t strike back. Ben, I feel terrible about that. Virginia and I have been talking, and we know now how unfair we’re been. I guess we were both feeding the fires of anger in each other instead of doing the right thing. I do hope Adam can forgive us.”

“He will, Todd. He’s got a big heart. Many people don’t realize it, but he does.”

“I know that now. Charity told me what he said in town. He could have really laid it all on me, but he didn’t. He was a gentleman about the whole thing.”

“Todd, what about Charity. Did they make any threats against her?”

“No, they didn’t. I don’t think they even know about her. She wasn’t mentioned.”

“Oh, good, the less who are in danger, the better. Now, let’s get two men to help see you home. Once they get their gear packed up, you can be on your way, and make sure that Virginia stays safe.”

“Ben, you didn’t say. How is Little Joe?”

Shaking his head, Ben frowned. “I think it seemed better when he was out. It’s not a terrible wound except for the pain. Paul said that it’s going to be a very painful recovery with the damage to the muscle and bone. Any movement now causes terrible pain. He’s going to be in that bed for a long time, I’m afraid.”

“I’m sorry. For a man like Little Joe, that’s got to be very hard.”

“He’ll live though. For me, that’s the most important thing. I’m sure that the man who shot him thought that he was killing him. For that, they have created a mortal enemy. I won’t stop now until they’re destroyed.”

“I’ll help you, Ben, in any way that I can.”

As Todd was riding out, Hoss walked out to ask Ben what had happened. Ben explained about the threat and about the threats he presumed other ranchers had gotten.

“Todd’s back on the right trail. He apologized and asked me to please ask Adam to accept his apology. He said he had been a jackass, pardon the expression. He knows how wrong he was about everything. Sometimes it takes a crisis like this for a man to have to examine his conscience and to know who his true friends are. Todd at least was man enough now to do it when he had to do it.”

“Wish he woulda done it sooner. Adam’s had a tough year. Coulda been a mite easier if Todd and Virginia had been nicer about things.”

“Yes, it certainly could have.”

“Adam ain’t back yet?”

“No, but Hoss I sent men to ride with him. I’m sure he’s safe. Roy would know too by now the threat that hangs over all of us. By now he’s probably starting to work on who’s behind this. Adam was going to send a wire to the governor’s office too to alert them. This could lead to some major problems so they need to get involved too.”

“Pulling out all the stops?”

“Yes, the next step is to let the Army know that one of the best sources for horses for them is being threatened by some unscrupulous businessmen and that the man most responsible for bringing them those mounts that they want so badly is now upstairs in that bed unable to do any work for them probably for the next month or two because of those men.”

“Pa, I don’t think those yahoos knew what they was doing when they decided to make you mad.”

“Or you or Adam either. I think Hop Sing has put it best when he told Little Joe on more than one occasion that he ought not to poke a sleeping cougar when he was teasing Adam. Well there’s a bear and a bull here that woke up too.” That familiar Ben roar was in place.

“You sure you wouldn’t rather be a stallion, Pa?”

Startled a bit by the comment, Ben had to chuckle a little when he saw the sparkle in Hoss’ eyes. Like his older brother, Hoss could manage some humor even in the midst of a major crisis. Ben wasn’t sure how the two of them did it, but it definitely did him good to have the tension relieved at least a little. “Thank you, son. Now, let’s get inside and see how your little brother is doing.”

Doctor Martin’s evaluation was promising and yet promised a daunting recovery for Little Joe. “His right arm has to be immobilized for at least a month. First because any movement will tear the stitches I’ve put in his back. Then because movement will pull the muscles and that will interfere with the bone healing. There is no displacement which is a very good thing, but that could easily change if he doesn’t stay still. He’s wrapped very tightly now and he’s got quite a lot of pain that will keep him from moving too much. Within a week, the pain will lessen dramatically. That’s when we all know he’ll think he’s so much better that he can do more than I say he can. Your hard work will begin then keeping him from trying to do too much. Under no circumstances should he be on a horse in the next month or doing anything to jar that shoulder or his back.”

“How about the blood loss, Doc? It seemed like he lost so much blood.”

“Hoss, that was because of the nature of the wound, but overall, the wound was shallow because the bullet hit that bone at an angle and shattered. If the rifleman had been closer or if that bullet had hit on a straight line, I don’t think we would even be having this conversation now. Little Joe is lucky to be alive.”

Everything he said confirmed what Ben and Hoss had been thinking. The shooter had meant to kill Little Joe and probably Hoss too. If Adam had not arrived when he did, they would probably have killed both of them. Ben was berating himself for losing his temper with those two men, but if they were there at that moment, he might have killed them with his bare hands. He hoped that Adam would be home soon so they could talk about what they would do next.

In town, Adam had gone with Roy to visit the men who represented the corporation trying to get the timber and mining rights to all the ranches. The men were confident and seemingly cooperative claiming no knowledge of any illegal acts of course, but both Roy and Adam caught the little signs of surprise that registered when Roy informed them that a man had been killed trying to kill a Cartwright. It was fairly clear that they had never expected to hear that one of their men had been killed and that a Cartwright had not been killed. Both Roy and Adam schooled their looks to remain impassive but knew that those men had given themselves away clearly implicating themselves by their reactions in the assault on Hoss and Little Joe. As the two walked back to Roy’s office, two men from the Ponderosa rode in to tell Adam they were there to escort him home. He bristled at that, but Roy told him it was a good idea. He didn’t like it but had to admit it was a sensible precaution.

“Adam, ifn anything comes in from the governor’s office, I’ll be sure to let you know. Until then, you keep safe and make sure your family stays safe. Might not hurt to check out the other ranchers to see that everyone is taking precautions.”

“I’ll make sure of that, Roy. We’ll talk and get back to you if we come up with more of a plan than we already have.”

With that, Adam mounted up and rode for home with the two Ponderosa hands. They took the cross-country route thinking that the men who might set an ambush would have a difficult time anticipating where they might go if they did that. He arrived home safely and was relieved to find that Little Joe’s prognosis was fairly good even if the recuperation was going to be long and painful. His eyes glistened with tears as he stood at his brother’s bed and watched him grimace in pain simply with the movement required for breathing.

“Little Joe, we’ll get them. We’ll make them pay for what they did to you.”

Struggling to speak, Little Joe finally simply raised his left hand and gave a thumbs up before closing his eyes and succumbing to the pain and the medication. Ben turned to Adam and put a hand on his shoulder.

“He’ll be fine. Now, let’s go talk about what we’re going to do next. Hop Sing will sit with him for a little while.”

*****

Chapter 5

On the McCarren ranch, Charity had confronted Todd and Virginia about the things that Adam had said. She wanted the truth about her father and wanted the truth about what Adam had done the day he shot and killed him. She knew a lot about Adam Cartwright. She knew he could be cynical and snide. He could be dangerous. He could be moody and dark. But one thing she knew above all the others was that everyone said he was honest to a fault and wouldn’t tell a lie to save anyone even himself. He might lie by omission but anything he said was the truth. Therefore she had to question if she had been told the whole truth about her father. When she challenged her sister and Todd, they finally confessed that they had colored the truth for their own benefit and blamed Adam because they had wanted someone to blame. In their grief, they had struck out and Adam had been an easy target because he had been the one to shoot Lem. After the two men visited with their threats and Todd returned from the Ponderosa with the news of Little Joe being shot, Charity left the house to take a walk. She wanted to think about everything she had heard that day. The men guarding Todd and Virginia told her to be careful and not to go too far. She said she wouldn’t. She only walked down to the corrals behind the stable where she leaned on one of the corral fences and watched the horses. The men who had been watching for Virginia as they had been instructed moved into position.

“This is a lot easier than I thought it would be.”

“Yeah, with those guards, I never thought they’d let her walk by herself. You got the gag ready?”

“Got it. We need to get up to her real quick and slap this across her face before she can make a sound. They can’t see her from up there, but they could hear her if she makes a sound.”

“She don’t look like she’s planning on moving for a bit. We’ll work our way as close as we can and then grab her.”

Charity was grabbed and clubbed roughly before being dragged to a horse and taken away. A message was tacked to the corral fence, but it was another hour before it was found by a ranch hand who brought it to Todd because his name was on the envelope. Todd tore it open and found a ransom note inside demanding that he sign and deliver the documents that had been left for his perusal or Virginia would not be released. At first, Todd thought it was a hoax because Virginia was standing at his side reading the note with him, but then both realized that Charity hadn’t been seen in hours.

“Todd, they must have taken Charity thinking it was me. Oh, my Lord, where could she be? What will they do with her especially when they find out it isn’t me?”

“Virginia, they can’t find that out. If they’re watching, you have to stay out of sight. Hopefully, Charity will play along and not let them know they made a mistake. I’ll send a man to the Ponderosa. We need their help to find her. I would go but that might be exactly what they want. I’ll talk to the men and see who’s willing to go.”

As it turned out, the two men who decided to go didn’t have to go far. Ben had decided to send two more men after Adam got home and they had a chance to talk about things. The two men met them and one rode back to the Ponderosa while the other rode with the two back to the McCarren ranch to be sure nothing more happened there. Ben sent two riders to town to alert Roy to the new development, and Adam rode with a group of men over to the McCarren ranch with a plan to search for Charity in the morning as soon as they could. He dressed in nondescript clothing. Hoss had wanted to go but Adam had argued he couldn’t.

“Nothing you wear is going to disguise who you are. I can ride a different horse and wear different clothing. I can blend in with the men. You can’t. I know you’re a better tracker, but I’m almost as good, and these men we’re up against aren’t experienced out here. If they had been, you and Joe would both be dead. You know that as well as I do. Six of them against the two of you mending fences.” Hoss nodded. He knew Adam was correct on all counts but he hated not being able to help. “I should be able to follow their tracks. We’ll get Charity back. You make sure everyone stays safe here. We’ve still got a lot of work to do when I get back.”

“Yeah, and I’ll explain to Little Joe why you ain’t here. We’ll have to come up with a good excuse so he don’t worry about you. Maybe we’ll just say you’re over to the McCarren place to help protect Charity and Virginia. That’s pretty much the truth even if it leaves out a lot.”

“Yes, why don’t you talk that over with Pa. I think he’ll agree that’s a good way to explain it to Little Joe so he won’t worry. He’ll probably have all sorts of funny ideas about what’s going on to keep him occupied.”

“Yeah, he could use something to keep his mind off the pain. I can see he’s trying to be brave, but it must hurt him something awful and that’s with the laudanum.” Adam grimaced with the thought of taking the medication. “I know but he needs it at least for a couple of days to get him through the worst of it. You take care now.” That was the last that Hoss would see of Adam for a couple of days. He worried until he saw him again knowing how deadly their foes had proven to be.

To keep up the pretense that he was one of the hands, Adam stayed in the bunkhouse at the McCarren ranch and the next morning, moved out with them from the corral where the note was found. Quickly they realized there were two sets of tracks. One was a single horse so they assumed that was from the man who had left the note. The second set was for three horses. That was the set most of them followed with Adam tracking. Two of the men followed the single track to see where it led. Once it got to the road leading to town, they turned back to the McCarren ranch and resumed guard duties there. It didn’t take long for Adam and the searchers to find where the two men who had kidnapped Charity had gone. Unfortunately, the cabin they were using was exposed on all four sides. It couldn’t be approached in daylight. Adam was frustrated.

“Damn. We need to move back. If anyone is coming here to see them today, they could spot us. We have to pull as far back as possible. I’ll stay here on foot to watch. Take my horse and get back out of sight of anyone coming from Virginia City by any route. Watch though. If you see anyone coming close, someone can come back here after they go to the cabin.”

“Adam, you sure you want to stay here alone. Maybe one more man ought to stay with you. That way if you need to communicate, you have someone to send back to us.”

“That’s a good idea. Anyone want to volunteer?”

One of the men quickly volunteered. Once he and Adam had their rifles, canteens, and some food, the others pulled back with the horses. The two men concealed themselves and settled in to wait. They took turns sleeping knowing that they would have to rescue Charity that night. They would do better if they were rested and alert.

Inside the cabin, Charity was restless, exhausted, and in pain. She had panicked when the men grabbed her, and as a result, they had used more force than they intended. She had been stunned by the blows, gagged, and tied. Thrown over a saddle and tied roughly there, she had endured a painful ride to the cabin. When the men had gone to untie her to take her inside, and grabbed her arms, she had fought them again receiving a beating for that. Now she was tightly bound, gagged, and lying on the floor of the cabin. The men had been angry with her, but now both were thinking that they might be in trouble for their behavior with her.

“Maybe we ought to untie her now.”

“First we could untie her gag and see if she’ll agree not to fight. She can’t get anywhere from here without us catching her. She already knows what’ll happen if we hafta do that. Maybe she’ll be more agreeable now.”

“Why’d she have to fight so much? I never seen a woman fight so much before.”

“I know. It ain’t like we tried anything with her. Maybe ifn we did it would explain it, but we didn’t. You know, if she tells folks we tried something, they’re gonna get real mad. Folks out this way don’t take to anybody being mean to a woman. I heard they beat a man in Virginia City not long ago for using bad words with a woman, and she was a saloon gal. Some men didn’t take kindly to it, and give him a whupping for it.”

“Yeah, I can guess what they’d do ifn they thought we had our way with a man’s wife.”

“Well, we ain’t gonna do that.”

“Unless the boss tells us to kill her. If her husband won’t sign them papers, then she becomes the example to make the others sign. It won’t matter then cause they might like her roughed up before we finish her off. She is kinda pretty. I wouldn’t mind having her even if I had to hit her a few times to calm her down some.”

“You know, you keep talking like that and she ain’t never going to calm down. We’ll hafta keep her tied up like that the whole time.”

“Well, if the plan works, it won’t be more than a day or two anyway. Shouldn’t be much of a problem. She’ll have a few bruises and some sore wrists, but that’s about it. She’ll be thirsty and hungry, but she deserves it for what she done.”

Hearing their comments, Charity understood that they thought she was Virginia. That made her wonder what they would do to her if they knew that she wasn’t. She had to keep up the pretense because she was worried about what the alternative might be. Eventually the two men did relent and untied her gag giving her some water to drink and untying her ankles. They led her outside and let her use the necessary that was there. It only had three sides. Charity was almost afraid to use it, but the need was too great. She had to give up her fear and her modesty and use it while the two men stood only a few feet away making comments. With her hands tied, it took her longer than necessary and both men made crude comments about possibly having to come to her assistance. She pleaded with them not to do that which only brought raucous laughter. Finally they led her back inside and retied her ankles but not as tightly as before and let her sit on a chair at the rickety table. One of the men pushed a plate of beans and bread in front of her with a spoon. She was very hungry by then and managed to eat some of the bread and a bit of the beans before her stomach objected too much. Just before dark, she asked if she could please use the necessary again. This time only one of the men walked outside with her and there wasn’t the commentary that she had endured the previous time. They seemed to be more on edge and in less of a good humor. Apparently they were waiting for instructions and expected that someone would have arrived with them.

No one had come for several reasons. One was that Todd had not signed the papers and delivered them to town as he had been told to do. Another reason was that Roy had deputies watching everyone who left town traveling in the direction of the Ponderosa or the McCarren ranch. The third reason was that there were rumors that the governor had sent a message that he was sending some investigators to check into what was happening and they were expected to arrive with some federal marshals who had been dispatched as well to check on the situation. The corporation had men checking into that but until they were sure, they didn’t want to make an overt move.

*****

Chapter 6

As darkness began to fall, Adam and the men began to move toward the cabin. They all got a big of a smile when they realized that the men in the cabin had the fireplace and at least one lantern lit. The cabin was acting as a beacon for them making their approach easier. It would also make it easier to work out an assault on the cabin because they would be able to see where everyone was in the cabin before they forced their way in. The plan they devised was to have two men at the lone window, and then several men bursting in the door at once with specific goals such as targeting one of the two men inside and Adam going directly to Charity. They based that on the assumption that she was likely to recognize him more quickly than any of the other men in the rescue party.

The plan worked to perfection except for one flaw. Charity began screaming with the shots that were fired and continued to scream and flail at Adam even as he did his best to calm her and to untie her hands. Once her hands were free, she was almost hysterical in her attack on him. Adam did his best to avoid the worst of her blows while saying her name and trying to get her to realize it was him. It took some time until she stopped almost in mid-swing and looked at him in shock.

“Adam?”

“Yes, you’re safe now. You don’t have to fight any more.”

With a sob, Charity collapsed against him then and cried into his chest. He had expected her to be happy and didn’t know how to react to this display. He simply asked the men to take the two kidnappers outside and give him some quiet time with her. They wouldn’t travel in the dark anyway. The men took the lantern, but the fireplace gave plenty of light for the small cabin. Adam tentatively began to rub Charity’s back. He felt her trembling and stayed as gentle and soothing as he knew how to be. Once her crying had diminished to whimpers, he asked if they could move to the wall so he could lean back against it. She was going to pull away from him then.

“No, I think you need to stay next to me. I’ll keep you safe, and I won’t do anything more than I’ve done already. Trust me?”

Nodding and grateful to let herself be led, Charity moved with Adam back to the wall of the cabin next to the fireplace. Adam tossed two more sticks of wood into the fireplace and then leaned back against the wall. He kept an arm around Charity while he did that and then hugged her close again and began to rub her back once more.

“We can sit her quietly, or we can talk. It’s us to you.”

There was no answer for a few minutes until in a halting voice, Charity asked if they could be quiet and sit for a while and talk later.

“That’s fine. We have all night. We can’t travel safely in the dark. There aren’t any roads or trails to follow so we’ll have to wait for dawn. We’ll get you back home then.”

One of the men cracked the door open then and asked if Adam wanted his canteen and a blanket. He did, and asked for his saddlebags too. Then he told the man that there were food supplies in the cabin that he and the other men might want. The exchange was made quickly. Rummaging in his saddlebags, Adam pulled out a gingham napkin and handed it to Charity.

“Hop Sing sent some of his biscuits with me. That’s the last one. It may be a day old, but I think you’ll still like it.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Try a few nibbles. You might find you’re hungrier than you think you are.”

That was how it worked too. After a few nibbles of the biscuit, Charity found that she wanted to eat the whole thing and did. Adam offered her the canteen and she had some water. Unfortunately then she needed to use the necessary again.

“But Adam, it only has three sides.”

“I’ll take care of that. Trust me?”

As they walked outside, Adam pulled the blanket from one of the two kidnappers. He looked at the men guarding them and said that the two could share a blanket because he needed a wall for the necessary. Charity smiled at that. It was the first smile she had since the whole ordeal had begun. Adam borrowed the lantern which wasn’t a problem because the men had started a cook-fire. He put the lantern inside the necessary and then once Charity stepped inside, he hung the blanket so that it was a solid fourth wall. He stepped away and called out to let her know he was away from the structure far enough to give her privacy but close enough to be there for protection. He told her to take all the time she needed. When she came out, she had a small smile for him, and when they walked back to where the men were, she had a small smile for them as well and thanked them apologizing for how she had reacted. They all said not to worry because they understood. Thankful for their understanding, she went back inside the cabin with Adam then.

“How do you want to do this? Do you want to sit away from me or do you want to sit like we were before?”

“I’d like you to hold me like you were if you don’t mind. I needed that, and I think I still need that. Inside, I’m still so scared.”

Rolling out his bedroll, Adam pushed it up against the wall. Then he sat and offered his hand to Charity who took it and dropped down beside him. He pulled her to him and wrapped an arm around her as she rested her head against his chest. He wrapped the blanket around the two of them.

“We can talk or you can try to sleep. It’s up to you.”

“I’d like to talk, but I don’t know what to say.”

After a moment, Adam decided to say what he had been thinking. “Maybe you could start by telling me who hurt you so badly that you’re so frightened of men.” He felt Charity tense up against him and knew he had hit the mark with that one. He guessed that she wondered how he knew, but he had known a few other women who had been assaulted. They had a look about them that was something sad but also defiant. Their spirits were wounded but not defeated. He wanted to help.

“I’d ask how you knew that, but I guess my reaction was strange enough to make you wonder. In Philadelphia, I had to take a job. Some men there seemed to think that a working woman was an easy woman. They tried to force me to do things I didn’t want to do. It was terrible. It made me feel dirty and at the same time it made me afraid.”

“I’m sorry. I so sorry you had to go through that. I’m sorry you had to be out east and not here with your family and your friends.”

“I know. Virginia finally told me the truth. It was very hard to hear. It was painful to know my father was that kind of man. It was also awful to know that I treated you so badly and hurt you for no reason. Todd and Virginia did too. The Keith family has been awful to you. It was things like that going through my mind when those two men grabbed me. I didn’t hear them come up on me because I was thinking.”

“Thinking about me?”

“Some of the time.”

“Are we friends again?”

“I don’t know. Were we friends before?”

“I don’t know. It was very strange before. It seems like it was so long ago. So much has happened since then. Are we friends now?”

“I’d like to think we are.”

“Good, let’s be friends then.”

“Yes, good friends.”

There wasn’t a need to say anything more. Exhausted physically and emotionally, Charity closed her eyes and soon was asleep. Adam heard her breathing change and felt her relax in his arms. He smiled. He felt more at ease than he had in a very long time even though there was still a major threat out there because he had good friends and a loving family. Resolving his differences with Charity had made him feel refreshed as a burden of guilt he had been carrying lifted. In the morning, she smiled when she awakened to Adam’s soft snoring and wondered what it would be like to wake to it every morning. Their relationship wasn’t that kind of relationship though so she banished that thought. As she stirred, Adam awakened and smiled at her. Then he noticed the abrasions at her wrists that he had not noticed the night before because of his attention to her emotional state. He took her hands in his and looked at her wrists.

“We need to do something about those. We’ll clean them up and bandage them.”

Seeing the bruises on her face and neck, he could only guess at the other bruises she must have. His anger rose, and she could see it in his expression.

“Adam, don’t do anything to those men for this. Let the law handle it.”

“I won’t because you asked me, but when those men out there see those bruises, I can’t speak for them, and you shouldn’t either. Let them do what they believe they should. The two men will get to jail alive. They won’t do anything more than what they deserve.” Charity looked reluctant. “You know that’s the way it is out here. Men don’t allow other men to treat women this way.”

Charity reached up to touch a bruise on Adam’s chin. “How about what a woman does to a man? I hurt you too.”

“You had cause to be upset. I understand. What they did to you had no cause. Now do you need me to walk you to the necessary, or do you think you can go on your own?” Charity wanted to say she could go on her own, but her look was all Adam needed to see. “Ah, heck, I have to go outside to shave anyway. I’ll walk you there. I can’t see well enough in here. Let me grab my saddlebags and we’ll go.”

As Charity walked past the men in the rescue party in the early morning light, Adam could see the looks they had when they saw the bruises. He guessed they were thinking about the same thoughts he had when he had seen the deep dark bruises knowing that they had hit her. Those weren’t bruises from a struggle. Those were bruises one got from being hit with a fist. By the time the horses were saddled and they were ready to mount up for the ride home, the two kidnappers were carrying a brand new set of bruises and each was bleeding from his nose and mouth as well. They had found that what they had heard about men in Nevada not tolerating anyone hitting women was correct.

The ride to the McCarren ranch was without incident. When they got there, Todd wanted to send the kidnappers to town to have them put in jail. Adam had a different idea.

“Let’s keep them here. Have Roy come out and question them here. Don’t let anyone in town know they’ve been caught. As far as they know, Virginia is still being held. We can have some men watch the cabin and wait for the messenger to go there.”

“That’s a good idea, Adam, except I don’t want them kept here for long. Once the word gets out, and it will, it could bring too much danger here. I don’t want to put Virginia and our baby, or Charity in that much jeopardy. Once Roy talks to them, I want them taken somewhere else.”

“We could take them back to the cabin where we captured them, or we could use a line cabin on the Ponderosa.”

“Either one of those is fine with me. You and Roy can work that out. I’m fine with whatever you decide on that. We’ll guard them until Roy can talk to them and then move them.”

“Todd, the next thing is you need to sign those papers and send them to town.”

“I won’t sign those papers, Adam.”

“I’ll tell you how to sign them so they aren’t legal, but those people won’t know it, at least not right away, but maybe it will be enough for them to show themselves. It would help for us to know who they are. So far we only know their representatives. Who are the men actually doing this?”

“You’re sure you’ve got a foolproof way of signing so the papers aren’t legal?”

“I do. Let’s go inside. We’ll take care of that, and then I want to get home to see how my little brother is doing.”

*****

Chapter 7

Once Adam and Todd got papers signed the way Adam instructed Todd to sign, both Todd and Virginia were smiling. Charity stood behind them with a small smile too. When Adam was going to leave, she walked with him to the front door.

“Thank you. Despite everything we have said and how unfair we have been, you are still the best friend any of us could ever have.” Charity moved in quickly and kissed Adam lightly before stepping back before he could respond. Standing there then, she looked a little embarrassed.

Reaching out, Adam tucked an errant strand of hair back behind her ear. “Thank you for that. It makes it all worthwhile to have you safe and back to being yourself. I’ll be back when I know something more about what’s going on especially if I can get more of the ranchers to sign the papers just like this. You take care now, and no more walks outside without someone watching out for you.”

“I won’t. I’ll be careful, but you be careful too. You’re more of a target now than you were before especially when they find out about those papers.”

“I know. I hope to be safely on the Ponderosa when that happens. They’ll have to come for me there, and there’s a lot of firepower between them and me when I’m at home.”

“Please be careful. I want you to be safe. Now that you’re my friend especially, I would hate for anything to happen to you.”

“Thank you. Now, I’ve got to get going.”

With a protective urge still motivating him, Adam felt some reluctance at leaving, but knew he had to go. He remembered holding her and feeling her trembling in fear. He had asked her if the kidnappers had hurt her, and she had told him only with their fists, but he knew that she had feared they would do more. On the ride home, she had told him of the conversations she had overheard and how casually they had talked of what they would do to her. He was glad in some ways that she had not told him before they left the cabin. He wasn’t sure what he would have done to the two men if his anger had been unleashed. They were a sorry pair as it was with the pounding the other men had given them. Roy would tolerate that knowing what they had done to Charity, but he would not tolerate any more than that. If Adam was going to defeat these villains, he had to keep that temper tamped down. Charity must have seen the dark look he had.

“It’s over now. They didn’t hurt me too much. It was more my fear than anything. Adam, you saved me, and I’ll always be grateful to you for that. You were so much more gentle than I knew a man could be. You gave me what I needed, and you were so understanding of my needs. Now, you need to let the anger go and do what you’re best at doing.” Adam tilted his head at her wondering what she meant. “You go be my hero.” That got a smile which was exactly what she wanted.

Before he left, he made sure that Charity knew he would come back and talk about the few other topics she had brought up on the ride home including adding a room to the house here so that she could have privacy and so could Todd and Virginia. He planned to talk to Todd and Virginia about that as soon as he had a chance. First though he knew he was going to have a difficult discussion with his father. He had preempted his father’s decision making by going ahead with the paperwork with Todd before discussing it further with his father and brother. Knowing that his father had expressed serious reservations about his plan initially, he expected a significant negative response to his maneuver, but he didn’t want to waste time. With the two kidnappers secured in the McCarren stable, it was only a matter of time before someone leaked the news about their capture. Then the men who had hired them would worry about what they had told Roy and who knew what they might do then. Adam wanted to get them shaken out of their self-confidence and acting out of control so that they could be defeated more easily but also knew as his father had warned that it could get messy and dangerous doing it that way. He wasn’t surprised by his father’s reaction.

“Adam, I’m very glad that you were able to rescue Charity and that’s she’s home and safe. Your ploy to have Todd’s signature be done by one of the hands and with a different middle name was brilliant. Those men will have to step forward to accept the legal rights that they think they have received. However, having Todd actually sign the first option to those rights over to you was foolhardy. You must know that. Those men are going to be furious to know that they have been tricked and by such a simple ploy.”

“Todd is going to talk to Hiram. Within a day or two, we hope that a number of the ranchers will have signed over the first option to me. That way the pressure is off them.”

“Yes and the pressure will all be on you. Exposed by some ranchers that to whom they had given no respect is going to rankle. They will want to hit back and hard because otherwise their whole plan collapses. The only way they can salvage it is to kill you or get you to sign those options over to them.”

“Yes, so they will have to come here. I’m not going anywhere so they will have to come here to confront us. Pa, they shot Joe. They were going to come after us again anyway. Isn’t it better that we get them here where we can set the rules of engagement?”

“You’re talking about this like it’s a chess match.”

“Isn’t it? Chess is simply a civilized method of warfare. This is war. They declared it on us with that first salvo, and now we get to decide how to answer it. This makes them come out in the open battlefield. No more ambushes or kidnappings. They need to come out in the open to get me out of the way of their plan to grab the whole Comstock. We need to know who they are and then we can better move against them.”

“It’s a very dangerous game you’ve put us in.”

“I know. I’m going to be very careful. We need to find a way to communicate with Roy without any of us leaving here. I’m assuming that you have perimeter guards set?”

“I do, but Adam if they’ve learned from their mistakes, they may hire men who know the area better and know how to handle themselves out here. There are still many variables that we can’t control because we don’t know who the players are.”

“Yes, and until we do, we’re handicapped. Maybe Roy can get something out of the two men we have over at the McCarren ranch.”

“At the ranch? You didn’t take them to town to be put in jail for what they did?”

“No, we don’t want the men running this to know yet that the kidnapping failed.”

“Ah, yes, now it makes even more sense. That’s why Todd is bringing those papers to town. He’s acting as if he’s paying the ransom.”

“Yes, he’s going to talk to Hiram first to make sure that what we decided to do was what we thought it was. Those papers were never actually signed by Todd so if he never says he signed them, then he doesn’t validate the signature as his. Hiram and Roy can go with him as witnesses. He can simply hand over the papers and the men can assume what they will.”

“I hope this works the way you think it will.”

“I hope so too. Then Roy will ride back to the ranch with Todd and question those two men. After that, Todd doesn’t want them on his ranch. Can we put them in one of our line cabins?”

“I suppose. We could put them in our stable too. That way we aren’t spreading our resources out as much.”

“All right, we can do that. I assume Roy will bring them here. We can tell him that when he gets here with them.”

“I don’t think he’s going to be too happy with your overall plan either.”

“No, probably not.”

That was putting it mildly. Roy was incensed that Adam had in effect poured ‘coal oil on a raging fire’ as he put it. He had gotten some information from the two kidnappers. They didn’t know much, but they did know that their employers were English. That got the attention of Ben and his sons. The more that Roy explained, the more they had to wonder if they might know any of the investors with the connection that Ben had with some people in Britain. He had to hope that none of them would do anything so harmful as this but one could never be sure when money and greed was involved.

“Well, Adam, now that you started it, Todd and me gonna get going with the next step. He’s gonna come to town to say he was forced into handing over those papers, coerced by a kidnapping, and he’s gonna say he never signed those papers anyway. That should start things happening. One they are gonna try to fight it in court, and two, they’re bound to send someone out to that cabin to see about the kidnapping. I’ve got two deputies who are taking the kidnappers horses and riding out to that cabin to stay to be there when the messenger arrives. It will give us another man to question. You take charge of these two kidnappers and keep them hidden away until we want to show our hand.”

The expected furor lasted for several days as the two sides battled it out legally with Todd winning that first skirmish quite easily. The messenger headed out to the cabin and was taken but could offer no more than what the two kidnappers had already told Roy. He was put with the two kidnappers in the Ponderosa stable for safekeeping while Todd played the trump card to see what the corporation men would do.

“My wife is safe at home. You didn’t know that, did you? Your men took the wrong woman. They kidnapped my sister-in-law. It won’t do any good to threaten me or my wife anyway. I signed over the first option on mineral rights and imperfect usufructuary rights to Adam Cartwright. He has the first option on just about every ranch of any size in this area. He’s got you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t get what you want because he already had it. There now why don’t you leave here and let us alone?”

Todd repeated that verbatim to Ben and his older sons when he and Roy went out to the Ponderosa to tell them what had happened. Hiram was there too to offer legal advice if it was needed. Roy was concerned.

“Those two men who accepted the papers from Todd here and then argued against him in court, this Bryce Foster and a Jonathan Books, to tell ya the truth, they just aren’t that impressive. I mean they act all high and mighty and such like they got power and money, but it seems more an act than anything to me. I’m thinking there’s still at least one more behind the scenes that we ain’t seen yet. We ain’t smoked that one out yet.”

“It does feel like a puppeteer pulling the strings with these men. None of them seem to know that much.” Adam looked to his father. “Do you have any ideas as to whom it might be?”

“None. This seems to be as much about destroying us as it is about making money, but for the life of me, I can’t think of who would have the resources to do this and the hatred as motivation if that’s what it is. Perhaps it is greed, pure and simple.”

“Roy, can our three ‘guests’ name Foster and Books as the two men who ordered the kidnapping?”

“I think we got enough for that, Adam. I can arrest them for that. Maybe they’ll talk if they’re in a jail cell looking at hard time. All right, let’s take a walk out to that stable and see what the three of them got to say.”

Roy questioned the three men as Hiram listened. Roy turned to Hiram when he had finished. “Roy, if I was a judge and had those statements, I would issue an arrest warrant. To me, that was enough.”

“All right, then. I’ll take these three to town, and then I’ll see the judge about arresting those two. Maybe I can finally get some information about what’s going on. I thought that the governor might send an investigator or two to help, but no one has shown up yet. Don’t matter too much. If this works, we don’t need them.”

It worked and it didn’t. Roy was able to get the judge to agree and arrested Foster and Books before they were able to leave town that apparently they had been preparing to do before he arrived at their hotel suite. Once in jail however, the two were silent and their presence caused the other three to go silent as well. All he could assume was that they were less afraid of going to jail for a kidnapping than they were afraid of whatever would happen if they talked about the ‘puppeteer’ as Adam had referred to the mastermind behind this operation.

A trial was scheduled, and Charity was going to be the main witness, but Adam and others were going to be called as well until the five men agreed that they would plead guilty shocking everyone. When that news reached the Ponderosa, Ben talked with Adam and Hoss wondering why the five men would do that.

“Pa, my best guess is that someone was very afraid of what information might be revealed in a trial. A lawyer came in from San Francisco to represent those men. It would seem that whoever was behind this whole scheme sent instructions with the lawyer. They were told to shut up and plead guilty. Now they can’t be questioned in court and say anything on the record that might give anything more away.”

Hoss frowned and got to the heart of the matter. “But what could he promise them that would make going to prison worth it? Prison is an awful thing especially for them two fancy men. I can’t see them doing all right there. They’ll be lucky to live out the year.”

“Son, he must have offered something or he must feel he has something that he can get for them, but I don’t know what it could be.”

The mystery lasted only a few more days. Roy rode out with the news shocking all of them.

“Extradition? They’re being extradited to Canada? Roy, how could that be?”

“Ben, it seems that there are warrants for all of them for murder in Vancouver. Now our government don’t want no trouble with our neighbor or with the British. Murder is a more serious crime than kidnapping so the extradition is going through. There will be men at the prison within the week to take them to San Francisco, and from there, they’ll be put on a ship to be taken on up there.”

Adam shook his head. “They’ll walk away free as a bird as soon as they set foot outside this country. It’s all been arranged very neatly. No wonder they shut up and then pled guilty.”

“I hate to think that’s true, but Adam, this time, I think your thinking is right square on the center mark. It stinks and the smell goes all the way to the governor’s office and right on up the line. I think a lot of money probably changed hands over this one.”

Little Joe was out of bed and sitting on the settee. “Is it over then?”

“I’m afraid it is. I have to sign those first options back over to the other ranches but that’s about all that’s left to do. I’m sorry we didn’t find out who did this to you and bring him to justice.”

“It’s all right, older brother. I’m glad that no one else got hurt.”

*****

Chapter 8

Sitting at the chessboard with Adam, Ben had a question. “When are you planning to start the legal process of turning those first options back to the other ranchers?”

“Soon, I hope. With all the work that we let lapse with all this trouble and with Joe laid up, there’s been a lot to do. These past two weeks, I’ve hardly had a chance to catch my breath much less think about taking time to go to town to work on legal documents with Hiram.”

“Adam, it needs to be done soon. Perhaps you can find the time tomorrow.”

Shifting his attention from the chessboard to his father, Adam leaned back in the red leather barrel chair and gazed quietly at his father for a moment. They had not had much time to talk, and he had not had much time to think about things either with the amount of work that had to be done. “Are you thinking that this crisis isn’t over yet?”

“It’s what I fear more than what I think. Ever since it was resolved so quickly and neatly, I’ve been thinking about it. It was too easy. Now playing chess with you, I’m more worried than ever.”

“Why would playing chess with me make you worry more?”

“Because you don’t use a simple king’s gambit or queen’s gambit which is what most who play the game use to begin. I’ve gotten used to your variations of the Spanish gambit, and then tonight you started with a move that I’ve never seen you make before to start a match. You’ll have me in check in less than five moves unless I can come up with something brilliant, and I’m afraid that I may not.” Ben shook his head at Adam’s small smile. His son was well aware that his surprise tactics had doomed his father almost from the first moves of this match. “What if our opponent is like you? What if he sacrificed those pawns in order to achieve a superior position as you did with your moves earlier against me?”

“But what superior position could he have achieved?”

“That’s what worries me most, and the only thing that I keep coming back to are those first options that are all still in your name. You still control a significant amount of the mineral and imperfect usufructuary rights in this region.”

Nodding because he could understand the logical progression of his father’s argument, Adam continued it. “And if someone was able to exert pressure on me to sign those over to him, then that person would have a significant amount of the mineral rights and imperfect usufructuary rights in the whole region. Pa, I’ll go to town tomorrow and take care of it. You’re right. It is a possibility that someone has maneuvered to be able to take advantage of that.”

Hoss and Little Joe had been listening. Little Joe especially had a question. “If they’re so all fired interested in Adam, why haven’t they done anything yet?”

“We were all on alert at first wondering if there was going to be any more trouble. We have gradually relaxed our vigilance because nothing has happened. They could be preparing to strike now because we’re not prepared to defend against it. If I was the one who was moving against us, that’s how I would do it. I would be quietly making preparations much as Adam was for this match. I can tell that he has been studying again. He didn’t invent those moves tonight. He came prepared. What if our opponent has been out there preparing his next moves. He has proven to be very resourceful.”

“And dadblamed dangerous too. I wouldn’t trust him to have backed down. Pa’s right.”

“We should probably think about keeping some guards around like we did before, don’t you think?”

“Little Joe, you may be right. I should probably have kept the men doing that. I relaxed as much as anyone.”

“Dadburnit, just when I thought things was getting back to normal too. Adam, I’ll ride to town with you tomorrow. We can have two or three of the men ride with us. They’ll enjoy a day in town too. After you get them papers taken care of, we’ll all have a beer or two to celebrate. Maybe we could have lunch too.”

“Why did I know that your volunteering would end up costing me beer and lunch before it was done?”

“Guess cause you know me so well, older brother. Now how about it? Is that a plan or what?”

“It’s a plan.”

That pleased Ben. Being checkmated in three moves did not. He declined another match. He wanted a chance to think about how to counter the moves his son had made against him before he tried another match with him. He was used to losing matches to his oldest son who was a brilliant strategist. He was not used to losing so ignominiously and wouldn’t again if he could help it. He did some reading as did Adam who had to endure some teasing from Little Joe who almost nightly teased Adam about Charity wondering when he was going to at least invite her for dinner or go see her again. As usual, Adam claimed to be working too hard to have time for social engagements. Ben suspected that he wasn’t sure of his feelings and wanted some time to sort them out. He liked Charity, but she was much younger than Adam so he wondered if perhaps that was part of the difficulty that Adam was having with the possibility of a relationship with the young woman. When Adam walked out on the porch, Ben followed. He found Adam staring at the stars.

“I’d say a penny for your thoughts, but I assume they are about things more valuable than that.”

“Yes, about very valuable things indeed.”

“Charity?”

“Among others.”

“Still thinking about traveling and about your dreams?”

“That too.”

“She’s young, but she’s smart and daring and curious about the world.”

“She’s very different than Virginia.”

“Yes, she is. She has shown a great interest in you, but are you interested in her?”

“Interested, yes. But interested enough? I don’t know, Pa. There are a lot of things to consider.”

“Don’t let her age be one of them. I know she is much younger than you, but I can tell you from experience, that should not be a consideration. She’s a woman, and she has a woman’s heart and a woman’s mind. That’s all that matters. When she was seventeen and you were twenty-eight, it was more of a factor.”

“Two or three years can made that much of a difference?”

“Yes, I think it can. She’s grown up a lot with all that’s happened. She’s a woman now.”

“I should probably go see her and talk with her.”

“That’s probably what you should do. Maybe tomorrow after you’re done in town.”

“You don’t mind that I won’t get any work done tomorrow?”

“Son, there are things that are more important than work. You have a couple of those on your plate right now. Take care of those first. The work will still be here when you get back.”

Smiling at the reminder, Adam nodded. Ben took his leave to get some sleep, but Adam wanted to stay outside and think for a while. Ben reminded him to lock up when he came inside. The next morning, Ben was surprised to find the front door unlocked. He was even more surprised to see that Adam’s bed was made because Hop Sing said that Adam had not come downstairs for coffee. It was unusual for Adam to head out to do chores without his coffee. In fact, it was unusual for Adam to get up before his father. Suddenly, Ben got scared and nearly ran to the stable. Adam wasn’t there. His hat was on the hat rack and his pistol and coat were still there too. It was a chilly morning. Adam would have taken his hat and coat if he had gone to the stable. Sport was in his stall. Ben checked and his feed trough and water buckets were empty. His stall had not been mucked out. If Adam had been there, he would have cared for Sport first. Ben ran back to the house and called for Hoss and Hop Sing quickly explaining to them what he had found.

“Pa, you think somebody took him?”

“Hoss, I don’t think there’s any other explanation.”

“I’ll go outside and look for tracks.”

From the top of the stairs, Little Joe heard the conversation. “I’ll get dressed and go with you to find Adam.”

“You will do nothing of the sort. You will stay here. You are not to ride for at least another week and a half. You would hold us up if you started to have trouble.” Ben could see Little Joe getting ready to respond. “Now don’t argue with me. It will only waste precious time that Adam may not have especially because they took him last night. They’ve had him for eight hours.”

Frustrated but unwilling to oppose his father because his argument was sound, Little Joe walked down the stairs in dejection. Ben tried to reassure him that they would do all they could to get Adam back safely, but that hope died when Hoss came in with the bad news later.

“Pa, there ain’t no tracks to follow. I can go out and look around in a bigger circle but I can all but guarantee they didn’t leave no tracks.”

“There have to be tracks, Hoss.”

“No, they wiped ’em out. I found the mark of one moccasin, and the two hoof marks of two unshod ponies. Whoever took him was Indian and they wiped out any tracks that there was. I can track, but ifn they’re wiping out the tracks and doing all they can not to leave any, we ain’t gonna be able to track ’em.”

“We have to try.”

“Like I said, I can go out an make a bigger circle looking, but Pa, I’m pretty sure I ain’t gonna find anything, but I’ll do my damndest.”

Dropping into a chair, Ben let his head fall into his hands. He felt helpless. Little Joe came and stood by his side putting a hand on his shoulder to try to offer comfort even though he felt awful as well. They had been joking the night before, but now the theory had become reality. Nothing was funny any more.

“Pa, I’ll go ask the men if anyone heard or saw anything.”

“I’ll go with you son. That’s a good idea.”

Fifteen miles away, Adam was tied to a chair and waking from a drugged stupor. He heard sounds first and then light made him blink his eyes. Very cold water was splashed in his face several times. He jerked away as much as he could with the shock each time and heard the laughter that elicited. He raised his head and blinked a few more times as the room and its occupants slowly came into focus. There was one white man and three Indians of indeterminate tribal origin. He guessed they were probably renegades, men banished from their tribes for egregious and unforgivable violations of their tribe’s laws. His eyes finally came to rest on the only white man in the room.

“Yes, I would guess that you would surmise me to be the one in charge of this motley crew. They are not my usual type of employees, but I pride myself on my ability to learn and to adapt. My original plan did not account for the propensity of small town ranchers banding together like a band of merry men nor did I realize that my employees needed to know backwoods skills to defeat uneducated cowboys who ride around chasing cows for a living. So I found men who have the skills I needed and are quite willing to do anything that I require.”

“And what is it that you require?”

“Quite obviously to have you removed from the safety of your ranch without your pesky family and employees any the wiser. They have no idea where you are nor will they.”

“Now I suppose you think I will sign over those options to you.”

“Oh, no, I think you won’t. I’ve done my homework. Adam Cartwright would rather die than to betray his family and his friends. No, I know that I could torture you and you wouldn’t sign. No, I have another plan. You’ll have to wait for it. The other pieces aren’t in place yet so I cannot yet proceed. It shouldn’t be long now. The other half of my immediate employees here are out procuring the other party that I need for this process to work. I’ll be back when they return.”

With that, the man left the room with two of the renegades leaving one to stand guard. Adam’s head ached, and he hurt in numerous places. He assumed that was the result of his being taken although he remembered little of it. His transportation to this place had likely been fairly rough as well. The man had let him see his face. That led Adam to only one conclusion. He wasn’t meant to leave this place alive. He wondered who the other party was who was being brought to this spot. He feared it was another member of his family. He could accept that he would die for this, but watching another member of his family die was going to be too much for him. He wondered what he could do if anything to prevent it.

On the McCarren ranch that morning, Todd and Virginia were talking about how nice it was now that there was no more trouble. They were looking forward to the birth of their first child, and wondering if Adam Cartwright would help them add on to their house. They already had agreed to add a room for Charity, but they thought an additional bedroom would be nice on the other end of the house so that they could have a larger bedroom with their current adjoining bedroom turned into a nursery. Charity volunteered to ride over to the Ponderosa to talk to Adam to ask if he would be able to come talk to them about those projects. Todd and Virginia could only smile. Charity seemed to find any number of reasons to bring Adam up in conversations so the offer to ride over there was not a surprise. They had decided that it was probably a good match if the two decided to become a couple, but that Charity and Adam had become friends had already been a pleasant and welcome surprise too.

“I’ll ride over there and be back before lunch unless Hop Sing invites me to stay there for lunch. Don’t worry about me unless it’s getting dark and I’m not back.”

With a big smile, Charity headed to the stable to saddle her horse for the ride. Late that afternoon, Todd and Virginia did start to worry. Todd, at his wife’s urging, took a ride toward the Ponderosa expecting to meet Charity along the way. He didn’t, and when he got to the Ponderosa, he was shocked to find that she had never been there and that Adam was missing too. Suddenly to all of them, the whole scenario became all too clear.

*****

Chapter 9

Blindfolded and with her hands bound behind her, Charity was shoved into a room and held between two men. She heard Adam’s voice and was going to respond, but a rough hand was placed over her mouth silencing her.

“There now the rest of what I need has arrived. Now, Mister Cartwright, will you sign those documents or will you see your good friend here go through more of what she cannot tolerate. I won’t kill her, you see. I’ll let her live with the memories. She’ll die every day for the rest of her life if I let these men do what they wish with her.”

The man nodded and one of the men slid his hand suggestively down Charity’s body lingering over several spots causing Charity to tremble and then jerk in the grasp of the men holding her. Even with the hand over her mouth, the whimpers of emotional pain were audible. The man behind Charity pressed his body up against hers and used his arm around her waist to pull her tightly against him. If she could have screamed in terror, she would have. She began to shake uncontrollably with the fear reaction. She wanted to fight but couldn’t. She wanted to run but couldn’t. She wanted to scream but couldn’t. Adam felt about the same way but didn’t have three men holding him and forcing him to do things he didn’t want to do. He remembered what she had told him. She must have been feeling that she was reliving the nightmare from Philadelphia. He couldn’t let it happen. His rage had not outlet nor could he protect her except by one action.

“All right, I’ll sign your damn papers. Let her go.”

“Oh, no, it’s not nearly so simple as that.”

The man did nod again at the three men who looked reluctant to give up their game but did stop tormenting Charity. At first she sagged in their grasp, but as she listened to the conversation, she stood taller and stronger. The men didn’t seem to notice. Adam did. She had found her inner courage. She was ready to fight them. However he was signing papers that doomed the whole region unless they could somehow come up with a way out of this terrible mess. As far as he could tell, they did plan to let Charity live for she was still blindfolded and could not identity this villain who used people’s lives like pawns in a chess match. If she could testify to how he was forced to sign under duress, then these documents could be challenged in court. It was the only hope he had at this point that his death would have any salvation. When he finished signing, the man picked up the documents and handed them to one of the men who put them in a leather satchel.

“Now we will have the young woman deliver them to Virginia City where they will be properly filed. Your signature will of course have to be verified. I’m sure that your family lawyer will be able to do that. The young lady will be miraculously delivered unharmed into the bosom of her family and friends to hand over these documents. If your signature is found to be legitimate, all will be well. She can come back here to let me know that she has been successful and get you.” Then the man’s voice took on a dangerous tone. “But if you have in any way done anything to make these documents invalid, then you will die here from a most painful wound with infection coursing through your body that no doctor could possibly correct.”

With that, the man nodded to one of the men who had been holding Charity. He moved to Adam and pulled his arms roughly behind the chair again tying them to the chair. He stood and took the gun that the man had held on Adam guarding him while his hands had been untied so he could sign the papers. Very deliberately the man walked to the side of the room where Charity stood and pulled a long knife from the belt of one of the men holding her. He trailed the knife along her neck making her flinch.

“It is a very long sharp knife, miss, isn’t it.”

Then he walked across the room in two strides and slammed the knife into Adam’s thigh eliciting a yell and then groans from Adam who had not anticipated that action. As he struggled to regain his composure amidst the pain and shock, the man spoke calmly.

“Miss, he now has a very deep wound in his leg. He will bleed rather much from it, I’m afraid, but that won’t kill him. It will make him weaker. If however, you do not return with the verification I requested, then infection is likely to set in, and perhaps he will receive a wound to the other leg, and that most certainly will guarantee that he will die.”

Unable to speak because of the pain radiating from his leg, Adam heard Charity ask a question.

“How will I get back here? I’m blindfolded. I won’t be able to find my way back.”

“These men will be sure to bring you back.”

Gasping for breath to speak, Adam choked out only a few words because he knew what would happen if she came back. “Don’t come back here, please.” Those words earned him a stinging backhand that toppled him and the chair onto the floor. The pain in his leg seemed to explode with that and for a moment dazed him. When he regained his senses, he was alone in the room. There was no other sound. His plaintive whisper was the only sound. “No, Charity, no.”

At some point that day, he heard the man’s voice instruct the men to untie him from the chair and tie him only his wrists and ankles as he lay on the floor. He told them that he didn’t want their ‘guest’ to die too soon because he might need him again if anything was wrong with those papers. It only verified what he had already thought. He was never meant to survive this encounter. If Charity came back, she was going to be killed too. He didn’t know why, but there was no other reason to have her return. By late afternoon, it was clear that the man was getting anxious about his plan working. He came back to the room purportedly to taunt Adam, but Adam had the feeling that he was trying to reassure himself that he had done everything he could to ensure that his plan would work.

“She should be on her way back by now. I have men, shall we say, in my employ even in your lawyer’s office and working for that silly backwoods judge. I’ll know if anything wasn’t done the way it should have been. I warned her before she left that she was being watched. She wouldn’t dare defy me. I saw how scared she was in here. She hasn’t got the backbone to defy me. She’ll be back here soon with the papers I need to take over this whole region. I’ll be the wealthiest man in the whole of Nevada. I’ll own your Ponderosa and every other ranch here by the end of the year.”

Saying nothing and showing no emotion, Adam was elated. If the man had been foolish enough to warn Charity, then he was sure she was smart enough to think of a way to get a warning to his family somehow or to Hiram which was just as good. They would rescue her somehow. Roy would never let her leave his sight once he had her in town safe and sound. This man had no idea how people in Virginia City could band together in the face of a threat. The man was so overconfident now that he had created the fatal flaw they needed. Adam’s regret was that he wasn’t likely to see the man’s downfall, but at least he knew now that it would happen. He felt very warm and suspected that his leg wound was already infected. He was weak from blood loss but had expected that. He supposed that the weakness was increasing his susceptibility to the infection. He hoped that he would survive long enough to see this man apprehended. He smiled a little at that thought. The man saw that and kicked him in his wounded leg causing unimaginable agony until he passed out again. He awoke to near darkness and a soft voice in his ear. It was Charity. She was back after a very adventurous day that had started with a kidnapping and terror and had proceeded with her conquering her fears and devising a plan. Adam had rescued her and she had found a way she thought to rescue him.

At the edge of town, she had been released and went directly to Hiram’s office as she had been instructed. He was surprised to see her because he had of course heard that she was missing as was Adam.

“I’ve got some papers from Adam. He wants you to verify his signature and then to see that they’re filed with the judge. Please don’t ask any questions and do as Adam requested. You are his lawyer and you’re bound to follow his instructions, aren’t you?” Out of sight of Hiram’s clerk, she had mouthed a ‘Please?’ and moved her eyes to indicate the clerk. She didn’t trust the man. The evil man holding Adam had instructed her and told her she would be watched closely to be sure she followed all instructions exactly. As she rode to town, she had guessed that the only way he could be sure of that was to have paid or blackmailed the clerk in Hiram’s office and probably the judge’s clerk as well. She didn’t know if any of Roy’s deputies were working for the man but thought it possible. She couldn’t trust anyone she didn’t know well. Hiram picked up on her signal. He took the papers and looked them over.

“Yes, this appears to be Adam’s legal signature.”

“Don’t you need me to sign papers as a witness to his signing those documents.”

“Yes, yes, of course, that would certainly be a good step and help with the filing. Let me get some paper and we can do that at my desk.” Hiram shielded Charity from view as much as he could as she wrote what he told her to write. Then she signed the document, handed it to Hiram, and sat with her hands folded at Hiram’s desk. Hiram asked his clerk to blot the document to make sure that it was dry. He looked quickly at what Charity had written on the blotter before moving a sheet of paper over it. Then he offered his arm to her and suggested they move to the judge’s chambers to file the papers. He locked his office telling his clerk he would be back much later. As the two reached the judge’s chambers, they surreptitiously looked back to see the clerk slip away from the office.

“Damn him. He’s working for the other side. I’ll fire him and turn him over to Roy as soon as I can.”

“Not too soon. Let’s step inside and get the rest of this done. I can see all sorts of people pointing. Word is out that I’m back. I’m sure that we’re going to have a lot of visitors soon.”

“Yes, I saw Ben and Hoss ride in earlier. I’m sure they’re meeting with Roy. I would expect them here soon.”

By the time Hiram and Charity had proffered the documents for the judge, Roy was there with Ben and Hoss. Once notified of what was transpiring, Ben wanted to object but Hiram asked him not to do anything for the time being. Then it was done and Hiram and Charity turned to Roy and the Cartwrights who had many questions, but Charity answered none. She moved to Roy.

“Oh, Sheriff, it’s wonderful. I was lost, but now am found.”

With a hug, Charity left the judge’s office and mounted up on her horse to ride out of town. Hiram again advised the others not to do anything as he stepped up behind Roy and Ben and talked very softly so he could not be overheard.

“She wrote this on my ink blotter. ‘Follow me. Adam is hurt.’ My clerk must be working for the other side. She didn’t let him see anything she wrote and made sure that each time she signed a paper and handed it to him, she covered what she was writing on the ink blotter. He left my office after we did. I’m sure he went to tell his other employer that things went as expected. We think the judge’s clerk is also working for the other side. I could see the marks on her wrists where she must have been tied.”

Ben nodded although he was quite worried. “That makes sense. She quoted from a hymn just now. The next line would be ‘Was blind but now can see.’ She must have been blindfolded so she doesn’t know where she was held. She wants us to follow so that she can lead us back to where Adam is, and he’s hurt. There must be men working with whoever has Adam, and they’re taking her back. Hoss, follow and leave us a track. Roy and I will get men together and be right behind you.”

“Well, now, that hug makes even more sense. She done took my pistol when she hugged me.” Roy showed them his empty holster then. “She musta stuck it inside her skirt and under that little jacket she’s wearing. I couldn’t see it when she mounted up on her horse. I figured she had to have a good reason, but I was just standing here trying to figure it out.”

Hoss was already heading out of town, and Ben and Roy were moving to their horses and hoping to get men to ride with them but mindful of the warning Hiram had given them.

“Don’t take anyone with you that you don’t know well. That man has paid off or blackmailed a lot of men into helping him.”

With a wave, Ben acknowledged the warning, and Hiram waited in the vestibule of the courtroom until he was sure that the clerk had left. He walked to the judge’s chambers and knocked on the door. He and the judge had a lot to talk about starting with firing a clerk as well as tearing up some papers that had been signed under duress. Hopefully it could be worked out quickly. Then the arrest warrants for a couple of errant clerks could be issued. Roy could use those to try to get information from those two men when they could be found. Although Adam was in grave danger, the whole conspiracy was finally tumbling down although the man at the center of it didn’t know it yet.

*****

Chapter 10

“I have a gun, but they don’t know it. It’s only got five shots. I checked as soon as they threw me in here. They locked the door thinking that I would try to get out, but I used the chair to block the door. It won’t hold them for long if they try to get in here. I think they will too when they realize I’ve been followed. I hope to God I’ve been followed. I did everything I could except draw them a map and beg them to follow me.”

Trying to make sense of what Charity was saying was beyond Adam at that moment. He was weak from the shock, pain, and blood loss but especially because an infection was already starting to affect him. Without water or food for twenty-four hours now, he was much weaker because of that as well. Charity reached for his forehead and realized how hot he was.

“Adam, you hang on. You have to hang on. Soon, help will be here. Now if we had some light, I could try to bandage your leg but at this point, it would likely do more harm than good for me to try to do anything in the dark. Please, try to understand me. Adam, can you understand me?”

“Charity?”

“Yes, yes, it’s me.”

“You shouldn’t have come back. He’ll kill you.”

“No, your father and Hoss should be here soon. Sheriff Coffee should be with them.”

“Pa and Hoss?”

“Yes, they should be here soon.”

“I’m so tired.”

“I know. You’ll get to rest soon. Now we have to stay low and out of sight. If they come through that door, I’m going to shoot. You stay down and don’t move. All right.”

There was no answer, and Charity realized Adam had lost consciousness. She had wedged a chair under the door handle as soon as she could before going to Adam and untying him. He had stirred then and looked at her. She could see that much in the dim light, but her hopes that he was all right were fading fast. He was dazed, confused, and weak. If anyone came through that door, she knew she had to defend the two of them because he could do nothing to protect himself. She listened and prayed that help arrived soon. She jumped in fright when she heard a thump in the hallway outside the door. She aimed her pistol at the door prepared to shoot, but sighed in relief when she heard a familiar voice.

“Miss Charity, are you in there? Adam, you in there?” Hoss had slipped in the back door of the house after knocking out the guard he found there. He went up the back stairs as Ben and Roy moved through the downstairs. He had seen a guard sitting on a chair by a room. The man was sleeping so it had been easy to knock him out too.

Charity rushed to the door and opened it for Hoss who quickly stepped inside looking for his brother. “He’s there. He’s hurt badly, and he has a fever. Maybe now that you’re here we can find a lamp or a lantern so we can look at his leg. I know the man said he was stabbed but I never saw it.”

Suddenly there was gunfire downstairs and then the sound of footsteps up the stairs. Hoss whirled to face the door pushing Charity behind him. The man who had orchestrated the whole scheme burst into the room thinking he would have two hostages but found himself facing a giant of a man with a pistol. Shocked, he raised his pistol to fire. It was the last thing he ever did. Just after he fell to the floor, Ben and Roy arrived.

“Pa, we gotta find a lamp or a lantern. Adam’s in here.”

With a hint of urgency in his voice but remaining as calm as he could, Ben issued instructions. “Bring him down the stairs, Hoss. There are plenty of lamps down there.” He moved into the hall then where there was a lamp burning so that Hoss could see better. Within a minute, Hoss had maneuvered out the door and was carrying Adam down the front stairs as directed by his father. Hoss was shocked by his older brother’s pale countenance as well as the fire red circles on his cheeks indicating fever. But it was his limp form and his pants leg soaked in blood that made all of them scared. Ben couldn’t reconcile this wan unconscious form with the vibrant man who had beaten him at chess the night before. Hoss used a knife and cut the bloody cloth away from the leg and found the thigh swollen and discolored.

“Pa, we gotta open this wound, drain it, and clean it out right away. We can’t wait till we get to town or get him home. I need some alcohol, a sharper knife than what I got, and some clean cloth for bandages once I get it done. He’s gonna need some leather to bite down on too cause he may be senseless right now, but when I start poking in that wound, he’s gonna wake right up, I guarantee it.”

Once Ben and Roy had collected the items Hoss requested, Hoss probed at the wound. Charity had been holding Adam’s hand and trying to coax him to drink a little water without success. When Hoss probed the wound enough to open it, Adam reacted strongly. Charity gripped his hand and placed her other hand on his chest as she talked softly but firmly to him explaining what Hoss was doing. Then she took the piece of leather that Hoss handed to her and placed it between Adam’s lips and told him to bite down. He clearly didn’t completely understand everything she was saying but responded to the quiet authority of her voice. He grimaced in pain and bit down on the leather grasping her hand to the point of causing her pain as Hoss opened the wound. It began to drain which Hoss encouraged by gently pressing on each side of the wound. When he thought that he had as much drained as he could, he picked up the bottle of whisky his father had found for him.

“This is gonna hurt something fierce, but it’s gotta be done. Charity, he’s like to buck like a wild horse on it’s first ride in the breaking corrals. You need to do all you can to keep him down. Put yourself against his shoulder ready to push down. Pa and Roy, you could grab his ankles please. Hold on tight. He’s gonna kick something fierce when this alcohol hits this open wound but it’s gotta be done.” Leaning his weight on Adam’s hip, Hoss moved the bottle of whisky to the wound and looked around at the others. “Ready?”

As Hoss poured the alcohol in the wound, the reaction was as bad or worse than he had predicted. When he finished, Adam’s reaction slowly subsided until he was softly moaning with the pain. He still had a strong grip on Charity’s hand. She grimaced somewhat with it but the pressure slowly lessened. With his father’s help, Hoss placed a bandage on the wound in Adam’s leg. The men who had come with Ben and Roy had slowly gathered in or near the house. Roy went to talk with them and came back to talk to Ben and Hoss.

“Two of them renegades got away. Two are dead, the one from in back and the one from upstairs are tied up and being guarded. It’s over. We’ll collect that man’s body and head out.”

“Thank you, Roy. We’ll find a wagon and get Adam home.”

“Pa, town is closer and he ought to see the doctor.”

“Ben, there’s a carriage out there. I could have the boys hitch that up for you.”

Within a half hour, the caravan was ready to head to town. Adam had refused to relinquish his hold on Charity’s hand. He wasn’t in a conscious state, and in his semi-conscious state, it was impossible to reason with him. It was easier to let her be with him. Ben felt a bit of a loss not being able to be the one at his injured son’s side to offer him comfort, but he felt good that his son was getting that from someone at least. He could see that Charity’s soft words and gentle touch did seem to soothe Adam as he lay back on the rear seat of the carriage propped against one side with his leg up on the seat. Adam had a blanket wrapped around him. Charity knelt beside him and kept him from falling but also talked to him softly and touched his arm and face to reassure him and soothe him. Ben and Hoss knew he had to be in pain, but her presence seemed to help him cope with it well. Once Adam was in Doctor Paul Martin’s office, Paul had Hoss and Ben put Adam in the surgery. He wanted all of them to leave but Adam called for Charity. Ben explained.

“She seems to have a calming effect on him. He’s been holding her hand through most of this. He’s half out of his head, but he knows she’s here. I think being in the same predicaments has created a bond between them.”

Doctor Martin looked at Charity who appeared to be near exhaustion and was grimy after her experiences. “Do you want to stay and help even though it’s going to be difficult and, um, revealing?” She nodded. “Then you do need to wash, and you can put on that apron that’s hanging behind the door. I’ll wait a moment here with Adam. Ben, why don’t you talk to him while she’s getting ready to assist me. I’m going to slip his boots off and then the rest of his pants.”

Once Charity was ready to assist, Doctor Martin removed the bandage around the wound, cleaned the thigh area, cleaned the wound again, and then bandaged it again. All of that sounded very simple, but required a great deal of effort as Adam struggled against their efforts initially because of the pain, but Charity was able to administer some anesthesia with Paul’s instructions. Finally, Paul went to get Hoss and Ben to help move Adam to a bed. Using a sheet, the four of them were able to move him. It was only then that he gave up his hold on Charity’s hand. She sat on a chair and stared at Adam lying in the bed. Ben stood beside her and put a hand on her shoulder.

“I don’t know how I can ever thank you enough. You saved my son.”

“He saved me and more than once. This was as much about saving me as it was about saving Adam. It taught me a lot about courage and facing fear, but it’s exhausting. I don’t think I can even manage to ride home.”

“You don’t have to do that. Todd and Virginia arrived while you were in the surgery. They’re waiting for you outside. They’ll take good care of you.”

“But I don’t want to leave Adam.”

“He’s in good hands. You get some rest, and come back when you’re feeling better. He’s going to sleep now anyway. It’s very late. Hoss and I will take turns sitting with him.”

That sounded so simple and optimistic. Reality was that Adam suffered through two days of fever and pain before the doctor was able to pull him out of it. He was very weak, and Paul didn’t want him to travel so he was a patient in Paul’s office for over a week. Charity became his day nurse helping him with everything except his most personal needs. He refused to let her assist him with anything like that. She didn’t mind. It was a level of intimacy she would rather think about in a different context and Adam wasn’t offering that. He did praise her for her bravery in the face of great danger.

“I was glad they didn’t give me anything to drink or I would have had an embarrassing accident. In fact, if I had had anything to eat, that would have ended up all over someone’s shoes. I don’t know how you do it. You were so brave. I was scared to death.”

“I was as scared as you were. You did what I did. Sometimes all you can do is what you do. Once you decide there are no other options, it seems easier to do what has to be done.”

“Yes, that was it. I was more afraid when I didn’t know what was happening. When I did know and began to see what I had to do, I wasn’t as afraid. I knew what I had to do or they would kill you. I didn’t want that to happen.”

“I can never thank you enough for what you did nor can I ever tell you enough how foolish that was.”

“You could have stopped with the first part.”

“I thought you wanted honesty from me.”

“I do, but you could keep some things from me. That would have been one of those.”

“You’re never going to change, are you?”

“You don’t really want me to change, do you?”

That got a smile as she knew it would. There were more smiles as the week went on. Adam asked if Charity could play chess. She said she could because her father had taught her. Adam offered to teach her more after they played a few times and she lost although he played gently so he played more aggressively and took the next five very quickly. It was about that time that Ben and Hoss arrived with Little Joe who was making his first ride since he had been shot. The three of them stood by the door of Adam’s room and grinned at the two bickering inside over whether Adam was mean to play like that or whether Charity was stubborn because she refused his teaching. Ben finally decided to interrupt their squabbling.

“Hiram wanted to know if you were ready to sign all those documents. From this, I can assume that I should tell him you’re ready for that. He’ll be by later today to meet with you. Now, Joe would like to say hello. He’s been freed from the restrictions against riding as long as he doesn’t try to do too much.”

“Good luck with that, Pa. Good to see you, Joe. Now, any word on who that man was who did all this damage?”

“Roy said that they are having a heck of a time trying to track down his identity through all of the aliases he’s used. He seems to be English and has many connections in Canada, but even there they don’t seem to have a good idea of who he actually is. There’s some suspicion that records have been altered because of his connections to prominent people. We may never know. The charter for his corporation here has been rescinded so that’s over. The men who did some of the work for him have been arrested. Most will receive light sentences because evidence of any major crimes other than kidnapping Charity is lacking.”

“And the kidnappers got away with what they did although I suppose they won’t be back because they face prison time here if they ever return.”

“Yes, as we suspected, they never arrived in Vancouver. But if they come back here, they’re facing twenty years at hard labor. Wanted posters have been circulated so they won’t likely be back.”

“So it’s all over.”

“It will be as soon as Hiram gets you to sign those documents and Paul releases you to go home.”

“I’ll release him today, if you’ll take him home in a carriage and not on a horse. He’s strong enough now, the wound is beginning to heal rather nicely, and he hasn’t had any fever in two days. He’s ready to be released. I think he may want to take his nurse with him though.”

Paul grinned as he left the room and Adam scowled as his family laughed. Charity was a little embarrassed, but Ben told her not to be.

“You’re welcome to visit the Ponderosa as often as you wish. You can keep Adam company while he recuperates. He can be like a caged cougar when he’s cooped up at home. You would be doing us a great favor by coming over and engaging him in conversation and perhaps chess.” Charity was about to launch into that chess argument with Adam again and he was ready to respond, but Ben held up a finger. “No, enough. You can hold those thoughts until Charity visits. Perhaps you’ll think better of what you were going to say, and be more civil to one another.”

A week later, Joe walked out to the stable with a grin making Hoss wonder why. He had to explain. “Adam and Charity are playing chess in there. He trying to teach her moves to make and she’s complaining that he doesn’t have to make snide comments while he’s doing it, and he’s saying she could simply do what he says instead of arguing about it.”

“Why’s that funny, Joe?”

“Because the whole time, they’re holding hands too. He’s got his left hand across the table holding her right hand. It’s like the two of them don’t even notice they’re doing it any more. They hold hands all the time when they’re together.”

“I wish he’d just kiss her and get it over with.”

“Get what over with?”

“He’s falling in love with her, but he don’t want to admit it, and I don’t think she wants to admit it either. They want to act like they’re just friends. They both got wounded hearts and they’re afraid to open up all the way to each other.”

“It’s getting closer though, isn’t it.”

“It’s getting closer, yeah, it’s getting closer.”

*****

Trust Me

Chapter 1

The silence was maddening. Adam had thought for many years that silence would be so pleasant. The snoring of his brother Hoss and the cackling of his brother Little Joe often grated on his nerves. His father’s orders issued as if they were boys and not men irritated him beyond his patience causing him to make snide remarks. The constant mooing of cattle and the neighing of horses complaining if their feed troughs were empty in the morning were tiresome after so many years. At first in the drought, everyone had made more noise than usual. Men bickered more and complained more. The cattle and the horses made more noise plaintively issuing their complaints about the lack of water. As the drought had lasted and weeks had turned into months and brown grass in their lower pastures had turned gray before dessicating completely and blowing away with the other dust, noise had diminished. Men were too tired to complain. Cattle and horses were too weak to make noise. Dust was another issue because it was everywhere. It blew into the tiniest cracks and crevices. It got into every pore it seemed and there wasn’t enough water to have regular baths. Wiping down with a wet cloth was as good as it got most days.

The cattle were dying slowly. They had taken as many to market as they could, but so had every other rancher driving the prices so low that they almost lost money on the drive. The calves had died first, and they were in danger of losing their seed animals if rain didn’t come soon. They had pushed all the cattle they could into their highest pastures and their horses too. The pastures there had sustained them at first but the grass wasn’t growing enough to keep the herds fed. They needed rain.

Adam and his brothers hadn’t been home in six weeks. They had to let many of the hands go because they couldn’t pay them. Even the few hands they had now were getting paid with scrip. Every day they got up and looked to the west hoping to see a dark cloud or even some clouds, and every day they were disappointed. They didn’t have the cash to pay the teamsters they needed to hire to move the logs so their logging operations had slowed as well. Adam guessed that their father was at home trying to get loans for the payments on debts that they had. It was worse than he guessed. He, Hoss, and Little Joe had pulled straws to see who got to go home for a night. They had played it fair, and Hoss had won. He came back with very bad news.

“Pa says the bank won’t give us a loan. He’s been to Carson, and wired banks all over. No bank in the whole region will give us a loan. They all say it’s too risky. Cause they’re all branch banks of bigger banks, there’s no point in asking any banks further away.”

“Well, we’ve done all right without cash until now. We’ll wait it out. It’s got to rain sooner or later, right?” Hoss and Adam looked at Little Joe with more worry than anything. “Well, that’s right, isn’t it?”

Hoss looked to Adam. “You want to tell him or should I?”

“What did Pa say about it?”

“About what? What do you two know that I don’t know?”

“Joe, the taxes are coming due. For us, that’s ten thousand dollars. In most years, that’s not that much of a problem. This year, we don’t have it, and if the bank won’t give us a loan, and we can’t sell any cattle like we would normally do, then how do we get the money?”

“Well, can’t we sell something?” Little Joe looked again from Adam to Hoss. “Can’t we sell that silver mine we have?”

“The price of silver has been dropping again. We won’t get ten thousand for that mine right now. We would have last year, but not now.”

“Well, there must be something we can do.” Little Joe thought for a moment. “What happens if we can’t come up with the tax money?”

“Then whoever can pay the tax bill can swoop in and take the Ponderosa.” Adam almost spit the words out.

“But the Ponderosa is worth a hundred times that at least.”

“Ya, it is, little brother, but what Adam is saying is and why he’s upset is the banks know that and that’s probably why not one of ’em will give us a loan. They’re waiting like vultures to swoop in and grab the Ponderosa for pennies on the dollar. They’ll grab a bunch of the other ranches too.”

“But they don’t know anything about ranching.”

Adam stood with his fists on his hips. “They’ll turn around and sell them hoping that the next buyer gets in financial difficulty too, and they can grab them again. It happens all over the west with ranches and farms alike.” Staring out across the Ponderosa that didn’t look so beautiful after months of drought, Adam shook his head and sighed before looking down at the ground.

“Adam, there must be something we can do. Hoss, isn’t there something we can do. When we work together, we always find a way to work things out. C’mon, we can think of something.”

“Adam, what are you thinking?”

Hoss saw the way Adam was standing and knew that his older brother was wrestling with a dilemma. There was something he knew he could do but it was clear that it was also something that he didn’t want to do. Joe picked up on Hoss’ lead when Adam didn’t answer making Hoss regret saying anything because he knew then that Adam wasn’t ready to talk about it.

“C’mon, Adam, if there’s an answer and you’ve got it, you need to tell us. Don’t keep it to yourself. That’s not fair.”

Because Adam said nothing, Joe moved toward him and grabbed his shoulder to turn him around. Hoss moved quickly to prevent trouble grabbing Joe and pulling him away.

“Joe, you know Adam will tell us when he’s ready. Let him be.”

“He needs to tell us now. Pa’s down there suffering thinking he’s lost the Ponderosa, and Adam stands there with an answer he won’t share. It isn’t right.”

Turning slowly, Adam had that look that scared most men but only seemed to make Joe angrier. “Sometimes there is no right. I’ll tell you when I’m ready if I’m ever ready. I’ve got work to do now and so do you.”

Adam stalked off with that stiff legged walk that said more than anything that he was barely keeping his temper in check. Hoss didn’t release Joe until Adam was out of sight. Joe turned on Hoss then.

“Why do you always take his side?”

“Joe, there ain’t no sides in this. It’s a mess, and Adam was struggling with something. It didn’t help to have you nipping at him. He’ll figure it out and tell us. You know making him mad never gets us anywhere with him. The two of you never talk when you’re mad, so cool down and let him cool down. Tonight after supper, when it’s dark and time to get some sleep, he’ll probably talk then.”

“Why then?”

“Cause he’ll have had time to think, and if it’s as bad as I think it is, he won’t want us to see his face when he tells us.”

“What could be so bad?”

“I don’t know, but from the way he was acting, it was bad. Now like he said, we got work to do. We ought to get to it. Stay away from Adam and let him have the time he needs to wrestle with whatever he’s wrestling.”

“I’m sorry I went off half-cocked. When I think about how Pa must be feeling thinking about losing what he spent his lifetime building, it makes me lose my head.” Joe got a bit of a sheepish look then. “And you know how easily I lose my head. I wanted Adam to come up with a plan so badly that I didn’t think about how he was feeling. Don’t worry. I won’t say anything to him until later. I’ll apologize because I know I should. I’ll make it right. I always do, don’t I?”

“Yeah, but I’m afraid that what Adam’s got to tell us ain’t gonna make things all right even if it is a plan. He looked right worried about whatever he was thinking. It ain’t gonna be good, I can tell you that. Somebody’s gonna be in for it with whatever is going through his mind.”

“I hope it’s not Pa. I don’t know how much more he can take right now. How did he look, Hoss? I mean, you know, did he look older, tired, sick?”

“Probably some of all of that. He tried to put a good face on all of it but I could see how worried he was. He told me to tell you two not to worry cause he’d find a way out of this mess, but I could tell he wasn’t so sure of that. He told me that Todd McCarren stopped over. I didn’t tell Adam cause he don’t need no more worries. Charity took a job in town to help them out. I hope we get some rain in the next week. I kinda feel like maybe there’s a shift in the air. If there is, maybe we can move some of these cattle.”

“That would be nice. Maybe we could go home and sleep in our beds.”

“Yeah, I saw Adam rubbing his leg that was wounded too. Maybe it’s bothering him cause the weather is going to change.”

“Did Pa say his knees hurt? He always says his knees hurt before it rains.”

“He didn’t mention anything, but he probably wouldn’t knowing I was worried about him already. I’m worried about Adam too. He needs to spend some time with Charity. I don’t want him to lose her too. There’s a dance in town in three weeks. It sure would be nice if Adam could be there to see her. Them two ain’t seen each other for at least six weeks. I’d hate for her to find somebody else while she’s working in town.”

“Adam says they’re only friends.”

“Yeah, you believe that?”

“No, but I don’t know what she’s thinking either.”

“Well, we got to find a way for the two of them to get together before they lose each other.”

“Right now we better get to work or our older brother is gonna find a way to blister our backsides with a few choice words if you know what I mean.”

The three brothers finished their work for the day and had their usual meal of beef. Joe made his apology, but there wasn’t much conversation before the three rolled out their bedrolls. Adam had been mostly silent until then but decided it was time to tell his brothers what he had decided to do. He didn’t expect them to like his decision.

“I’m going to get the money for the taxes.” That got the attention of Hoss and Little Joe immediately. “I’m going to go work for Mann.” Hoss was shocked into disbelief and silence.

Little Joe exploded in anger. “You can’t! Pa detests that man. He hates what he’s done. Until they outlawed it, he used hydraulic mining. Now his mine has more accidents and deaths than all the other mines in the Comstock combined. He pays the lowest wages and treats the men who work there like an expense instead of like people. Pa’s done everything he can to try to get him out of here, and you’re going to help him? I can’t believe you would do that to Pa!”

“It will get the money to save the Ponderosa.”

Hoss found his voice. “Adam how long will it take to get the money?”

“A day or two. All I have to do is agree to work for him. He’s been pestering me for a long time to work for him. Every time I see him, he offers me the same position. He keeps offering bonuses to sign on. I could get the whole amount by agreeing to work for him.”

“For how long?” Hoss hoped it wouldn’t be long. He was disappointed.

“I’m not sure but probably six months to a year.”

“It would kill Pa to have you do that.” Hoss knew their father would be upset by the action but even more upset to see his son continue to work for the man for that length of time.

“It would kill Pa to lose the Ponderosa too. If we keep the ranch, we can help some of the other ranchers keep theirs. Otherwise, we could all go under. Do you want to see that?”

“Don’t you want to talk it over with Pa?” Hoss was trying to reconcile himself to the idea but was finding it difficult.

Little Joe listened to them talk and couldn’t think of anything more to say.

“No because I know what he’ll say. Hoss, I have to do this. It’s the only way, and maybe I can do some good in the Mann mine. Maybe I can help those miners. It can’t get any worse, can it?”

“It’s not a good thing, but I can’t see any other way to go either. I guess it’s your decision.”

“Hoss, how can you say that? He’s going to work for the enemy.”

“No, it ain’t quite that bad, Joe. It’s more like jumping into the manure pile to escape the burning barn. The problem for Adam is, he’s gonna be stuck in that manure pile for a long time.”

“I could use your help when I tell Pa what I’m going to do, but I’ll understand if you don’t want to be there. Think on it until tomorrow. I’m riding in at first light to tell him what I’m going to do. These cows aren’t going anywhere for a few hours.”

In the morning, there were no words spoken except for basic things that had to be said to get necessary chores completed, but after a light breakfast, all three saddled their horses. Adam didn’t know what his brothers had decided until all three mounted up. As he turned to ride toward home, his brothers wheeled their horses to ride beside him. He nodded and tipped his hat in thanks. No one had to say anything else. It was understood.

*****

Chapter 2

The proposal from Adam was met with derision and hostility from his father who told Adam under no terms was he allowed to do such a thing. “It is disreputable and beneath you. It would dishonor all that you stand for and all that our family stands for. We believe in honesty and integrity, and Mann believes in nothing except making more money regardless of the human cost. I don’t know how you can even consider such a ridiculous idea.”

“It is not ridiculous. It may be between Scylla and Charybdis but it is my choice.”

“Adam don’t do this. We can find another way.”

“What way? Lose the Ponderosa and watch all of our neighbors lose their ranches too? That’s not another way. That’s giving up. Pa, maybe I can do some good with Mann. It certainly can’t be any worse.”

“It can’t be any worse, but the blood of innocent men could be on your hands. Can you live with that? I couldn’t. I don’t know how a son of mine could accept that. Men will die in that mine while you work there. Work you send men to do will lead to their deaths. How will you reconcile that with us saving the ranch? How will a ranch compare to lives? You can’t be a son of mine and think like that. I don’t know what kind of crazy ideas are in your head to think that you could do this.”

“It’s not a crazy idea. It’s a logical solution to a problem that none of us created.”

“Respect for each other and respect for other people is what’s logical. Respect for the gifts that God has given us is logical. Not doing any damage to those gifts is logical. What you’re doing is the opposite of that so it’s crazy. You are not to do this. I won’t have any part of such crazy ideas.”

“Maybe if you had listened to some of my so-called crazy ideas for the ranch, we wouldn’t be in this position now. I told you two years ago that we needed a better cash flow and you wouldn’t accept any of my ideas. Now look where we sit. That was what is ridiculous. Not being willing to accept change that would guarantee the future of this ranch is what is ridiculous.”

“So you would have us make windows and doors and shingles and siding? That’s not the dream that brought me out here.”

“Dreams can change, and you didn’t have three sons who might have their own dreams when you came out here either. Now all of that is at risk because you won’t consider change. Well I’ll save your dream this time, but in the future, you better be ready to save it yourself.”

“Adam, I don’t want you to do this.”

“I made my decision. I’m doing it. It’s what has to be done whether you see it or not.”

Picking up his hat from the credenza, Adam turned and left the house then before anything more was said. Hoss and Little Joe had never been able to say a word. Their father turned to them.

“Did you know your brother was going to do this ridiculous thing?” When Hoss and Little Joe nodded, Ben’s anger only seemed to increase. “And you didn’t talk him out of it? What is going on with my sons? Have all three of you lost your senses?” Ben dropped his head then and rubbed his forehead as if he was in pain.

Hoss looked at Joe and whispered a question before he asked his father the same question. “Pa, what did you mean about making windows, shingles, doors, and siding? What was that all about?”

“Oh, Adam has been talking to me the last two years about putting in a lumber operation where we would start making those things. He said we would make better use of our timber that way and make more money from it. He said Joe could be in charge of the horses we need to haul everything and even had you, Hoss, in charge of hauling everything to cities around here. I have told him over and over that we’re ranchers not carpenters or teamsters. He never wants to listen to me.”

Suddenly Little Joe perked up. “He wanted me in charge of the horses.”

Equally interested, Hoss liked being in charge of something but he also wondered why Adam had proposed such an enterprise. “Pa, why would Adam want us to do something like that? Now I know we’re ranchers and all, but I got to tell you, I’m interested as much as Little Joe is, but I’m curious too as to why Adam is so all fired up about something that sounds, well, kind of ordinary.”

“He wants it because it could operate every day of the year and bring in money every month of the year. He says that cattle drives in the spring and the fall, and the timber that is dependent on big contracts are unreliable sources of income, and that we need to have something that provides a steady flow of cash to keep us from running into situations where we have to get a loan to cover our payments.”

“You mean like now?”

“Well, yes, like now.”

“So, maybe it woulda been a good idea to do like he said. I know it’s too late now, but maybe we oughta talk about this more and not just you and Adam but me and Little Joe too.”

Hoss did not often defy his father, but when it was important and he thought his father had made a mistake, he would stand up and let him know it. He was doing that now. His father heard the challenge and wasn’t sure how to respond. He waited to see how Little Joe reacted because he could often change his brother’s opinion. It was quiet for a few minutes.

“Pa, I think that Hoss has a good point. Why don’t we talk about it more? I mean, we don’t have to do it necessarily, but it sounds like something we ought to discuss with all of us.”

To try to reduce the tension in the room, Hoss had another question. “Pa, what two women was Adam talking about before, you know, them two women he said it was like being between?”

“Oh, not two women but two hazards at sea. It was between Sicily and Italy, a rocky shoal and a whirlpool. In legend, it was between a six-headed sea monster and a whirlpool. Ships went too close to the monster preferring to lose a few sailors rather than too close to the whirlpool and lose the whole ship and crew.”

Frowning Hoss thought only a moment before responding. “So Adam is like losing the few sailors to the monster and we’re the rest of the ship and crew who get saved cause of what he done?” Hoss looked to his father with that look that said more than anything that he knew he was correct.

Somewhat shocked at how well the analogy fit the situation, Ben had nothing to say as he mulled over all that had happened. When he was ready to talk again, it was in a much more subdued voice. “I handled that rather badly didn’t I?” Ben shook his head. “I like to complain about my sons and their tempers and how they should use their heads and think before they speak, but they come by that trait honestly. I have shown them time and again exactly how not to do things.”

Little Joe looked up from where he had sat on the settee. “Pa, I’ve found it’s never too late to say you’re sorry.”

“I’m afraid that I said some very hurtful things. But I think that I need to let Adam cool down before I try to talk with him again.”

“Will you talk with him about the building supplies idea?” Hoss sounded hopeful.

“Not you too?”

“Why not? I’m interested. Joe’s interested. It sounds like a good idea. What’s the harm in all of us talking about it?”

Ben had no answer to that, but they all knew. He had made another mistake. He had quite a lot to think about before he saw Adam again and at the heart of it was the nature of the Ponderosa. He had envisioned a pristine place of trees and cattle and horses. Perhaps his son’s view of a multifaceted business enterprise nestled among those trees and cattle and horses was more realistic if he wanted his dream to survive. This current crisis had pounded that point home in favor of Adam’s argument.

“I guess when I see Adam, I’ll tell him I’m ready to listen.” Looking at the hopeful faces of his younger sons, Ben added an amendment. “I’ll tell him I’m ready to listen to all of his ideas. I have a lot to tell him and I have an apology to give too. I only hope that he doesn’t get too hurt by what he has to do. Mann is rotten. He’s going to do his best to bring Adam into his way of doing things. Adam is going to have a difficult time with that.”

Then Hoss remembered that he had not given Adam the information he had about Charity. He berated himself silently knowing that Adam was going to react badly to that news and have an even more difficult time.

On the way to see Morris Mann, owner of the Mann Mine and one of the most disreputable businessmen in the area, Adam took a detour to the McCarren ranch hoping to see Charity but at least being able to leave her a message if he could not. He rode in and saw Todd working at the corral fence. Todd hailed him.

“If you came to see Charity, she’s in town working today.”

“Working?”

“Didn’t your father tell you? Charity took a job in town. I hated to see her do it, but she wanted to help out, and it is a big help to have some cash coming in even if it isn’t much. It helps keep food on the table without adding any debt. Virginia wanted to do the same, but I wouldn’t let her with the baby due in a couple of months and all. She needs to be at home.”

Inwardly, Adam cringed knowing how Charity must have felt having to put herself in that vulnerable position again. He was upset too because his father had not told him about it not knowing that Ben had assumed that Hoss had told him. “I came by to tell Charity that it could be even longer before I get a chance to see her much. I have to take a job too so we can pay the taxes on the Ponderosa.”

“Wow, what kind of job can you take to pay that kind of tax bill?”

With a slight pause because he guessed the reaction was going to be negative, Adam stated it as calmly as he could. “I’m going to accept a job offer from Morris Mann.”

Todd’s mouth literally dropped open before his face turned into a glare. “Adam, you can’t. He nearly ruined my ranch with that water rights issue. If your father hadn’t helped me and Pa, he would have diverted all the water from half of our ranch and polluted most of the rest with his hydraulic mining. Pa and I were so grateful for you father’s help. How can you do this?”

“Todd, sometimes there is no good choice. It’s the lesser of the evils out there. The other choice is to let my father lose the Ponderosa, and if that happens, the other ranchers go down with him. I have to do it.”

“Adam, I think it’s going to rain. There are clouds over the mountains today. Things are going to get better soon.”

“I think you’re right. Hoss said the same thing, but it’s too late. Rain won’t get us ten thousand dollars in two weeks and the tax bill is coming due. Todd, please tell Charity and try to get her to understand. I have to do this.”

“I’ll talk to her, Adam, and I’ll do my best to get her to understand, but it’s going to be hard because I don’t quite understand it all myself. I couldn’t do it. I don’t know how you can.”

“I think I’ll be asking myself that question every day and every night for the rest of my life.” Adam turned and rode out then as Todd silently wished him luck and prayed for him. He knew Adam was going to need a lot of both.

As Adam rode to town, he thought about stopping to see Charity but Todd had not said where she was working. He knew too that if he saw one more person who was important to him and heard again that he was making the wrong decision that he might back out of it. He couldn’t allow himself to back out now. It was perhaps the most difficult thing he had ever done. It went against his sense of ethics and every lesson of morality he had ever been taught. It hurt his pride. He knew it hurt his family and that it would damage the respect that his family had always had in the area. For all their critics who said the Cartwrights would do anything for money, it would be the evidence they needed to pour vitriol on them for years. Their friends would come to understand it when they had time to assess the reasons for it, but he knew they would never look at him the same way again, and what hurt the most was that he wasn’t sure if Charity would ever look at him the same way again. He worried about that the most because he had come to realize while he was up there on those high pastures that he missed her terribly. He knew then that he had fallen in love and believed that she loved him too. This would test that love, and he could only hope it would be strong enough. It was a new love so he had great trepidation that it might not survive his actions. Then he was there. The sign was big and ostentatious. Mann Mine. Morris Mann, owner of Mann Enterprises. He dismounted, sighed, and walked up to the office door.

*****

Chapter 3

Morris Mann could not have been more pleased to walk down the streets of Virginia City with Adam Cartwright at his side. At every opportunity, he stopped and talked to people introducing Adam as his new mining engineer and assistant. They were on their way to the bank to get the money to pay Adam’s bonus. It would validate the contract that Adam had signed pledging himself to finishing the shoring of the Mann mines over the next six months in all the new tunnels to be dug as well as supervising the crews maintaining the shoring in the old tunnels and creating a new transportation system for moving the ore out of the mine more efficiently. Four previous engineers had quit on Mann and two in just the previous two months leaving partially finished plans and stacks of materials waiting in the sun because no one knew for what purpose they were to be used. Mann always insisted on the cheapest materials available to complete a project so he couldn’t usually sell materials ordered and not used. It irritated him to see those unused materials sitting there. He couldn’t attract the more highly qualified mining engineers either with the reputation he had and the safety record of his mine so the work they did was questionable at best. He didn’t mind if it meant the loss of workers’ lives or if workers were injured but all too often his mine had to shut down for repairs and to open up shafts closed by extensive cave-ins. He wanted Adam Cartwright to fix those problems. The problems with ventilation and flooding were not much of a concern to him because the gases could be pumped out in a day as could excess water usually. That miners suffocated or drowned was of little concern to him. He didn’t spend money on ice as most other mines did. His miners had to work in the heat or lose wages. Heat exhaustion was another problem especially exacerbated by the lack of adequate ventilation. Adam wasn’t aware of all of that yet because Mann had only told him of the issues with the tunnel collapses.

There were additional reasons for Morris Mann to want Adam working for him. He needed to get loans from the banks to expand his operations. They were reluctant to deal with him, but he assumed that having Adam Cartwright working for him would open up some doors for him with those banks. He thought to that it didn’t hurt his social standing to have Adam as his assistant. What he didn’t realize was that Adam’s social standing was taking a hit instead of raising his. The looks they got as they walked away from each encounter that day would have frozen a penguin, and most of the stares were aimed at Adam who mostly remained stoic and silent throughout. Once Adam had the cash, he put the money in his family’s account assuming that his father would see the sense of using it to pay the tax bill. He had done what he could and now he would pay the consequences for it.

As Mann and Adam left the bank, they noticed that the sky had grown very dark. Mann told Adam to put his horse in the livery stable and get a room at the hotel so they could meet that evening to go over his duties and the plans for the mine. Mann had a small office in town and told him to meet him there after dinner but amended that to tell him to meet him at the restaurant next to the office for dinner first. They would discuss the job at dinner and then go over the plans in the office. As Mann walked away, Adam stood staring after him wondering how he could possibly manage to work for him for six months without strangling him or shooting him.

“Wishing you had shot him instead of agreeing to dinner?” Charity was behind him and had heard the last part of the conversation Adam had with Mann.

“You are quiet. I had no idea you were there.”

“I can be quiet. So can you. It’s been very quiet for a month and a half without you, and then I hear you’re in town and you have the whole town buzzing, but it’s not a good buzz. It seems that a lot of people are already thinking the very worst of you.”

Looking down at the ground with the pain of that, Adam sighed. He had known it would happen, but hearing that it had happened didn’t make it any easier. He looked up at Charity. “And what do you think?”

“Adam Cartwright, don’t you dare insult me in the first conversation we have had after all this time apart. I know you have good reasons for anything you do. I trust you.”

Finding it difficult to speak, Adam raised his hand and tucked a stray lock of hair back behind Charity’s ear. “Thank you. You have more faith in me than anyone has had.”

“Oh, no, your family didn’t back you? Hoss?”

“No, Hoss was good. He had a few questions, no more.”

“I expected Hoss to support you. He’s smart about things and how things have to go sometimes.”

“Not everyone understands that Hoss is very smart.”

“Maybe it’s that aw shucks way he has about him but behind those beautiful blue eyes is a sharp mind for figuring out what needs to be figured out. But I suppose your father was angry. He seems to get angry whenever anyone has an idea that he didn’t think of first. It takes him a while to come around, but he will. He’s a romantic and wants it all to be so perfect.”

“Yes, you would think after all that’s happened to him in his life that he wouldn’t be, but he is a romantic.” Adam was still hurt in some ways by some of what had been said but did understand why his father had reacted the way that he had. “I don’t think you’re being fair to my father though. He isn’t that self-centered. He wants to believe there’s good in every man. He wants to believe that given the chance, people will do the right thing. I shouldn’t have dropped this on him as a decision without letting him have input either. I lost my temper too probably because I anticipated his reaction and I was ready to be angry before I even told him what I was thinking of doing.”

“So when he objected, your stubborn side took over and so did his.”

“That probably about sums it up. Sometimes the two of us are like rams locking horns. There are still two weeks before the taxes are due. Maybe there was some desperate move we could have made.”

“But unlikely.”

“Probably only a miracle.”

“But you got on your white steed and decided to sacrifice yourself without finding that out first.”

“I hope that isn’t what’s going to happen, but I think perhaps my father believes that’s the case. I hope that I can do some good at the Mann Mine.”

“I hope you can. Those men can use a champion. Now I suppose Joe got mad and railed at you and then he apologized. I remember him from school. He was always like that. I doubt he will ever change. He reacts from the heart first and then thinks about it afterwards especially after someone else points a few things out to him.”

“You know my family fairly well.”

“I know you very well too, and I know how painful this must be for you. I want you to know that you should come to me to talk or just for a shoulder to lean on if you need one. We’re friends, right?”

“Yes, and maybe more?”

“Yes, and definitely more. We should talk about that sometime too.”

“There’s a dance in three weeks. I’m going to be very busy for a while, but how about that dance. I’ll take you to dinner and the dance and we’ll find some time to talk. Maybe we can go to church on Sunday mornings too if Mann will give me Sundays off.”

“He might not?”

“I find out my duties this evening. I signed on for six months. He owns my labor for that time so I don’t know what days I’ll be working. I can assume Sundays are open because his mine shuts down as do the others, but I don’t know. Now you’re working too. How is that going?”

Adam looked so worried that Charity knew that she had to reassure him quickly. He didn’t need any more worries. “I’m working for Doctor Martin part-time or as needed. He’s taught me how to do some simple procedures such as cleaning and stitching a simple cut. I clean up and sanitize the surgery too. Then I copy documents for Hiram Wood. He no longer has a full-time clerk. I work there as needed too. It works out well for me and for them, I think. Both pay me a decent wage especially for a woman. Hiram pays me the same wage he was paying the man who worked for him as a clerk.”

“So you have no worries about working in town?”

“Only the ride in and the ride back home. I was thinking of taking a room in town but that would take most of the money I’m earning so it’s not a good solution. I try to get home early enough so that no one worries.”

“Am I keeping you then?”

“No, not yet. I have a few errands to run before I go home. Do you have time to walk with me before you have to go to dinner with Mann?”

“I have time. Thank you. It will be the pleasant memory I can use to remember whenever I can’t stand being with him. I was in his office no more than fifteen minutes, and I wanted to strangle the man.”

“I can understand that. Perhaps we can discuss all the ways you could eliminate him. It could be entertaining.”

“Sweetheart, you have a wicked sense of humor.”

Smiling sweetly, inside Charity was elated. Adam had called her sweetheart. It was the first time he had used a form of endearment like that with her. He offered his arm and they were off to the general store to pick up some basic supplies for Doctor Martin’s office. Once those were delivered, Charity did have to go. Adam told her to put on her slicker because it looked like rain was on the way. She grinned at that but noted that he was not smiling.

“I wish it would have happened a month ago. It could have made a difference.”

“Adam, you’ll find a way to make this work. I know you will. I trust you.”

It was the second time she had told him that. She could not have told him anything else except that she loved him that would have made him feel better at that point. It wasn’t the right setting for her to declare her love, but saying that she trusted him despite knowing what he was doing meant a great deal to him. “Thank you. Talking with you helped me more than you can know. If it is at all possible, I will see you at church on Sunday. If I am not there, know that it couldn’t be helped.”

“I’ll be praying that I see you on Sunday. Otherwise, you know where I am from Monday through Friday. I’ll be in Doctor Martin’s office or Mister Wood’s office.”

“Good, now be on your way so you can get home before it’s storming.”

It did start raining by the time that Adam met Mann at the restaurant. Adam thought it was so ironic that the rain they had been desperate to get would start on the evening when he met with the man most people in town thought of as the devil himself. He found that he had a harsh taskmaster too. He was expected to work ten hours per day from Monday through Saturday. On Sunday, he was to show Mann the progress that he had made during the week. He asked if he could attend church services, and Mann said that he liked to get the inspection done in the morning so he could attend church if the inspection was completed early enough and they would start at eight. Adam had a sinking feeling that he wouldn’t be attending any church services anytime soon. Mann did say that he had Sunday afternoons to himself as long as the inspection showed no problems and there was no other work that had to be done. He was expected to be on site even when he wasn’t working in case there was a problem because he would be called in to advise those who encountered any difficulties. There was a small bedroom attached to the office. That would be his for six months. He had not brought clothing and personal items with him so he had to make a trip home for that. He told Mann that and the man acted as if he was a generous employer by giving Adam two hours the next morning to get his things. Adam knew he would have to leave by dawn to get back by eight to work. After dinner, Mann got his carriage and took the two of them to the office to show him the plans that had been drawn by previous engineers for additional tunnels and for a new ore transport system.

“You’ll finish those and implement them. You can’t quit. I own you for six months and I’m going to get my money’s worth out of you.”

Adam had to admit that he felt owned. He felt smaller and less significant than he had felt in many years. He had gotten used to being respected by others and having the ability to make a difference. That wasn’t likely to be true for quite some time if ever again. The one bright spot was that Charity had said she trusted him to find a way to make something good out of this. That night as he lay on the bed trying to fall asleep, he thought he would have to be an medieval alchemist to make something good out of this mess. He had seen the plans that had been drawn and the list of materials that had already been ordered and delivered. His father’s warnings echoed in his mind as he envisioned what could happen if he had to finish those plans as they were started and use those materials as they were supposed to be according to the plans drafted by the previous engineers and by the notes they had made. But he had no conception of how he could do anything differently than what had been laid out for him the night before by Mann yet his conscience and his very soul depended on finding a way out of the abyss he felt he was in at that moment. He still believed he could see a light at the top but as of yet he couldn’t visualize what it was in any concrete terms. Until he did, there was no way out.

*****

Chapter 4

The next morning, Adam rode out very early to get his things from home. He wasn’t looking forward to the confrontation he expected to have with his father and could only hope it would be brief. He had to be back and ready to work by eight. Even heading out at the first hint of light that allowed him to follow the road would give him barely enough time to do what he had to do. He had slept fitfully for a few hours and already would face his first day of work tired. He hoped he would not also be in a foul mood. When he arrived at the Ponderosa, he was surprised to see Buck saddled and ready to go. Before he could even dismount, his father walked from the house with a valise and saddlebags. The two men were surprised to see each other.

“Adam, I was going to ride to town with things for you. I realized you left without things you would need. I wanted to see you.”

“Thank you, but I have to be back by eight. Mann was gracious enough to give me time to get some things but I have to work until six so I wouldn’t have much time nor the energy to get my things this evening.”

“I want to say a few things.”

“Pa, I really have to get going.”

“It won’t take long. I’ve been rehearsing since yesterday. I was wrong in how I reacted to you. I’m sorry. I’ve been under so much pressure, and I unfairly took it out on you. I should have listened to what you had to say and then perhaps we could have talked it over. I know that because of how I reacted, there was no chance to talk. Hoss let me know that. The idea you had about a wood products business never interested me but apparently does interest your brothers. We’ll talk about that when we get a chance. And about your working for Morris Mann: maybe you can do some good there. I’d like to talk to you about that too. Maybe we can talk after church on Sunday?”

Surprised at almost everything that his father had said, Adam didn’t want to disappoint him but had to be honest. “Thank you. I’m sorry I lost my temper too. But I don’t know if I’ll be at church on Sunday. Apparently Sunday morning at eight is when Morris likes to do an inspection of his mine. If we can get through it fast enough and he doesn’t find anything for me to do, then I’ll get to church. Charity will be there too. I hope you’ll have her sit with the family.”

“Sit with the family? Has something changed there?”

“Not yet, but I hope that it will. That’s something else that I need time for and may not get it. Pa, would you like to ride with me? We might be able to talk a little on the way.”

“Son, I’d like that a lot even if we only talk a little.”

“The money is in the bank if you want to see about paying the taxes.”

“Thank you. You’ve done our family a great service. I only hope the price you pay isn’t going to be too high.”

“Charity says that I ought to find a way to make things better at the Mann Mine. If I could, then it would be worthwhile and not an awful thing. I didn’t get much sleep last night thinking about it.”

“Any ideas?”

“None.”

“If anyone can think of something to make things better there, you can. I trust you.”

Surprised by that, Adam almost pulled his horse to a stop. Those were the words he needed to hear most, and to hear them at this point in time was a big boost to his mood. By the time he got to the mine office, he was fortified by his father’s confidence in him. He guessed it wouldn’t be enough to offset everything he would have to endure, but it certainly was a big help. He bid his father goodbye and headed inside the office just before eight dropping the valise and saddlebags in the bedroom that would be his quarters for six months. Then he began looking at the plans and paperwork stacked on the desk. That would be a big part of his life too. He had thought that his days would be spent drawing plans for the first few weeks but instead he was in the mine repeatedly working out fixes for shoring that was failing. The men were not grateful. The shoring threatened to collapse in too many places for them to be grateful for him fixing the ones that the crew leaders knew were on the verge of dropping on their heads. All too often, Adam found himself sloshing around ankle deep in water too. The first time he had asked the logical question.

“Are the sump shafts full?”

“What sump shafts?”

That exchange had shocked him. The first inspection of the mine had revealed that Morris Mann had never spent any money on having sump shafts drilled. Furthermore, the ventilation shafts, where they existed at all, were much too small and relied on natural airflow to work which was completely inefficient. Adam suspected that gases were collecting in some of the side tunnels but had no way of testing for it. An explosion or deaths of miners by suffocation would likely be the first evidence that his suspicions were correct. With everything that called him away from the office during the day, he didn’t get much time to work on the drawings for the new tunnel and the new ore transport system.

“You’re supposed to have these drawings done by the end of the month so that you can begin to dig that new tunnel and then put in the transport system. At this rate, you won’t even have the drawings done by the time the six months is up. I’ll take you to court to get my bonus back if you don’t come through with the things I told you I wanted you to do.”

“I can’t do the drawings because I have to go to the mine so much to fix the problems that are there in the old shoring.”

“You have your evenings. You need to spend those working on these drawings then.”

“I have been, but it’s difficult when I work twelve hours or more and don’t even have a chance to eat lunch most days.”

“I’ll have meals delivered to you, and I’ll have some lamps brought here to give you good light so you can work later. I expect to see some progress on these drawings by Monday.”

“I planned to go to the dance on Saturday night. I haven’t taken any time away from this mine in nearly three weeks. I haven’t even been able to attend church.”

“Then you better do a better job of getting your work done. Until I see better results, you aren’t getting any time off. You’re under contract and it’s an ironclad contract. I’m sure that you know that.” With a sneer, Morris Mann strutted from the office having put Adam Cartwright in his place. It felt good to him. For nearly three weeks, he had enjoyed his nearly daily efforts to lord it over his employee. In town, he did his best to remind anyone who would listen that Adam Cartwright was doing his bidding and couldn’t even complain about it. He smiled as he climbed into his carriage for the ride back to his office in town. He guessed that that pretty young Keith woman was going to be waiting for Adam at the dance. He wouldn’t be there so perhaps she might be interested in having a dance with him. He was wealthy and available, and at the moment, far superior to Adam Cartwright or so he thought.

The next day, there was a minor collapse in a side tunnel. Adam went in to assess the damage as one of the miners was being brought out. The man had a broken leg and wouldn’t be able to work for months so his family would have no means of support. The men carrying him and helping the other injured miners shoved Adam out of the way far more forcefully than necessary. He slammed into the wall of the mine and was stunned for a moment but heard clearly the warning that was issued.

“You want to know why them other engineers quit? We told them the next miner who died would have company. You fix these tunnels or you join the next man who dies. You hear us? You’re in charge. It’s up to you to do something.”

Sitting against the wall as the men passed by him, Adam endured their hostile looks without replying in any way. Once they were outside, he stood and gingerly rubbed his sore shoulder. “Well, sleep is highly overrated I suppose especially when compared to staying alive. But I wonder what Mann will say when all those stacks of supplies out there start to diminish.” He didn’t actually wonder. He knew what the reaction would be. For nearly a week, he directed the men in a program of reinforcing the shoring in the main tunnel especially and in some of the side tunnels that looked vulnerable. He began to set up a system similar to the honeycomb system although it was built in place instead of built outside and then installed. In function, it should work about the same or so he hoped. He made some plans for sump shafts too marking where they should go. He spent his evenings until late into the night working on the drawings so that Mann had no idea of his minor rebellion. It wasn’t until the following Sunday with was almost ten days into his new system that Mann noticed the diminished stacks of supplies.

“The shoring in the main tunnel was nearing collapse in some spots. I had the men reinforce it.”

“Oh, all right. I can’t afford a collapse. Anything that stops ore going to the mill is a problem for me. You’re doing a better job on those drawings. Keep going just like that and maybe you’ll get a day off soon.”

Mann laughed then but without mirth. It was a mocking laugh, the one that always made Adam want to strangle the man. Adam had missed the dance and had not seen his family nor Charity in over a month. Mann had kept his word and sent meals but most often they were beans and bread, another mockery that Mann must have enjoyed immensely. Most of the time Adam ate only a little of the beans but at least the bread was good. He longed for a decent meal but literally had no idea of when he would ever get one again.

Two weeks later, on the Sunday inspection, Mann couldn’t be fooled any longer. He saw the extensive work on the shoring that had been done. It could no longer be camouflaged as repairs. He whirled on Adam as he saw that a whole new system was being installed.

“You tricked me. This is one of those damn honeycomb systems. It’s expensive.”

“I only used the materials that were outside rotting in the sun anyway. The wood would have been too dry for the new tunnel by the time you started digging it anyway. This shoring will hold and will be safe for a new transport system. Even the vibration of rail cars won’t matter.”

“It better work. You’re trying my patience. If you weren’t making progress on those drawings, I’d take you to court right now and sue you for that bonus. Your family wouldn’t have the money and they’d lose the Ponderosa. You remember that. I saved the Ponderosa. Not you. Me! Everyone in town knows it. You had to come running to me for help to save your precious ranch. What would people think if you didn’t keep your word to me now after I helped you out? Huh? What about your precious reputation then?”

Adam wanted to argue with him. He wanted to say that none of that was true, but the sick truth of it was there. He had come to Mann to save the Ponderosa and everyone in town probably did know that. He had to do something more than he already had to wipe that stain from him and from his family. He didn’t know what it was, but he had to think of something. As Mann walked away again strutting like a peacock, he berated himself as he had done for weeks. Think, man, think. You’re good at planning and coming up with ideas. Everyone says so. Well now is the time to do it. It’s not a good time for the well to run dry.

On the Ponderosa, Adam’s family was worried about him. He was so close yet so far away because they hadn’t seen him nor heard from him since he had started working for Mann. They hoped to see him at church every Sunday, and each time they were disappointed. Hoss and Joe had been sure that he would be at the dance but he wasn’t. Each of them had danced with the very disappointed Charity who was as concerned as they were about Adam’s isolation while in Mann’s employ. On a Saturday, Hoss decided to do something about it.

“Pa, I’m going to take the carriage and a big picnic basket full of Hop Sing’s good food, and I’m gonna go pick up Miss Charity, and we’re gonna go see Adam.”

“Hoss, do you think Mann will allow that?”

“The Toad don’t go to the mine on Saturday afternoon.”

“The Toad?”

“Oh, Charity started calling him that at the dance. He come up to ask her for a dance a couple of times. She said each time his used his tongue to keep wetting his lips. She called him the toad cause of that and well cause he kinda looks like a toad with that hunched over look and he’s kinda lumpy looking and all.”

“Charity does have a wicked sense of humor.”

“She does. She’s a good match for Adam, and I bet she wants to see him as much as we do. So, that’s what I’m gonna do.”

“That sounds like a good idea, Hoss. I wish I had thought of it first.”

“Pa, maybe we ought to do this kind of thing more. He’s gotta be feeling lonely and awful stuck there all this time. I know we been busy and all, and we kept thinking we’d see him at church or somewhere, but this has gone on way too long. Mann is doing his best to break his spirit, I think. Toad is a nasty piece of work.”

Hop Sing had a basket ready by the time Hoss got to the kitchen. As usual he seemed to know what was going on in the house without anyone telling him. Hoss headed to the stable to hitch up the carriage and drove to the McCarren ranch to ask Charity to ride with him to the Mann Mine. That took about ten seconds to get her agreement and a minute until she got her shawl. The two of them arrived at the Mine by the middle of the afternoon and pulled up in front of the office as the shift was nearing its end. The men would go home and not return until Monday morning. No one was in the office so they waited. As the men came from the mine, neither Hoss nor Charity recognized Adam until he was right beside them. Charity gasped. Adam was thin with dark circles under his eyes and sunken cheeks. It was clear that he had not had enough to eat and had not had enough rest for quite some time. He smiled a wan smile. Hoss was almost afraid to slap him on the shoulder, but Adam gave him a hearty slap. He was strong even if he looked ill.

“It’s not so bad. I’m exhausted not dying. Come on in, and if that’s Hop Sing’s cooking, I may kiss both of you.”

Hoss pushed him when he said that but Charity thought it was an excellent idea except for one thing that Hoss eventually mentioned.

“Adam, when was the last time you had a bath?”

“Sadly, there is no place to take a bath here. I put some buckets outside to catch rainwater, and the well provides a good supply of cold water, but there’s no place to bathe. I do what I can, but as you can tell, it’s not enough. If Mann is trying to break me, that is one of the things that is having the greatest effect. That and eating beans every day is wearing me down. I never was a fan of beans, and a constant diet of them is not conducive to eating regularly.”

Charity touched his cheek softly. “You’re not getting much sleep either. I can tell how tired you are.”

“Perhaps it is dreaming of you that’s keeping me from sleeping soundly.”

Hoss coughed. “I’m right here, you know.” Hoss laughed then at the sheepish look he got from the two of them. “Hey, Charity, tell him about the dance and Toad.”

*****

Chapter 5

For a few hours, Adam got to relax and laugh. He enjoyed how Charity poked fun at Mann and her description of him at the dance and her reasons for calling him the Toad had him chuckling long after she and Hoss had departed. They had left the remainder of the food so he had something good to look forward to eating for breakfast and probably for lunch as well. Hoss had promised to deliver more food now that he knew how poorly Mann had been feeding his brother. He had been so apologetic.

“Adam, we been so busy on the ranch, what with you being gone and trying to get things back to normal now that the grass is growing again. I spent near on to three weeks up at the timber camps getting them going at full bore again. Pa spent a lot of the last two weeks working with our lumber mill to get it operating again. A couple of days ago, Joe headed off to a meeting in Sacramento trying to see about a new contract for logs now that we can work again. He’s supposed to be back late today. I’m giving him a ride home soon as I leave here. Ifn we had any idea you was hungry, we woulda been here helping you out. Ya know that, dontcha?”

“I know, Hoss. You would think that if Mann wanted more work out of me, he would know that I need to eat more than bread and beans most days. It’s the same with the mines. He would get more from this mine if he invested more in it, both in materials and in paying the men. They do what they have to do to keep their jobs and no more. All they want is their pay and to walk out of that mine alive at the end of the day.”

“You helping them with that?”

“Well, I can’t help with the pay, but I’ve started installing a honeycomb system of shoring as much as I can, and Mann doesn’t know it yet, but I’ve done some preliminary work on drilling some sump shafts to stop the flooding. I want to do ventilation shafts too, but that’s going to be nearly impossible to do without him noticing even if he only enters the mine on Sundays.”

Charity wondered about that. “Why only on Sundays?”

Laughing, Hoss offered a hypothesis before Adam could answer. “He’s probably afraid the miners would dump him in an empty shaft and bury him if he went in there when they was working.”

“That’s probably not too far from the truth, Hoss, but he’s terrified of cave-ins and other disasters that could occur. The blasting and the gases and flooding as well scare him. He wants to go in when he thinks there isn’t any danger of anything happening to him. He wants to see the silver ore and how much progress is being made by the labor of others who risk everything, but he doesn’t want to take any risks.”

Charity was worried. “Adam, if you work for him and do his bidding, aren’t you afraid of what those men might do to you when you’re in there with them?”

Pausing before answering because he knew that neither Charity nor Hoss would like his answer, Adam had to be honest. “There were reasons to be concerned at first, but the hostility is less now that they see I’m trying to do what I can to make things better. It’s not easy walking that tightrope. I think they’re beginning to see the difficult position I’m in.”

Frowning, Hoss wondered if he should ask his question with Charity there but if Adam wanted any kind of relationship with her to develop, honesty was needed. “Adam, what’s happened? What have they done to you?”

The scowl he got let Hoss know that Adam didn’t want that question asked but had to answer it. It took a few moments before he was ready which alerted Charity to the situation as she looked from Hoss to Adam and back again. Hoss nodded and looked to Adam letting her know to wait for his brother to answer.

“A shove to get out of the way that’s a little too forceful, an accidental hit with a tool or a piece of wood, or a rock dropped on your foot when it slips out of someone’s hand.”

“I thought you were limping a little when we you walked out to say howdy.”

Charity stepped up beside Adam and placed a hand on his shoulder. “How often?”

“Not so much any more. The hostility isn’t as bad, but some of them can’t let go of the anger, and if I was being treated like they are, I guess I might have the same problem. Maybe I can win a few more points with them if I tell them the nickname Charity gave him and why.”

That at least got a smile from Charity and Hoss, but there wasn’t much left to say. Hoss had to get going to pick up Joe at the stage depot, and he had to get Charity home. Hoss left to get the horses watered for the trip and to give Adam and Charity a few moments alone.

“Will you be at church tomorrow?”

“I wish I could, but Mann will be here for another inspection and that usually takes two or three hours. In the shape I’m in, I would scandalize the whole congregation anyway. If I can, maybe I’ll get away and jump in the river tomorrow. I have to drop my clothing at the laundry anyway.”

“We can do that for you. Adam, I’ll come back tomorrow afternoon if you have time for me.”

“Sweetheart, I’ll make time for you. I’m sorry that it may not be more than a couple of hours. I have these damn drawings to work on. I have to start on the new tunnel this week or Mann will have my hide.”

“Try to get some sleep. You look like you haven’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks.”

Pursing his lips, Adam wanted to say it had been months. He only smiled that little crooked half smile and bid her goodbye. As she sat beside Hoss in the carriage, she looked back and saw that Adam was watching them drive away. Then he turned to go back inside the office. She had never seen him look so defeated. Somehow she knew that they had to help lift his spirits so that he could find a way to help the men there and help himself.

The next morning, Adam sweated out the inspection, but Mann again missed seeing the evidence of the preliminary work on the sump shafts. He probably assumed it was part of the preliminary work for the new ore transport system that Adam had promised to start building as soon as the new tunnel work began.

“The new transport system will do double duty at first carrying out debris as well as carrying ore. It will mean a drop in production until we uncover enough of the new veins to start getting the richer ore shipped out. Once that happens though, the profits should increase exponentially wiping out any losses from the months of preliminary work.”

“Months? How many months?”

“It’s going to take at least the rest of my time here to get all of the system in place and get the new tunnel operational. I’ve had to start training men on blasting more efficiently as well as how to install shoring properly so that we aren’t constantly using time to reinforce or replace it. I’m going to have to send in orders for more timbers and planks too. I’ve used up almost all of the supplies that were here when I started.”

“What? Those were supposed to be for the new tunnel!”

“Yes, and you wanted me to fix the problem with the frequent small cave-ins and collapses you were having. We haven’t had one in two weeks so the mine has continued to operate with no downtime. That should tell you that I’m doing the job you told me to do.”

“Well, I suppose that’s right, but the bottom line is production. I get the figures from the mill this week. If the production has dropped too much, you’ll hear from me.”

Inwardly, Adam flinched knowing how badly production must have dropped with how he had diverted the men’s labor into the projects over the past four weeks. They had worked as hard or harder with him there directing their efforts, but it wasn’t going to look like it when the production tallies were handed over to Mann. Adam wasn’t sure what the man would do, but he suspected he was going to bear the brunt of whatever reaction it was going to be. Instead of showing any of his worry, he simply nodded and kept that stoic exterior in place. He hoped to have a pleasant interlude that afternoon with Charity because he guessed that the next few weeks were going to be hell.

Once Mann left, Adam got to work on the drawings that he needed to finish and then other plans that he never let Mann see for the sump shafts and ventilation shafts that he intended to install once he had the shoring completed. He drew up lists of materials that he needed and put together an order for timbers and planks, for bolts and nuts, and for any other supplies he thought he would need. He had a lot of paperwork completed when he heard horses and assumed that Charity had arrived. He opened the door to find his family had arrived with her.

“Hello, son. I know you probably thought that you would have short visit with your friend, but she and Hoss decided that you needed more than that. We’ve brought a bath, clean clothing, clean bedding, a picnic, and some supplies for the week. I hope you don’t mind.” Ben was shocked by his son’s appearance even though Hoss had warned him and Charity had added her own warning to it on the way to the mine. Adam was thin, obviously in need of a haircut as well as a bath, but what bothered Ben the most was that his whole body seemed to indicate a loss of spirit as if Mann was beating him down.

“I didn’t get to church again, but if I had, this is what I might have prayed for. Thank you. And welcome to my humble abode.”

Hoss and Joe dismounted and moved to the back of the buckboard to pull out a washtub. Hoss pulled a washtub from the wagon as Joe picked up a towel and some soap showing them off to Adam.

“Hop Sing wouldn’t let us have his big new one even just to borrow it but he said you could use his old one until you come back home. I’ll carry it out back. You can get clean anyway. After yesterday, I know how much you wanted a bath. Now it ain’t gonna be a nice hot one, but I bet that won’t matter so much to you right now. Miss Charity said she could give your hair a trim once you wash it. Then we’re gonna have a nice ole picnic under a tree. How’s that?”

“That sounds wonderful.”

While Adam followed his brothers behind the office, Ben grabbed a picnic basket and a blanket to set up for the picnic with Charity’s help. Then Ben took care of the horses, and Charity volunteered to take clean sheets and a blanket inside to put on Adam’s bed. When she got inside, she realized that there were no curtains on the window in the bedroom so there was a clear view of the washtub where Adam was bathing. At first, that wasn’t an issue because he was siting in the tub. She admired the strong shoulders and the muscles in his back that were even more well defined after the hard work he had been doing especially after losing weight. Then as she worked, she glanced out the window. Adam had stood up because he was cramped in the small washtub. She gasped and looked away, but couldn’t help herself and looked sideways at the view. He had his back to her but his rounded buttocks had soap suds clinging to them. She had never seen a naked man before. She had never seen anyone naked in fact. She realized that her mouth was open and snapped it shut. She couldn’t stop herself at first and as she worked at putting the clean sheets on the bed and then laying the clean blanket over them, she continued to look out the window as surreptitiously as she could and each time it was the same magnificent view. Finally her sense of propriety took over again and with one final peek, she left the bedroom and returned to where Ben was sitting on the blanket waiting for the others to finish their tasks. Her face must have been red because he asked her about it.

“Oh, I guess it’s a bit warm in the office. The windows are all closed up tight. I suppose Adam doesn’t want his papers blowing about.”

Ben noted the higher pitch to her voice and suspected there was far more to the story but said nothing about it. Behind the office as soon as Hoss no longer saw a shadow moving in the bedroom, he gave Adam the all clear. He had laughed and told him earlier that he was being observed.

“Well, older brother you ain’t gonna have all your secrets for your weddin’ night.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Well, I am assuming that you plan on marrying up with that little gal. She’s a good one.”

“We haven’t even kissed yet, but yes, if I was going to marry anyone, she would be my choice. What secrets?”

“She’s a right curious one. She’s been checking you out. I think she got a real good look when you decided to stand up.”

“You could have told me she was there.”

“I didn’t know you was gonna stand up.”

“This tub is too small.”

“That may be, but it was your choice to stand up and give her a good look at your, um, assets. Good thing you didn’t turn around. She woulda seen all your secrets.”

Joe had been giggling and when Hoss said that he began to cackle far more loudly. “Yeah, Hoss, she woulda been so scared then, I don’t think she would have ever have married him then.”

Adam had an angry retort ready, but Hoss dumped a bucket of water over his head to rinse him down shutting off his comment. At the same time, Hoss told Joe to leave saying they didn’t need any arguments on this day that was supposed to cheer Adam up not make him mad.

“While you’re at it, get one of those sheets she took off the bed and a chair from the office so that she can trim his hair. Once that’s done, we can eat, and I’m hungry.”

“You’re always hungry.”

“No, I ain’t always hungry, but I can always eat. But sometimes I get hungry, and right now I’m hungry so move that skinny butt of yours along. Us men got to eat soon.”

The exchange broke the tension. Joe left to do as Hoss asked. Adam dried himself and pulled on clean pants and socks before pulling on his boots. He told Hoss he hadn’t felt that good since before the drought which was the last time he had a bath. He didn’t put on his shirt but carried it to the front of the office where Joe had set a chair and had a sheet ready to drape around him. Charity saw him and her cheeks flamed red again at the sight of his bare chest. Ben had a fair idea then why she had been rosy cheeked earlier. He smiled and asked if she would rather that he cut his son’s hair.

“No, I can do it, I think. I cut Todd’s hair all the time. Although somehow this just isn’t the same thing.”

Adam sat and rested his arms on the back of the chair waiting with a grin for Charity to cut his hair. She had a feeling that he knew what she had done, but he said nothing. Her hands were shaking a little when she first moved to cut some hair. He talked then.

“Cut a little until you calm down. Once you get started, it should get easier. Take it slow until you feel more sure of yourself. All right?”

“Thank you. I am a little nervous.” She was grateful that Adam said nothing at that point and his brothers stayed quiet too. He was right. After she snipped a few locks in the back, she gained her confidence and began to approach it as the task that it was. Soon she was busy cutting his hair as if he were Todd although she couldn’t forget he was Adam. She could smell the soap but there was also the strong scent of him and the warmth of him only inches from her as she worked. She did her best to block that out and finished the haircut without making any awful mistakes. She pulled the sheet from him and stared at his chest as he stood. She heard Joe snickering when she did so, but Adam was gentlemanly taking his shirt when Hoss offered it.

“Let’s go have a picnic now.”

The afternoon passed very pleasantly and Adam hated to see it end. When they were all ready to go, he held Charity’s hand and asked if she could come by again the following Sunday if the weather was nice. As she turned to walk to the wagon, he whispered one thing that made her blush.

“And I hope you liked my ass …ets.”

She refused to turn and look at him. Ben saw his grin and her red cheeks. He guessed that Hoss and Joe would let him know the inside joke once they got home. He wasn’t disappointed.

*****

Chapter 6

Sunday afternoon had left Adam feeling rather good about things. His father had said he was like the phoenix rising from the ashes. Charity had likened him to Perseus and Adam had said that made his father Zeus. They had chuckled about that. Monday morning all of that came crashing down with a furious Morris Mann who arrived at about ten in the morning with the production reports.

“Less than half! Last month was less than half the month before which was the lowest in a year. You were supposed to be the big shot smart engineer everybody bragged about. You were supposed to be so smart. You are a dismal failure.”

“No one has died since I came to work here. There have been no collapses and no cave-ins since I got the new shoring system installed.”

“I don’t give a damn about that. Who cares if no one died. This mine isn’t making money. That’s what matters. Do you think these men care about one or two dying if they get to keep working? If I lose money and shut this mine down, they don’t have jobs. They can’t support their families. You are trying to ruin everyone. You’ll be lucky if they don’t knock a tunnel down on your head when they find out what you’ve done.”

“Besides teaching the men how to properly install shoring so the tunnels stay open, I’ve had to take time training men to be more efficient with their blasting. I’ve had to train men on how to lay rail so that they’re level and the ore cars don’t fall off the tracks. The mine will make more money now. You have to give it time. You can’t make money without investing money. Your mine will be more productive now. Can’t you give it some time?”

“No, but you can. You’re going to give it all of your time. I want you to start on that new tunnel today. I want you in there when the first shift reports for work every day and I want you in there when the second shift finishes for the day. I want you directing every damn minute of every crew that’s working until that tunnel is open and producing ore and my mine is making money again.”

“We don’t have materials yet for the new tunnel.”

“You just get to work on it. I’ll order materials.”

“I already ordered materials. They just aren’t here yet.”

“You what? How dare you take that upon yourself?”

“You put me in charge of the tunnel and the expansion. The companies to whom I gave the orders said that was enough. They’ll bill the Mann Mine for everything. Your name is on the orders.”

“I’ll have you charged with fraud.”

“I think if you look up the definition of that, it won’t fly. I was acting in good faith on your behalf getting nothing that benefited me in any way and does benefit you.”

“You made yourself an enemy today, Cartwright. You heard the orders I gave you. If you do anything less, you’re in breach of contract and owe me ten thousand dollars. You signed on here to work for me for six months to get the money to pay the taxes on the Ponderosa so your family wouldn’t lose the ranch. Well we know they don’t have the money to bail you out if you have to pay ten thousand dollars back to me. How about that? You work sixteen hours a day or pay me back the money I gave you to work for me. I’ll have you within the month. No man can do it, not even you. Look at you. You’re looking like a scarecrow and you’ve only been working ten-hour days for less than a couple of months. I’ll get my money’s worth out of you one way or another or you’ll die trying.”

Furious and frustrated, there was nothing more that Adam could do or say. He had done what he could do and said what he could say. It was Scylla and Charybdis again. Sacrifice some or sacrifice it all. There was no good solution that he could see. The Toad could see it too. He smirked and Adam couldn’t resist thinking about him using that tongue to catch flies. He actually smiled a little. That unnerved Mann just a little, and being unnerved made him even angrier. He had one more card to play.

“There will be no more visitors here. I’m hiring a guard to be at the gate and only employees will be allowed on the premises. Anyone else is a trespasser and could be shot.”

Mann’s smirk was as broad as he could make it then. He strode away as well as he could on his stumpy legs with his pudgy body. Adam refused to be defeated, but he knew he had lost that round. He watched as Mann drove away before he turned to enter the mine. As he entered, there was a group of miners spread across the wide opening of the main entrance. It was clear that they had probably heard the whole exchange. Adam braced himself for what was to come. If they feared losing their jobs because of him, then he thought that the physical harassment he had already suffered might be about to get a lot worse. One of the men stepped forward.

“Is what he said out there true? You signed on here to save your family’s ranch?”

“It’s true.”

“You have to work here for six months or give him that money back?”

“Yes, and then my family could lose the ranch anyway unless they could come up with the money some other way.”

“I thought your family was rich.”

“We’re rich in land and cattle, but we have to work every day just like you. When the drought hit, we couldn’t make enough money to pay our hands and pay our bills. We couldn’t pay our taxes. I took this job because of that. It was the only way we could get the money to save the ranch. My father didn’t want me to work for the Toad.”

“The Toad?”

“My lady friend started calling him that because of how he wets his lips when he’s nervous. He’s also rather lumpy.”

“I like that. We’ll call him the Toad. It’ll give us something to get back at him without some of the other words we usually call him, well, and you too until we heard the whole story. By the way, sorry about dropping that rock on your foot the other day. I had no idea you were trying to help us. I thought it was Mann’s plan. I heard him out there. You did all that without him knowing. Does he know about them sump shafts?” Adam shrugged. “I don’t suppose you figured out a way to give us some air shafts without him knowing, didja?”

“I would if I could see a way to camouflage them until they were done. He comes in every Sunday morning though to inspect the mine. An open shaft above his head would be rather obvious, I think.”

“Listen, you work on that idea, and we’ll work on finding a way for you to get some sleep and for your lady friend to be able to see you. I know he means to keep you two apart, but there are ways around that ifn ya got help, and help ya got now. All right, Boss, what’s the next job you want us to do?” The men nodded. They were ready to follow the leader they had.

“Let’s finish the sump shafts. If we do some blasting and water comes in, I want it to have some place to go. Meanwhile, keep the men moving the ore that is ready to be moved. We can keep the regular output moving as long as there’s no blasting until we’re ready.”

“Listen, it may take us a bit until we get a chance to tell all the men what we heard, and not all are gonna want to believe it right away. You just take it real careful like and if one of us tells you to back off and we’ll handle something, you need to trust us, all right?”

“All right if you can give me the same trust. I’m trying my best here.”

“You know, I think you are. All right, it’s a deal. Let’s see how we can do our best for everybody here even if it ends up making money for the Toad as long as nobody gets hurt and nobody dies and we all get to keep our jobs that we need.”

“Yes, that’s the plan then. It sounds so simple, but it may be hard to deliver all of that.”

“Well, we’ll do our best. Nobody can expect more than that.”

True to their word, the men did their best. They found ways to get Adam a chance to take breaks in the tunnel. Unfortunately sleeping amidst fifty men working with picks, shovels, ore cars, and various other implements moving tons of rock made for a very difficult environment in which to get any rest, but all of them knew that the guard at the gate was also reporting on Adam’s movements to Mann. If he headed to the office too much and if there was too much inactivity there, Mann would be back to berate him and possibly take action against him. He got up to six hours in his bed at night but no more dropping into his bed often after midnight and usually roused to return to work by five. An early night was to get into bed by eleven. When that first Sunday afternoon arrived, Mann left at noon furious after finding the sump shafts but mollified somewhat to find that the new tunnel was started and the new track for the ore cars was being laid. In addition, he now was asking for weekly reports on production. He promised Adam that he would be back on Monday with that report in hand. Adam waited outside his office after Mann left until he saw a man talking to the guard at the gate. It was the distraction he had been told to watch for and he headed behind the office when he saw it. Charity showed up there a moment later slightly disheveled but smiling.

“I kind of like this sneaking around. It makes me feel like I’m younger again and playing games.”

“It’s dangerous though. The guard has been told to shoot trespassers.”

“Hoss and Joe are both out there to make sure that doesn’t happen. I brought a small lunch for us. Hoss will deliver a bigger basket to the gate later as the second distraction so that I can leave the same way I got in. Joe will keep watch the whole time.”

“Will you thank them for me, please? This was very nice of them to do.”

“Yes, I thought so. I’m glad you think so too. Now what would you like to do?”

“I’d like to have lunch. I’m starving. And then, remember how we sat at that cabin after I rescued you from the kidnappers. I’d like to sit like that with you and talk. I’d like to hold you close and have your head on my shoulder and have your hair so close I can lean down and smell it and touch it.”

“Did you do that that night?”

“No, I didn’t but I wanted to very much. I was afraid to do anything like that but now I think you wouldn’t be afraid if I touched you.”

“No, I wouldn’t. I would like that very much.”

That’s what they did then. First they had lunch and Charity chatted about what was happening in their two families. Virginia was very close to having her baby. Then they settled into a close embrace and talked. As they talked, they were getting very close and eventually Adam leaned down very so that his face was next to Charity’s. He caressed her cheek and she felt his breath on her lips. With her eyes closed, she was ready for their first kiss when they both heard Hoss calling for Adam. It was the signal that it was time for Charity to leave. Both scrambled to their feet very disappointed that their time was over especially at that point. For a moment, Adam had been able to forget where he was and the circumstances that had him trapped. He had lost himself in the feeling of loving a woman and had been about to declare it and kiss her. Now that moment was lost. It would have to wait. He bid her a rapid farewell and hurried toward the front gate to greet Hoss and get the basket of food and other items his brother had brought for him while Charity slipped away to the break in the fence the men had made for her. It would be two more weeks before Adam and Charity saw each other again and it would be under drastically different circumstances.

As Hoss drove the carriage a quarter mile down the road and picked up Charity, he was concerned because her eyes were glistening with tears. He waited until they were well down the road but then his concern was more than he could ignore so he had to ask.

“Didn’t it go well, I mean, your time with Adam? He’s all right, isn’t he?”

Charity leaned into Hoss then and began to cry. Hoss stopped the carriage and wrapped an arm around her to try to soothe her. Joe had been riding ahead of them but rode back to see what was wrong.

“I don’t know, Joe, she just up and started crying. I asked her if things went all right and if Adam was all right, but she ain’t answered me yet.”

Sitting up and rubbing one eye and then the other, Charity took a deep breath and then apologized for the tears. “It’s just so hard seeing him like that. I know he got himself into that mess, but he’s so down, and I wanted to be able to stay there with him and help him. When Hoss called out and I had to leave, he looked so sad, it made me want to cry, and then Hoss was so sweet, and then, well, I couldn’t stop myself.”

“Hoss, she’s right. We should find a way to get him out of there. He shouldn’t be in there like a prisoner. Maybe Hiram can do something about that at least.”

“Pa already talked to him. Adam signed on to work for six months and he didn’t specify days off and such. He made assumptions he should not of made. He made a big mistake.”

“So he wanted that money so much to prove a point to Pa and save the Ponderosa that he forgot to do the most important stuff which is watch out for yourself?”

“That’s about it. Now we can keep trying to help him as much as we can. Pa’s looking into some things but unless we can come up with ten thousand dollars, we can’t buy off his contract or let him fight it.”

“It’s getting close to two months. Maybe we wouldn’t need the whole ten thousand.”

“Maybe not but right now we don’t have five thousand even. We will in a month or so, but right now we don’t.”

“So maybe we could offer to buy out the last three months of the contract. Maybe Mann would go for that.”

“You know, Joe, that’s something to try at least. It would give Adam a lot easier time to think about if he only had one month left instead of four.”

The three of them rode on in a more hopeful mood then with Hoss and Joe planning to ask their father to see if he and Hiram might approach Mann with that proposal. They would be willing to make sacrifices if it meant getting Adam out of the fix he was in.

*****

Chapter 7

On Monday morning, Mann was back. He again blasted Adam with the production numbers. They were higher than they had been, but he still wasn’t happy. Even though they had started the new tunnel, there wasn’t much ore coming from there yet, and so the quality of the ore had not yet improved significantly although it was better and Mann did get more money from the production. He didn’t let Adam know that preferring to try to badger him into working even harder if he could. He had devised a new plan in his mind. He would work Adam until the man was so exhausted he could work no more and was forced to quit. That would put him in breach of contract so that Mann could sue him for ten thousand dollars as well as the wages he had already paid him. Then if that put his family in financial straits, he might be able to grab the mine they owned and perhaps more land from them for the ten thousand dollars. He would come out so far ahead that way that he would be much wealthier than if he simply let Adam complete his contract. He was patting himself on the back for that when Hiram Wood met him at his office in town with an offer from Ben Cartwright. Mann listened before laughing in the lawyer’s face.

“They’re getting desperate, are they? Well, they better come up with the whole ten thousand if they want him out of that contract. I won’t let him go for one cent less than that, and you know that I’m well within my legal rights to ask for that. Until he fulfills the contract, he owes me that much. Six months or ten thousand dollars is the deal, take it or leave it.”

“Your reputation in this town is not very good. When word of this gets around, it will be even lower. Do you want that?”

“Are you blackmailing me, mister lawyer?”

“That’s not blackmail. I’m simply stating facts. The Cartwrights are going to tell people the truth and people are going to believe them. When the story comes out and it will, you’re going to look very bad. The Cartwrights are admired around here. People wondered why Adam took that job and slowly the story is coming out. He was foolish to trust you to be a decent man, but he took the job in good faith to help his family. They in turn did their best then to help other ranchers. A lot of people owe a lot to his sacrifice. They won’t take kindly to the man who keeps making him suffer for it.”

“Get out of my office. You don’t get to come in here and insult me. I’m an important man in this community. Get out.”

Hiram stood, picked up his hat, placed it carefully on his head, and looked down at Morris Mann who sat with his florid face in a sneer behind his desk. “The offer stands. You would do well to reconsider. You know where my office is should you decide to be reasonable and logical. It would be in your best interest.”

Returning to his office, Hiram knew that Ben was going to be disappointed. They had already discussed the difficulties of raising five thousand dollars in the current economic climate. Ten thousand was still going to be out of reach. Adam had to manage to survive working for the Toad a bit longer. Hiram smiled a bit at that. Ben had shared the term that Charity used to describe Morris Mann. It suited him so well that Hiram thought of him now as that. He wondered how long it would be before everyone in town began referring to the man as the Toad. When Mann found out, he was going to be furious, but it was one of those things that couldn’t be blamed on any one person and there was nothing he would be able to do about it. Secretly, Hiram hoped that the schoolchildren made up a song about the Toad and used it for one of their games so that they would be singing it in the streets. It might help drive the man away from Virginia City, and the place would be so much better off without him.

At the mine, Adam continued to work closely with the men on both shifts. He was teaching them blasting techniques that allowed them to use a lot less explosive to achieve the desired result. It was safer for them and cheaper for the mine operation so everyone won. He had already trained many of the men on proper shoring techniques so the next step was finding men who do a good job of seeing how the vein ran in the rock so that the tunnel would follow the natural vein. He set men who lacked talent in any of those areas at task such as clearing the rock from the sump shafts and leveling the floor for the rails for the ore cars. He was doing his best to organize the crews by skills and getting a natural leader in charge of each. One man on the first shift, Eric, who had been the spokesman when the men had first approached him in a cooperative spirit was becoming invaluable in the operation of the mine.

“Eric, he ought to make you a foreman.”

“He doesn’t have any foremen. He doesn’t want to pay anyone any more money. He tells everyone what to do and everyone works to get the ore out.”

“It was a very inefficient operation the way it was being run.”

“It was.”

“It was a dangerous operation too.”

“It was.”

“Why did you work here?”

“Most of us had never worked in a mine ’til we got here. We had no skills. You show up at one of the other mines and they ask you questions using all them mining terms and you look like you been poleaxed, well, you don’t get hired. We needed jobs. Nobody who knew what they were doing worked here so he hired anybody who showed up. Course he paid us the lowest wages he could too but we were desperate.”

“Maybe by the time we’re done here, you can get a better job at better wages.”

“That’s a nice dream. For now, I’m happy that I can know I’m going home at the end of each day in one piece and walking on my own two legs.”

“Eric, at some point, you should start thinking bigger. You have more to offer than that.”

“Would you help me? I trust you.”

“I would be glad to help you. Now let’s see about getting the rest of the work done here. If we can get this mine producing efficiently and profitably, it will be a good recommendation for you and for the others here to get jobs elsewhere.”

“Do you think the Toad knows that?”

“Probably not. There’s so much about running a business that he doesn’t know that I’m surprised he isn’t bankrupt already. It’s coming though. I have a feeling in my gut, and my brother Hoss always tells me to trust those feelings.”

“Good! I’d like to see the Toad brought down.”

There was a tremor then and both Adam and Eric paused and looked around them. The men there did too wondering if the tunnel was about to collapse despite Adam’s assurances that the honeycomb system would withstand anything short of an earthquake.

“I thought you said the shoring we put in like you said would stop those.”

“That had nothing to do with the shoring, Eric. That was a minor earthquake. I’m hoping that is all there is going to be but we should evacuate the mine to be safe.”

Once Adam and Eric were sure that all the men had left the various tunnels, they followed the last men out. Once clear of the main entrance, they could hear the warning bells and whistles from the other mines. Apparently all were being evacuated. They could only hope that none had suffered a collapse. They waited an hour and were about to venture back inside when Mann drove his carriage into the yard at breakneck speed. His fury seemed far out of proportion to what had happened. He ordered everyone back to work, and because they were going back to work anyway, that was quickly accomplished. Mann seemed frustrated by that and snapped the reins and drove away as fast as he had arrived. It was the next shift before Adam found out why he was so upset. The girls in town had developed a song about Mister Toad and used it to jump rope. Apparently Mann had found out that his nickname in town now was Mister Toad. Because he reacted so furiously to it, some of the boys liked to run by and taunt him with it only to see his red face and his fist shaking after them as they ran away laughing. Mann had tried complaining to Sheriff Roy Coffee.

“Now you say these boys yell ‘Mister Toad, Mister Toad’ and run away laughing, and you want me to catch them and punish them. Now your name ain’t Mister Toad, is it? Cause unless it is, they aren’t harassing you nor are they disturbing the peace unless this here Mister Toad comes in here and makes a complaint against them, but as I see it, they are being respectful. They are saying Mister. Now if boys run by me and was to say ‘Mister Coffee, Mister Coffee’ or ‘Sheriff Coffee, Sheriff Coffee’, I wouldn’t be upset at all.”

“But, but . . .”

“Yes, is there something else you want to add to what you told me?”

Red-faced with indignation and frustration, Mann had stormed out of Roy’s office. Deputy Clem Foster had turned to Roy.

“I guess the Toad didn’t want to admit that half the town calls him Mister Toad.”

“Yep, I wanted him to stand there in front of my desk and admit to me that he was Mister Toad. Now that would have made a good story. He wouldn’t do it though. It’s not much of a story telling that he came in to complain that the boys are calling him Mister Toad, but it will do. Anything that gets people laughing at him helps the cause. Ben’s plan may work yet. Maybe they will be able to buy him out if he gets upset enough.”

“Ben has enough money to do that but doesn’t have enough to buy out Adam’s contract?”

“No, he doesn’t have the money, but he’s gotten quite a few of the other mine owners and investors in a group who are willing to buy the Mann Mine if Mann is willing to sell. Ben will only have a small fraction of ownership, but now that Adam is helping to develop the mine, more people are interested in it as an investment.”

“So the plan is to make life unpleasant enough for Mann here that he wants to sell it?”

“It was the only idea that anyone could think of to get Adam out of there. Ben doesn’t have enough to buy that contract because Mann wants the full ten thousand.”

“From the looks of him a minute ago, it’s starting to work.”

“The real question is whether it can work fast enough to help out Adam. Ben says that it’s been real hard on him working for Mann who’s been pushing him so hard he doesn’t have time to sleep or eat proper. Ben’s afraid he’s gonna get sick. Meanwhile, we’ll have to see what other kind of pressure it takes to get Mann to consider the offer that’s gonna be made.”

Ben’s fear was starting to come true. Eric noticed that Adam seemed to be coughing more and more and not only from the dust when there was a blast. He coughed frequently and no longer seemed to be able to take the naps they tried to give him because he woke up coughing almost as soon as he tried to lay down.

“You’re sick. You need to be in bed.”

“Until I’m sick enough that it can’t be denied, I don’t dare try that. Mann is too intent on going after me. I’ll be fine. Tomorrow is Saturday and I get to quit early. I’ll get some sleep, and then on Sunday, there’s only the inspection. I should be able to get out of here finally on Sunday afternoon. The new tunnel is well underway and there are no drawings to be done. There’s nothing for him to have me do on Sunday. Getting out of here will help.”

“That it will. All right. Why don’t you head out to the main entrance. There isn’t much going on there. Maybe you can find a place to rest where you can lean back against the wall.”

That was a good idea and got somewhat of a respite for Adam, but by Saturday he was worse as was the weather which was foggy and damp exacerbating his cough. By Sunday, it was raining. He didn’t wake until Mann was in the office hollering for him to get his lazy bones out of bed. He struggled to rise and knew he had a fever too. He got dressed and pulled on a slicker walking with Mann who was complaining as usual. His schedule was off by ten minutes because he had to wait for Adam to dress. In the mine, the inspection went quickly. There wasn’t much new to look at except the new tunnel being excavated and the veins of silver that were being exposed. It was clear that they were richer than the ore that had been taken from the mine earlier. Mann should have been pleased, but as he looked around, he realized that there was less work for Adam to do so he wasn’t going to be able to exhaust him as quickly as he had hoped. He needed more work for the man to do. He had a wicked thought then.

“You wanted ventilation shafts. Now would be a good time to put those in, wouldn’t it. The other projects are done, and the new tunnel is exposing much more underground area. You could measure outside today and draw up the plans so the men could start on those tomorrow. Yes, that’s a good plan. The men need those ventilation shafts. See to it.”

With a self-satisfied smirk, Mann left a shocked and dismayed Adam behind. Not only would he not be able to leave, but with the rain, he wouldn’t get any visitors either. He would have to work in the foul weather while he was sick instead of getting some rest which he desperately needed. He didn’t see a way out of this dilemma either. He looked out at the clouds and fog and complained to them because there was no one else who could listen.

“Damn, it’s Scylla and Charybdis again. It seems that I am destined to sail between them sacrificing some or all.”

After scrabbling across the mountainside for most of the afternoon, Adam was wet, cold, and exhausted. He dragged himself into his office and stripped off his clothing shivering as he did so and dried off as well as he could before pulling on clean dry clothing. He was coughing more frequently and shivering as well. He stuffed kindling into the stove and got it going as hot as he could but still shivered. He wrapped a blanket around himself, sat at the table, and using his rough calculations, he began the drawings for ventilation shafts. He didn’t know when he did it, but at some point he must have put his head down. He awakened to a dark and cool office. He was cold again, and had to restart the stove. He made a pot of coffee and went back to work not realizing it was after midnight. When he saw light, he realized that dawn was near and that his work day was about to begin. He hadn’t been to bed yet. He didn’t know how he was going to survive the week.

The first few days of the week were terrible for Adam. On the third day, Eric came up with an ingenious plan. A group of men went with Adam to his office at the start of the work day. They walked out with plans in hand talking about the papers that each was carrying. One of them had switched clothing with Adam who was finally in his bed where Eric told him to stay for the next twenty-four hours. They had started the stove so that the building would remain warm. Every few hours, the man pretending to be Adam would return to the office to put wood in the stove but carry out papers making it look as if that was the reason for the trip. They would have someone else on the second shift do the same so that Adam could finally get some rest he so desperately needed. They used the same ruse on and off for the next three days. By the end of the workday on Saturday, Adam was feeling better. Mann’s predictability had helped them out. He showed up on Sunday for an inspection and on Mondays with production numbers. Otherwise unless something unusual happened, he didn’t visit his mine leaving it in Adam’s capable hands.

On Sunday morning, Charity was sitting with the Cartwrights which had become a habit on Sunday mornings. It seemed to make all of them feel better to be together. However when it seemed like giant fists started hitting the side of the building and Bibles and other items fell to the floor, all they felt was panic. They all knew where Adam probably was at that moment and they knew, as everyone in town knew, an earthquake like this could collapse a mine. People rushed from the buildings in town to stand in the street waiting for the tremors to pass. They did rather quickly as the earthquake had been relatively mild in its impact on surface buildings. However for wood trying to hold back tons of rock underground, it was an entirely different matter. Ben rushed for the carriage with Charity as Hoss and Joe raced for their horses. They rode as rapidly for the mine as they could assuming that Ben and Charity would get there as quickly as they could. When they got to the mine, a number of miners were arriving too. Joe wanted to rush into the mine, but Hoss held him back.

“Let the men who know what they’re doing go first. They know their way around in there. We could get in the way and slow them down. I know how you feel, but we got to wait.”

A short time later, Mann stumbled from the mine with a lantern in hand. The men asked him where Adam was but he said nothing so they ignored him and moved in to the mine to look. When Ben got there, he moved to Mann and demanded to know where Adam was.

“I don’t know. We got separated. I couldn’t hear him and I couldn’t see him with all the dust and everything. I got out of there before it got worse.”

“You have a lantern. Did he have one?”

“I don’t know. He isn’t my responsibility.”

Ben was about to press his point when Hoss yelled to him. The men were helping Adam from the mine. He was coughing and had a bloody gash in his scalp. Ben and Charity rushed to his side as did Hoss and Joe. Mann backed away but couldn’t leave because his carriage was hemmed in by all the other carriages and wagons that had arrived once people heard that the two men had likely been in the mine when the quake hit. Even Hiram Wood and Sheriff Coffee were there because it was Adam who had been in the mine. Ben knelt at his son’s side as the men who helped him out let him slide down to rest against a stack of timbers. Charity pulled out a handkerchief to apply pressure to the cut on his head.

“Son, what happened?”

“I started coughing with all the dust, and asked Mann to help me. Instead, he shoved me into the tunnel wall and took off with the lantern. I couldn’t see where I was and I was trying to find my way out by feel when the men found me.”

Hiram and Roy were very interested in Adam’s statement. Hiram bent down and asked Adam a question. Then he spoke very quietly. “Adam, no matter what you hear in the next few minutes, don’t say anything unless I ask you a question. I think we’re going to get you out of this mess, but you have to trust me. Do you trust me?”

Adam was going to nod and thought better of it and gave a simple affirmative answer instead. Hiram smiled and looked at Roy.

“I think you have some idea what I’m going to do. Please don’t say too much.”

“You have the floor, counselor. I’ll just stand back here and look angry.”

“Thank you for your trust. Ben, I need yours too. Like Adam, I need you to be quiet and let me handle this.” Ben nodded, and Hiram turned to look at Morris Mann. “Mister Mann, Adam has informed me that you slammed him into a wall, took the lantern, and left him to die in that tunnel during an earthquake. I have so informed Sheriff Coffee. Adam will be pressing assault and attempted murder charges against you. Sheriff Coffee, will you place this man under arrest on those charges that my client wishes to file?”

Before Roy could say anything, Mann started to try to defend himself. “It was an accident. He was coughing and he fell into the wall.”

“I don’t think a jury is going to believe that. That gash is rather severe for an accidental fall. You left him too. If it was an accident, why would you abandon him to die?”

“Now, there must be a way to settle this some other way. I didn’t mean to hurt him. I panicked. That’s all it was.”

Leaning down to Adam and Ben and acting as if he was consulting with them, Hiram instead told them he was going for the kill. Then he stood and faced Mann. “Perhaps, if you released Adam from his contract so he could recover at home, and if you paid him the wages he would have earned for the remainder of the contract that he can no longer fulfill, he might let it go.”

“Might let it go. That’s robbery! That’s blackmail! Sheriff, are you going to let them do this to me?”

Hiram looked to Roy then and nodded. “Go ahead and answer him Roy. I think the law is clear on this issue.”

“Yes, it sure is. Now see here, Mann. You was the one who asked if there was some other way to settle this. All that Mister Wood was doing there was answering the question you yourself asked. You already admitted guilt right here in front of all these people. You said you didn’t mean to hurt him but you panicked. Now that says you did it. By the law, that’s an admission of guilt. Now you can pay the price for the crime you committed or you can go with the answer to the question you asked. The choice is yours.”

“All right, all right. I’ll release him from his contract, and I’ll pay him the balance of his wages. It’s highway robbery, but it seems I have no choice. I’ve been backed into a corner.”

Smiling, Charity helped Adam to stand and then she and Ben walked with him to the carriage. Hoss and Joe went to the office to get his things. Within fifteen minutes, they were on their way. Adam was free of Mann who stood and watched everyone leave. He had no more ideas. Everything he had tried to do had failed except that his mine was in better shape than it had ever been and was producing higher quality ore than it ever had. He had to smile a little bit about that. His workers were also better trained and better organized. Now all he had to do was find another engineer to run the place.

*****

Chapter 8

Leaning against the side of the carriage, Adam relaxed fully for the first time in months. He had made mistakes, but trusting the right people had let him escape the worst of the consequences of his foolish action. Even with the headache he had, he was impressed with Hiram’s quick thinking. With all those witnesses to hear what Mann had said, there was no possible way for him to renege on what he had said. He was free of the Toad and had some money coming to him as well. He smiled as he thought about it. Charity noticed and asked him why he was smiling.

“Well, I could say it’s because you’re beside me which is reason enough to smile. I could say it’s because I’m going home which is another great reason to smile. But, I smiled because for one more time I was thinking of the Toad and that reminded me of you and the name you gave him and the sense of humor you have and that made me smile.”

“Do you think we should stop at the doctor’s office and have him check your head?”

“No, it stopped bleeding already. I have a headache but it’s not bad. Some time in bed and I’ll be fine.” He would have said more but his father was right there. Charity saw the wicked gleam in his eye though and shook her head. His spirit was strong. Once they were at the Ponderosa, Hop Sing fussed over him as if he was a child. Charity was amazed at how he tolerated it, but after Hop Sing returned to the kitchen, Adam whispered to her.

“I have to let him show me how much he cares. He’s like my other father.

“A lot of people care about you very much. I hope you know that.”

“I do. I know that I needed a lot of people to help me and they did. You especially helped me. When you said you trusted me right from the start, that was very important to me. You stood by me the whole way.”

The two of them might have had a chance to speak more but Hoss and Joe came in the house after taking care of the horses. They were excited. They wanted to have a party because Adam had missed the dance, and they wanted to celebrate the whole thing.

“Ya, Pa, the ranch got saved, Adam got saved, and nobody died in the earthquake, and well, everything is just turning out so well, it’s time for a party. Dontcha think so?”

Looking at Hoss and Joe who were so excited, Ben turned to Adam and Charity. “Is it all right with you two. Do you feel up to a party, Adam?”

“I think I would like a party. Would next Saturday be too soon?”

“No, I think next Saturday would work out just fine. Let’s do it. We haven’t had a party in a long time. Everyone needs to have one. We’ll have a party next Saturday.”

Adam smiled and reached for Charity’s hand. If all went well, there might be an even bigger reason for the party. He had some plans for the week. First though he thought he probably needed to lie down. The room was beginning to spin a bit. His father must have noticed something because he heard his voice and then he was at his side helping him to the settee to lie down.

“Pa, how did you know he was gonna pass out?”

“Years of experience. He always pushes himself right to the limit. I saw him start to sway a bit and then he looked a bit pale.”

Ben had rushed to his side then before he could topple from the chair. Charity had helped stop him from falling but it had taken Hoss and Ben to lift him from the chair and lay him on the settee. Joe got a blanket from the guest bedroom and they covered him as Ben pulled off his boots.

“Charity, Hoss should probably give you a ride home now. My guess is that he’s going to sleep for a long time. He’s exhausted. Please come back tomorrow for lunch. By then, he should be feeling better.”

“Thank you, Mister Cartwright. I would be pleased to come back for lunch.”

Just as Hop Sing was ready to serve lunch, Charity was finally back the next day. Joe had teased Adam frequently that morning as he seemed to be stirring at every sound outside waiting for Charity to walk through that front door. When she finally did, the whole family saw how it made Adam’s whole countenance brighten. Hoss was next to his father and nudged his elbow. Ben looked at him and couldn’t help smiling at the silly expression Hoss made as he indicated the two who had fallen in love. Adam took Charity’s hand and escorted her to the table to sit beside him.

“I’m sorry that I was almost late. Virginia had the baby last night. It’s a little girl. They named her Victoria. She doesn’t look big enough for a name that big, but I suppose she’ll grow into it.”

The rest of the mealtime was spent talking about the baby, and then time was spent talking about the Toad and what they might do about him. Adam and Ben planned to go to town the next day to see about getting everything settled legally. Charity looked disappointed, but felt better when Adam asked if she would like to go to town with him on Wednesday to visit with some of the men who had helped him. She did so things were definitely looking up. Then lunch was over, and Adam used the opportunity to ask Charity to go for a walk. She agreed, but at the two of them walked out the front door together, Adam could hear his brothers snickering in the background because they guessed what he might like a little privacy to do. He didn’t mind too much. They were right.

As Adam walked out of the house with Charity, he turned her to the right and over by a tree next to the house. He stopped there and wrapped an arm around her to turn her toward him. She leaned into him and wrapped an arm around his waist.

“Yes, Mister Cartwright, was there something important you wanted to say to me that you couldn’t say in front of your family?”

“You are a saucy wench.”

“There’s one way to make me stop talking.”

With one hand, Adam touched her face and pulled her closer to him and with his other arm pressed their bodies closer too. He leaned down and softly touched her lips with his and slowly the kiss became more passionate and deeper. Hoss and Little Joe walked by on their way to the stable and saw the couple kissing.

“It’s about time.”

Joe snickered at Hoss’ comment but Adam and Charity ignored both of them. Once the brothers were gone, Adam pulled back. He whispered softly to her. “I love you.” Charity said nothing at first. “Of all the reactions I thought you might have, silence was not one of them.”

“Oh, Adam, I dreamed for so long that one day you would say those words to me, and yet you said them, and I was struck dumb. I’m sorry. I love you. I can’t think of anything you could ever have said to me that would ever have meant as much as those words. I love you. I’ll always love you.”

“I’m not an easy man to love.”

“I know that. I’m not an easy woman to love. That’s why we’re good together.”

“We like a challenge?”

“We’re complicated, but we need so much from life. We’ll meet those things together though, won’t we?”

“Yes, together. Now, tomorrow, Pa and I are going into town to meet with Hiram and try to get all the legal things worked out.” Charity was visibly disappointed. “On Wednesday, can you spend the day with me? I know you have to work for Doctor Martin and for Hiram, but perhaps you can take another day off?”

“Yes, they won’t mind if it’s time to be with you. They know how much it means to both of us. I think they know how much I care for you. Of course the way your family included me in everything was probably a big clue.”

“Yes, I’m very grateful to them for that. Now, how about if we take more of a walk. There are all sorts of quiet private places out here where a man and a woman can find a little time to get to know each other.”

“And I suppose you know that from experience?”

“Woman, just walk with me.”

Grinning though at the cheeky grin she gave him, Adam slipped an arm around Charity’s waist and guided her in the direction of the garden behind the house. By the time they returned to the house hours later, they had gotten to know each other much better and were reluctant to end their time together. Ben was on the porch with a cup of coffee so they broke their close embrace when they came around the corner of the house. It didn’t matter. He had guessed what he hadn’t seen. He also was guessing that Adam was likely to want to make the relationship more formal now that he had broken through his reserve and opened his heart to her. He didn’t have long to wait.

On Tuesday, Adam and Ben met with Hiram and got the legal requirements out of the way for Adam to be released from his contract with Mann. Adam didn’t want any more direct contact with the man so Hiram handled all the legal work. Money was deposited in Adam’s account and that matter was settled. On Wednesday, Adam returned to town with Charity on his arm and visited with men from both shifts spending the greatest amount of time with Eric. By the end of the week, momentous changes were taking place that Adam could only guess at. He had to wait for people to arrive at the party to hear the good news.

The first good news came from Eric when he arrived. “I want to thank you for the opportunity that you and your father have given me. I got the eight men you wanted. They’ve all agreed to come work at your family’s silver mine at the wages you agreed to pay. I picked a foreman and they’ll start work on Monday. My wife went shopping already with the signing bonus you gave me for agreeing to be the mine supervisor. She’s wearing it tonight. It’s the first new dress she’s had since we got married and the first one she ever got that was store bought.”

“What about the other men?”

“With the recommendations you gave, almost all of ’em got jobs with other mines at higher wages or even double the wages Mann was paying. The men you taught how to do blasting got the best money. I had no idea that there was so much demand for men who knew how to do that safely and well. Now I know why you had me pick the eight you had me hire for your mine.”

“Yes, and I’ll be there Monday to go through with you what I want done and how I want it done. We’ll set up a plan and a schedule. I’ll be available to help if you need me.”

“I’m glad your father agreed to it.”

“It will be a small but steady source of income for the Ponderosa. We won’t be a major producer but it will keep producing for a long time. There is gold in there too so even as silver prices fluctuate, the gold will keep the income reasonable.”

“Did you hear that Mann had to shut down?”

“I suspected that might happen.”

“By Friday morning, he didn’t have enough men to operate. He shut her down. He’s probably going to have to sell it.”

“Someone will make a good deal on that.”

“You?”

“If I had the cash, I would, but I don’t. I did happen to mention to some people I know that I had seen the quality of the ore that might be taken if someone knew where to go after it.”

“He was missing it?”

“He was boring level tunnels. The veins were all showing signs of being at forty-five degree angles. There’s probably a lot of rich ore on the floor of the tunnels that are already there. It will be easy to take a lot of rich ore out of there.”

“So he’ll sell a closed mine that wasn’t producing that well and not get that much for it and someone else will come in and make a fortune.”

“Yes, someone who pays the workers a better wage, provides ice, and invests in adequate shoring, ventilation, and other safety measures.”

“You were careful to tell the right man.”

With a smile, Adam told Eric to enjoy the party. Then he moved on to find Charity who was deep in conversation with Eric’s wife. He wanted to walk with her before the party got too active and they were unable to spend much time together. When they came back in the house, Adam walked up to his father as Charity went to help the ladies with the refreshment table. Soon she was deep in conversation with her sister Virginia who was holding her new baby. Ben was all smiles the rest of the evening. About eight o’clock, as the band came back from a break, Ben stood on the landing of the stairs and said he had an announcement to make.

“As you know, my son Adam recently endured a very difficult time. He’s home now and this party was to celebrate that as much as anything else. We haven’t had a party around here for a long time. Charity Keith missed him terribly. We tried to keep her busy, but the three of us weren’t enough to keep her mind from Adam. I would like them to have the floor for this next dance, and I would like you to give them a round of applause. They’re going to be married. Adam has asked Charity to be his wife, and she has agreed.” Applause greeted the announcement along with cheers and whistles from Hoss, Joe, and Todd. Adam and Charity hardly heard them as they glided around the room looking only at each other.

In town, the Toad climbed aboard the late stage and sat heavily on the seat. He couldn’t wait to get out of town. He was having his belongings shipped out. He had hired a lawyer to sell his house. He had already accepted an offer for his mine. He needed to get away from this dreadful town and the constant taunts of Mister Toad or the even worse the Toad. He was a mean, spiteful man, but at the moment, he had an object for his hatred but no plan and no means to carry one out anyway. He was thoroughly and utterly defeated.

*****

Let’s Do It

Chapter 1

“Now this last letter says that Adam Cartwright was arrested for murder. A so-called stranger in town convinced the only witness to recant her testimony and he was released as he was on the gallows about to be hanged. Now no one has ever been charged with that murder. It seems that he got away with murder. His father was also charged but there was another incident when his father was threatened by a gunfighter named Poole and it was Adam who stepped forward and shot him. And of course we know it was Adam who stepped up and murdered my poor brother. He never got punished for that either. Now Charity thinks to marry him. That is not going to happen. I will stop that as soon as we get to town. Virginia has written about that family in her letters to me in the past. I never knew so much about him when he was courting her, but the man has two brothers. Thank goodness that Virginia spurned his advances and went after Todd instead. Now if Charity’s got her heart set on marrying into that family, then she can marry one of those brothers of his.”

“Mother, Charity doesn’t listen well.”

“Prudence, she will listen to me. She is my niece, and I am the oldest in the family and the head of the family now. I’ll make her listen.”

“I don’t know why I had to come with you out here.”

“Your younger sister is already married, but with our finances so poor, there were no good prospects for you there. There are a number of newly wealthy men out here. I want you to find one and get married. You’re older than Charity and you should be married before she is.”

“Does Charity know that we’re coming?”

“I sent a wire to Virginia before we left. We’ll be staying with her so she was the one to tell. Charity is staying with them so I’ll be able to get her straightened out.”

Staring out the window through the crack between the canvas curtain and the wood frame, Prudence wasn’t so sure she wanted any of the men out here. They all seemed so rough and uncouth. Some were more well-spoken than others, but none had the more civilized speech to which she was accustomed. She expected more restraint in their behavior and their decorum. She certainly wasn’t used to smelling the men around her, and these men smelled. Some were decidedly unpleasant to smell while others smelled of leather and horses, but she disliked the smells in general. She couldn’t imagine being married to a man even with the best characteristics of the men she had met on their trip. She visibly cringed as she thought about it. Her mother noticed.

“You’re not shivering, are you, Prudence? We’ll be in that town soon, and you can have a warm bath and rest when we get to Virginia’s home. I’m sure she has a well-appointed home where we will be quite comfortable. Her husband inherited the family estate.”

“What is an estate like out here? It doesn’t look like much anywhere.”

“The cities have been impressive enough even if they are new and somewhat rough. Some of the houses in Denver were very impressive.” As the stage rolled into Virginia City, the two women were able to look up the hill. “And some of the houses here are very impressive too. My dear, I think we will find a suitable husband for you here, and you will have your cousins close by as well.”

“And you, Mother?”

“Of course, dear. I have to stay here and watch over you and my nieces.”

As the stage rolled to a stop, Julia was pleased to see Charity and Virginia waiting there for her. She was even more pleased to find that Todd was there and that Adam Cartwright was not. She wanted some time to work on Charity and the sooner the better as far as she was concerned. She wasted no time in getting started. As soon as she had been introduced to Todd, she and Prudence and their luggage were loaded in the large carriage, and they were headed back to the McCarren ranch, and Julia was on a roll.

“I suppose your young man was too busy with his various rough activities to be here to greet your family.”

Surprised by the criticism, Charity was defensive. “Aunt Julia, Adam is working on the addition to the house. He wanted to get it ready for you and Prudence. It needed to be finished and we didn’t have much warning that you were coming. He’s been working every spare moment he’s had to finish the addition so that you would be more comfortable when you were here.”

“You don’t have to be so defensive, my dear. I know all about your young man. He has a lot to answer for, but you don’t have to answer for him.” She followed that with a litany of the complaints against Adam that she had spelled out for Prudence as they approached Virginia City. At the time Charity didn’t question how her aunt knew so much about Adam.

When Julia began comparing Adam to Todd, Virginia began to get defensive as well until she realized that everything being said pointed out how Todd was a better choice than Adam. In fact, Julia praised Virginia’s choice to break off her relationship with Adam. That wasn’t accurate, but it was the way she preferred to think of it as well so she said nothing to dispute that version of events. She could see Todd smiling a bit as well. She was well aware that the criticisms of Adam were unfair, but Charity was doing her best to defend him, and Virginia assumed Adam would be capable of defending himself as well when he met Julia. She also assumed that Julia would be quite impressed upon meeting Adam and that would alleviate many of her concerns. With those two thoughts, she was mostly amused by the conversation between her aunt and her sister. However the conversation grew more heated as they traveled.

“He was in jail after he was arrested, convicted of murder, and about to be hanged by the neck until dead until the man that his family hired was able to pressure the only witness to take back her testimony. No one has ever been charged with the murder of that poor woman’s father. He got away with murder.”

“They didn’t hire anyone to get her to change her testimony. Lassiter was in town following the men who lynched his father. He didn’t want to see another injustice here. He only talked to her to make her see that lying was the worst thing that she could do. It wouldn’t bring justice, and she would have hated herself for the rest of her life.”

“Is that the story he told you? What story has he told you about all the other men he has murdered?”

Indignant to the point of fury, Charity’s face was red. “Adam has never murdered anyone. Virginia, please tell Aunt Julia how wrong she is.”

“Now don’t drag your sister into this. She was smart enough to cut herself free from this ruffian so then he went after you because you were younger and too innocent to know better.”

“Virginia didn’t end that relationship. Adam dropped her.”

That brought Virginia into the conversation. “Charity, you have no right telling Aunt Julia something like that.”

The conversation shifted entirely to the two sisters then. “Well, it’s true so why can’t I say it?”

“It’s a matter of point of view, then. In my point of view, I ended that relationship by letting Adam know there was no future for him with me. It simply took him some time to realize it and walk away. It was my idea though. I controlled what happened.”

“Virginia, you were completely devastated by Adam walking away. You were so angry with him, and you and Papa talked about it, and Papa was so angry too. It was only when Todd came to the house and walked with you and told you that he wanted to spend time with you that you calmed down. Don’t try to rewrite the history now to make Adam look bad or worse. He has apologized to you for not letting you know sooner that his courting you wasn’t a good idea. You told him you forgave him because you were happy with Todd. That’s all water under the bridge. Don’t try to make it flow back upstream now.”

Virginia said nothing more, but it was clear that she was upset. Charity realized that she had made a mistake and wouldn’t have her sister’s help in countering her aunt’s rather vicious attacks upon Adam. Todd had remained silent during the entire exchange and Charity wondered at that too. She had to ask.

“Todd, Adam is your friend. Aren’t you going to help me explain to Aunt Julia how wrong she is? You know all these things as well or better than I do.”

Todd knew he was in an untenable position. He needed to defend his friend against unfair and scurrilous accusations, but his wife had gone silent in her anger at Charity. Any attempt by him to help his sister-in-law was only going to create trouble with his wife. She was fussing with the small cradle at her feet that contained their newborn baby. Virginia had been moody since the birth of the baby and almost anything could set off crying that could last for hours. Todd took the safe route out of the conversation. “Charity, you know Adam as well as I do at this point, and you’re doing as well a job as anyone could defending him. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”

“You see there. Todd knows better than to defend the man. He’s willing to let a woman try to do it. Now Adam nearly denied Virginia the chance to be a mother. Don’t let him do that to you.”

“How could he do that to me? He wants to marry me.”

“My dear Charity. The man is too old to be marrying someone as young as you. You could have several children, but he may be too old to father any. He may, pardon the expression, have sown his wild oats already and not have any left for a fertile field in a young woman such as yourself.”

That served to mostly embarrass Charity and wasn’t a topic that either Virginia or Todd wanted to discuss. Julia greeted the silence that met her remarks as evidence that she had scored with that salvo not understanding that it was the nature of the statement that had led to the silence not the strength of the argument. The house came into view then, and both Julia and Prudence were stunned into silence by the four men working on the addition that Todd and Virginia had mentioned when they had met them at the stage. There was the young cute one with the flirting smile that Charity introduced as Little Joe Cartwright. There was the seemingly shy powerfully built big man who was introduced as Hoss. The older man with the booming voice and command presence Julia guessed was the patriarch of the Ponderosa well before he was introduced. But it was the man with the dark complexion, dazzling grin and dimples, and the most masculine presence Julia had ever encountered who drew her attention and nearly robbed her of her ability to speak.

Watching her aunt Julia, Charity was confident then that those arguments that she had been making were going to go away. However as they entered the house, she was sadly disappointed.

“Charity. I can see now how he ensnared you. He is a very handsome man, but that is what the devil does. He hides behind a pleasant or even gorgeous visage, but inside, the evil lurks and the old deceiver plots and plans on how to take his victims. He’s far more dangerous than I ever thought. My poor girl, we’ll have to move quickly to counter his influence on you.”

*****

Chapter 2

As soon as her Aunt Julia was in her room getting refreshed from her trip, Charity headed outside to talk with Adam. She was in a sour mood after having endured her aunt’s badgering about Adam for an hour. Ben told her that Adam was behind the house, and she walked back there and approached Adam who climbed down from the roof with his shirt open. Normally that would have made her insides clench and her heart beat faster. At that moment though, it had no effect. If she had been paying closer attention, she would have realized that her aunt’s strategy was already working on her.

“Did you know Lassiter before he came to Virginia City?”

“No hello or how are you? How about thank you for finishing the addition so your aunt and her daughter will have rooms for their visit? What’s this mood all about?”

Stopped in her tirade before it began, Charity was first perturbed and then chagrined as she realized what she had done. “Oh, Adam, I’m sorry, but Aunt Julia spent the whole trip out here telling me reasons why I shouldn’t marry you. She has slandered you in every way imaginable, She thinks you’re a murderer. She says you got Lassiter to force that change in testimony so that you could get off that gallows. I never realized you were standing there with a rope around your neck about to be hanged when Sally Byrnes changed her mind about what she was saying.”

“I guess at that moment her conscience couldn’t take letting two innocent men hang for her father’s death no matter how sad she was about losing him and how much she wanted revenge for his death. But why bring that up now?”

“She thinks you’re all wrong for me. She says you’re too old.” Charity blushed a little then. “She thinks you won’t be able to father children with me because of that.”

Bristling visibly at the insult to his manhood, Adam stared at the house. “First of all, why is she so set against me marrying you? When I was courting Virginia, there was only enthusiasm from your father for the match. But I wonder too where she got all this information when she was living in Philadelphia. It’s not like my history is of any interest to anyone there.”

Frowning, Charity thought about that. “I was so busy reacting to each of the charges she was making against you and trying to defend you that I didn’t take the time to wonder about that, but I am now. I’m going to ask her that. But Adam, until I can turn her around a little, it might be best if we take a few days apart.”

“No.”

“What do you mean by that? I ask one little thing and all you do is refuse with a one word answer.”

“If we do that, she starts to win her little game already. Don’t you see? She’s trying to drive a wedge between us. If you take a few days, then she’ll do her best to find excuses to extend that, and just like she did on that ride from town, she’ll do her best to fill her conversations with vitriol about me. You came out here gunning for me just a short time ago after an hour with her. What would it be like after a few days of her constant harping on the issue? No, I should spend even more time with you while she’s here.”

Smiling coquettishly then, Charity moved closed to Adam and put her hand on his open shirt so that her fingers brushed the hair on his chest. “Oh, I guess having you here morning, noon, and evening would offer some nice benefits.”

Adam grinned and would have grabbed her for a hug and more except that his father approached the two of them to tell them that he was leaving with Hoss and Little Joe. Charity dropped her hand to her side too and tried to act demurely, but she was sure Ben had seen where her hand was when he turned the corner of the house. Her face was probably a bit flushed as well. Ben also said that Todd had come out to thank them profusely for the work that they had done. “Charity, your aunt came out with her daughter. She is a very delightful woman, very charming. She complimented our work as did your cousin Prudence. If I had to guess, I would say that Hoss has his eye on Prudence already. He was a bit tongue-tied when he greeted her which is a sign with him when his heart is beating hard for a woman. It doesn’t happen often, but with that boy of mine, he loses his speech when he starts losing his heart.” Ben paused. “Adam, are you coming home with us?”

“I’ll be a little while yet, Pa. Go on without me.”

With a smile, Ben was gone. Then Adam did pull Charity into an embrace so the two could kiss. The kiss grew deeper and more passionate quickly as Charity pressed herself against Adam. Inside the house, Julia watched the two. She wasn’t surprised at what she saw for she had felt the magnetism of the man when she had met him earlier and no longer believed that Virginia had ended her relationship with this man. Julia thought only a silly ninny would do that. However, somehow she had to find a way to break her younger niece free of him. She began to think of ways she might do that. She started to get an idea then which made her smile because it could be very pleasurable for her to accomplish her goal that way. Virginia had mentioned a party that they were giving because she and Prudence were there. Undoubtedly, the Cartwrights would all be invited. That would be her opportunity. Her lips curled in a particularly self-satisfied way and she licked her lips as if in anticipation of what she hoped to do.

Outside, Adam almost shivered making Charity pull back a little and look up at him. “Are you cold?”

“No, I suddenly had this feeling like a cold hand ran across my shoulders. It was strange.”

Charity moved closer to Adam again and wrapped her arms around his neck and then slowly slid then down his shoulders and across his back and up again. “There, does that feel better?”

“No, sweetheart, I think that you need to do that more. I’ll let you know when it’s enough.”

“Why do I get the feeling that it will never be enough?”

The two laughed then with all the tension between them relieved. Inside the house watching the easy way they had with each other, Julia seethed. She had hoped to have had an impact already and thought that she had. When Charity had left the guestroom to go confront her young man, Julia had been sure there was going to be an argument, but he had handled it all very smoothly. She had to keep that in mind. She had been informed of his intelligence and gamesmanship, but now had seen it in action. She would have to be very thorough in her planning and execution if she was going to succeed in breaking her niece away from him. She began to think that if she could get the youngest brother to pursue her then that might be a way to work this. She began to plot anew especially as she watched Charity with Adam outside and the intimate way she touched him. Julia considered it highly improper although it was fairly innocent.

With her fingers still on Adam’s shirt and her fingers still being tickled by the hair on his chest, Charity decided to be bold and ask something she had wanted to do for some time. “May I touch your chest?”

With a bit of a quizzical look, Adam looked down at her. “What?”

“I want to put my hand on your chest. I’ve seen your chest a number of times and the hair on it. It looks like it would be all hard and scratchy, but then it tickles my fingers like it’s soft at times like this. So I want to touch your chest.”

Moving his arms back, Adam opened himself to her inspection. “You do know that if I asked this of you, I would probably have gotten my face slapped.”

Grinning wickedly as she softly caressed his chest, Charity was ready with her answer. “It depends on when you would have asked.”

“Sweetheart, sometimes I wonder if you don’t know what you’re doing to me. We’re going to have to get going on planning this wedding. Waiting too long is going to be torture for me.”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t tease you so much. Now that Aunt Julia is here, perhaps we can move the wedding up to the end of this month. Can you wait four weeks?”

“Four weeks doesn’t seem so long compared to waiting months. Yes, please. The end of the month would be wonderful. But what about her objections to me?”

“I don’t know where she got her information, but she’s wrong, and I’m going to let her know that. Virginia needs to back me up on that and Todd too.”

“They didn’t?”

“Oh, Adam, you know how they are. I’ll have to remind them again of what’s important and what friends do for one another. I swear that sometimes I don’t know how you and Todd were ever friends for so long and I wonder how Virginia and I had the same parents. But there is going to be a party, and of course you and your family will be invited. Aunt Julia will see how wrong she is about everything.” Charity paused for a moment. “Are you going to tell your family what I told you about Aunt Julia?”

“I was going to. Is there some reason I shouldn’t?”

“Well, she got bad information. I would like to give her a chance to redeem herself with me and with you without everyone knowing what a fool she’s been.”

“That brings me back to that question. Where did she get all that information? She was in Philadelphia. Someone must have gone to a lot of trouble to send her information to create this problem or she made an effort to find out information when she knew we were going to be married.”

“I don’t know, Adam, but I intend to find out.”

With one last embrace and kiss, Adam said goodbye and headed home. Charity watched him leave and when she could no longer see him, she turned and walked into the house intent on finding out a few things.

*****

Chapter 3

When Adam arrived home, Ben teased him a bit about being so late and was surprised at Adam’s rather sour response. When he questioned whether there had been a problem with Charity, Adam denied it, but he was hiding something. Ben was sure of it although Adam’s smile when he talked about Charity and her desire to have their wedding in a month had Ben wondering what could have gone wrong because it was clear that the relationship between the two was still as strong as ever. He knew it would do no good to press Adam about it. He would talk about it when and if he was ready and no sooner. In fact he must have realized that he had given too much away with his attitude and adjusted it so that his brothers had no idea there was anything amiss. Dinner had been delayed only a few minutes but of course Hoss had to complain at least a little about that. Adam teased back and the usual responses had everyone in a relaxed and jovial mood. Ben saw no hint of what could have been wrong and gradually forgot about it thinking that perhaps it was something inconsequential. The invitation to the party at the McCarren ranch arrived late on the next afternoon. Todd was there to ask them all to attend. Ben noted then that Todd was a somewhat nervous around Adam as if there was something that had him worried. Observing again, Ben watched as Adam was friendly but somewhat guarded in his responses to Todd. That was when Ben knew that there was definitely something going on yet still had no idea what it was. The undercurrent was powerful though so whatever it was, it had the potential for trouble so Ben decided to press Adam to see if he could get him to talk even if it was an unlikely prospect. He waited until after dinner when Hoss and Joe were engaged in one of their frequent and contentious checkers matches. Adam walked outside so Ben followed and found Adam leaning against the porch post.

“I don’t suppose you meant this as an invitation to conversation, but I’m worried.”

“Pa, I told you that everything between me and Charity is fine. We’re looking at getting married at the end of the month. I’m sure by the time of the party, she’ll have worked out a date with her sister, and we can move forward with planning.”

“But something’s wrong.”

“Nothing I’m free to discuss and nothing that I will allow to come between me and Charity.”

“Does it have something to do with her Aunt Julia? She seems to be the only thing that’s changed recently. Although she was very charming and pleasant, I do remember who her brother was, and he could do the same and it hid a very nasty personality quite well.”

Rather softly, Adam responded. “Pa, I’m not going to discuss Charity’s aunt with you.”

Moving to lean on the opposite side of the post, Ben nodded. “I understand.” And he did. He surmised that the problem was Charity’s Aunt Julia but that Charity had probably asked Adam to keep the issue confidential. Adam was not free to discuss it, but had said enough to his father to let him know. A few days later, as they prepared to ride to the party, Ben moved to Adam’s side as he was about to mount up on Sport. “I’ll do my best to keep Charity’s aunt busy, and I’ll put in a few good words for you too if it will do any good.”

Grinning, Adam nodded as he mounted up. “Thanks, Pa. Any little bit should help.”

Unfortunately that wasn’t true. There had been a running battle at the McCarren ranch since Adam had left. Charity had countered every argument that her Aunt Julia had made, but it seemed that there was an endless supply of nasty stories about Adam in her reticule. Each one was slanted to make Adam look bad even though the true story was usually the opposite. The only time that Charity had scored points was when her aunt moved into territory about which she apparently had little information.

“Now I know it was nice for the Cartwrights to work over here to curry favor with Todd, but is it necessary to invite them to the party?”

“Curry favor?”

“Yes, obviously they were here helping out to try to win Todd’s approval. He’s an influential rancher. They would want that especially with the record of transgressions that oldest son has accumulated.”

Both Todd and Virginia had not been able to hold back their laughter at that. Charity joined them as Julia and Prudence wondered what was so funny. They had seen how plainly the Cartwrights had dressed and seen them working like common laborers. They knew they owned a ranch, but the information that had been sent to Julia had apparently assumed that she knew about the Ponderosa and had not told her anything about the Cartwright holdings.

“Now what is so funny? I see nothing of such hilarity in what I said.”

Charity wanted to be the one to tell her but Virginia beat her to it. “The Cartwrights own the Ponderosa. It is the biggest ranch in Nevada and one of the largest in the whole west. It’s probably twenty-five times bigger than our ranch. They have investments outside of the ranch and even own a silver mine among other things. If Adam has his way, they’ll be diversifying even more.”

“They’re wealthy?”

“Very.”

“Then why did you dump Adam? You could have been a wealthy woman, a powerful woman? No wonder my brother was upset when you broke off that relationship.”

A bit uncomfortable with that turn in the conversation, Virginia didn’t respond so Charity had a chance to step in. “So it is all right for Virginia to marry Adam but not me? Why is that?”

“I’ve given you a host of reasons, but foremost among them is that he is too old for you, too, shall we say, experienced in the world. You need a young man and one who is more innocent. Now that young Cartwright, that Joseph seems more suitable. You should pursue him.”

“I don’t love him. I love Adam.”

However that train of conversation got Julia on another track with her daughter Prudence later. “You’re older and they’re haven’t been many men interested in you. You ought to go after this Adam Cartwright. You’re pretty enough and willing from what I can tell.”

“Mother!”

“Well, you do want to marry, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do, but I don’t think I want to marry a cowboy. I’ve lived my whole life in a city. How could I ever learn to like living out here?”

“These Cartwrights apparently have enough money. You heard what Virginia said. He could support you in style even if it’s not in a city. You would be like royalty out here.”

So by the evening of the party, Julia had a lot on her mind. She wondered how she could steer Charity toward Joe and Joe toward Charity, how Prudence could try to ensnare Adam, and perhaps how she might charm Ben. If a Cartwright was good enough for the younger Keith younger generation, she guessed she could give it a try as well. As soon as she saw the Cartwrights arriving, she was there at her charming best to try to sink her hooks into Ben. Quickly Prudence asked Adam if he could help her carry some things. He had wanted to see Charity first, but he couldn’t refuse the request from Prudence without seeming churlish so he complied although a bit begrudgingly. Once Prudence had Adam carry the boxes into the house, she steered him toward the bedrooms shared by her and her mother. Adam got a bit suspicious then but wasn’t too concerned until he was in one of the rooms only to find that Prudence had closed the door behind him.

“Prudence, let’s head back to the party before anything happens that we’ll regret.”

“I won’t regret anything that happens here with you.”

“Prudence, trust me, you will regret what happens here. Please move, and I’ll be on my way before anything happens.”

“Adam, I want something to happen.”

“Listen, I want to be gentlemanly about this but you’re making it very difficult.” Adam made a move to step around her and leave, but Prudence reached out her arms to try to embrace him. He pushed her arms down forcefully. Irritated, he pushed her back, but she pushed against his pressure and was stronger than he expected and pressed up against him. He couldn’t help it. He laughed. Prudence was surprised first, then shocked, and then embarrassed.

“How dare you?”

“How dare I? First I’m a ruffian, a murderer unfit to marry Charity. I’m too old, too dangerous, and all sorts of other derogatory drivel that your mother tried to use against me, but apparently I’m good enough for her daughter. Is it my money that you find attractive or do you like all those things that your mother says I am? Are you such a ridiculously hypocritical bitch that you would be willing to take me even if all those stories are true? This is a rather amateurish attempt at blackmail and shows how ignorant you are of such things. You should let your mother to her evil, and you should try to find a husband on your own. You obviously need one.”

Prudence began to cry in shrieking sobs and Julia burst through the door expecting to find her daughter in some compromising position with Adam. Instead, the two were six feet apart with Adam looking fiercely angry and Prudence sobbing. Adam stared hard at Julia.

“I suppose you were the architect of this.”

By then, Charity, Virginia, Hoss, Ben, and Joe had arrived as well. They listened as Prudence detailed how Adam had called her a bitch and said she was after his money as well as calling her ridiculous and ignorant among other insults. Julia looked at Charity.

“Now do you see what kind of man you intend to marry? He’s cold, cruel, and heartless as well as all those other things I’ve told you.”

Charity gave Adam a glare before coldly asking him to leave so that the ladies could attend to Prudence in private. He walked out with his family but before he could explain, Hoss poked a finger into his chest.

“That was right mean. You need to taste them words before you spit ’em out!”

That got Adam’s back up, but before any more could be said, Ben intervened and told Hoss and Joe to head to the party and try to make sure the other guests were having a good time. He stayed back to talk with Adam.

“Pa, do not start in on me.”

“I wasn’t going to do that. That appeared to be a rather blatant attempt to set you up. Don’t worry about Hoss. He’s a bit attracted to Prudence, and you know how he is if a woman starts crying. Charity too will come to understand what happened. It’s difficult when one sees a crying woman and an angry man standing there. I was suspicious as soon as she singled you out for that errand. It seemed much too contrived.”

“I thought so too, but I didn’t see that coming.”

“Perhaps it would be best if you wait for a chance to see Charity and get things straight between you but not spend too much time here where Julia gets to work her schemes.”

“You figured it out,”

“It wasn’t too difficult. I’ll do my best to keep an eye on her, and perhaps I can even get her to back off. Give it some time, but it might be good if the two of you are not in close proximity for a while. She can’t do much if you’re not here.”

Ben would have said more but Charity found them. Adam waited for his father to leave. “I did try to get her to stop before I laughed. It was just so ridiculous. I told her three times to get out of my way and let me leave. I tried to be a gentleman, but she refused to let me be civil about it.”

Charity rushed into his arms, hugged him, and kissed him fiercely. “I’m sorry, so very sorry. I’ve been so on edge for the last couple of days fighting with Aunt Julia. I took it out on you, and that was so very unfair, but when I saw Prudence crying, the anger in me that I had been holding in erupted. I know that you didn’t deserve anything like that. If anything happened, I know Aunt Julia set it up. You may not believe it, but Prudence is an innocent. She does what her mother tells her to do without question. She’s going to feel terrible later when she understands what her mother hoped would happen.”

“What did Prudence think would happen?”

“Her mother probably convinced her that you would fall for her charms. She’s quite desperate for a husband. She wants a man to pay attention to her, and that’s never happened for her. She needs a nice, gentle soul and her mother always steers her toward the wrong kind of man. It’s the biggest reason she isn’t married. Her younger sister Margaret is much like her mother and married a man her mother chose. You wouldn’t like either of them.”

“Probably not. Pa thinks I shouldn’t spend much time here. He’s concerned about the schemes your aunt is probably planning. He’ll do his best to corral her, but she seems to be unbreakable.”

“You talk about her like she’s a horse.” When Adam gave her that crooked grin she knew that was what he had intended.

“Are you in a mood for a picnic?” Charity grinned back at him. “Let’s get some food from the party, and I’ll take you on a picnic away from the turmoil. We’ll have our own private party and talk about our wedding.”

Once more, the couple reconciled, but Adam was beginning to worry about the effect that Julia could have on their relationship if she stayed much longer and their wedding was a month away. He did his best on the picnic to remind his fiancée of how much he loved her and desired her but knew too that Julia would be working her vile scheme again as soon as Charity returned to the house. Julia would probably be especially upset that her plan had not worked and that Adam had taken Charity away from the party.

*****

Chapter 4

When Ben had a chance to talk with Adam on the Ponderosa, he made it clear he wasn’t pleased that his son had taken one of the family members hosting the party away from the party either. “You should have stayed and showed everyone that you were blameless too. By leaving, there was talk that perhaps something less than honorable took place. Charity being gone made it seem that you had created a division within that family.”

Those kinds of comments as if he was a schoolboy in need of instruction in the social graces had Adam immediately on the defensive and none too pleased with his father. “You were the one who suggested that I not spend too much too at that party. I was not going to run away and leave my betrothed there unescorted. She and I get too little time together as it is especially with her aunt doing everything she can to try to turn Charity against me. Charity needed to spend time with me as much as I needed time with her. It couldn’t be at the party and that was no fault of mine. I am not the one who created a division within that family. Julia is the same as her brother, and people will come to realize that in time. For now, my friends know better, and frankly, I don’t care what gossip mongers think.”

“Do you care about how your family feels about ya?” Hoss decided to make his feelings known. “When we left that party, that little gal was still stinging from what ya done to her. Those were pretty mean words ya used. I don’t know how you can be so cruel to her. She ain’t ever done nothing to ya.”

“She was trying to set me up so that her mother could insist that I have to marry her. That’s what she was trying to do to me. I didn’t cooperate in their little plot, and she wouldn’t take no for an answer. I’m sorry if she was hurt, but I tried to be a gentleman about it, and she wouldn’t let me.”

“You think you know everything. Did you ever think that maybe she liked you and that’s all it was? You mighta been only being nasty to an innocent gal?”

“This is ridiculous. You’re both trying to make it seem like it was a minor thing. Well it wasn’t, and I’ve had enough talk about this. I need to be ready for whatever plot Julia is cooking up next, and apparently I’m not getting much help here.”

Exasperated that things had turned so contentious, Hoss lost his temper. “Why can’t you ever accept that you might be wrong?”

“I can be wrong, but Charity and I know more about this than you do or than Pa knows. I’m done talking about it. I’m going to my room. I’ve got some thinking to do.”

Knowing that they had pushed too hard and too far, Ben was conciliatory but too late. “Son, we can talk about this. I don’t like to leave it like this.”

“Pa, there are things I can’t tell either of you. Without that information, you can’t reach a fully informed conclusion so it’s better to leave it as is for now. Eventually you’ll either hear all of it or it won’t matter, and we can forget all about this. All right?”

“I guess it has to be if you aren’t ready to say any more, but I wish you could trust us with the rest of the story.”

“It’s not that I’m not ready or that I don’t trust you. I made promises.”

There was a plea in Adam’s voice to let it go. Ben nodded understanding that those promises had probably been made to Charity. Hoss was still upset and didn’t understand how his father could so easily acquiesce but grudgingly did as well because his father had. It stood that way the next morning at breakfast when Adam made his request.

“I haven’t had a chance to go hunting in a long time, and we could use some fresh meat that’s not beef. We’ve had a problem with predators up in our northeast pastures so I could try to take care of that problem too. I thought I would take a week and go hunting if you can spare me. It would let things calm down around here too. Julia can’t work her schemes against me so easily if I’m not here.”

“Adam, I need you to go over those contract offers before the meeting in Sacramento in two weeks.”

“I’ll be back in a week to do that with you.”

“I would prefer to do those first and have you do the hunting after that.”

“Pa, there is no crisis with the contracts. Julia is creating a crisis right now. If I’m gone, she won’t be able to set anything up like she tried to do yesterday. Charity plans to spend more time in town so she has less contact with her. In fact, Charity asked if she could ride with you to church next Sunday. She said with Julia and Prudence there, it would be more comfortable for her to ride with you.”

“We could certainly do that. How is this plan the two of you concocted going to help?”

“We’ve moved up the wedding date to a month from now. Charity and Virginia have picked the date and have kept it a secret from Julia. Charity will make arrangements when she is in town. Virginia will do what she can without Julia noticing. Within a week, invitations will be going out, the banns will be published by the church, and the announcement will be in the newspaper. It will be very difficult for her to stop it at that point.”

“You and Charity worked all of this out yesterday?”

“Yes, and I worked out a few more details last night. I’ll talk to Charity when I go to church with her today. We won’t head back to the ranch until late so we have little or no contact with Julia.”

“What if Julia has other plans?”

“We’ll have to deal with them, but at this point you and Hoss probably have more to worry about than I do. Now I need to get going because I’m picking up Charity to go to church.”

After Adam left, Hoss questioned his father because he hadn’t been satisfied with what he had heard from his brother. “Pa, why does Adam think that Prudence was plotting against him? She didn’t seem like she’s that kind of gal.”

“Hoss, she may not be, but at this point she is following instructions from her mother, and her mother is that kind of woman. She is very much that kind of woman, and Adam has every reason to worry about what she might be plotting. Sadly as long as Prudence cooperates with her mother, Adam is going to have that attitude toward her. I think he was harsh with her, but it’s his life and his happiness that are at stake here. It’s put him on edge.”

“Well being on edge ain’t no reason to make a gal cry, is it?”

“Hoss, remember to get all the information before you draw a conclusion. Adam knows more of what’s going on than we do. We need to trust him. Perhaps you should talk to Prudence and try to find out what she knew and what she was told to do. If she is as innocent as you think she is, she’ll tell you, won’t she?”

Thoughtful, Hoss agreed and said that perhaps he would invite Prudence to take a ride with him that afternoon. When he did so later at church, Julia told Prudence to go with Hoss. She assumed Hoss wasn’t very bright, and because Prudence obviously had no chance with Adam, perhaps she could snare Hoss. It was an alternative avenue to some money that Julia could not resist pursuing. She advised her daughter to be friendly to Hoss and to consider him as a prospective husband.

“But Mother, I’m not attracted to him. I wanted someone like Adam.”

“He has money. That’s attraction enough, and besides, he’s not so bright, and that will make things much easier for us. Now go along with him and be nice to him.”

It was the beginning of her plan unraveling, but she was oblivious to it at that point having dismissed Hoss as of no concern. She had thought she would have to possibly charm Ben enough to get a marriage proposal from him, but if Prudence could snare a son, that would be so much better and far less of an imposition on her. She would have access to Cartwright money so that even if she failed to destroy Adam’s relationship with Charity and his reputation in general, she would be fairly well set anyway. She felt better having a contingency plan. She hadn’t had one when she had been content to live off her brother’s largesse. His death had left her in a lurch which she fully intended to avoid in her future.

Adam wasn’t the only Cartwright male then who was involved with one of the women from the Keith relation as Hoss and Prudence spent quite some time together that day. Adam picked up Charity and they attended church services together. When Adam saw Charity and explained what he intended to do, she was not very happy with the plan but accepted it as necessary. She knew it would be difficult though to put up with her aunt’s efforts to get her to break off her engagement to Adam without him to turn to for support. Finally, Ben was pulled into the mix when Julia manipulated him into agreeing to give her a ride home because Todd’s carriage was supposedly so full even though Charity wasn’t there and Prudence was leaving with Hoss. Ben only remembered all of that after he had agreed to give Julia a ride. It would not have been gentlemanly to remind her so he did as he promised but realized finally how clever the woman was and how correct Adam was to do his best to avoid being near her.

It was quite late in the afternoon when Hoss returned. Adam was packing for his trip, and Joe had decided to go with him so the two were together. Hoss walked in the house and asked where his brothers were because he had seen that the other carriage was back and that their horses were back as well. Ben told him the plan even though he wasn’t pleased at all with it.

“And how was your afternoon? Did you and Prudence have a pleasant time?”

“We did. Pa, we did get around to talking about what happened between her and Adam. She claims he was mean for no reason and said her mother never told her to do nothing.”

“And?”

“She was a mite upset when she was telling me. Her cheeks was red, and she couldn’t stop rubbing her hands together and such. Pa, she was lying.”

“You’re sure?”

“As sure as I can be. She couldn’t look at me when she was telling me any one of those things. It was like she was feeling real bad about it.”

“So you won’t be seeing her any more, I guess.”

“No, I like her, and her being so embarrassed about having to lie, well I understand it. She did it to protect her mother. She was doing what her mother wanted her to do. I think she needs somebody to say she ought not to be doing everything her mother says. It’s like a conversation I had with Adam once when he said Bill Enders killed Toby. Remember that? I said ‘I don’t know, Adam, but sometimes you seem to be the only one marching in your direction, and everyone else is going another way. Doesn’t it bother you to be alone like that?’ What he said stuck with me all this time. It kinda went like this. He said it didn’t bother him too much. He only had one good reason for that. He said ‘It’s better to be alone going the right way than following the crowd going the wrong way.’ Now I figure that Prudence has to be showed the right way and has to have somebody there to help her be strong enough to follow the right way cause she ain’t never had that. She done follows her mother cause it’s what she’s always done.”

“It’s difficult to get a child to go against a parent.”

“She ain’t a child no more. It’s time for her to show she can take care of herself and go the right way. In my gut, I got a feeling that’s what she wants to do. You know how I feel about gut feelings.”

“Julia probably sent her after you.”

“That’s all right cause I wanted her to catch me, but Pa, you know I got my eyes wide open on this one.”

*****

Chapter 5

As Adam walked to the house on Sunday evening, he wasn’t looking forward to talking with his father or Hoss. He had spent a very enjoyable afternoon with Charity. The two of them had taken the carriage to where Adam hoped to build a home for them eventually, and they had stayed there talking and enjoying time with each other until they had to leave so that Adam could get her home before dark. Anything later would only have given her Aunt Julia more ammunition to use against him. As it was, she probably thought they spent too much unchaperoned time together, but in the west especially away from the cities, the rules were quite different than they were in Philadelphia. Adam thought that his father and Hoss were still upset with him and was pleasantly surprised by the warm greeting he got from both of them and Little Joe when he walked in and placed his hat and gunbelt on the credenza.

“Son, I’m glad you’re home. We were talking about you.” Adam frowned slightly and Ben was quick to explain. “Nothing to worry about. Little Joe would like to go with you on your hunting trip. It seems he’s a bit put out that none of the women seem interested in him.”

Joe was startled by that and looked affronted as Hoss began to chuckle and then did one of his deep booming belly laughs. Adam had to grin as well seeing the look on Little Joe’s face and thinking that the kid had a face made for the stage with those broad expressions of sadness or joy that he could muster at a second’s notice. Even their father chuckled at his youngest son’s reaction to his small joke.

“I wouldn’t mind some company. Whenever you’re hunting predators, it’s good to have someone watching your back.”

“I think that’s what I’ll be doing for Pa while you two are out hunting.”

Hoss had a grin for his father then as Adam frowned not knowing the meaning behind that statement. Ben sighed and decided he would explain before Hoss gave Adam a more colorful version.

“After you whisked Charity away in the carriage after church, her aunt decided that the McCarren carriage was still too crowded and asked me for a ride in our carriage. Then of course she asked for a tour of some of the Ponderosa, and next she wanted to see the house.”

Unable to help himself with such a topic, Hoss had to interrupt. “Yep, before you know it, people are going to be wondering if Pa is courting her. She shur made it look like she was on the hunt and he was what she was hunting.”

“Hoss, don’t even joke about a thing like that!”

Not only was Ben looking at Hoss daring him to say any more, Adam looked so affronted by the possibility that he had his younger brothers laughing heartily. Hoss had more to say then but on a more serious note.

“Adam, I gotta say I’m real sorry about all I said to you yesterday about things. I know Prudence was trying to set you up just like you said. I don’t think she knew then exactly what she was doing. She honestly liked you and thought she could get you to like her, but the rest of it, I’m sure was her mother’s doing. She’s not the kind to think up something like that on her own.”

“You know that much about her already?”

“I spent a lot of time with her yesterday, and I spent the afternoon with her today. Yeah, I think I know that much about her already. I plan to spend more time with her too. I hope you don’t have a problem with that.”

“Of course I don’t, but what about her mother? If this is her plan, you could be playing with fire. I’d hate for you to get singed.”

“Prudence said her mother told her to be nice to me.”

“And you know what that means.”

“Yup. She figures you’re too difficult, and she figures me for an easy mark, but I kinda like Prudence. I’m thinking that after today, she likes me some too. Maybe I can help her find the right way to go like you did with Charity showing her what her father was really like. You did the same for Virginia. It will hurt, but she needs to learn the truth and to stand up for herself and to do what she knows she oughta do and not what her ma tells her to do. Besides, Pa is the one you oughta be worrying about. I think that Julia has her hooks set to sink ’em in him and reel him in.”

With Adam looking at him in inquiry, Ben had to tell him the rest. “Julia asked me if I had time to give her a ride to town tomorrow to do some shopping. She said that Charity is going but will be in town before the shops open and be there all day. Virginia is still very busy with the new baby, and Todd has ranch work he has to do. She practically begged, and I couldn’t say no.”

All Adam could do was grin as his family was beginning to discover Julia’s true nature. He now had allies in his fight against her. Charity was the one about whom he was worried though. “Charity is having a hard time of it in that house with Julia constantly harping at her. She’s doing her best to avoid having to be with her and listen to her complaints about me. It would be good for her, Pa, if you could get Julia away from there at least for a while to give her as well as Virginia and even Prudence a breather from her. That would be a kind thing for you to do.”

Giving his son a long-suffering look, Ben agreed and his younger sons were gracious enough not to laugh. With a heartfelt thank you, Adam asked Joe if the two of them could plan out a route to take and what items they would take with them. They also needed to consult with Hop Sing about provisions. Hoss was slightly perturbed because he would have more work to do for a week, but he also had free rein with Prudence because Adam had stated no objections. In his mind, the week might work out well anyway.

For Ben, things went very much according to plan for the first couple of days. Ben took Julia to town for shopping, and she managed to get him to take her to lunch too where he introduced her to the ladies from the church service group who were having their weekly social. They invited Julia to join them the next day, and much to Ben’s shock, she agreed to do that. Of course, on the way home, Julia again insisted that Ben go by a more scenic route to show her more of the Ponderosa. He knew it was a ploy to get more time with him and to work on him, but it gave him the same opportunity.

“Aren’t you terribly disappointed in Adam?”

“Not at all, ever. He makes me very proud.”
“But he has murdered men. How can you be proud of that?”

“Adam has never done that. It is true that he has been forced into situations where he has killed men when defending himself and others. He will do what is necessary, but each death has weighed heavily on him. I remember when he taught Little Joe to shoot. I overheard him telling Little Joe what a big responsibility it was carrying a deadly weapon because if he ever was forced to take a life, he would carry the burden of it for the rest of his life.”

“And yet he has done it over and over again.”

“Why do you persist in trying to denigrate Adam when everything you have to say can be countered with facts that make your points moot? It seems you had it in for my son before you ever knew him. Is there some motive at play here of which I am unaware? Who has been giving you this information and trying to make you an enemy of my son for no good reason?”

In a defensive posture and attitude that Ben could not miss, Julia countered with her usual arguments. There was nothing new. There had not been anything new since she arrived. It was two days later before Ben knew why. Hoss had gotten away on Tuesday to visit with Prudence. She had been told by her mother to be nice to Hoss so she was. Hoss knew that if he got her to break free of her mother, one consequence of that might be that she no longer would be nice to him, but he was willing to take that chance in order to help her. He had some interesting information for his father.

“Yeah, Pa, she wasn’t even planning to come out here for Charity’s wedding. She said it was too far, too wild, too expensive, and such. Then her ma started getting these letters from someone in California. She musta got some money too apparently cause suddenly they could afford the trip too. Prudence told me all that when she was saying how much she missed Philadelphia and how she had nothing to do here. I guess she likes to work with children and had a job there working with some.”

“So there’s someone else behind all of this. Julia is not working on her own.”

“Seems that way. Somebody got her to come here to make trouble for Adam and Charity. Now who would do that?”

“Hoss, I can think of one person who has money and a grudge.”

After only a short time of thought, Hoss had the same thought as his father. “The Toad! He’s the only one who would have a grudge and know how important Charity is to Adam right now.”

“It has to be, and if it is, then he’s probably nearby. He would want to see the results of his work. But at some point, he’ll need to contact Julia again because she’ll need more money and more information if she’s to keep this smear campaign going.”

“Pa, how we gonna watch her so we can see her meet with him?”

“We can’t, but now we know what Todd and Virginia can do for us. They said they would help, and this is one more thing that they can do. Next time you go see Prudence, be sure to find a little time to have a chat with Todd. That will seem very natural to all of them. If I have a reason to go there first, I’ll do it, but we need to find out where Morris Mann is. We need to deal with him once and for all. Now, did you and Prudence have a good time when you weren’t getting information from her?”

“Pa, a gentleman don’t tell, now, does he?”

But Hoss’ grin and slight tinge of pink in his cheeks told his father all he needed to know. It seemed that Prudence might be finding that there was more to his middle son and that she was finding those qualities very attractive after all.

On the McCarren ranch at about that same time, Prudence was being grilled by her mother as to how things were progressing with Hoss. She told her mother that things were going as planned, but they weren’t going that way at all. She was supposed to be manipulating a dull-witted man into marriage so that her mother could work a scheme to grab some of the family wealth before they had the marriage annulled. Instead, Prudence was finding all sorts of wonderful qualities in Hoss. She wouldn’t dare mention any of that to her mother, but Hoss was gentle, kind, and considerate. Prudence had never met a man who listened to her, cared about what she said, and treated her like a lady. She was afraid that she was falling in love with him and was very afraid of her mother’s reaction if she dared to do that or even mention the possibility. But she had kissed Hoss because her mother had told her she should let him have that liberty. Except that it hadn’t happened that way at all. When Hoss had touched her cheek and turned her face to his before gently kissing her, she had no thoughts at all other than enjoying the kiss and wanting more. They had kissed more and the kisses had grown more passionate, and Hoss had held her close and made her feel like a treasure. She had never felt like that in her life. If he could do that in one afternoon, she dreamed of what it would be like to be with him longer and wondered if that was a possibility.

In town, the rumors were flying, but they weren’t about Hoss or Adam. They were about Ben. On Wednesday, Julia had joined with the ladies service group from church and when they asked about Ben, she talked about how Ben had given her a ride home from church just like young couples were wont to do, how Ben had twice given her long tours of the Ponderosa stopping at vantage points along the way to enjoy some time to partake of the delights of the scenery with the accompanying winks to hint that it meant more than she was saying, and how Ben had taken her to town for shopping and then to lunch before another of those long rides on the Ponderosa. By the end of the meeting, every woman there was at least half-convinced that Julia was going to be the next wife of Ben Cartwright and that talk was spreading all through town. Adam had ordered some special wedding decorations, and when they arrived on Friday addressed to Mister Cartwright on the Ponderosa, it only fueled the gossip as people seemed to forget that Adam and Charity were planning their wedding.

*****

Chapter 6

The next day while riding along a ridgeline, Adam spotted a dead heifer. He signaled to Joe who was a short distance away, and after Joe turned to follow him, he rode to the dead animal. He was surprised to find that the animal had been shot and the hind quarter had been cut mostly away. He stood and looked all around to see if there was anyone within sight. When Joe got there, he noted that Adam had pulled his rifle from his saddle and was holding it in a ready position.

“I don’t know what I did, older brother, but whatever it was, I can tell you that I am genuinely very sorry.” Joe was grinning but his grin faded at the grim look on Adam’s face. “What is it?”

“Someone shot this heifer and took meat. You know how we’ve noted how each set of remains we’ve found seems to be missing a leg. You joked about the three-legged cows and heifers we had. We assumed though that a bear or other animal must have dragged off part of each carcass. This shows us that it was something else.”

“Someone is hunting our cattle for meat?”

“Looks that way. By the time we find the carcasses way up here, predators have been at them, and all evidence of them being shot and butchered are gone especially because the shooters only take a small amount of the meat. Each one then is a banquet for the bears and wolves. It’s drawing more of them in here too.”

“Who would do this?”

“That’s why I got my rifle. The only people I could think who would do it are men who are not used to living off the land and are hiding out up here.”

“But where are they living? We’re using the line cabin and no one has been there.”

“Yes, and there were no provisions there, no pot or pan, and no blankets. We assumed that people passing through must have taken the supplies, but what if it’s people staying up here and they needed those things?”

“I’ll tie off the horses, and we can look for tracks.”

“If we do that too obviously and we’re being watched, we could get shot. Let’s mount up and do a ride around part of the perimeter. From here, where would men most likely go?”

“You can see as well as I do that they would have come in the way we did or go out up the valley. Oh, I get it. They’re probably up that valley and in those trees if they’re watching. All right, we head back out and come back through the trees without being seen?”

“Yeah, that’s the plan.”

In order to be undetected, the brothers took nearly two hours to work their way quietly through the trees and found the signs they expected to find. Very cautiously, they followed those and after another two hours they were watching two men at a camp with an expensive tent and quite a bit of gear. It was clear that a small fortune had been spent on the supplies and equipment. Adam had to revise his opinion of why men would be up here hiding out especially after he saw the man sitting outside the tent waiting for the beef roasting over the campfire. He looked at Joe and grinned.

“I’m going to enjoy this very much.”

“Over the saddle whether we have to shoot him or not?” Joe grinned in response to his comment as well as to Adam’s obvious enjoyment of the situation. An hour later, they were headed toward Virginia City to deliver two men to Sheriff Roy Coffee. Each of them had a large amount of roast Ponderosa beef to eat on the way, but their two prisoners were making the ride on empty stomachs. The search of the tent had revealed much valuable information, and Adam and Joe had found it all very enlightening. They looked forward to confronting Julia with it, but first they were going to enjoy very much seeing the Toad behind bars with no likelihood that he would have any way to avoid a prison sentence. About halfway to town, Adam told Joe to ride ahead with the man who had been working with the Toad. Joe whispered a quick question.

“You’re not going to do anything to the Toad to get yourself in trouble, are you?”

“It’s tempting, but nothing will happen to him. No, what I want is for you to talk to the other man and make him an offer. Tell him we won’t press charges other than trespassing if he agrees to testify against the Toad. He’ll serve some time in jail but probably not more than the time needed for the trial and then he’ll be free to go. Compared to prison, it’s a great deal. He would be a fool not to take it. Sell it, Joe. You’re good at that.”

Tipping his hat in farewell and in acknowledgement of the compliment, Joe told the accomplice to move on ahead. Toad complained and looked worried, but there was nothing he could do about the situation. He was clearly scared that Adam was going to do him harm. By the odor emanating from him, his bladder had expressed his fear for him. Adam rode a bit further away and continued toward town without saying anything. When he got to Sheriff Coffee’s office, Roy insisted that Clem take the Toad out behind the jail and had him strip and put on clean clothing from his saddlebags. Luckily Adam and Joe had allowed the two men to pack some clothing before taking them to town. As expected, the accomplice was telling all to Roy. Morris Mann, the Toad, was furious, but there was nothing that he could do. Roy had Clem lock him in a cell in the back as all attention was on the accomplice and getting his statement and getting it signed and witnessed. Once that was accomplished, Adam and Joe were ready to head home. Roy had some news that shocked them and made them ride home at a furious pace.

“The news about your pa is all over town. I’m guessing this news is gonna change things.”

“What news?” Adam and Joe almost chorused the question.

“Well, for a couple of days now people been talking about that Miz Julia telling the church ladies that she and Ben was getting married.” Roy was grinning because he knew it was gossip but also knew how upset Ben would be to hear what had happened. When he hears all this about the Toad and then hears what she done told folks, well, I gotta say I wish I could be there to see that.”

While Adam and Joe took off for home to talk with their father, Hoss was with Prudence. The two of them had been spending more and more time together. Prudence did find that she was learning to respect Hoss and to like him. However, the one huge obstacle was that she couldn’t imagine living in the west and couldn’t imagine Hoss living in a city. The two of them could be friends but she couldn’t see it going any further than that even if her feelings for him were growing exponentially. She had never been in love before and wasn’t at all sure what she was going to do. She wanted to speak with Charity about it but didn’t think that her cousin trusted her. She couldn’t blame her for that after what she had tried to do. She guessed that Charity didn’t trust her but was surprised when Charity brought up the subject with her.

“Pru, Hoss is a very special man. I don’t want to see you hurt him.”

“Charity, I won’t hurt him. I like him very much. What I tried to do with Adam, well, I guess you know it was because mother asked me to do that. I’m very sorry about that. Hoss has told me about Uncle Lem. I guess mother is like her brother. When did you realize your father wasn’t a good person?”

“It wasn’t like I knew it one day. Realization came slowly at first. I didn’t want to believe it.”

“I think I had that feeling about Mother too. I didn’t want to believe it, but after what she wanted me to do with Adam, and then when Hoss explained why she wanted me to do it, well it made more sense the way he explained it than the way she explained it. When I asked her about it, she agreed with the way he said it. Then she said I should go after Hoss and marry him so we could get some money before we had the marriage annulled.”

“She told you that?”

“Yes, she thinks I’m doing what she wants, but I told Hoss what she told me to do. It took a while to be honest with him, but he’s the best person I’ve ever known. I can’t help myself when I’m with him. He makes me be a better person.”

“Pru, you are a good person, I think, if you follow your conscience and your heart instead of your mother’s schemes, you’ll be a happier person too.”

“But I’ll be all alone. Mother will disown me if she finds out that I’m not doing as she told me to do.”

“Pru, you won’t be alone. Adam and I will help you. I’m sure that Hoss will help you. The Cartwrights help many people never abandon people who need help.”

Armed with that information, Prudence tried to think of a way out of her dilemma and couldn’t imagine how she could manage it. Without confiding everything to Hoss, Prudence spent time with him as a way to reassure herself that being with good people was a better way to live life. Hoss had asked if he could take her on a picnic, but before they got to the meadow where Hoss had planned the picnic, a hand came to tell him that he was needed back on the ranch. He apologized and said he could have someone drive her back home, but a prize mare was delivering a foal and was having severe difficulties so he had to be there to try to save both.

“No, Hoss, I’ll go with you. I’d like to see you at work.”

“It could be difficult. Things don’t always work out the way we want ’em to.”

Prudence had a momentary attack of nervous stomach but took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. “I’ll be fine.”

Hoss nodded. “I’m proud of you. You’ll do fine.” He meant it for more than that afternoon too. Happy to have her at his side, he returned to the ranch and moved quickly to where the mare was and started giving instructions to the men who were trying to help the mare who was in distress. Two hours later, the foal was born. Hoss grabbed it in his arms and handed straw to Prudence who stood beside him in shock at the delivery. She had seen nothing like it ever in her life. As Hoss vigorous rubbed the foals chest and throat, he told Prudence to poke its nose with the straw. Hoss begged the foal to breathe and worked to get it to breathe. It took what sounded like some little sneezes but then began to breathe. Hoss encouraged it over and over to breathe more. When it began to breathe more normally and opened its eyes, Hoss helped it to stand. When it managed to do that even if it was a little shaky, he looked at Prudence and grinned, and she grinned back before throwing her arms around his neck and kissing him. It was at that point that Adam and Joe arrived home.

“Well, older brother, there is a romance apparently but not the one that the gossips are talking about.”

“Certainly looks that way.”

Keeping his arms around Prudence’s waist, Hoss mostly ignored their comments and welcomed them home. Prudence was a little embarrassed but when Adam and Joe acted as if it was not a big deal, she relaxed and listened to the brothers talk. When they told Hoss what they had heard in town, Hoss began laughing but Prudence was shocked. She had no idea the scope of what her mother had been doing. Now she knew. Any loyalty she had to her mother was gone. Hoss said he would stay with Prudence letting his brothers have the pleasure of telling their father. It was no pleasure of course. Ben was angry, but when Adam and Joe told him about the Toad and what his accomplice had admitted, Ben was satisfied that the whole mess was almost cleaned up. There was still a little time left in the day so Adam decided to ride over to talk with Charity especially because he wanted to tell her about the Toad and what he had found out. When he got there, Charity was not in a good mood. Adam could hear her aunt in the house complaining about Charity talking with him outside.

“It’s been very difficult being her with her without any support from you and not even a way to get away from her for respites.”

“You’re mad that I went hunting?”

“Well, yes, no, oh, I don’t know. When you have someone like Aunt Julia in the house, it’s very difficult to think logically.”

“We found that it wasn’t normal predators killing our cattle. It was two men. The Toad and a man he hired.” Charity was shocked. “He was hiding there because he wanted to be close when his plan worked and my life was shattered when your Aunt Julia’s plan worked. He’s the one who sent her the information, the money, and the encouragement to ruin our relationship. If she succeeded, he had promised her ten thousand dollars. It’s already in a bank account in her name, and she gets access to it when you spurn me.”

“That’s diabolical. She’s got to be punished.”

“He’s in jail, and he will go to prison because he was killing cattle on our ranch. Roy doesn’t know of any law that she broke though.”

“It was a conspiracy.”

“It was, but not to break a law.”

“You have to do something. Roy has to do something. I can’t do any more than I have done already.” Adam was frowning and Charity misinterpreted the look. “You don’t have to look so angry. You look like you might regret asking me to marry you.”

“No, don’t ever say that, and I’m not angry, but sometimes I do wish I knew how to make you stop talking when I’m thinking.”

“Oh, I believe you know that already.” Adam stared at Charity so intensely then that he made her uncomfortable. “Why are you staring at me like that?”

“Usually you don’t mind me looking at you.”

“I do when you look at me like I’m a pot of honey and you’re the hungry bear.”

“Now, sweetheart, you’re not afraid of what I might do, are you?” Adam moved closer to her and she backed up a bit involuntarily but then pushed out her chin.

“Of course not.”

Reaching out with a lightning move, Adam grabbed her and kissed her then and held her close whispering in her ear.

Pulling back, Charity had to see his face when she asked the question she needed to ask. “We can’t do that, can we?”

With a broad smirk, Adam had an answer for her. “We most certainly can. It’s one way out of this mess. No one can stop us. What do you think? Are you game to try it?”

“It’s bold. It will shock our families. It will scandalize some.” Adam smirked even more because he was sure he knew what she would say next. “You’re so confident of me aren’t you, but damn you, you’re right. Let’s do it.”

*****

Chapter 7

The next morning, Ben headed to town to check in with Roy and to do his best to stop the rampant rumors spreading through town. When he arrived in town, he was dismayed that one of the first people he saw was Julia whom he had hoped never to see again. He thought that Adam would have confronted her and that she would have been getting ready to leave town. Instead, she was infuriated saying that she had heard that Adam had taken her niece to a hotel. She demanded that Ben do something about that. Ben was surprised only a little as he had guessed what had probably happened especially when Adam had not returned home the night before except to get a few things and tell them that he was going to be in town for a few days. Charity had been with him. And by her smile, Ben had not taken long to understand what his son was planning. He would have preferred a different solution but understood why Adam wanted to do it. So Ben had the hint of a smile as he marched to the hotel with Julia hot on his heels and looking righteously affronted. As he got to the front desk, he smiled at the nervous desk clerk who was looking beyond him at the angry woman.

“Hello, Charlie. Did my son check in here?”

“Yes, he did, Mister Cartwright.”

“Could I see the register please?”

Charlie turned the register around so that Ben could see it. Ben smiled broadly and turned it so that Julia could see it as well. Smirking, Ben watched in amusement as she looked at Adam’s well rounded flourish in the register which was how he had signed the ‘Mr. and Mrs. Adam Cartwright’ that Ben had expected to see written there. He asked Charlie for two sheets of paper and wrote a list of items on one sheet and a note on the other.

“Please have these things delivered to my son’s room for him and his wife. Send this note with those items please. Please bill all of it to me and include his room and any other expenses they incur here.” Ben handed a nice tip to Charlie who smiled a bit nervously.

“Adam said not to disturb him for anything.”

“He won’t mind this. If he does, tell him to take it up with me. Here, give me the note.” Ben added a postscript at the end of his note telling Adam to be nice to Charlie because he was only following instructions, and then told Charlie what he had done.

“Thank you, Mister Cartwright. That should take care of things.”

Slowly, Ben turned to Julia. A number of people had managed to follow the two of them into the hotel lobby without seeming to do that, but the lobby was inordinately crowded with people who had no business there and suddenly were very quiet and attentive too.

“Your efforts to destroy my son’s relationship with your niece are over. They’re married. Your partner in this endeavor, Morris Mann, better known here as The Toad, is in jail.”

Shocked at being thwarted and unmasked all at once, Julia gasped. “You can’t have me arrested.”

“I wish I could, but you’re probably correct. I’m sure that Roy is searching the laws for anything we could use but being a lying, conniving witch of a woman who would do anything for money including destroying her niece’s happiness is probably not a crime against man although your Maker probably has an entirely different opinion of your activities. I suggest you leave town before you find that Roy has found a law that applies to the lies you have been telling.”

The crowd parted like the sea before Moses as Julia turned to leave. Their hostile looks let her know that there was no sympathy for her. It was over. She walked to the carriage that she had been using and quickly left to return to the ranch for her luggage. She knew that it was time to leave. Unfortunately she had no idea where she was going nor what she was going to do. She thought that she and Prudence were going to have to impose on Todd and Virginia for money to travel and then they would need money to live. She had no idea yet that Prudence might have other ideas.

In the hotel, away from all the turmoil, Charity leaned back against Adam’s chest as he stroked her arm and kissed her shoulder and neck. She had longed for his intimate touch and feared it at the same time. Yet the reality had been so different than anything that she had expected. He had been fiercely passionate yet somehow gently patient with her when she had been hesitant. He had taken the time she needed to be comfortable with each step making sure that she was a willing participant each time. He had held her and kissed her gently when she had become nervous and hesitant telling her that he could wait, but she didn’t want to wait. Encouraging him to continue by touching him and kissing him in return, she had slowly been able to shed some of her inhibitions as she saw that she made him so happy by her touch. Asking what he liked had been a revelation as well. After a few hours in bed, she thought that she had become fully comfortable with being with her new husband but then she felt an urgent need and realized that to stand and walk away from him naked was making her nervous all over again.

“What’s wrong?”

“I need to use the water closet.”

“Of course. Go ahead. I’ll need to do that too. You go first.” As she hesitated, Adam seemed to understand. He had slid out of the bed and gotten the robe she had brought with her. He handed it to her and then walked to the opposite side of the bed and sat with his back to her. “Go ahead. I won’t look this time.”

Charity had been immensely grateful that first time that he had been so understanding. While she was gone, he lit a lamp. When she had returned, Adam was resting up against the pillows in the bed and had a big grin.

“Why are you smiling now?”

“You’ve wrapped my present again, and I get to unwrap it once more. It’s one of the best parts of being married. I no longer have to wonder what’s underneath all that wrapping. I can unwrap you.”

“I should get to unwrap too but you’re not wearing anything.”

“You could pull back the covers. You’ll have to be satisfied with that for now.”

She was and she did. Adam slid from the bed and gathered his wife in his arms. His hands slid down her sides to the sash of her robe opening it so that he could press his body next to hers. Soon they were again exploring and finding new ways to give and receive pleasure with each other before they fell into a deep and restful sleep in each other’s arms. In the morning, they had a repeat of that situation except when Adam moved to disrobe his wife, there was a knock on the door. He called out that he didn’t want to be disturbed and got a response that it was room service.

“I didn’t order any room service.”

“Your father did, sir. It’s a gift from him to you and your wife.”

With a smile, Adam asked Charity to step back away from the door. He pulled on his pants and opened the door so that Charlie could push a small cart into the room. Adam was going to pull a tip from his pocket when Charlie told him that his father had already taken care of that as well and then left. Adam picked up the note from the table, read it, and smiled.

“What is it?”

“Pa congratulated us and said this is for us to celebrate. He also said if I thought this was getting me out of a church wedding and a big party on the Ponderosa, I am very wrong. He’s waited too long to let me off the hook this easy.”

“I’m hungry. What did he send up?”

The newlyweds enjoyed their second meal as a married couple then. The next morning, they checked out of the hotel in time to see Julia boarding the stage. Todd, Virginia, and Prudence were there as well as Hoss. Adam held Charity back until the stage had pulled away, and then they walked over to find out what had happened. Virginia showed more spirit than she had for a long time. She was holding her baby but looked resolute.

“She expected us to support her. We said we wouldn’t but we would give her enough money to leave and to get a start somewhere else. She asked what she would do, and we told her to get a job. Our father supported her after her husband died, then Charity helped her, and then she got money from the Toad. It’s about time she took care of herself. No one owes her anything. She wanted Pru to go with her. I suspect she thought that Pru would get a job or she would get another scheme going and use her to get money.”

Standing with Hoss who had an arm around her shoulder in a protective mode, Prudence smiled wanly as she explained what had been a difficult decision for her. “I told Mother that I am done with all of that. I’m staying here. Todd and Virginia have agreed to let me stay in the addition now that Charity won’t be living there. I’ll help take care of the baby and the house and learn about working on a ranch. I do know how to cook and sew very well so there might be other things that I can do. I’ll work.”

Everyone noted Hoss’ big smile at Prudence’s announcement. He was looking forward to getting to know her better, and he was proud that she had decided to follow the right path instead of her mother. Hoss looked at his brother then.

“I thought you said the end of the month?”

“We decided to end all the turmoil once and for all. We’ll still have the church wedding and the party. Pa said we have to do that, and we want to do that.”

“Yeah, Pa told us that when he got back. He made a big point of saying none of us was ever gonna get out of having a church wedding and a big party unless we had the minister marry us at the party.” Hoss chuckled at that one. “I think he was trying to convince himself as much as me and Joe. He was happy though. We drank some champagne to toast your weddin’ even if you wasn’t there. Dang stuff tickles your nose even if it tastes good.”

“No one is going to mind that Charity will be living at the house then? I can’t get a house built for a while yet.”

“Nah, it’ll be great having a gal around the house. Charity, maybe you can teach Joe some manners especially about keeping his feet off the furniture. Pa would like that.”

The whole group chuckled about that, and then went to a restaurant for a lunch to celebrate the wedding before heading home. At lunch, Virginia made it clear that she expected Charity to have a fine wedding dress and have a wedding portrait done in the family tradition too. Soon all three ladies were going to be deeply involved in wedding plans. All the men could do was roll their eyes and hope for the best.

At the end of the month, a prison wagon picked up Morris Mann to take him away for his three year sentence at hard labor. Prison was going to be a hard place for a man like the Toad because the one asset he had, his wealth, was meaningless there. No one paid much attention to him leaving. In Sacramento, Julia started her job in a seamstress shop. Part of her compensation was that she got to live in the small room behind the shop. She would earn enough there to support herself but not enough to cause trouble for anyone. By working, she would be busy enough to be too tired to have the energy to plot and connive. Both Morris and Julia were bitter people but neither had the resources nor the opportunities any longer to cause trouble for anyone.

The next day, Ben Cartwright proudly watched as his eldest son said his marriage vows in church and brought the whole congregation to complete silence when he sang a hymn in honor of his wife and their families. The party was probably the biggest the Ponderosa had ever seen, and Hoss and Prudence danced every dance. She was amazed again at the big man never realizing that he could be such a wonderful dance partner. Ben watched them as much as he watched Adam and Charity. Joe walked up to him late in the evening.

“A penny for your thoughts, Pa.”

“It always amazes me how two wounded hearts, wounded souls, can come together and both are whole again, and perhaps even better than they were before.”

*****

Dreams and Challenges

Chapter 1

Riding back from town with the mail, Hoss almost hated the thought of handing it over to Charity. There was another one of those letters from her Aunt Julia, and every time she got one of those, she was sad afterwards. She wanted so much to fix things in her family, but there was no fixing what her aunt was and what her father had been. All she could do was look to the future in which she, her sister Virginia, and her cousin Prudence would show that it wasn’t inherited. Prudence had a sister in Philadelphia. The letters they got from her showed that she was probably much like Julia, so there was no more correspondence with her. It seemed to be the best solution. Julia lamented that and blamed them for that daughter turning on her too, but it was her low station that had caused that rift. She had taught her other daughter too well. Her mother offered her nothing so she had no use for her. Prudence wanted to help her mother, but she knew that she couldn’t because her mother still wasn’t showing any remorse for the things she had done. Given the chance, Prudence was sure that she would try to do more if it would mean that somehow she could get more money. At least her mother was the vengeful type. Her life was centered on money and how to get it. Hoss smiled as he thought about Prudence even though she worried about her mother so much. Even those serious conversations with her made him feel good because she confided in him, she trusted him, and he hoped that meant that their relationship would continue to grow stronger. She was so busy helping Virginia with the baby though that he seldom had time to see her. He wished that she could get away from that ranch a bit more so he could spend time with her. His exceptionally busy older brother was about to offer a solution to that problem.

On the Ponderosa, Adam was in the midst of three major projects and was about to embark on a fourth that he had not anticipated. He was doing some finishing work on his house. He and Charity were living in the main house, but they wanted to move into their own home before winter which was only six months away. Whenever Adam had free time, which seemed to be rare, he was sanding, varnishing, painting, or adding some shelving or doors somewhere. Building a mill to produce shingles, siding, windows, and doors for construction was a major undertaking by itself, but Adam had also helped set up a crew to run the only mine owned by the Ponderosa. He had told Eric that he would be available to help as needed, and as the relatively inexperienced crew got to work in the mine, they often called on Adam for his guidance. The travel to the various locations, the supervision, the hands-on work, the ordering, the payroll, and the myriad other tasks left him very little time.

For all those reasons, Charity worried about him. One night as he slipped into bed, late as usual, she was waiting for him. She reached for him and rubbed his shoulders, and then as he relaxed under her massage, she continued down his back until she felt that she had helped as much as she could that way. Before he could fall asleep though, she had him roll over so that they could talk. He had other ideas but she stopped his hands from roaming.

“We need to talk, and there’s no time in the day any more to do that.”

“Oh-oh, have I done something wrong? If I have, I have to say that I’m sorry because the very last thing I want to do right now is to have you angry with me.”

“I know that. You don’t have the energy to even have an argument with me. Adam, something has to change. You’re working too hard. You’re pushing too hard.”

Pushing himself up against the pillows, Adam sighed because he knew she was correct. Charity knew he wouldn’t contest that point because it was too obviously true. She wondered what he would say though and wasn’t surprised by his answer.

“I made promises. They were made in good faith to everyone, but I didn’t consider the time involved when I made them. I didn’t sit down and work out how much time each thing was going to require of me.” Reaching for Charity’s hand, Adam had a confession to make. “There’s something I haven’t told you yet. I didn’t know how to bring it up. I have to build a large forge to make the hardware for the windows and doors we’ll be making. We’ll need hinges and handles and other hardware. I found that I can’t order enough at a reasonable price to keep a decent profit on what we’re producing. The only way to do it is to make our own. We can do it. We’ve got workers who can do it, but what we don’t have are the facilities.”

“So, there will be more construction, more correspondence, more ordering, and another payroll?”

“Yes, and frankly, I don’t know how I’m going to manage it. I was going to talk to Pa and my brothers. I’m going to get overwhelmed by all of this. I’m not used to feeling this way.”

“Is that why you haven’t asked for help yet even though you’ve been struggling to keep your head above water?”

“I’m not exactly drowning yet.”

“Adam, what if you get sick? What if there’s a problem in any one of your projects? You haven’t got a spare minute left in any day.”

“I know, but I don’t see a solution.”

“I do.”

Frowning for a moment, Adam wondered but then he guessed. “You want to work for me.”

“No, I want to work with you, and I want to bring Prudence in to do some of it too. She has a very good hand as well. We could do all of the correspondence, the ordering, and the payroll. We could do the ledgers for each of the businesses. I do the same for Hiram. I prepare the papers. He looks them over, and if all is in order, he signs them and sends them off. I did the same with the bookkeeping and the payroll in the store I worked at in Philadelphia. I filled everything out, and the owner looked it over and gave the final approval. When you got home in the evening, all you would need to do was look things over and sign your name as needed.”

Closing his eyes and envisioning what Charity had described, Adam could see no problem with it. Getting his father to agree was going to be a big problem though. “I like it.” He knew Charity had been worried about his answer. He pulled her close then and as her head rested on his shoulder, he added his worry. “Now we have to come up with a strategy to convince Pa that it’s a good idea.”

“I have an idea about that too.”

“Of course you do.”

“You better not be mocking me, mister.”

“I’m not, at least not much. I married you because I thought you were smart.”

“Oh, I thought you married me because you loved me.”

“Yes I did, and I love you because you’re smart, and sassy, and you are the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me. I can’t get enough of you. Now, is that enough? Are you going to tell me your idea now or do I have to flatter you more?”

“A little more flattery and sweet talk would be nice.”

“How about this instead?” Adam gathered her in his arms and began kissing her hoping it would lead to more before he was done. He wasn’t nearly as tired as he had thought he was when he first slipped into the bed. It did lead to a lot more and later as Charity rested with her head on his chest and sighed in contentment, she was ready to talk again even as his eyes were closed.

“I think we ought to tell your father that I’m going to start working with you and helping you. It will take a while for me to know what to do so when I’m ready, then we can bring Prudence into the mix.”

“Did you have that on your mind the whole time that I was doing my best to show you how much I loved you and desired you?”

“No, I enjoyed all of that immensely. But now that’s done so I’m back to where we were before you decided to show me how you loved me instead of telling me. That was a very good way to win that argument, by the way.”

“I didn’t know it was an argument.”

“Discussion then. You are very good at discussing things. Now, how you discuss this with your father should be interesting. Tomorrow morning, you can tell him that I’m going to start looking over the ledgers and such. I can imagine the look on his face, but I have lots of free time tomorrow. I have all the curtains and linens done for the new house. Virginia and Prudence have helped and there’s nothing left to do until we can get inside and start decorating. You said that won’t probably happen for a few months yet so I have lots of free time.”

“Let’s talk about this in the morning. I have to sleep now.”

“Say yes and you can sleep.”

“Yes. And in the morning you can tell me what was in that letter from your aunt.”

Adam succumbed to sleep then, but Charity’s eyes were wide open for another half hour. She didn’t want to tell Adam about Julia’s pleas for money. She assumed that Prudence was getting similar pleas and was probably being asked for even more help. Julia had never taken care of herself in her lifetime. There had always been someone there to help her. What Charity feared is that if they didn’t help her, she might find some unsavory character to help her and then she might get involved in something that would get her in serious trouble. She thought about what she would tell Adam in the morning and hoped he would understand that she thought they should send some money to Julia. If they sent her small amounts, it might be enough to keep her from getting into more serious trouble. She worried though that he wouldn’t see it that way, and in the morning, she found that her worries were correct.

“I will not send one cent to her. She tried to destroy our relationship. She tried to prevent us from getting married. If she could, she would have done more than she did. If she was any smarter, we could have had some serious problems.”

“She was being encouraged to do that by the Toad. He’s in prison now. She’s all alone.”

“She deserves the situation she’s in. She’s lucky not to be in prison with him.”

“Adam, please think about it.”

“For you, I’ll think about it, but don’t expect me to change my mind easily. You’ll need more than the arguments you’ve used on her behalf so far.”

“I would think that you might do it for me.”

“You are the only reason I’m even considering it. For now, you’ll have to be satisfied that I’m keeping an open mind as to the final word on it. Perhaps we should have a discussion with Todd and Virginia and with Prudence too before a decision is made.”

“Thank you. Yes, that is a good idea. I was hoping that you might think that way. I’m glad you brought that up. Now, are we ready to face your father on the other issue?”

“Yes, we’ll act as if it’s something that’s perfectly natural. You’ll talk with me about it and I’ll hand over papers to you to look over today. I have some letters for you to write. I was thinking about that while I was shaving this morning. I have some orders to send and you can write those up following the pattern of the letters I sent for the lumber mill. I have a list of materials I need and you can substitute those. If you make two copies of each, then I can sign them and post them tomorrow. Tonight, I can start going over the ledgers with you and showing you how I do them. Then you can start making entries in there. I’ll bring the papers for the payroll home with me on Thursday and you can work on the payroll too. Now is this too much?”

“No, it doesn’t sound like too much. I can do it. If it is too much, I’ll tell you and you’ll have to help.”

“I won’t mind that at all because it will still be far less than I was doing before you agreed to help. I would have spent most of my time this week filling in the ledgers and getting the payroll done. Getting those orders out this soon will help a great deal.”

Offering his arm, Adam smiled conspiratorially. He and Charity were about to begin a strategic campaign against his father. His father was quite intelligent so the surprise maneuvers that would keep him guessing were their best bet for getting things to work their way. It worked out much as they planned. Ben wondered what was up with the looks that Adam and Charity exchanged at breakfast but soon got a taste of what was to come when Adam set Charity up at the table as soon as Hop Sing cleared away the breakfast dishes. He had her drawing up letters for him and making copies. It was similar work to what she did for Hiram Wood so at first Ben didn’t suspect what was to come. That night when Adam got out the ledger for the new construction and showed her how he entered everything, Ben was going to object but heard her say that it was so similar to what she had done in that store in Philadelphia where she had worked and what she did for Doctor Martin in his ledgers that she disarmed his objections. By the time she was doing the payroll, it was too late. Ben realized that she had taken over the office roles for the new manufacturing facility they were building and he had had no say in the decision. It irritated him somewhat, but those were Adam’s areas of responsibility so he could hardly object too much if Adam wanted his wife to help him with that work. At least that was how he justified it to himself so he could avoid a confrontation. At least it meant that Charity gave up her work with Hiram and Paul because she no longer had enough time to do that work. Adam was relieved at that even more than the rest of the family although he never said that to his wife, but he had been concerned about her being in town without an escort. Then Charity started to put pressure on Adam to hire Prudence to help her because it was a lot of work and they needed to get the books for the mine in order too. Adam cautioned her that was going to be a trickier proposition, and they needed a more elaborate strategy.

*****

Chapter 2

Slamming her pencil to the table, Charity sat back and exclaimed loudly. “It’s hypocrisy!”

Ben Cartwright continued reading his newspaper and wisely refrained from making any comment. He saw his younger sons look at each other and return to their checkers game without giving even a glance in Charity’s direction. In the months that she and Adam had been married, they had all gotten used to her and Adam having some fiery although short exchanges occasionally. All had found it best to let the two of them alone when that happened.

“What? Why is taking a census of the population a hypocrisy?”

“No, not that, but I can only check one box for occupation. I do many other things so shouldn’t I be able to mark more than one box to show what I am actually doing?”

“That would seem to be sensible.”

“I assisted Doctor Paul when he needed me so I could also put down nurse. In fact, Hiram sent documents to me for copying because he said that I have the neatest and most readable penmanship of all the clerks he’s had. Now I do the correspondence for the new mill. I do the ledgers and billing. I prepare the payroll so I’m a bookkeeper. I should be able to mark all of those boxes. In the future, people will look at this and think that I sat at home cooking, cleaning, and doing nothing else except obeying my husband I suppose.”

“I like the last part of that.” Adam put up his hands in mock surrender though when he saw the smoldering look he got for that comment. “I do apologize for my flippant comment. It was insensitive. However, I can only check one box also.”

“Yes, but there is no box that says something like family provider or anything like that. All of your choices have to do with your work outside of the home. Why is the top choice for women one that assumes that the woman doesn’t use her mind and her education for something outside the home when we know that almost all the women out here do that?”

“It could be because the survey was created in the east where the prevailing attitude is that women should be in the home caring for the children.”

“And even there, we know it isn’t true. Many women work in factories and as servants as well as in all sorts of other jobs. Most families couldn’t survive if the woman wasn’t working. It’s a snobbish question written by men who have antiquated and ignorant ideas of how society works. Why don’t men with intelligence and principles run for office?” Then she remembered how a run for office had nearly wreaked havoc in the family and dropped the subject. However on the census form, she had to fill in the section of family size next and that stopped her as well. She wanted a child very much but nothing had happened for her and Adam yet. Adam saw her pause over the form, but because she said nothing, he leaned over and looked to see what had her attention. He paused briefly too and then squeezed her upper arm to get her attention and whispered to her very softly.

“It will happen.”

“But when? It’s been months and months. Most women would already be with child and I’m not yet. I want one so much, Adam.”

“I know, and I do too, but it will happen when it’s going to happen. We have to trust that it will and let it happen. Remember, you could have a big one like Hoss. You need to be ready for that. Or we could have one like Little Joe. Can you imagine our lives with a little whirlwind like that on top of all the work we already have?”

“I suppose He knows best. He probably thinks we don’t have time right now. Perhaps when we have our house and not so much work to do.”

“Yes, so now let’s get this census form finished so we can take a walk in the evening air. We haven’t had a chance to do that much lately, and I’m feeling a need for a walk with you.”

“Oh, you need to walk with me. Well, then, let’s get this done, because I need to walk with you too.”

But Charity had that saucy grin that showed she was interested in far more than a walk. When the two of them left the house arm-in-arm, Ben and his two younger sons had a chance to talk. They had overheard enough to guess most of the rest of what had transpired in the conversation.

“Pa, we need to find a way to ease up on Adam and Charity and all the work they got to do. I was thinking that maybe we could bring Candy in to take charge of more of the work around here. Then I could help out Adam more. Joe’s already got his hands full with the horses and with the changes we’re making there.”

“How could you help out Adam?”

“I know quite a bit about building things. As long as the plans are there, I could help a lot with the building. It would give him more time for the planning and other stuff he’s got to do.”

Giggling a bit, Joe had to add more. “And they need some time together. Anybody can tell that they have other plans and stuff they want to do together. They haven’t had much time for that either as busy as Adam has been. Late to bed and early to rise is no way to get us a niece or a nephew, is it, Hoss?”

“Joseph, flippant comments about relations between a husband and wife are not appropriate. What happens between Adam and Charity is not any of your concern and certainly should not be part of any conversation.” Except those comments Joe had made had more of an impact on Ben than Hoss’ ideas had. He did wonder if Adam’s workload had made it too difficult for him to have a child. He thought that perhaps finding a way to take some of the burden from him might get that grandchild he so coveted. He thought about that and then looked to Hoss. “I like your idea. I think we should talk with Adam about that at breakfast. If he agrees, we should bring up that subject with Candy, and then we could all meet with him, perhaps at dinner tomorrow evening, to discuss it.”

Looking proud and rather pleased with himself, Hoss looked over at Joe who was looking a bit chagrined after his father’s comments. “Ya hear that, Joe. Pa likes my idea.”

Snarling a bit, Joe didn’t think his father would appreciate hearing his comment that he and Hoss had been discussing that idea for some time. It would only seem like sour grapes at that point. He would let Hoss take credit for it. He was the one who had the courage to bring it up, but he hoped that Hoss would at some point let their father know that the two of them had come up with the idea together. Otherwise, he was going to have to get some revenge on Hoss for slighting him. As he thought about that, he smiled. Hoss saw that smile and got worried. He looked over to his father and had something to say.

“Hey, Pa, I meant to tell ya sooner, but that idea about promoting Candy, well, Joe and me been talking ’bout that for a while, so ya see, it was both our idea.”

“Yes, well, good. Now, I need to get some work done on these ledgers.”

Hoss looked over to Joe and saw that he was not fully placated. He grimaced a little knowing that he was going to pay a price for this slight. He guessed there was only one way to avoid a serious consequence. “Hey, Joe, if Adam agrees, do you want to be the one to tell Candy? He sure is gonna be tickled pink, dontcha think?”

“What? That he’s going to get to do more work for the same amount of pay?”

“Huh?” Hoss looked over to their father then who was bent over the ledgers. “Pa, is Candy gonna get paid more if he has more responsibilities?”

Sitting up and leaning back in his chair, Ben thought about that. “Yes, we should probably raise his pay. In fact, we should probably raise salaries for the three of you too. Let’s talk about that tomorrow morning before we talk with Candy.”

Hoss looked back at Joe who was all smiles then as all thoughts of revenge disappeared. Hoss had just gotten a raise for him. He was already thinking of how he could spend it. Hoss saw that look and relaxed because all was right within the family again. He liked it best when it was like that. And with Candy taking over some of the work, Hoss guessed that he might finally get some time to go see Prudence during the week. He was tired of only seeing her on Saturday evening and on Sunday. He wanted the chance to see her more often. It was with that thought that he wished his father and Joe a good night and headed up to bed followed by Joe a short time later. Ben turned down the lamps and banked the fire. He was about to head up the stairs when Adam and Charity walked in the house.

“Adam, do you have a moment. There’s something I wanted to tell you although we’ll talk more about it at breakfast.”

Ben could see that Adam was reluctant, but Charity told him she needed time to brush her hair and get ready for bed anyway. Adam smiled and plucked a few stray pieces of straw from her hair as she turned to walk to the stairs. Suppressing a grin, Ben watched as Adam nonchalantly walked to the fireplace and tossed the straw into the coals before turning to his father with that hint of a smile that said better than anything that he knew his father had seen everything and knew what it meant. Saying nothing about that of course, Ben got right to the business at hand.

“Your brothers have suggested that we give Candy more responsibility on the ranch. That would free Hoss to help you more. Hoss would like to be involved in the building of the mill. Are those things all right with you?” Adam nodded. “We should probably come up with a salary increase for all involved including you. Responsibilities have increased all around and that means that salaries should reflect that.” Adam nodded again. “We can talk more about it at breakfast.”

“That all sounds good, Pa. But if you’re talking salaries, it’s probably time to think about what you want to pay Charity for the work that she’s doing. You can think about that so that we can talk about it at breakfast.” With that, Adam turned and headed up the stairs knowing that his father was probably in shock without a thought of how to respond to what he had said. He would give him time to think that through, and he would warn his wife so that she would be diplomatic at breakfast because he wasn’t at all sure how his father was going to respond to that idea.

Surprisingly, Ben was agreeable to paying Charity a salary commensurate to what she had earned working for Paul and Hiram. She was agreeable to that so it was quickly settled. Raises were agreed upon for the three sons, and then a raise was agreed for Candy if he would agree to accept more responsibility. There were some incentives that were added as well such as new quarters in the future and some expenses being paid. Joe and Hoss got to go present the proposal to him and ask him if he would join them in the future for breakfast in the morning as they would plan each day’s work and the week then. Not too surprisingly, Candy enthusiastically agreed.

There was only one sobering thought that Ben made sure that all of them kept in mind. None of the changes they were making had brought any extra money into their coffers yet. They needed to keep a tight rein on expenses and the new salaries for the sons wouldn’t go into effect until the profits increased. Charity’s salary and Candy’s raise would have to be paid regardless because they were doing extra work, but the stakeholders in the Ponderosa were going to have to wait. Joe put his dream shopping list on hold. His look told his family what he had been thinking and gave them a chuckle before they headed out for work that day. Charity and Adam were heading to town to post mail and get supplies. Hoss was going to take Candy through his new duties, and Joe had work to do with the horses. As usual, there was more than enough work to do.

In town, Charity went to post the correspondence as Adam went to order supplies. Barney Fuller approached her as she finished posting the letters that had to go out. As usual, Barney was nosy and a bit overbearing. Charity explained what she was doing in the simplest terms and hoped to escape the conversation with him as quickly as possible. Barney however was in one of those moods in which he had to poke and prod and try to start something.

“You’ve got a smart and talented husband. You live in a powerful family with a big ranch and more money than they know what to do with. You could live a life of comfort and ease. Now why do you have to try to be equal to men like me?”

“Mister Fuller, I don’t want to be equal to you or to any man like you.”

“Well, you sure act like it sometimes.”

“No, I’m far more ambitious than that.” With that, Charity turned and exited the store hoping to find Adam and escape any more unpleasant conversations with the likes of Barney Fuller.

In the store, Barney Fuller was at first offended especially when there was laughter at Charity’s remarks. Then he shook his head as he watched her cross the street. He looked at the people standing in the store who waited for him to respond.

“Adam Cartwright snagged himself a wildcat. I wonder if he knows it yet.” He laughed then as did the others in the store. “Better yet, I would pay to see the look on old Ben’s face when she up and smart mouths him like that cause I know I ain’t the first man felt the sting of that sharp tongue. No sirree, I bet old Ben has heard a few words from that one. Well, good to know that Adam has his hands full with her and that new mill he’s building. Maybe I’ll stand a chance with the next contract bid for railroad business. I’m tired of him and his old man undercutting my bids. This time I’ll bid low enough to beat them out. You can bet on it.”

Unseen by any in the store because they had focused on the action at the front of the store, Adam had come in the back door to meet Charity. He had heard her encounter with Barney and had heard all that Barney had said afterwards. The shop owner was going to apologize to him, but Adam put a finger over his lips to keep him quiet. He left as silently as he had arrived with none knowing he had been there. He had a plan for paying Barney back for those words. He was going to let the man punish himself. He found Charity and walked her to their wagon which was already loaded. He knew she was a bit upset but told her they would talk once they left town.

“Trust me. I know what you’re going to say. I have a few things to tell you too, but not here.”

On the way home, Adam explained to Charity what he planned to do and why. When he arrived home, he explained it to his father who agreed with him. For the next few weeks, Adam confided in a few close friends that the Ponderosa was desperately in need of cash and was going to bid at rock bottom prices for the next railroad contract because they absolutely had to win it. When it was time to bid, they didn’t even submit a bid because they no longer had any intention of selling good Ponderosa timber for rough-cut railroad ties. Barney won the bid at a price that probably had him losing money. He was furious but had no one to blame but himself for being a fool.

*****

Chapter 3

The next month started with very good economic news. Adam had part of the mill up and running. It was producing doors and siding. He got a contract for a large hotel in Carson City. When he came home from town after meeting with the men building the hotel, he was excited. He could hardly stop talking and ran through everything that he had learned from the corporation building the hotel that had advanced him money on the order for doors.

“Do you know how many doors there are in a hotel? This is a great start and good advertising for the type of work we can do locally. They’ll save money by buying from us, and we’ll make money. We can have the product there faster than they could have them shipped in from any other source too. If all goes well, we’ll be making transom windows as well as doors for their next project here in Virginia City. They have other projects in the works too. They have a railroad switching station to build in the Sierras. It will be three stories and we don’t even have to bid on these projects. They want a catalog or listing of what we have or can make, and they’ll order from us. They’re going to give me a chance to do some design work for them too. They’re going to send me some ideas, and I’ll get to submit a design to them. If they like it, they’ll buy the design and we can produce all the products for building it as well.”

After Adam handed over the receipt for the money he had deposited, Hoss and Joe crowded behind Ben to look at the amount and then whistled. Ben smiled.

“This will go a long way toward recouping our investment in that mill. A couple of checks like this, and we’ll start seeing a net profit from it.”

“With the money coming in from the mine now and the money from the cattle and the horses, we’re doing well. As long as the cattle drive brings in at least an average return, this could be a very good year. The mill and the mine will keep operating through the winter so there will be no more pinching pennies in the winter months hoping to make it to the spring drive.”

“Yes and Joe has some ideas about how to use any extra freight wagons and teams over the winter months if we don’t need them here for the mill or the mine deliveries.”

After Joe explained what he wanted to do, Hoss laid out his plans to do the drive with Candy as ramrod. It would be the first drive in which there would only be one Cartwright working the drive. It seemed odd, but it was how things were probably going to work in the future as they developed a multi-faceted business operation. Everything was falling into place, but Charity was quiet. Ben noted that she said very little, and after dinner, she and Adam went outside. When they came inside, they went upstairs without saying much to anyone. The next morning, Ben asked Adam if there was anything he could do to help.

“No, it’s only another month.”

“Adam, it will happen for you. Perhaps the two of you are still working so hard. Maybe a short break would help. We can take over for a few days and let you and Charity take a short vacation. You hardly have any time for the two of you.”

“I don’t know how we can do it. We need someone to do the books. You can’t take over my work, keep up with yours, and do Charity’s. It’s too much.”

“Perhaps there’s someone else who can take over Charity’s work for a short time.”

Adam wanted to grin but held it inside. It was the opening he had been hoping to have. “Well, Charity has been asking me if she could show Prudence how to help with the books. Now that she and Hoss are getting so serious, and it looks like Prudence will be part of the family at some point, it seems that perhaps it would be all right to have her help out part-time.”

Ben looked at his son wondering if he had been played but lacking any evidence that was true. “Do you have any idea if Prudence has any talent for this kind of work? We know that Charity had experience doing it, but does Prudence?”

“Not as much, but Charity could teach her. She wouldn’t have to do as much though. She would mainly be making entries to keep track of things. There would be no correspondence, no orders. Charity and I do all of those, and we do the payroll too. But there are lots of records to be kept and it’s time consuming to write it all down.”

A bit suspicious about that sudden turn in the conversation, Ben wondered how much was going on that he had not known about. “What does Hoss think about this?”

Clever enough to avoid that trap, Adam was evasive. “We should ask him. I’m fairly certain he would like the idea. It would mean that Prudence would be here every day. He would hardly be likely to object to that.”

“We couldn’t pay her much.”

“I don’t think that would be a problem. She gets paid nothing for what she does for Todd and Virginia, and she could continue to do that for the room and board she gets there.”

Outmaneuvered at every turn, Ben could only concede on every point. He did want to see Adam and Charity take some time away, and if this was how it would work, then he was willing to take a chance on Prudence. “It’s a trial run though. When you and Charity return, we’ll evaluate how things worked, and then we’ll make a final decision based on that.”

“Yes, Pa. That sounds about right.”

So that evening, Ben told Hoss and Joe that he got Adam to agree to take some time off and spend a short vacation in Carson City with Charity.

“How did you get the old granite head to do that? I never thought he would ever agree to take a break until that mill was completely done.”

“Joe, give your father some credit. I knew how to appeal to my oldest son. I used logic and common sense to get him to see things my way. He and Charity need some time away. You saw how unhappy she was this morning. Well, it’s time for them to spend some time together.”

Hoss was happy with the solution, but not nearly as happy as Charity. She asked Adam how he had managed to get some time away when there was so much work to do and she was especially surprised that Prudence was going to be able to work with her. “How did you get your father to agree to letting Prudence work with me, and get a short vacation for us as well?”

“I appealed to his common sense and his logic. Your looking so downcast this morning helped too. Why did you look that way?”

“I saw the stack of paperwork that I had to do today. It made my head hurt to think about it.”

“Pa interpreted it as something else, but that’s all right. It helped the solution. He thought it was because you aren’t with child yet.”

“But I might be. You didn’t tell him I was late, did you?”

“No, you’re not that late. We can’t be sure yet.”

“No, but I’ve not been this late before so it could be.”

“We’ll keep it as our secret until we’re sure. Now get packing what we need for a short vacation in Carson City. I want to take you to dinner and then spend some quality time together without any work and without any talk about work.”

“You don’t feel guilty at all about taking this vacation under false pretenses.”

“No, I don’t. We need this time away, and if our special secret turns out to be true, they’re going to be very happy for us. If it isn’t true, then perhaps this small vacation can make it come true next month. Either way it’s a winning proposition.”

“I’ll have to spend today showing Prudence how to do the entries.”

“That’s fine. An early evening ride to Carson City, a bath together, dinner in the room, and who knows what might happen.”

“Oh, I think you know exactly what will happen and you’re counting on it too. Now if you want that, you need to go over to talk to Prudence and get her to ride over here in their carriage so she can get home. I’m sure Hoss will be willing to escort her home. I’ll have our things packed by the time you get back. Then I’ll spend the day getting Prudence ready to handle things while we’re gone. I’m assuming that you’ll be doing the same with Hoss and your father?”

“I will, and Charity, you won’t need to pack more than one gown. You’ll hardly be needing that one.” With a cheeky grin, Adam leaned down to kiss her quickly before he left the room but not before she slapped his behind as he turned to leave. She stood with her hand on her hip. He grinned again as he saw that when he looked back. The thought of having some time away from work and worry had already rejuvenated him, and Charity realized that his father might be correct. Perhaps it was the stress and the worry that was making it difficult for them to conceive a child. She decided then that she needed to make more of an effort to find time for the two of them to relax and enjoy life despite how ambitious they were. It was going to be a challenge. She smiled at the incongruity of the problem. She was going to have to work to give them time to relax. Shrugging, she knew it was how they were going to have to be for the foreseeable future.

Someone who looked forward to being busier, Prudence was thrilled that the idea that Charity had broached to her some time earlier had finally come true. As soon as she could, she was dressed for the ride to the Ponderosa and was merrily driving the carriage with Adam riding along beside her. As soon as she was in the yard at the ranch, Hoss was there to escort her inside. Then as Charity and Prudence bent their heads over the books with receipts and bills stacked next to them, Adam sat down with Hoss and their father to discuss what needed to be done at the mill in his absence. Things were going rather smoothly this far into the process, but every day they would need to check on the progress with the various work crews and see that the plans and the work was being done according to orders Adam had written out. He wasn’t going to be gone for long so there were few worries about that. By late afternoon, Adam felt comfortable in leaving things in Hoss’ hands with his father as back-up, and Charity pronounced that Prudence could handle anything needed for the bookwork.

Once Adam and Charity left, Hoss startled his father and Prudence with a request. “While Adam and Charity are gone, maybe Miss Prudence should stay here instead of making that trip by herself every day. She could stay in the guest room down here and then she could do the work right there at the table and keep the paperwork right there in that room when she wasn’t working. It’s only for five days. Sunday evening after we all have dinner, I could escort her home. Adam and Charity will be back by then.”

By Monday morning, Adam was feeling rejuvenated in many ways, but Charity was tired from her vacation. She was still ‘late’ so she and Adam were hopeful that they would soon have good news to share. Hoss had spent five days getting to know Prudence better and had come to a decision. He meant to talk to Adam about ordering a ring and how to do that to get the right size without her knowing she was getting a ring. Ben was pleased with how smoothly things were going, and then the bad news arrived. Joe came home from town with the mail on Wednesday and two items of news. The first wasn’t too bad.

“Toad died in prison. I saw Roy and he told me. Said he had been hazed so much by the other prisoners that his heart must have given out. He died about a month ago.”

“Why are we only hearing about it now?”

“Apparently it wasn’t much news until the reading of the will in Carson City on Monday morning. You can guess who his heir is considering that he had no children and no known relatives.”

As Ben and Hoss thought about it, Adam and Charity got a sneaking and horrifying suspicion. Seeing Joe looking at them, they knew it had to be true. Almost in unison, they asked Joe if it was Julia, and he told them it was.

“Yes, he left the whole of everything he owned to her. He left a sealed letter for her too. She has to read the letter and then she gets everything.”

Frowning, Hoss looked around at the others who were frowning as well. “What do you suppose is in that letter?”

“Son, it can’t be good news for us. And if Julia is coming back here, that’s bad news too.”

*****

Chapter 4

When Prudence arrived the next day on the Ponderosa, Adam and Charity had some questions for her. She admitted that she had sent some money to her mother.

“She begged me for help. She said she didn’t have enough to pay the rent on her place for this month and needed extra. I don’t have many expenses so I sent her some. I guess it was all a lie. Now I think she wanted that money to come here to hear the will being read. Well she won’t be asking me for money any more. That awful man left her plenty of money if the story we heard is true. I wonder if she’ll even bother to come over here to say hello to me.”

Wishing that Julia would go away forever, Adam couldn’t bring himself to say that to Prudence. Julia was an awful woman, but she was her mother. Hoss was there looking sad for the pain that Prudence was facing. Adam suggested that the two of them ought to get to work and let the two ladies spend the day together talking and working. It didn’t take long for the ladies to find topics to discuss.

“Charity, do you like being married to Adam?”

Surprised at that question, Charity put down her pencil and stared at Prudence who looked at her innocently letting Charity know that there was no malice in the question. “Yes, I adore being married to Adam. I no longer can think of living any other way even though we have only been married less than a year. It seems like it is the most natural way for me to live my life. Why do you ask?”

“I think Hoss is going to ask me to marry him. He’s been saying things that kind of hint at that without coming right out and saying it. I’m scared of saying that I will spend my life with him. How do you know that you can trust someone so much with the rest of your life? And you know, with other things? I’ve never been with a man before, and Hoss and I have only kissed. I’m worried about what will happen when we get married. He’s a very big man.”

Sliding her chair closer to Prudence so that she could whisper and not be overheard, Charity decided to confide in her cousin in order to reassure her. “You can never tell anyone, not even Hoss, anything about what I’m going to say. Adam is a very private person. But I can tell you that even very strong men can be very gentle while they are being passionate. They can take their time and make sure that they don’t hurt the woman they love. I mean, there is going to be some discomfort until you get used to it, but it will be of little consequence in comparison to the feelings that you’ll have when you join with your husband. You’ll forget all about that little discomfort when the feelings of pleasure wash over you.”

“It’s really that good? Mother always made it sound as if it was something that she had to do and not something that any woman wanted to do. She never seemed to have minded so much that she didn’t have a husband any more except that there was no one there to provide an income.”

“If you love the one you’re with, you want to and then it’s wonderful. Sometimes it’s so strong you want to hang onto him and never let him go, and other times it’s gentle and warm and you settle in and want to snuggle in his arms and let him love you like that forever.”

“But how did you trust him enough to marry him in the first place? That’s what I’m struggling with now.”

“Whenever I needed him, he was there. Whenever I saw him, I felt better. When he wasn’t there, I felt like something was missing from my life. I knew that if ever I needed him, he would be there, and if ever I asked something of him, he would do his best to do that for me. He would always do his best. What is trust but knowing that? Isn’t that true of Hoss for you too?”

Prudence thought for a short time, and slowly a smile grew until she looked at Charity. “My fear is fear of doing something that’s unknown. That’s all it is, isn’t it? I do trust Hoss. I love him too. If he asks me, I’m going to say yes. You’ve helped me a lot.”

“Now I have one more bit of advice for you. You told me all of this. You have to tell Hoss too.”

“Oh, no, I couldn’t tell Hoss. It would upset him.”

“No, it won’t. You say you trust him. Well, he needs to trust you too, and one of those things is that he needs to trust that you will tell him the truth even if it’s difficult to say and perhaps difficult to hear sometimes. He needs to know how you’re feeling and how you’re thinking. Don’t make him guess. That’s not fair.”

“Did you tell Adam how you were feeling?”

“Yes and no. I told him some of it, but he guessed a lot without me telling him.”

“How did he react?”

“He was very gentle and patient with me. That helped a lot. It didn’t take long for me to get over those fears, but he understood, and Hoss will too. You need to give him the chance to be understanding and patient by letting him know how you feel.”

“Thank you. I don’t have a mother who I can talk to about things like this, and when I tried to talk to Virginia about things, well, she was very embarrassed and didn’t really want to talk about it.”

“You can always talk to me, but I think that once you’re married to Hoss, you won’t need to talk to me. You’ll be able to talk with Hoss about things.”

“I hope so. It’s lonely not having someone to talk to about things, well about lots of things, not just that, well, you know what I mean.”

Prudence turned pink then and Charity had to chuckle. At his desk, Ben had been aware of the two of them whispering away and could guess at the topics. He stayed at his work and let them have their privacy. Ben had noticed Adam being especially attentive to Charity. He hoped it meant that there was going to be some special news soon. He knew the two of them hoped very much for a baby, and although they sometimes joked about the wait, it had to be gnawing at them. It would be good for them to know, and he was looking forward to the news as well. He also expected Hoss to have an announcement soon. He had thought it would have already occurred but Hoss was taking his time as he did on many things. Ben could only hope that Adam was counseling him and encouraging him. That would likely speed things up. That was happening too as Adam had already pushed Hoss to get the ring ordered and had given him some ideas about how to make the proposal. Now it was up to Hoss to set the stage and finally ask the question. Adam gave him one last piece of advice that morning.

“If you don’t ask her soon, everyone is going to know you’re getting married before you know it. It will take a lot of the excitement out of the announcement.”

“Huh? Oh, cause everyone is gonna figure it out so they’ll be expecting it?” Adam rolled his eyes as if that wasn’t even necessary to state. “Well, I was thinking of asking her this weekend. Is that soon enough?”

“It is. Have you alerted Hop Sing like I told you to do?”

“Dadburnit, I knew I forgot something.”

“Well do that tonight and offer to pay him extra and pay a cousin if he needs any extra help. He’ll like that well enough that you won’t have to put up with much complaining. I made sure that there’s champagne for the toasts when you tell everyone so that’s all set. Did you pick up the ring you ordered?”

“It’s going to be ready on Friday. I’ll get it then.”

With a grin, Adam stopped and took a good look at Hoss. “You’re going to be so happy.”

“I shur hope so.”

“You will be. Let’s hope we can keep her mother from being a problem about the wedding.”

“Do you think she will be?”

“She’s a problem about everything. I wish I could say she isn’t but we know that’s not true, but I wish I could say I knew what she was likely to do. She’s unpredictable.”

“That’s a worry.”

“It is. Now that she has money, maybe she will be less of a problem though. She doesn’t have to try to get her hands on Ponderosa money because she has her own.”

“I know, but I got a bad feeling in my gut about all of that.”

“So do I. I wish I knew what was in that letter she got from Mann.”

In Carson City, Julia was meeting with the lawyers and getting that sealed letter. She was given privacy and a chance to read it. She read it, and after getting over the shock, she smiled and nodded to herself. She wouldn’t mind doing what he asked of her. As he pointed out in the letter, she had enough money now to accomplish the task without getting her hands dirty, and he had even provided contacts for her. She could meet with those people and make the arrangements. It would cost her some of her newfound wealth to pay men to carry out the assignment but not too much. Then she could let events move forward and enjoy the rest of her wealth. She planned to move back to Philadelphia and live the life of a woman of leisure. She could do that now and live off the investments she had inherited. She wondered at the warning in the letter that said there was someone watching to be sure she completed her assignment. She wasn’t sure that was true, but she suspected it might be. She didn’t object to the assignment though so it wasn’t going to be an issue for her. She called to the lawyers to tell them she had read the letter. The rest of the meeting was to officially sign over Mann’s wealth to her. She walked out of the lawyers’ office and headed to the finest hotel in town and took one of their finest rooms. She planned to do some shopping the next day. She had some men to meet, some arrangements to make, and then she was going to go see her ungrateful daughter and let her know that she was leaving her here in the west and going back to Philadelphia.

Two days later, three men met with her in her hotel room. They were reasonably well dressed, but they were obviously also very dangerous men. She was nervous around them but explained what they had to do. They found the task odd, but her offer was too good to ignore. She paid them half up front and told them where to meet her to receive the other half of the payment.

“I’ll be back here in a week. By then, it should be done. They should be drying out there in the desert just as Mann wanted. If you have accomplished that, you get the other ten thousand dollars.”

“How will you know we did it?”

“If you do it, it will be news. No Cartwright disappears without it being news. If he disappears without a trace, then I know you followed your instructions. They’ll know something bad happened because of the note, but they won’t have any idea of where to look.”

“And we don’t actually have to kill him? We leave him to die?”

“Yes, him and the other one that Mann wants dead for what they did to him. Leave them to die in the desert according to the instructions I gave you. That’s what Mann wanted. Eventually they will be found but by then, there won’t be much to find.”

Two days later, three men met with her in her hotel room. They were reasonably well dressed, but they were obviously also very dangerous men. She was nervous around them but explained what they had to do. They found the task odd, but her offer was too good to ignore. She paid them half up front and told them where to meet her to receive the other half of the payment.

“I’ll be back here in a week. By then, it should be done. They should be drying out there in the desert just as Mann wanted. If you have accomplished that, you get the other ten thousand dollars.”

“How will you know we did it?”

“If you do it, it will be news. No Cartwright disappears without it being news. If he disappears without a trace, then I know you followed your instructions. They’ll know something bad happened because of the note, but they won’t have any idea of where to look.”

“And we don’t actually have to kill him? We leave him to die?”

“Yes, him and the other one that Mann wants dead for what they did to him. Leave them to die in the desert according to the instructions I gave you. That’s what Mann wanted. Eventually they will be found but by then, there won’t be much to find.”

“When do we do this?”

“As soon as possible. I want to show up after they’re missing so that it’s clear that I wasn’t present when it happened. I will simply gloat over my good fortune and their bad. Then I will take my leave to come back here and await your return.”

The men went to Virginia City that day and got to work. At the end of the day, a note was delivered to the Ponderosa. It was relayed to Adam at the mill where he and Hoss were working. Hoss headed to town to pick up the ring he intended to give Prudence that weekend, and Adam headed to the mine to find out what kind of trouble Eric was having that needed his attention on a Friday. He was surprised by the request, but he honored it because he had promised Eric that he could always call on him if he needed advice or help.

That evening when it was time for dinner, Adam had not returned. Hoss said he had gotten a note from Eric. No one worried too much assuming that the two had their heads together working out some problem at the mine. However when one of Eric’s friends arrived because Eric’s wife was worried that he didn’t come home for dinner, concern rose exponentially with each bit of information.

“No one’s at the mine. I checked. We finished up on time today with no problems.”

“But Eric sent a note to Adam asking him to stop by.”

“No, I don’t think so, Mister Cartwright. Eric was getting ready to lock up the office when I left. He wouldn’t have been locking the door if he was expecting Adam to be there.”

Suddenly the whole Cartwright family got a cold chill. Toad dying, Julia arriving, and now this had to be connected. They weren’t sure how, but it was ominous. Ben looked at the man who was also looking worried.

“Tell Sheriff Coffee what you told us. Joe, will you go with him and explain things from our end? Hoss, do you think you could find anything this late?”

“No, Pa, but I know where Adam was exactly when he rode off so I know where to start looking. We’ll be there at first light.”

Ben turned to Charity and wrapped an arm around her as she stood in near shock not knowing what to say or do. “We’ll find him. He’ll be fine. You know how strong and resourceful he is.”

Many miles away, however, Adam was shivering in the night air as his horse was led along a desert trail. They had been traveling nearly nonstop since he had been taken at gunpoint. Eric rode beside him in nearly the same state. The only stop had been to toss a bundle over a steep cliff. It contained their weapons as well as their shirts, hats, and boots. Their captors had made sure that it was going to be very difficult for them to fight back or run away. It was also very cold riding in the night air. Apparently their comfort meant nothing which led Adam to believe they weren’t meant to survive this ordeal, but then he wondered why they had not been killed outright. No answers were forthcoming from the three men though who said almost nothing as they forced them to keep moving on further into the desert.

*****

Chapter 5

In a moment of privacy as the men let Adam and Eric relieve themselves at the side of the trail, Eric whispered. “Adam, what do you think they’re going to do to us?”

“If I had one guess, they mean to strand us in the desert. Why is the big question. If they were going to shoot us or kill us outright, they’ve had quite a few chances already. They took our boots and guns which made sense if they were going to make us less likely to be able to escape, but taking our shirts and hats makes no sense unless they want us exposed to the elements.”

Even though they weren’t worried about the two men escaping, the three men didn’t want them plotting either. Hearing them whisper was enough. They ordered them back to the horses, tied their wrists again, and had them up on the horses quickly and back on the trail. In this relatively flat terrain, they could travel at night if they went slowly. Adam was getting some blisters on his ankles and feet from the stirrups rubbing against skin normally protected by his boots. He tried to keep his toes pressed against the stirrup but found that he was getting too tired to maintain the pressure. The result was some painful blisters that broke and bled. He guessed he was going to be far more uncomfortable than that if these men carried out whatever plan they had for him and Eric. He was curious too though to know who had ordered it. He didn’t know these men and they seemed to have no personal animosity toward him or toward Eric so they were hired help. He hoped at some point to find out who had hired them and why. He also was trying to come up with a plan to free them from their captors, but so far, he had nothing. As dawn broke, the men forced them to pick up the pace. They moved rapidly for several hours especially when they saw some freight wagons in the distance. The men with them told them that if they did anything to attract attention, they would be shot immediately. They didn’t dare do anything, but they did hope that the drivers noticed them and might tell someone at some point. It might be their only chance at a rescue. They traveled for several more hours until they reached a very desolate spot. Then they were ordered from their horses.

“All right, move on out over there.” One of their captors pointed to a spot not unlike every other spot around them.

“Why?” Adam wanted to know what was expected of them.

“For now, we have the guns so you just follow orders. Move.”

One of the men moved to the packhorse and pulled out two shovels. He carried them and followed the other two men who leveled guns on Adam and Eric and forced them to move out into the sandy terrain.

“Now, start digging. We want a nice big hole by tonight.”

“We can’t do much with our wrists tied.” Adam held up his wrists that were abraded and bleeding from the ropes chafing for over twelve hours already. He got no sympathy but did have a point. The ropes were removed by the man who had brought the shovels. Then as one man guarded them, the other two went back to care for the horses and prepare a meal. None of that was shared with Adam and Eric though, and they got no water either reinforcing Adam’s belief that they were meant to die at the end of whatever the plan was. He wished he knew what the plan was however.

Many miles away, Hoss was frustrated. He had followed Adam’s tracks to where he had been abducted and then to a public road. From that point on however, he had nothing. Splitting up the searchers, they were looking in every possible direction for some indication that they had left the road and gone some other way. They never found any indication of that. They searched all day and found no trace of where Adam had been taken. By the end of the day when Hoss met up with his father’s search group, he had only one idea left.

“Pa, we need to bring in some Paiute trackers. If anybody can find a sign of where he went, they might. I only hope we ain’t messed that up with all the riding around we did today trying to find something.”

“That will take so much more time.”

“Pa, we got to do something. Unless Joe gets back here with better news, we got nothing else.”

“All right, I’ll ride to town to see what Roy may have found out. If I see Joe, I’ll let him know what you’re doing. Send the men home to get a good meal. Will you ride to the Paiute camp now?”

“I’ll get started. I won’t get all the way there before it’s dark, but I’ll be there early tomorrow. How much can I promise as a reward if they find him, Pa?”

“Whatever you have to, Hoss. Whatever it takes to get the help we need.”

As Ben rode to town, he met up with Joe and gave him the unenviable task of having to tell Charity that they had found no trace of Adam. He did tell Joe to tell her what Hoss was planning, and that he was going to town to see if there was any news there. When he got to town, he saw Barney Fuller first. It was one of the last people he wanted to see, but Barney hailed him and refused to be ignored which was Barney’s usual way.

“Barney, I have urgent business.”

“I heard, but I have something that might help with that.”

About to brush Barney off, that got Ben’s attention. Barney knew it would. He had to jab Ben a little first though.

“Now I had a run-in with your daughter-in-law. She’s got a sharp tongue on her, that one. But, Adam has always been reasonably respectful so I figure I owe him this much especially as he has to put up with that wife of his.”

Clearly frustrated, Ben fumed. “Barney, what have you got to say that I need to know?”

“Well some of my freight haulers were coming back from Reno. They took a side trip to bring some stuff over to the folks who took over the old Wilson Station. When they were leaving there, they saw five men riding out into the desert. It looked like Adam was with them. Now that wasn’t what grabbed their attention and made them tell me.”

“Well, Barney, that is important information all by itself, but what did grab their attention and make them tell you what else?”

“Adam was shirtless, hatless, and wasn’t wearing his boots. Now that is an odd way to see the oldest son of the Ponderosa riding in any circumstances.”

“Shirtless, hatless, and without his boots? That’s very odd. Who was he with?”

“Several other men. My men didn’t know any of the others. One man looked familiar to them. He didn’t have a shirt or hat or boots either. The other three men they didn’t know. They told me a short time ago. I was about to go tell Sheriff Coffee because I heard your son was missing. It’s not a big stretch of the imagination to think that this is related.”

“Thank you, Barney. Despite everything we’ve done to each other in business, this is a good thing you’ve done. I won’t forget it.”

“It’s all right, Ben. That other stuff was never personal.”

“Which direction from Wilson Station were they going?”

“Generally northeast. They weren’t paying close attention. They only thought it was odd at the time. If they had known more, they would have done something about it.”

With another thank you, Ben hurried to Roy’s office with that information. Roy had nothing more to offer but now had something to check out. He headed to the livery stables to see about men who might have had horses there or rented out any horses. He and Ben got information at the second one they checked where they found that three men had bought a pack horse. They followed that lead to the general store where they found the men had purchased food, a pot, canteens, and two shovels. That last part seemed especially ominous with the rest that they knew. Even though it was getting close to dusk, Ben headed to the ranch to inform his family and hands of what they had learned. Roy was going to have a posse formed, and they expected Hoss back with trackers in the morning as well. The search area had gotten quite a bit smaller too. Hoss was going to be back even earlier than expected because in the dusk and early evening, he pushed on and encountered some Paiute before it got too dark to see where he was going. He explained what he needed and got their agreement to help. They waited only for enough light to travel in the morning. A full-scale rescue was underway.

“Will it be soon enough?”

Charity’s plaintive question when Ben told her of the plans he had made with Roy in town and then explained to her and Joe shook him and Joe. It was the great fear neither of them could face but one she couldn’t shake. None of them knew if Adam was even alive at this point. He was but things were getting desperate by that evening. He knew it as did Eric. They suspected that they weren’t going to survive the next morning by the comments made by the men. They had spent the day digging but without food and mostly because they had no water, they were getting very weak. In the hole, Adam whispered to Eric.

“If they get us out of here, we need to use these shovels to our advantage.”

“Against rifles and pistols?”

“The other choice is to let them kill us. You heard what they said. They’re going to burn our feet and let us in this hole. Unless we’re found fast, we won’t make it. Men can only survive a couple of days without water out here. We’ve already used one of those. We can barely stand now. We have to act as if we can’t do much of anything. Start staggering and acting as if you can’t even lift another shovel of sand out of here. Over the next few minutes, we have to convince them that we’ve reached our limit.”

“And then what?”

“And then they’ll move on to the next part of their plan, and we’ll have to make our move. It may be the only chance we have.”

Having trusted Adam before when things had worked out well, Eric was already conditioned to trust his advice. He nodded. They whispered no more but began bumping into each other, dropping to one knee and having trouble regaining their feet, and when lifting a shovel of sand finding that more poured from it than got tossed from the hole. As they continued, those actions were more and more exaggerated until the man guarding them at that time decided that the plan had worked. He yelled to his partners.

“Hey, Axil, it looks like they’re about done in. It’s probably time to have them crawl out of there before we have to haul them out.”

“That bad?”

“Yeah, it’s been kind of fun watching them for the last half hour or so. It’s like a pair of clowns down there banging into each other and not getting much of anything done.”

The other two men walked up beside the first and watched Adam and Eric seemingly in a daze from dehydration and heat exhaustion. After another five minutes of watching, they all agreed that it was time. Axil ordered one of the men to go heat up the branding iron they had brought with them.

“Lew, stick it in that fire and get it real hot. I don’t want to have to do this over again. Once is gonna be bad enough. This is the worst part of what she told us to do. For what she’s paying us, we’ll do it, but it’s a sick thing.”

Axil yelled down to Adam and Eric to climb out of the hole they had dug. It took several attempts to get their attention and get them to understand what he wanted. They used their shovels to help them make the climb. Axil and Rowdy were just as glad not to have to touch them to help them out. Adam and Eric took their time waiting for Lew to rejoin his friends before they stood and swung their shovels in a desperate effort to disarm their captors. A frantic fight for control ensued with shots fired and blows struck until the three men were battered, bleeding, and subdued. Adam held a rifle in his hands as did Eric, but it was Adam giving the orders.

“Take off your boots and your shirts now!” The three men did as they were told. “Throw them in the hole.” They did that as well. “Now lay face down and put your hands behind your back. Any trouble and I’ll put a bullet in your brain. I don’t have time to do anything else at this point.”

Once the three men had their wrists tied, Adam had Eric tie their ankles as well.

“We can leave them here. I’m sure that they can be retrieved before anything too terrible happens to them, but if not, well, they brought it on themselves.”

“Adam, we have to do something about the bleeding.”

“I know. Go look to see if they have any clean cloth on that packhorse. A clean shirt will do. I wish that they had boots that fit, but clean shirts or a nice blanket would be good.” With that Adam dropped to his knees and then to his side. Eric was beside him in a moment to ease him onto his back. Then he rushed to the packhorse to see what was there to use. The wound wasn’t too serious if they were in town, but out here, he was worried about the bleeding especially as weak as Adam already was. He did the best he could but succumbed to exhaustion too in the middle of the night.

*****

Chapter 6

A few buzzards circling helped the Paiute trackers and Hoss zero in on the location of Adam and Eric. Both men were nearly delirious with heat exhaustion from their ordeal and Adam had the additional blood loss and pain. They had the canteens of water and had been sipping the water but it wasn’t enough to recover. They needed assistance. Hoss wanted to send a man to the station to see about getting a wagon but suspected that a Paiute might not receive a friendly welcome there. Instead, he fired off three shots hoping that a search party might be close enough to hear not realizing that his father and Sheriff Coffee had converged on the area and were waiting for some sign even as they looked for tracks. Hoss was greatly relieved to see the men ride up a short time later.

“Pa, Joe, they’re alive but in tough shape. Adam’s been shot in the side. It ain’t bad. He musta been fighting over a gun with somebody cause there’s powder burns on his side too. That actually helped cause the wound closed up, but he’s already got a fever. Could be from what he went through but it could be an infection. He needs a doc.”

“What about those three?”

“Must be the ones who done it to them. We ain’t paid no attention to them, but if Eric and Adam done tied ’em up, they had a good reason to do it.”

“I’ll send a man to the station for a wagon. Joe, could you ride for Doctor Martin and have him meet us at the ranch?”

“That’s what I wanted. Now we gotta get Adam and Eric cooled down. You got plenty of water with you?”

“We do, and we’ll use whatever we have.”

Both Adam and Eric roused a bit with the care they received. The three men who had taken them captive were begging for water and for their clothing. Adam smiled grimly and whispered to his father who had to lean down close to his mouth to hear him. Ben leaned back then and nodded before walking over to Roy.

“Roy, don’t give them any water or anything else until they pay for it.”

“Ben, how they gonna pay for it? I don’t think anybody ought to have to pay for water out here in the desert.”

“Roy, they didn’t give Adam and Eric any water for a full day. Now, they can wait for water at least that long and perhaps longer unless they want to tell us who gave them the orders to do this thing. It could go easier with the judge too, don’t you think, if they showed remorse and confessed?”

“Well, now, Ben, you got a point there. These men surely could show some good faith by telling us who give ’em these orders and by confessing everything. The judge surely would take than into consideration. They didn’t kill nobody, and it could give ’em a lot shorter time locked up.”

“How long is the sentence for kidnapping and attempted murder?”

“Judge could give ’em twenty years or more.”

“But if they cooperated, what could happen?”

“Well, now it could be charged as assault. That could get them a year or two if the judge was told that they was willing to cooperate and was remorseful.”

“Most young men can handle a year or two, but twenty years, and your life is over before you’re done.”

“It sure is. I’ve seen men get out after twenty years. Sometimes they’re only forty or so years old, and they look like sixty or more. Can’t get a decent job. Can’t get a gal. Swamping out a saloon, begging for drinks and food, and such is about all they got to look forward to. It’s a sad thing. It’s almost better to get the gallows. You die quick that way and not so slowly.”

Lew tried to roll over. “I’ll talk. I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”

“You fool. That’s what they wanted. They were only trying to scare you.” Axil tried to get him to stop.

“I don’t care. What they said made sense. I don’t owe her anything, and neither do you. We already got money in the bank. We serve our year or two and move on. It was all her doing. Let her serve the twenty years.”

Anyone listening who knew the family well had a fairly good idea who the ‘her’ was going to be. Rowdy agreed with Lew and said he would also talk. Axil gave in then and also agreed to confess. Roy had one of the men remove the ropes on their ankles and let the men sit up to tell their tale. Roy had the men in the posse tend to the horses and the gear. He and Ben sat with Hoss and Clem as they listened to the three tell the whole story. Ben and Hoss continued to tend to Adam and Eric who listened as well as they could.

At some point, Adam slipped away into much needed sleep in his father’s arms with a blanket wrapped around him. When the wagon arrived, Hoss helped Ben lift him into it without waking him. Then Eric was helped onto a horse. Roy took the three criminals to town. Clem and a few men took Eric home. The Paiute, who had waited patiently, rode with Hoss and his father who accompanied the wagon to the Ponderosa. As they reached the Ponderosa, Hoss told the Paiute to cut out twenty head of cattle to drive up to their camp. The men nodded their thanks and left. At the ranch, Charity came running toward the wagon as soon as she saw it. Ben had the driver stop so that she could climb in the back with Adam and then they proceeded up to the house. Charity bent her head down beside Adam who was awake.

“You shouldn’t run in your condition.”

“I’m fine. You don’t look so good though.”

“I’m fine. I need to get cleaned up, and I need lots of tender loving care and some time in bed.”

“Is that all you ever think about?”

“I mean to sleep although that afterwards would be wonderful.”

“Are you hurt?”

“I got shot. Don’t look so scared. It’s not too bad. Even Hoss said that. My wrists and my ankles have some sores. Other than that, maybe a few bruises, but otherwise, I’m perfectly fine.”

“Oh besides the sunburn and the fever you have?”

“Oh, yeah, there is that too.”

“How’s Eric?”

“Better than I am. He’s heading home. Charity, you know who had this done, don’t you?”

“I didn’t, but by the way you asked the question, I think I do now. It was Julia, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, she plans to show up in town today or tomorrow to gloat over you in your sorrow, and show off her wealth to her daughter. Then she plans to leave in triumph to go back to Philadelphia after paying off the men who did this.”

“What were they supposed to do?”

“Work us at hard labor in the sun, exhaust us, burn our feet so we couldn’t stand, and then strand us in the hole we dug too weak to claw our way out. Without food and water, we would have died within another day or two. With the sand piled on either side of the hole, the winds would have blown sand back into that hole over time. We might never have been found if his plan had worked.”

“Diabolical.”

“Yes, and apparently it was what she was supposed to do in order to inherit. He had someone watching her to make sure she did as he requested. No one seems to know who that is so there’s another person out there yet that we need to uncover.”

“Do you have a plan?”

“No, I only have begun to think straight again. I need more water and more sleep.”

By then, the wagon had reached the yard. Hoss and Ben carried Adam into the washroom laying him on the large table Hop Sing kept there. Hop Sing had spread two thick blankets on the table. It had been used for this purpose before. Soon Adam was bathed and his wrists and ankles were bandaged. Not much was done with the wound in his side because they planned to wait for Doctor Martin to arrive before anything was done with that. Hop Sing pressed a clean bandage over the wound to protect it. Once Adam was cleaned up, Hoss and Ben carried him to the bed in the downstairs guest room despite his objections that he could get there on his own. They set him on his feet and his one attempt to take a step caused him to fall forward into Hoss’ arms settling that argument. He waited in the bed down there for the doctor to arrive. Charity helped him drink water and beef broth until then and he fell asleep resting for a half hour before Paul arrived. Paul examined the wound, cleaned and drained it, and bandaged it tightly. He addressed Charity then who had hovered behind him as he checked on Adam.

“He should have no problem with it if you keep it clean. Change that bandage as often as needed to keep it dry. It could be every few hours today and then less as it begins to heal. He needs to sleep obviously, but I see a full recovery. However I see that you need some sleep as well. You should probably go up to your bed and rest too.”

“I don’t want to leave him.”

“Well, then, lie down beside him and close your eyes. I’ll tell Ben I prescribed sleep for both of you for the next several hours.”

Once Charity agreed, Paul went out then to inform Ben and Adam’s brothers of his findings and was invited to have an early lunch with them. Happy to agree, he was soon surrounded by yawning men. He told Hop Sing that he would take a delicious sandwich with him, and that all of them ought to get some sleep. Ben agreed but did ask Paul one favor and explained why. With a smile, Paul departed, and they took his advice and grabbed a nap. By midafternoon though, Hoss headed over to the McCarren ranch to tell Prudence, Todd, and Virginia what had happened, and Ben thought more about the plan he had and talked with Joe about it. He knew he needed to discuss it with Adam before he went to Roy with it. They had to smoke out this unknown man and they probably would have to use Julia to do it. She would never cooperate so they were going to have to manipulate her into doing what they needed her to do.

As Hoss expected, Prudence was shaken by the news that her mother could have arranged something like that. “She hired men to kill Adam?”

“Well, ya see, she probably didn’t see it like that. They was gonna strand him and Eric in the desert. The desert was gonna kill ’em. Now by the law and the way I see it, it’s the same thing as killing ’em, but I guess she didn’t see it that way. She told the men she hired that they couldn’t kill ’em cause she didn’t want to risk the gallows. That right there says she ain’t got the smarts to see what she was doing was the same thing. Old Toad told her just what to do. Somebody is watching too to see that she done it. She only gets to keep the money if Adam and Eric are dead.”

“So she’ll lose all that money now?”

“Well, she will, but she don’t know that yet. The men who did it are in jail, but Adam got shot. So, Pa’s got an idea. He’s waiting on Adam waking up so he can talk to him and Charity. Pa thought it might be best ifn you was to come to the house too to hear it all out. Maybe you too, Todd and Virginia, could come with us. Pa said maybe all of us ought to talk it over to see how it could work.”

“How what could work?” Todd was curious.

“Pa’s working on a plan, and seeing as how Julia is family to you all, you ought to be in on it as we see it.”

Prudence leaned against Hoss who gathered her into his arms. He rubbed her back and tried to comfort her. His high hopes of asking her to marry him had to be delayed. Instead they had this to handle first. Todd went out to get the carriage ready and Virginia gathered up things for the baby. Soon they were on their way to the Ponderosa. When they got there, Hoss was surprised to see that Joe was gone.

“I decided that we needed to give Roy some idea of what we were planning, and then I thought that we had not made any provision for Eric to be protected. Eric and his family will be coming out here to stay if they wish, and Roy can talk to the three men in jail to get their cooperation in our plan. We’re going to need them too. I don’t care too much how long they’re locked up as long as we get the ones who set this up. Joe is taking care of all of that.”

Hoss was going to go find out if Adam was awake yet. Ben stopped him.

“Hoss, you do not open the bedroom door of a married couple.”

“But, Pa, he’s shot.”

“It doesn’t matter. We’ll wait for them to come out on their own.”

In the guest bedroom, Charity was snuggled up against Adam’s unwounded side. She raised her head and smiled at her husband. They had heard the exchange between Hoss and Ben. “Your father knows you well.”

“I suppose he does. You should get dressed now. Would you get me some clothing too? I’d like to wear something more than those dirty pants to greet our guests.”

When Charity emerged from the guest bedroom, Ben indicated clean clothing for Adam on the dining table and his slippers next to his chair. Soon, with Hoss’ help, Adam was able to join the group, and they started to plan in earnest as Adam endorsed his father’s idea. In fact, he rather liked the idea and the time it would give him with his wife. Charity had the same thought. Their smiles had everyone there thinking the same thing.

*****

Chapter 7

Arriving at his office and looking terribly worried, Paul Martin climbed down from his carriage and Roy met him. As usual, people gathered close hoping to hear whatever news the doctor was going to share with Roy. This time they were going to get a very good story.

“Paul, you’re looking mighty darn worried there. I thought you was going out to see Adam. Now there ain’t no bad news there, is there?”

“Roy, I’m afraid there is. I never expected this. There was some pus draining from the wound but I expected that. It didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary. I bandaged him up, and he seemed fine yesterday.”

“But today?”

“Roy, it’s peritonitis.”

“Is that what I think it is?”

“If you’re thinking he’s got a bellyful of infection, then you’re right. It’s just started, but Roy, you know there’s no way to stop it once it gets going. There’s nothing a doctor can do. We can pray for him. Sometimes men are able to fight off an infection like that, but he was so weak when they brought him in. He hadn’t had any water or food for a full day, and he lost all that blood.”

“Are you thinking he might not make it?”

“Roy, I don’t like to say things like that.”

“I’ve known that boy since he was a rascal of about seven or so. I can’t think of a world without him in it. Doesn’t seem natural to me to have a boy gone before his father. Ben’s got to be beside himself.”

“He is, and Charity is sitting by the bed in shock not knowing what to do. They haven’t even been married a year yet.”

“It’s a sad thing. Well, them jaspers over in my jail might be facing a murder charge after all ifn he dies. I better go have a talk with them. They might want a lawyer after all.”

As Paul turned to go into his office, Roy took a quick look at the faces of the people nearest him. They looked shocked which meant they had heard the story or enough of it to have it spread all over town soon. He wanted it that way because his information was that Julia was due to arrive that morning. She needed to know that her target was at death’s door, but that he might take a while to die. That would make her stay in the area longer, and it might make her contact come to see her. They were hoping that would be the case. Having jailed the men she hired was another complicating factor, but other than the Cartwrights, only he and Clem knew what they had confessed. With the chance at a light sentence, the three had agreed to cooperate fully. They would play their parts of the sullen and uncooperative criminals. Hiram had agreed to play the part of their attorney. He would be over at the office soon so all of them could talk. Joe’s visit the day before had been at first a bit disturbing to Roy but the idea had grown on him the more that he got to think about it. It was a complicated scenario, but Roy knew that Ben was correct. They needed to smoke out this unknown man if Adam and Eric were going to be safe in the future. Eric didn’t want to go to the Ponderosa, but he had sent his two boys out there. His wife was staying with friends, and Eric was going to be staying in a different place every night. After the meeting, Roy intended to meet the stage and greet Julia. He would of course give her the bad news about her nephew-in-law to gauge her reaction.

On the Ponderosa, the ‘sick’ man was moved to his upstairs room where he would have to take all of his meals and spend all of his time. They couldn’t risk anyone seeing him moving around and possibly sharing that information with anyone. Eric’s two sons were put in the downstairs guest bedroom, and Ben as well as Hoss and Joe enjoyed having them around. It was good to have some joy in the house. It was a matter then of waiting to see what Julia would do.

As expected, Julia made a trip out to see her daughter and her niece. She showed off her new wardrobe and bragged about the nice room she had in town and how she was going back to Philadelphia in style. When questioned about how she got the money, she was less than forthcoming, but it didn’t matter because they already knew where she had gotten the money. They guessed that she had to be nervous about the three men being held in jail, but outwardly she showed no signs of that. Roy had a man in a room on each side of her room in the hotel. They watched her every move in the hotel following her in and out. She was followed at a distance when she left town and when she returned. No one approached her, and she received no messages of any kind. After several more days of that, frustration set in with those watching for something to happen.

As Charity lounged in bed one morning, she voiced her complaints. “I want to celebrate our news. I want to see your father smile and shake your hand or whatever he’s going to do when he finds out. Instead, we have to keep the biggest news you’ve had since you asked me to marry you as a secret while we wait for my aunt Julia to do something so we can catch whoever the other person is in this plot.”

“At least you get to leave this room. Now that I’m feeling better, I would like to do something but I’m stuck in here. It sounded so good when I felt awful. I thought lounging in bed with you for days was going to be so great, but now we’re getting crabby with each other because we want to have something more to do.”

“I get to leave the room, but I have to act like I’m so sad whenever anyone is around. I have to act like my husband is dying so that if anyone is watching they’ll see that and believe our story.”

“Maybe nothing is going to happen for a while. Whoever it is was very patient to wait this long. Maybe they’ll wait even longer for another opportunity.”

“How much more time do we give this plan before we give it up?”

“Pa said the judge will be in town on Monday. If nothing happens by then, the three men in jail will have to go before him on the assault charges as we agreed because of their cooperation. At that point, I guess Roy could arrest Julia. At least she won’t get away with it.”

“She’ll go to prison this time, won’t she?”

“Judges can be unpredictable when it comes to sentencing women, but I believe that with the testimony of the three men she hired and what they did on her orders, she will.”

“Paul is supposed to be here again today. Your father will come up with him. He always does. We can talk then about what we’re going to do and how long we’re going to keep up this charade. It sounds like until Monday morning.”

“It does. That means only two more days of this. I think that perhaps Pa or someone should go confront Julia and see if they can put some pressure on her.”

“Maybe I can go with your father. The two of us could try to get her to cooperate. If she did, do you think we could offer her a deal like we did with the other three?”

Charity could see that Adam was opposed to that idea but at least was thinking about it and not rejecting it immediately. “I suppose it might be worth it if we get the unseen threat removed but only if her cooperation helps us uncover whoever is behind this. If she cooperates, but we don’t find out who the mystery man is, then I see no reason to give her any leniency after what she did.”

“I agree. Let’s present it to your father that way. The two of us can go see her tomorrow and try to break her down. She’s got to be getting nervous by now too, and when we tell her that you’re going to survive and she sees her wealth disappearing, she’s likely to be in a panic. We can take advantage of that.”

“It’s a relief just to hear that there’s an end to this in sight. Now how about some breakfast?”

On Sunday morning then, Hoss and Joe got to take Eric’s sons back to town for the family to reunite. There would be someone watching the family until this whole scenario played out, but it was thought that he was the secondary target. More attention was going to be paid to Adam.

In the afternoon, Ben and Charity dressed for dinner after sending an invitation to Julia to have dinner with them. She had accepted probably as much out of curiosity as out of the chance to be seen in Virginia City with a respectable pair of citizens. Despite her new found wealth, Julia had found that most people didn’t treat her with the respect that she thought she deserved. She hoped that such a dinner might help her gain some of the respect she so craved.

There was one very disappointed Cartwright though. Both Ben and Charity thought that it was best if Adam stayed home. They thought that his presence would not help them get Julia to talk even with the shock value of having him show up looking healthier than she expected. He was still a bit pale from his ordeal, and although freed from any bed rest, both thought he could stand to stay at home. So he reluctantly had the house all to himself by late afternoon because Hop Sing had taken the day to go see some of his family in Virginia City. Adam got a book and sat in his blue chair by the fireplace to get comfortable. He was deep in the novel when he heard a sound from the kitchen. Thinking that Hoss and Joe had returned, he was slow to look up. When he did, he saw a stranger standing at the dining room table pointing a pistol in his direction.

“You must have nine lives. I guessed that something like this was going on. You look much too healthy to be at death’s door. I shall take care of this myself and be done with it. You are the reason my brother is dead. All he wanted was to own this land.”

With no idea who the man was, Adam was at a loss but he did detect a slight English accent. He rapidly ran through all the possibilities, and then the startling conclusion appeared. “He tried to get all the land in the area. He tried to kill me. He kidnapped my wife and me. He had my brother shot. He broke about every law there is.”

“What does it matter out here? He’s dead and you aren’t. I mean to even those statistics.”

With that, the man raised his pistol to fire, but there were several shots. He fell, Adam fell, and then there were shouts and men rushing into the room. Ben hurried to Adam’s side.

“Are you all right, son?”

“I am, but aren’t you supposed to be in Virginia City right now? Not that I’m complaining, but I am surprised, on several counts.”

“Charity figured it out. As we were driving to town, we saw a man riding and she began going through the things that we knew. It was remarkable to more or less listen to her think. She’s quite intuitive.”

“She knew that this was the man who would try to kill me?”

“No, but she figured out that all this inactivity was to lull us into thinking nothing would happen so that we would leave the ranch, and that would give someone like that lone rider access.”

“Where is she?”

“Right beside you if you turn your head the other way.”

Then Ben turned his head the other way as the couple kissed.

*****

Chapter 8

As the mess was being cleaned up and the body removed, Charity finished telling the story. “We saw Hoss and Joe heading back toward the ranch and asked them if they recognized the rider. Neither of them did, but Hoss said he looked kind of familiar and not in a good way. You know those gut feelings your brother has. We turned the carriage around and came back here. As we got close, Hoss and Joe rode around the back way to see if that rider had come toward the house and found his horse. Joe rode back to tell us that he had. Hoss came up the back way, we came in the front, and Joe came in from the side. It was terrible hearing what he was saying and knowing he probably had a gun on you, but until Hoss or Joe did something, we didn’t want to come barging in the front door and make him shoot you. We couldn’t see where he was. We guessed that Hoss or Joe was going to be able to see that better with the windows.”

Picking up the story at that point, Joe took it to the conclusion. “As I snuck in through the kitchen, I saw Hoss peeking in the dining room window. He signaled me by pointing to where the man was. Then he counted down with his fingers, one, two, three, and I came through the door as he fired at the man. That was all Pa needed to come busting in the front door and you know the rest.”

“Your timing was impeccable.”

“Im what?”

“Just right, Hoss, just right.”

“Thanks, but we made ourselves a mess of work. You think you’re ready to help caulk up the dining room window? I think we got a spare piece of glass in the supply shed.”

“Me and Joe will get this body to town and tell Roy what happened. My guess is that he can arrest Julia then.”

“Yes, and perhaps he can find out who this man is, and then we can find out who that man was who tried to get the Ponderosa and all the ranches in the area.”

“The one who kidnapped Charity and then you?”

“That’s the one. Apparently this is that man’s brother. He was back for revenge, and perhaps to try again for this land. At least it’s all over now. We finally have the man in the shadows who was behind the whole thing. I thought he was going to kill me. Until I saw a shadow in the kitchen doorway, I didn’t think I had a chance. I couldn’t think of anything I could do to get out of this one.”

“Wow, I never thought I would ever hear that. My older brother admitting he didn’t have a plan or an idea when he needed one. Hoss, can you believe that?”

“Joe, it ain’t nothing to joke about ‘specially now. Let’s get this mess cleaned up and go talk to Roy.”

With a good hard look at Joe so that he wouldn’t say anything more, Hoss looked over at Charity and could see how upset she looked. In fact, he thought that she looked ill. That was confirmed a few minutes later when Adam escorted her outside. He said she wasn’t feeling well and needed to be outside because the smells were making her nauseated. She retched, and then she clung to him as she cried. He held her and rubbed her back.

“How can you be so calm? I want to scream.”

“I’m not calm. Inside, my belly is still churning, and my heart was pounding so hard for a while that I was sure all of you could hear it. I wish I could throw up and I wish I could cry so I could release some of what is inside me. I can’t. It’s not who I am. I hold it all inside until I can get control of it. Then I’m all right again.”

“You know there’s another reason for me to be sick.”

“Yes, it’s the bright spot in all of this.”

“When we see Paul next, I want to talk to him about it.”

“That’s a good idea. He’ll want to take the stitches out of my side. Perhaps tomorrow, we could see him for that. We have to go to town anyway. I’m sure that Roy is going to want to talk to me about what happened here, and I have to talk to the judge about what happened with me and Eric at the hands of those three men in the desert. They’re pleading guilty so it shouldn’t be much of an issue.”

“Once Hoss and Joe get to town to tell him what happened, he’s going to arrest Aunt Julia, isn’t he?”

“I assume so. Hoss will probably go tell Prudence then. He had high hopes for the two of them. I hope this doesn’t delay things too much.”

“Does he have the ring already?” Adam’s smile was the only answer she needed. “She talked to me and knows he’s going to ask her. She’ll be ready to say yes, but she’ll want time to get ready for the wedding. She’s nervous about being married. I think he should go ahead and ask her. Then she can get used to the idea, and it won’t be right away anyhow.”

“Will it be breaking any kind of confidence if I tell him that?”

“No, I think that what I’ve told you is not anything that breaks a confidence. It’s in her best interest for Hoss to know that.”

“I’ll tell him before he leaves. Now, can I walk you back to the porch at least? We don’t have to go back inside.”

“Good. And perhaps you could ask Hop Sing for some tea?”

Soon Charity had a large mug of tea liberally dosed with milk and honey. Adam smiled as he handed it to her. She looked at it and then up at him. “Does he know? Did you tell him?”

“I’m sure he knows. He always seems to know things. How he knows, I don’t know. He said when you finish that, he will bring you some warm apple cider and ginger cookies. He said that would be good for your stomach.”

“Actually, that does sound good.”

“All, right, sip that, lean back, and keep your eyes closed. I think they’re bringing the body out soon. I’ll help them, and then they’ll have it out of here quickly.”

“Don’t do anything to pull those stitches.”

“I thought I would mainly shield you from seeing what they’re doing.”

A short time later, Adam had a large blanket he hung from the porch posts. Charity could hear him and his brothers but couldn’t see anything. When she heard horses leaving, she breathed a sigh of relief. Adam took the blanket down then and put it over her lap and sat beside her. Let’s sit here and relax until dinner. Hop Sing brought out a tray with beverages and cookies as promised. Ben joined them then as they sat quietly and waited for Hoss and Joe to return. Adam and Ben read while Charity napped with her head resting against Adam’s shoulder. Several hours later as dusk arrived, Joe rode into the yard. He looked far more serious than expected and he was alone which surprised all of them.

“Joe, where’s your brother?”

“Pa, he had some bad news to tell Prudence. He went right there and then he planned to take her to town. He’ll stay there tonight.”

“What happened?”

Looking at Charity and worried how the news would affect her, Joe glanced at Adam too. “Well I don’t know how else to say this, but Charity, I have some bad news about your aunt. We were going to tell Roy what happened here and we expected him to arrest her. He went to do that, but there was no answer at her door. He asked the clerk to open her door. She was laying on the floor.”

“Oh, no, Joe, what happened to her?”

“From what Doctor Martin could tell when Roy called him there, she was poisoned. Someone must have gotten something and put it in the pitcher of water in her room. She was probably dead last night already. Paul said it had probably been quick. She was still wearing the dress people had seen her in yesterday.”

“So the man who was killed here today probably killed her. Then he came out here to kill Adam. I wonder what he would have done next.”

“Pa, that’s what Roy thinks too, but there’s no way of knowing. That’s what makes the most sense though. Roy says that the men in jail are worried, but Roy thinks they’re safe. He thinks that there’s no one else involved.”

All four of them were quiet then thinking of how tangled this web had been, but that hopefully finally all the parts had been unraveled. Poor Prudence though had now lost her mother to the scheme, but at least she had Hoss to comfort her. Adam wondered how it was going to affect Hoss’ plans to marry her though. That subject didn’t come up until several days later. First they had a few things to get done. The next morning, the whole family headed to town. Adam and Charity rode in the carriage with Ben while Joe rode Cochise. In town, Adam headed to Doctor Martin’s office with Charity to get his stitches out. While there, they asked the doctor to examine Charity too. Then they joined Ben and Joe at the courthouse where the three men who had kidnapped and assaulted Adam and Eric were facing the judge. Roy explained to the judge how the three men had cooperated since their arrest and helped unravel a criminal conspiracy. The judge asked Adam and Eric if they accepted that the three men were only being charged with assault because of their cooperation. They said they did. The judge wasn’t entirely happy but accepted their answer as well as Roy’s recommendation. He was stern though in his sentencing.

“You three men will serve one full year for your offense. When you are released, you will leave the state of Nevada not to return for nineteen years. If you are in this state again, you will serve the rest of the twenty-year sentence you should have gotten for kidnapping and attempted murder. I am holding that in abeyance for the full twenty years. Is that clear?”

The three men nodded. Hiram had continued as their actual lawyer and spoke to them quietly. They spoke up then thanking the judge one-by-one, and then turning to apologize to Adam and to Eric for what they had done out of greed. Adam looked at them and nodded.

“You’ve gotten a second chance. When the year is up, make the most of it. I have the name of someone in California who will be willing to give you a real job if you want it. Hiram will have his name. Contact him when you’re released.”

The men thanked Adam and filed out of the court under Roy’s supervision. As Adam and Charity walked out with his family, he asked Hoss about Prudence.

“She’s got a funeral to take care of. I’m staying in town to help her. Hiram is gonna help us with the legal stuff. When it’s all done, I’ll get her back home. She don’t want nobody at the burial. She only wants the minister and me there. I hope that’s all right with everybody.”

Ben was concerned and wanted to do something for Prudence. “Hoss, I understand her feelings, but perhaps she would be willing to have a gathering of our family and hers at our house on Sunday. By then, she might be willing to have family around, and we could all use some time together. Everyone needs some time to heal from all that’s happened.”

“Pa, I like the idea. I’ll ask her about it and try to get her to say yes to the idea. I think she will. I’ll let you know as soon as I can. I already gave my statement to Roy about what happened yesterday. I know he wants to hear from the rest of you so ifn you don’t mind, I’ll go see how Prudence is doing, and you can take care of that.”

So Ben, Adam, Charity, and Joe gave their statements to Roy. Hoss helped Prudence, and the next day Julia was buried next to her brother. Two days later, Hoss saw that Prudence got home to the McCarren ranch after Hiram and Roy told her that all the legal details were done. All the money in Julia’s accounts was going to Prudence making her a rich woman. There were two other names on the account. One was Mann who was deceased, and the other was Reginald Chesterfield. He was the man shot on the Ponderosa. His brother had been Harold Chesterfield. They were two disgraced English gentlemen who had been disinherited by their family and had hoped to recreate their wealth and power in America. With the help of unscrupulous and dishonest friends in government and greedy friends in business, they had almost succeeded. However, they were now dead and all those who had helped them were scurrying to cover up any ties to the two. The whole mess was finally over.

*****

Chapter 9

On Sunday evening, the gathering was quiet but pleasant. Hoss walked with Prudence for a time outside before she rode home with Todd and Virginia and the baby. He came back inside then and sat quietly with the rest of the family. Joe was the only one who seemed to have energy to spare.

“I miss Eric’s boys. It was nice having Todd and Virginia’s baby here too. I like having the sound of kids in the house. It gives this place some energy. It’s a lot of fun too.”

Sitting quietly and observing, Ben couldn’t miss the wistful look that Hoss had nor the small half smiles that Adam and Charity gave each other. He wondered when they were going to share their news. He hoped that Prudence and Hoss would be able to work out getting married despite the tragedy of Julia’s death. He knew it had complicated matters but hoped it wouldn’t be too serious a problem. The following Sunday, he got both answers. Hoss took Prudence to church services as had been their habit for quite some time, and then they spent the early afternoon together before they returned to the Ponderosa for an early dinner. Hoss could hardly stop smiling so it wasn’t much of a surprise when he announced before dessert that he had a big announcement to make. Prudence had been hiding her left hand under the table all through dinner, but Charity had seen the flash of a ring there before they sat down.

“Pa, I got an announcement to make. I wanted all of you to hear it first before we told anybody else. Me and Prudence are getting’ married.”

After all the whoops and hollers, mainly from Joe, and the congratulations from everyone, Ben and Adam made toasts to the couple with the champagne that Hop Sing brought out. Then it was time for dessert and some discussion. Ben asked about the date.

“Well, you see, that’s a bit of an issue with her ma dying and all. She said that in Philadelphia, she would have been expected to wait for maybe up to two years to marry cause she would have been in mourning. But she talked to Virginia who said no more than six months would be necessary at the longest, and that out here sometimes it’s a lot shorter than that cause people are more practical. Some don’t wait no time at all. Well to be sure, Prudence says we ought to wait the six months. That makes for a February wedding, and I kinda like that idea too.”

“In February, we could have a difficult time getting guests out here unless you want a wedding in town.”

“No, we want a wedding here, and Pa, we want a small wedding. We were thinking that we don’t want a lot of guests. Maybe just a few good friends and then the families, you know, everybody here, and Todd and Virginia.”

“We can certainly do that. What about your sister and her family, Prudence?”

“I don’t think she’ll come, Mister Cartwright. She doesn’t think much of anything out here, and even if we have money, she thinks of everyone out here as not quite civilized. I don’t want you to think that I think that now, but I did when I first came out here. I expected things to be very different than I found them. Mister Wood sent her a telegram asking if she would like to come out here to be in court to receive any of mother’s estate. She wired back that she wasn’t interested. He sent her a letter to sign saying that officially. She sent it back immediately signed so that she wouldn’t have to show up here in court. She never asked how much money mother had.”

Everyone at the table grinned at Hiram’s cleverness. Without disclosing that Julia had inherited a significant amount of money, he had gotten all of it for Prudence by getting her sister not to contest the settlement in court that gave it all to Prudence. Hoss turned his attention to Adam and Charity next.

“Prudence and me would like the two of you to stand with us for our wedding. We couldn’t think of two people who had more to do with us getting together than the two of you.”

Sharing somewhat nervous looks at first, Adam nodded when Charity smiled at him and said a quiet ‘yes’ to his unspoken question. He looked at Hoss and started in a very serious tone that had Hoss shocked at first. “Sorry, Hoss, but we have to say no.” Adam paused and waited for a reaction. He saw his father smiling but had suspected that his father had already guessed. “In six months, Charity will be in no condition to be standing for a wedding as she will be due to deliver our baby at about that time.”

There was another round of whoops and hollers, this time from Hoss and Joe, and then more congratulations and more toasting. Hop Sing placed a cup of tea before Charity as he served more champagne to the others. The celebration went longer than anyone had anticipated. Ben had little to say after the toasts. His emotions were close to the surface as he watched Hoss escort Prudence out the front door to take her home, and then watched as Adam wrapped an arm around Charity as she sat beside him and they talked to Joe about baby names.

“I like Joseph Adam Cartwright. You could call him Jac for short.”

“What if it’s a girl?”

“Josephine is a pretty name.”

As Adam shook his head, Joe and Charity began giggling. Ben was sobered by a thought though. By the time the baby was born, Adam and Charity would be in their new house. Adam would have his home finished before Christmas. He had been adamant about that. Hoss and Prudence would likely want their own house too because Hoss had said he wanted a ‘passel’ of children. Things had been changing so fast in the past year that Ben found it somewhat unsettling. For the next week, that was how he felt. On Saturday, he took a ride out to the lake. He must have spent more time there with his thoughts than he had planned because Adam came up behind him in the late afternoon. Ben heard the leaves crunching under his son’s boots and turned to greet him. It was only then that he realized that the sun was getting low in the sky.

“We were wondering where you were, and Candy said he saw you ride off this way hours ago. I’m sorry if I’m interrupting, but I was concerned.”

Turning toward the lake again, Ben still had his hand on Marie’s marker. “I come here often when I need time to think, to try to find peace when my thoughts are in turmoil.”

Walking up beside his father, Adam put a hand on his shoulder. “A lot has happened in the past year, but it’s been mostly very good for the family and for the Ponderosa.”

“It has been.”

“Why are you so troubled then?”

“It’s not the dream I had. So much is changing all around me that it scares me. I’m not prepared for all the changes, for the challenges. I had planned for how it was all to look and how it would all work. It was working that way too. I knew what to expect each day. I saw my sons in the morning, and I knew from day-to-day and month-to-month what would happen. Oh, there were unexpected setbacks, but none that we couldn’t overcome together. Now you’ll be gone, and by this time next year, Hoss will be gone. When I come down to breakfast in the morning, I won’t know all that is happening nor who is doing what. It worries me.”

“Pa, we won’t be gone. We’re still on the Ponderosa. We’re still part of the whole.” As his father continued to stare out over the lake, Adam reminded him of some things they had talked about in the past. “You told me that when you left to go west, Grandfather challenged you, and you told him that if your dreams didn’t scare you, then they weren’t big enough. Isn’t that still true?”

“Do you remember everything?”

“Only the important things. I remember too when we settled here, and you told me what it would be one day. I couldn’t believe it except my father said it would happen so I had to believe it was possible. You told me that the only impossible things are the ones you haven’t tried to do.”

“So you think now I need to dream with my boys and see the dreams you have too.”

“We shared your dreams. You can share ours, and those of our children. You wanted us to marry. Now we are. We’re going to have those grandchildren you wanted and wondered if you would ever have.” Then in an uncharacteristic moment of candor, Adam admitted something too. “Pa, I’m scared too.”

“Why would you be scared? Many of these changes are because of your ideas?”

“But I have a child to consider now. I know now how you must have felt having a big dream, but having a family to protect and nurture too. It’s a lot of responsibility. We can use all the help we can get.”

“So we have to find a new way for all of us to work together?”

“We do, and who better to manage that than the one who holds this family together through everything? It will be a challenge, but we know you can do it. How do we manage to work together while having our separate homes and families? Together and apart at the same time.”

“Your house isn’t that far away.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“Hopefully Hoss won’t build too far away either.”

“I don’t think he will. He may build closer than we did. Prudence likes having people close by. She’s more dependent on others than Charity. If Hoss is listening to what she needs, he’ll be very close.”

“I’m thinking that perhaps we could meet at the house fairly often.”

“That’s probably the way to go. You’ll have to come up with a plan, and then we’ll go with that once I’m in my house.”

“You knew what I would say before I said it, didn’t you?”

With a squeeze of the shoulder, Adam released his father and headed back toward his horse. “We need to get going. Hop Sing said dinner was in an hour and that was nearly an hour ago. We’re going to get a tongue lashing from him as it is.”

“Sometimes it seems that he thinks he’s the boss of the Ponderosa.”

“I’m not going to be the one who tells him he isn’t.”

About nine months later, Ben was back at that same spot at the lake, but to write in his journal and have some quiet time. It had gotten very hectic at the main house.

It’s been a very exciting time, and I’ve not had time to even read in my journal much less write. I’m going to make up for that now. When my grandchildren read this, I want them to have a full story of the Ponderosa and not have too many long gaps in the story. Hoss delivered his big news today that he and Prudence are having a baby. I couldn’t be happier. He’ll be in his new house by then too, but as Adam predicted, it is only a short walk from the main house. Now he has promised me that he and Prudence will be over for dinner quite often when they move over there and I hope that when the baby arrives, they will continue that tradition. Adam and Charity were here on Sunday with their baby. He’s growing so fast. He certainly did make Hoss’ wedding a memorable one for everyone. He and Prudence had barely said their vows when Charity told Adam that she couldn’t wait any longer. It was a good thing Paul was a guest at the wedding. His services were definitely needed, but it all turned out well even if Adam nearly succumbed to apoplexy during the whole thing. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but my son was so on edge that it perhaps wasn’t too far from the truth. He has told Charity that she can’t have any more children as it is too hard on him at which point, each time, she gives him that long-suffering look that is quite amusing and makes the rest of us chuckle. She has had to cut back on the amount of work she is doing for the business so Adam has hired a man to do that work. Prudence continues to do the paperwork for the mine, but I doubt that will continue that once her baby is born. It is simply much too difficult to manage all of that work daily and care for a baby and a house. Both ladies will continue to do the correspondence because they are so skilled in their writing, but the work of posting in the ledger each day will be done by someone else. We are in the process of becoming a well-organized enterprise the likes of which Nevada has never seen. There isn’t much that this family can’t do when we work together. Now if Joseph could only find a woman to marry.

*****

Sticks and Stones

Chapter 1

Working at his forge and experimenting with some designs for decorative door hinges, Adam was also responsible for watching over his son at play with Hoss’ young son and a friend as their mothers worked together inside. He had made wooden swords that the boys were allowed to use for their play as they imagined themselves as various kinds of heroes. Most often they were knights or pirates depending on their mood at the time. Adam had gotten them to stand at attention while he had gone over the rules with them. They could use the swords and have mock battles and fights, but the swords were never to be used to hit another person, an animal or bird, nor anything that was in anyway breakable. His son Alex was well aware of the consequences of violating any of those strictures and Hoss’ son although a year younger followed anything that Alex did. Hoss’ son was named Gunther but everyone called him Hunter. It seemed that the mispronunciation of his name by Alex when he was very small had stuck. Adam thought that secretly Prudence was pleased with the nickname.

The third boy was there because Charity and Prudence had befriended a new neighbor who had purchased a ranch next to the McCarren ranch. The family had made friends with Todd and Virginia and then with Hoss and Prudence and through them Adam and Charity although it wasn’t a friendship that Adam and Charity enjoyed much. There was something about the couple that made both of them uneasy. They had only known them a month so they hoped it wasn’t anything serious. Hoss told him that he was being too suspicious, but even today he wondered at the boy, Harold, who wore long sleeves and long pants even though it was a hot day. When Adam had said he perhaps might want to roll up his sleeves, the boy had practically snarled at him. The boys ran about the yard with their swords and yelled and laughed. They had just run to the side of the stable, and Adam was going to call to them to come back out where he could see them when he heard crying. He dropped his work and rushed to the side of the stable to find Hunter bent over Alex.

“Harry hit him!”

“Did not.”

“Did too.”

“Put those swords on the ground now! You two march to the house immediately.”

Once the boys had complied, Adam carefully picked up his son whose arm was bleeding and carried him to the house. Once inside, the ladies tried to sort out what had happened with Hunter accusing Harold who denied everything. Adam got Alex into the kitchen where he and Charity cleaned up the cut on his arm. It was fairly minor but there was an accompanying bruise and swelling.

Adam was angry because he had not wanted Harold to play with his son. “I told you that boy was not to be trusted.”

Charity was perturbed because Alex had been injured while Adam under Adam’s supervision. “You were supposed to be watching them.”

“I was, but they ran to the side of the stable. Before I could call them back, this happened.”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have blamed you.” Turning to their son, Charity asked him how he had been injured.

“Harold hit me; real hard. It was his idea to go where Papa couldn’t see us. As soon as we did, he hit me. I think he did it on purpose.”

With a nod to Adam conceding his point, Charity helped Alex to stand. “Let’s go out there now and try to sort this all out.”

When they returned to their main room, Harold’s mother looked both worried and a bit defiant as if she would defend her son if they accused him and worried that they would accuse him. Adam decided to try a diplomatic approach to see how she and her son would respond.

“According to Alex, Harold did hit him, but now whether it was by accident or on purpose remains to be determined. Alex seems to believe that Harold meant to hit him with the wooden sword. Harold, what do you say.”

“I didn’t hit him.”

“Harold, I think we already know that’s not true, don’t we? Hunter and Alex both say that you did. Now was that an accident or did you hit him on purpose? You did remember the rules I told you about the wooden toy swords, didn’t you especially the rule about not hitting another person?”

“That’s a stupid rule.”

Harold’s mother, Mabel, got a bit upset with him then realizing how he was convicting himself with his own words. “Harold, that’s no way to talk to Mister Cartwright. It’s his home so it’s his rules.”

“Pa said he’s got sissy rules. At our house, Pa said we ain’t sissies. Pa says we can take a bit of punishment without whining about it.”

“Harold, that’s enough. Now why don’t you apologize to Mister Cartwright and his son, and then we’ll be on our way.”

“Why should I hafta?”

“Because I told you to, and if I tell your Pa that you refused to do what I said then you know what he’s going to do.”

“Sorry.”

“You have to say their names too.”

“Sorry, Mister Cartwright and Alex.”

“There, he’s said he’s sorry so we’ll be on our way.”

Without another word, Mabel gathered up her things and escorted Harold from the house. There was no thank you to Charity for hosting the gathering and for providing refreshments. There was no sympathy for Alex for his injury at the hands of her son. Virginia gathered her things and told her daughter that they were going to leave as well because they had ridden over with Mabel. She apologized for her friend and thanked Charity profusely for all that she had done, and she apologized to Alex for his injury and to Adam for what had happened. Adam was gracious to her.

“Virginia, it was none of your fault, but your friend has terrible manners, and her son is worse. I’m sorry, but she isn’t welcome to bring that boy here any more unless he’s willing to follow some basic rules.”

“I understand. I’ll tell her.” With a little smile, Virginia added one thing. “But I won’t tell her until we get to my house. I have a feeling it will be an unpleasant enough ride as it is.”

Charity settled on the couch to nurse their daughter as Prudence’s two daughters, Emily and Anne, sat beside her and worked on their coloring books. Adam had made coloring books for all of the children. He had made sketches and then bound them together using thin shingles from the Cartwright mill as covers. When open, the covers worked as a good work surface allowing the children to color almost anywhere they were. Charity suggested that both Hunter and Alex should do the same, but they wanted to go back outside and watch Adam work at the forge until Hoss got there to take his family back home. Adam smiled as he did every time he saw his wife nurse their daughter. He had gotten through the second delivery much better than the first but had had years to prepare for it. They had one miscarriage in between, but that had happened early in the pregnancy so they had weathered it fairly well. Hoss had three children and Prudence was carrying the fourth. Adam knew that Hoss was hoping for another boy. Their father was thrilled with the grandchildren, but even more thrilled that Joe was finally serious about a woman and had asked her to marry. When the spring drive was done and before Prudence was too far along, there was going to be a wedding. First though, there was this problem of what to do about Harold. In the fall, the boys were going to school and Harold was likely going to be an issue.

As Adam prepared to go outside, Charity reminded him to have a talk with the boys. He knew what she wanted so he nodded. He walked to the side of the stable, picked up the swords, and took them to the stable where he placed them up on a shelf. Then he went back to the forge and had to work to bring the coals back to a working heat again. He pulled the apron back on to protect himself telling the boys where to sit so they would be a safe distance away. They had done it before so were well aware of the dangers. He had been working on a particular design and got back to that concentrating on it until it was what he wanted. When it was cooled enough, he called the boys closer so they could look at it.

“It’s kind of dark.”

“Yes, Hunter, it is, but I’ll polish it up. By the time I’m done with it, it will look much better, but this isn’t what we’ll be using for the final product. If we decide to make these, we’ll be making molds and having these cast with bronze or brass. These are for inside door hinges. They’re very decorative. Some people will pay a lot of money to have a unique design like this.”

“It looks like a flower.”

“It is. It’s a flower on a vine. It’s pretty but it also works so it does two things. It will make a door move and it will be art like the pictures you draw.”

Hunter smiled then. He was a good artist for being so young and liked to draw. His drawings tended to be very colorful whereas the ones Alex did tended to very intricate. When he did geometric style designs, his son appreciated those more than the ones that looked like elements of nature. Adam liked to think that perhaps that meant his son had a head for design and architecture that might be superior to his own but he was still so young that Charity told him he was premature to guess what the boy would like to do twenty years later. Adam wasn’t so sure though because he remembered dreaming about building things when he wasn’t much older than Alex. He wouldn’t say anything about that to his son though until his son brought up the subject. A boy’s dreams ought to be his own. Adam remembered feeling weighted down by his father’s dream. Sometimes he felt that he couldn’t have his own dreams because he had to help his father with his dreams. He didn’t want to do that to his son.

“Maybe you boys could make some drawings for me like Hoss does. He made a drawing that I used to come up with this. You could make drawings for me, and if I liked them, then I could use them to design hinges or even scrollwork.” As soon as he said it, Adam knew he was in for a session of answering questions. He didn’t mind much though. It kept the boys paying attention while he worked. He explained all the different ways that metal could be used in the decoration or function of a house and how their drawings could possibly help him design those things.

Being very practical in such matters, Alex had a question. “Do we get paid money for it?”

“No, it’s a family business so you would be helping the family. You could also be proud of what you had accomplished.”

“But, Papa, you and Uncle Hoss get paid to work for the family businesses.”

“Yes, and then we use that money to take care of the family. If you got paid, you would have to spend the money taking care of the family.”

“What does that mean?”

“Oh, you would have to buy food for the kitchen, supplies for the stable, nappies for your sister.” As Adam expected, he didn’t have to go any further. Alex put up a hand in surrender.

“That’s all right. We don’t have to get paid. But we’ll need paper for drawing.”

“I have paper that you can use. It’s the back of paper that I have used for other things and I used it to sketch. Mama knows where it is. When you’re ready to draw something, ask her for some of that paper. She knows where it is.”

“What about paper for Hunter?”

“His father has paper. He makes sketches for me, remember?”

Both boys nodded at that. Although Hoss was more of a wood carver, he sketched out his carvings on paper first. It had been that habit that had caught Adam’s attention and led him to make the suggestion that Hoss consider sketching some designs for him from nature. The two of them made a very good team with Adam having a very good eye for balance and grace while Hoss had a good eye for natural beauty. Both were practical men too so they had similar ideas about how a design might work for particular purposes. Adam was still chatting with the boys when Hoss arrived. He saw the bandage on Alex’s arm so there had to be a full telling of all that had happened. Hoss said little, but the look he gave Adam said that they would talk later when the boys weren’t around to hear them. Adam nodded. The two of them had always had a good method of silent communication. Their sons noted it but knew only that they had been shut out of some mysterious message once more.

*****

Chapter 2

Watching the men loading the wagons at the mill with the orders that had been filled early, Hoss turned to Adam who was checking off items in the ledger. The plant manager was standing there with the shift foreman. Both men were smiling because they liked working at a place where working conditions were reasonable as was the pay and the bosses were willing to help out as often as needed.

“How are the new hires working out?”

“Most of them are doing well. We may have to let the newest man go.”

“That’s Jarrod, isn’t it? He needs the money to make the payments on his ranch.”

“He makes trouble with the other men. He’s a loudmouth and he get’s pushy if someone tries to get him to back down. It’s not the kind of thing the new man on the job ought to be like. He ought to be listening to those who know what they’re doing and learning. Instead, he’s trying to tell people what to do.”

With a shrug, Hoss looked at Adam. “That’s what I wanted to tell ya, but I thought ya ought to hear it from our men here instead of second hand from me. I thought you was too suspicious of Jared and not giving him a fair chance, but now I guess you was right. Something ain’t right with the man. We give him a right fair chance here and he acts like he owns the place instead of being grateful for the chance.”

“It was the feeling I had about him right away. He seemed to have disdain for us even as he was asking us for a job telling us he needed some cash for the payments he needed to make on the ranch until he got his first round of calves raised for market.”

“So I suppose if we up and fire him he’ll blame us for losing his ranch.”

“All right, I can see where this is going. I’ll give him a warning. If he doesn’t pay attention, then he loses his job. If he does what I tell him, then he can stay. Fair enough?”

With a big grin from each of the men and a slap on the back, it was settled. They had hoped that Adam would handle it. He had a way of intimidating most men with the quiet way he could talk so seriously and softly while maintaining a dead stare could make someone’s insides quiver and their heart rate rise. He walked to the floor and asked Jared to walk outside with him.

“Why?”

“Because you work for me, and I told you to do it.”

With a sour look, Jared silently followed Adam from the building. Hoss and the others could hear the conversation. It wasn’t a pleasant one.

“You’ve been creating problems here arguing with the men and not following the orders given to you by the supervisors. That has to stop if you want to keep this job.”

“Hey, I was only trying to make things better here. If they were doing a better job, I wouldn’t have had to say anything to anyone.”

“We have been operating here successfully for over five years. We have a good operation with good people running it. We are here frequently making sure things are done the way we want them done, and they see to it that they are. Anything you have to say goes against what we want done, and that is unacceptable. Is that clear.”

“It sure is, Boss. Is that all, Mister Boss?”

“Yes, your keeping this job is dependent on a change in attitude. Your attitude toward me right now is not helping your position at all. If it was up to me, you would be fired right now. I have no use for you and your attitude. Any more of your disrespect, and you can collect any pay coming to you and try to find another job to make the payments on your ranch. Is that clear enough for you?”

Knowing that Adam had him in a bind on that point, Jared did something unusual for him. He kept his opinions to himself. He looked surly and unhappy but said nothing. He only nodded in acquiescence to the orders he had received. Adam took the measure of the man and knew he wasn’t done with him yet. At some point in the future, there was going to be another confrontation between the two of them, perhaps more than one. As Jared went back to work, Adam walked back to Hoss and the other men.

“Well, older brother, I think ya done solved the problem here and shifted it right onto your own shoulders. He looked like he woulda liked to started a fight with ya right there ifn he coulda.”

“Probably would have if he didn’t need this job so badly. You better be ready to watch my back for a while. I have a bad feeling about him.”

“I been meaning to talk to you about his boy too.”

“The one who attacked my son or the older one?”

“Now all he did was hit him once. It was bad luck that it caught him that way and cut his arm. Even you have to admit a wooden sword ain’t likely to cause a cut usually. Now I know he shouldna done it, but he is only five-years-old. But I been noticing that even when it’s hot, he wears them long sleeves and long pants. You reckon he’s sick with something?”

“No but I noticed it too. When I asked him to roll up his sleeves to be cooler, he got smart alecky with me. It’s another reason I’m not fond of the boy.”

“Well, he’s always been all right with me. I think he needs a decent man to be around. When I see what kind of father he’s got, I feel plumb sorry for the little feller.”

Feeling a little chagrined at Hoss’ explanation, Adam had to feel a bit guilty over his own attitude. “Yes, when you put it that way, I should be thinking more like you. I’ll try to be more forgiving of his behavior, but I still have to protect my son.”

“Course you do, but on Sunday at the church picnic, I want our boys to be able to play with Harold and have some fun. That boy needs to be around good people. It’s the only chance he’s got of growing up right like he should.”

“He’s like one of those wild critters you used to bring home when you were a boy. Now you’re bringing home boys.”

“You know, sometimes, I wish I could, but we hardly got room for the ones we got, and now we got another one on the way. That’ll near fill up the house. I don’t think Pru wants any more after this. It’s getting to be a lot of work keeping up with three, and she’s gonna have four before too long. It’s not so bad at your house. You only got the two.” Seeing a momentary dark look pass over Adam, Hoss apologized. “I’m sorry to remind you of the one you lost. That musta been hard.” Hoss put his arm around Adam’s shoulder, and that seemed to help Adam to open up about feelings that he had kept inside for a long time.

“I’m glad it was early. I know some women go all the way to the end and have a stillborn child. As painful as it was to lose a child nearly halfway through, I can’t imagine the pain of losing one when you think you’re about to welcome one into the family. Now after this last one, Doctor Martin told us that he thinks that may be it. There was a lot of tearing again. Charity had a lot of trouble delivering Alex, and that was probably why she lost the second one. Paul thinks it may have been a bit miraculous that we have Carrie. I’m happy although I think that it made Charity sad to think that she can’t have any more.”

“D’ya think it’s cause she’s so much younger than you.”

“It could be that, but I think it’s because a woman sees that as part of who she is, and she lost that part of herself. She’ll be fine though. She’s better now that Carrie is getting a little older and can smile and coo at her.”

Knowing he needed to get to happier topics or Adam might slip into a dark mood as he was prone to do at times, Hoss smiled and brought up their father. “We shur have made Pa happy. Ya should heard him talking at the Cattleman’s Association meeting about his grandchildren. He talks about ’em every chance he gets.”

“Next time we take the boys fishing, we should ask Pa to come along. I think he would like that. The boys would too. They’re getting to that age where they like to show off a little, and showing off to their grandfather is a good way to do it. He won’t mind at all.”

“He’ll probably egg ’em on. Give him more to brag about.”

“He seems preoccupied with Joe getting married though. I hope Diane doesn’t change her mind.”

“Now why would you say that?”

“She’s a respectable southern lady. She was raised in a more genteel environment than this. Many times you can see how uncomfortable she is with how things are done out here. It may take some time for her to adjust.”

“Yeah, I remember the first time that Charity started in to feeding the baby right there on the settee. I thought her eyes was gonna pop right outta her head. We’re all used to seeing that with all the babies that done showed up in the last five years, but it must a been a shock to her.”

“I’m sure in her family, they probably had wet nurses or at the very least did that where no one could see.”

“Well, it weren’t like we could see nothing. Charity had that little lace thing over herself.”

“Yes, but it was the whole idea of it probably. Diane will have to get used to all of it. She seems to have trouble with the idea that we have Alex and Hunter at the table with us at mealtime too. I know it’s crowded, but they mind their manners.”

“Well, they better. They know what would happen ifn they don’t. The girls like to sit in the kitchen with Hop Sing. We’re gonna have to come up with a new plan when we get more of ’em big enough to sit with us though.”

“The big Sunday night dinners may come to an end soon. Our families are simply getting too big.”

“I hate to see it end.”

“We’ll have to come up with something else.”

Before leaving, Adam told the plant manager to shut the plant down on Saturdays until they had more orders. They would run from Monday to Friday only to build up inventory. With that, Hoss headed off to work with Candy on preparing for the roundup and cattle drive while Adam headed to town to work on getting more orders for the mill and making sure that all the other orders were being shipped out as planned. On a whim, he stopped in the jewelry store to pick out something for his wife. Hoss talking about how Charity had been unhappy with what Paul had told them reminded him again of how sensitive she had been for the last few months. He had been as tender and gentle with her as he could be. She was beginning to show some of her old spark and sass with him. He decided that a romantic gesture on his part might help so he picked out a pretty brooch and had it wrapped but then saw a locket with a rose filigree design and bought that too. With two small parcels in his pockets, he left the store and headed to the chocolate shop. If he was going to be romantic, he decided to pull out all the stops. He bought chocolates and then stopped at the pastry shop and bought some of her favorites there too.

With all the errands he had run after doing the work he had to do, it was getting late by the time he headed for home. He was preoccupied with getting home and never saw the man up on the ridge. The setting sun reflected off the rifle barrel or he might never have gotten home at all. He jerked Sport to the side and that saved his life. He flung himself from the horse and got to cover. Sport was a short distance away so Adam did his best to coax the animal closer hoping to get his rifle. A few more shots meant that wasn’t going to work though as Sport spooked and ran toward home. He was effectively pinned down. However it was clear that there was only one shooter so Adam couldn’t be flanked and was grateful for that. The bushwhacker had relied on surprise and had hoped to succeed with that. He had no backup plan. Adam knew he would probably be safe if he could wait him out. No one could likely find him in the dark with the clothing he was wearing. It would only be a couple of hours. He settled down to wait observing the ridgeline to be sure the man wasn’t working his way down to try to finish what he had started.

Nearly three hours passed before Adam heard a friendly voice calling his name. He yelled back to Candy to let him know where he was but warned him of a possible shooter up above. Because of that, it took another fifteen minutes before Hoss and Joe showed up with some hands. They were leading Sport.

“What happened to ya, older brother? What’s this about a shooter?”

“Somebody up on that ridgeline tried to pick me off as I was riding home. If the sun hadn’t reflected off the barrel, I wouldn’t be talking to you now. They had me. I got into cover as fast as I could but I didn’t have my rifle so I stayed here waiting for darkness. I heard noise and had no idea where he was. Until I heard Candy’s voice, I didn’t know if the noise meant that he left or that he was trying to work his way down here.”

“Well, we better get you home. Charity’s near scared to death. Any idea who’d want to shoot you?”

“Hoss, I think we both know the answer to that.”

Joe didn’t know though so they had to explain what had happened that day and the background on Jared as well as about Harold. Candy came back then to report that there was no one up on the ridgeline. Hoss said they could come back the next day and check for tracks. With that, they escorted Adam home.

*****

Chapter 3

Resting in bed later with Charity comfortably snuggled into his side, Adam kissed the top of her head. She ran her hand over his chest once more so very grateful that there were no wounds there. She had been terrified when he had been so late. She had gone outside and fired three shots in the air knowing that help would come from the main house in a hurry. Ben had stayed with her and the children while Hoss and Joe led the others out to search for Adam because they all knew he wouldn’t be that late unless something had gone very wrong. She and Ben had done their best to reassure Alex that nothing was wrong until finally she had to admit to him that she was worried because his father was very late, and that was why his uncles had gone riding off into the darkness. Ben noted that like his father had been at that age, Alex wasn’t easily fooled. It had been a great relief to all of them when the whole group had ridden in with Adam at the lead. He had dismounted and grabbed Charity in a one-armed hug with an arm around Alex too. After thanking everyone for their help, Adam had retrieved the now crushed pastries and the somewhat worse for wear chocolates for his wife and son. Hoss and Joe volunteered to take care of Sport for Adam so that he could go in the house with his family. Luckily Carrie slept through most of it in Ben’s arms. He had enjoyed that part of the evening. He handed the small babe back to her mother, and bid them goodnight after Hoss said he would explain what had happened.

Once Adam was safely inside his home and Sport was safely inside the stable and bedded down for the night, the rescue party headed back to the main house. By the next day, Ben sent a man over to stay at Adam’s place to keep an eye on things when Adam wasn’t there, and to be there to help at night if needed. Charity made up a nice bunk in the tack room of the stable and told Davis he could take all his meals with the family as long as he was there. Alex was intrigued with having another man around. He got a list of chores to do from Adam and worked around the stable and corral each day. Charity didn’t want Adam to ride off to work anywhere that day so he agreed to work in the house on some designs and plans he had been putting off. He never put his coat on so he forgot about the two small parcels that he had put in his pockets. It hadn’t been the romantic evening he had anticipated although his wife and son had enjoyed the pastries and chocolates having what Alex called an inside picnic in front of the fireplace as Adam ate a late dinner.

It was the next morning when Adam put on his coat and felt the small bulges in his pockets that he remembered his impulsive purchases. He grinned when he remembered and when he thought about what he could do that evening. It was Saturday so he would have more time to prepare and they could have a romantic evening. He looked forward to it as he stepped from the house to see Davis waving at him to get back in the house. He did and kept the door open a crack to watch. A man was riding near the house. He stopped and stared at the house for a short time before riding on. Once he was out of sight, Adam walked outside to talk to Davis.

“Any idea who that is?”

“None at all, but that’s the second time he rode near here today. He seen me each time and then left. Somehow I got the feeling he’s disappointed it ain’t you.”

“All right. I suppose that it would be best if I don’t ride in that direction. I’m heading to the main house. I’ll have them send some men to find out who it is. He’s trespassing at the least.” Seeing how worried Davis looked, Adam put a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry. You did your job. I’ll ride the opposite way. If he’s following, he won’t follow me right into the lion’s den, and I won’t come back here alone. All right?”

Stepping back inside the house briefly before he left, Adam told Charity that he was going to the main house. He told Alex to play inside until he got back. Charity wondered at that, but Adam only said he wanted to be careful. She wasn’t sure he was saying everything but hoped he would explain more when he got back.

“You be careful, Mister.” Her snappy tone was offset by the worry in her eyes.

“Always, and especially today. I have big plans for tonight.”

With a huge dimpled grin, Adam left her wondering a bit what he had in mind although she had some idea what he meant, but she also knew he must have something more going on to grin like that. She had to smile thinking about his mischievous side as she went about her morning tasks. Alex relaxed too seeing both of his parents smiling. He guessed that all was right with the world if they were both relaxed and happy.

As Adam rode to the main house though, he grew more and more on edge finally giving Sport his head and letting him run because he had an uneasy feeling he was being watched. Hoss had come to his house the day before to report that the tracks from the ridgeline where he had been bushwhacked went back to the road so they had been no help. All they had was a strong suspicion of who had done it. When he reached the main house, he had to ask a hand to please walk Sport to cool him down. The men were aware of the potential danger he was in so asked no questions of why he rode so hard for such a short trip. Hoss asked though and immediately headed out with Joe and Candy to see if they could find the man who was shadowing Adam’s place. They came back a short time later.

“They must a hightailed it outta there.”
Ben was as concerned as Adam at that statement but spoke first. “They?”

“Yeah, we found where tracks met up of two riders. Looks like one was a lot lighter than the other. Both headed back to the road. Candy is gonna stay over to your place ’til you get back, Adam. He said he would tell Alex he was there to show him those rope tricks he promised to teach him. Between him and Davis, they’ll keep a close eye on the place.”

“Hoss, would you ride with me when I go say hello to our new neighbor?”

“Do you think that’s a good idea?” Ben was clearly concerned about Adam going to see Jarrod because there was no doubt in his mind who Adam meant when he asked Hoss that question. Before Adam could answer, Joe volunteered to go with him.

“I’ll go too. Nobody gets to do that on our ranch. He needs to be put in his place right now. Two of us backing you up is better than one.”

“Thanks, Joe. Pa, yes, I do think it’s a good idea. All we have now is strong suspicion. What I want to do is see the look in his eye when I show up there. If it’s not him, I want to know that too. Someone is out to get me. You can bet that I’m not waiting around for them to take another shot. I can’t take a chance that I’m with my family when that happens.”

With that explanation, Ben agreed that it made sense but told his sons to be careful. They rode out then heading straight for Jared’s ranch. It took them across part of the McCarren ranch and they noticed some fences down when they crossed. They decided to swing by and tell Todd on the way back. When they got to Jared’s place, he and his son Marvin were coming out of the stable. The three brothers rode up to the two but didn’t dismount. Adam maneuvered so that the sun was in Jared’s eyes and he had to look up and squint at Adam and his brothers. Adam did the talking while his brothers observed and watched his back.

“What you doing on my place? You ain’t got no call to come here.”

“I do if you were the one who shot at me and if you were the one riding on our ranch this morning.”

“We only been out working on our place. I got the day off, remember, so I went out to help Marvin do some of the work.”

“What were you doing?”

“We were, ah, well, that’s none of your business, now, is it?”

“You got some fences down next to the McCarren ranch. Did you know that?”

“It’s their fence, their problem.”

“So I suppose if any of their cows and calves wander onto your property, you herd them back like a good neighbor?”

“Why don’t you git on outta here. I got real work to do, and I ain’t got time to be jawing with you.”

With a tip of his hat, Adam wheeled his horse to leave, and Hoss and Joe followed him out of the yard and up the hill away from the ranch. When they were a safe distance away, the three brothers stopped to talk. Hoss spoke first.

“It was him all right.”

Joe frowned at first but then smiled. “Yeah, he said they were out working, but no chaps and they’ve got some of the brushiest and hilliest land around. They should have been dusty too. They looked very fresh for working all morning. They weren’t even sweating until Adam starting asking his questions. I thought the kid was going to wet himself. He looked scared.”

“I’m sure he was the second rider who was following me today probably doing what his father ordered him to do. Now we know it’s them, and Jared probably knows that we know. Hopefully that will be enough to get him to back off.”

“I got to say I’m sorry for thinking you was too suspicious of that Jared when we first met him. He was so friendly to me and acted like everything was fine between us that I never thought he could be like this, but after what happened at the mill and now this, I know you were right to be suspicious. What I don’t know is why you were.”

“There was something odd about him. Things he said reminded me of people on stage. They sounded rehearsed like he was playing a part and it wasn’t really him. We’re seeing more of the real him now. It’s damn ugly too. No wonder his boy isn’t well behaved. How could he be with a father like that.”

“Why, what did the boy do? And which boy, the one back there or the younger one?”

Because Joe didn’t know about what had happened at Adam’s house, Adam had to tell him that story.

“It wasn’t that what happened was so serious, it was because of what could have happened or what could happen if they follow what he tells them to do. Alex and Hunter want to make people happy so they’re willing to do things that they wouldn’t do otherwise. This boy could get them in serious trouble or danger.”

“But you’re always with them, aren’t you?”

“Joe, we were always with you too when you were young. But you were pretty fast and got away from me and Adam more times than we can even remember. Boys can be like that especially if they ain’t got a lick a sense like that one.”

“I’d like to get home to spend some time with my family today. Tomorrow is the church picnic. Joe will get his chance to see what those three boys are like together. Maybe he can help us keep an eye on them.”

“You decided to let Alex play with Hunter and Harold then?”

“Yeah, as long as we keep them in sight at all times.”

“Joe, you reckon you can help us with that?”

“I’ll be with Diane. It’s her first church picnic with us. So I’ll help you as much as I can, but I want to make sure she has a good time too.”

“I’ll make sure that Pru includes her in with all the lady stuff. That should give you some time to help out. Charity will have the baby with her. Pa can help too.”

The brothers moved on to the McCarren ranch then to let Todd know about some of his fences being down before they headed home. Adam got back by early afternoon just in time to have some late lunch. Candy and Davis had had a picnic outside with Alex so he was full of stories to tell his father. Charity was busy inside with Carrie so Adam spent the rest of the afternoon with his son. Then after dinner, it was bath time for the children. Once they were in bed, Adam told Charity it was bath time for the two of them. He brought candles and wine into the washroom and heated water for the tub. When she saw his preparations, she smiled. It had been a long time since they had had a romantic and relaxing evening. Later wrapped in cozy thick robes, they sat in front of the fire in the main room and finished the bottle of wine. Adam presented her then with the two gifts he had purchased a couple of days earlier.

Adam, they’re beautiful. What’s the occasion?”

“Nothing special other than I love you and wanted to give you something special. That’s the occasion. Will you wear them tomorrow?”

“I will, and I will tell everyone that you gave them to me today because you love me.”

“Maybe you could just tell them I gave them to you and keep the details to yourself.”

“All right, if that’s the way you want it.” Then she kissed him and made him know how much she appreciated his gift and him.

*****

Chapter 4

“Papa, are you a sissy?”

“What?”

Having just taken a glass of lemonade, Ben nearly spit it out hearing Alex ask his father that but then had to grin waiting to hear what Adam would say next. In fact, Hoss and Joe perked up too as did the ladies and Hunter. It seemed that Alex and Adam had center stage for this conversation. Hunter leaned over to his father with a question though. He whispered, or what passed for whispering for him, which was loud enough for everyone to hear.

“Papa, what’s a sissy?”

“Well, Hunter, that’s a man who’s more like a girl and mostly kinda like a chicken too running from a fight instead of facing up to one. Now you just settle down here cause we all gotta hear if my older brother here is one of them there sissies.” Hoss settled back against a tree waiting to hear what Adam would say but had to answer a question from his son first.

“Who’s your older brother?”

“Your Uncle Adam is my older brother. You remember me explaining all that to ya, dontcha? And Uncle Joe is my little brother.”

“I know Uncle Joe is your little brother cause he’s smaller than you. But you’re bigger than Uncle Adam. How can he be older than you?”

Temporarily stymied, Hoss had only an evasive answer. “We’ll talk about that later. Now, you jest listen to your Uncle Adam explain how he’s a sissy.”

“I am not a sissy.”

“Oh, right, your Uncle Adam is gonna explain as to how he ain’t a sissy.”

Sighing in exasperation, Adam turned to Alex. “Why would you ask me that question?”

“Harold said his father said you were a sissy. I said you weren’t. Then he said you were again. I didn’t know how to make him know you weren’t. How can I make him stop saying that? You told me I couldn’t punch anybody for saying things like that.”

“Son, have you ever seen me run from work or from a fight to defend my family or our property?” Alex shook his head. Adam turned to the others. “Has anyone here ever seen me run from work or from a fight to defend my family or our property?” All the adults except Diane shook their heads. Looking back at Alex, Adam asked him if that answered his question. He said it did and smiled. He was proud of his father and didn’t like anyone calling him names, but Adam had taught him that he couldn’t fight about name-calling. He didn’t know how badly Adam wanted to go over and pound on Jarrod for that very thing. Ben knew. When the family finished their lunch and the boys ran off to play with Hoss watching over them, he mentioned to his son that he was glad he had shown such restraint.

“Pa, he’s egging me on. Sooner or later, there’s going to be a fight. I’m doing my best not to be the one who starts it, but if he swings at me, I’m not going to turn the other cheek. I won’t go that far.”

“Son, I wouldn’t expect you to go that far. But your son needs to see the example you’re setting right now. I’m proud of the father that you are.”

“I had a great teacher.”

“Well, let’s go see what those boys are up to. We wouldn’t want them to get away from Hoss and get into any trouble. I know you worry about Harold playing with them. I’ll help out.”

When Ben and Adam got to the bank of the stream where the boys were with Hoss, they found the three boys sitting next to Hoss who was having what appeared to be a very serious conversation with them. They wondered what could be so serious so quickly to have required that so they listened as Hoss talked.

“So you see, there ain’t no good reason to throw stones right at them fish. They ain’t rightly done nothing to ya and they ain’t gonna. We ain’t gonna catch ’em and eat ’em. So ifn ya was to hit ’em with a stone or a rock and hurt ’em, you’d be most likely killing ’em for no reason at all. God didn’t put creatures on this earth to be hurt for no reason. We hunt and we fish to put food on the table or to protect ourselves. We don’t kill things for the fun of killing. That makes a man sick at heart and sick in his soul.”

Hoss noted as did Ben and Adam that Harold dropped his head at that last part. He seemed sad and didn’t come out of that state for quite a while that afternoon no matter what anyone said to him. When it was time to leave, there was a commotion by the wagons. Joe was the first to rush there because he heard Diane’s voice. That meant the whole Cartwright clan followed quickly after him.

“No one should talk to a child like that.”

“He’s mine so it ain’t none of your business. Who the hell are you anyway?”

“It does not matter who I am. What matters is that he is a child and you treat him as an animal. You should be the one whipped, not him.”

By that time, Joe had arrived and put an hand on Diane’s elbow. “Whoa, now, no one’s getting whipped here today. It’s a church picnic.”

“Joe, this man and this woman threatened this little boy. They said he was going to be whipped with the buggy whip. He is only a small child. How could anyone say that to a small child?”

“I’m sure they didn’t mean it. Now you folks didn’t mean that, right? I mean, no one takes a buggy whip to a five-year-old boy, right?”

“It ain’t none of your business, Cartwright, what we do. It’s our family and I want you and yours to keep out of my business. Now if you’ll get this woman out of our way, we’ll be leaving.” Pushing his wife and Harold toward the carriage, Jared turned his back on any who were watching and climbed into the carriage as well. He snapped the reins and the carriage pulled away with Harold looking back at the Cartwrights from the back seat.

“That boy looks plumb scared to death. Pa, we oughta do something.”

“I don’t know what we can do. He’s right that it’s his family. We can’t tell him how to raise his sons.”

Looking down at the ground and then looking again at the carriage pulling away in the distance, Adam turned to his father. “Remember Drew?”

“That wasn’t the same thing.”

“Wasn’t it?”

Everyone else was wondering what Ben and Adam were discussing so Charity asked. “Who’s Drew?”

With a carefully measured look at his father who nodded almost imperceptibly, Adam turned to the others. He noted that Hunter and Alex were as attentive as the others. It was a sad lesson they might learn on this day, but he had been about the same age when he had learned it. He knew he did have to be careful how he told the story.

“When I was about the age Alex is now, we were in Illinois. I made some friends for a short time. One of them was a lot like Harold. He seemed to find amusement in making me suffer. I was a skinny kid even if I was strong enough and tall enough for my age. He was more muscular and heavier. My best defense was to outrun him which I could do easily so he called me a chicken. That made me want to stand and fight, but then I would end up with a busted lip or a bloody nose.”

“Or blackened eyes.” Ben smiled gently at those long ago memories of trying to help his son through that stage.

“In one of those fights, his shirt got ripped. It wasn’t too bad a rip, but two things happened that I will never forget. One was that he started crying. He said his pa was gonna give him a ‘licking’ as he called it for ripping his shirt. He was terrified. By what I saw through his ripped shirt, I had a reason to understand why. He had scars and scabs. It looked like he had been whipped. He had bruises too. I told Pa. He said we couldn’t do anything about it.”

“What happened? Why did you bring it up now?” Hoss needed an end to a story no matter what.

“Before we left that town, Drew was dead. He died in an ‘accident’ at his home. He supposedly fell and hit his head causing multiple injuries from which he couldn’t recover.”

“Well, how does someone fall and have more than one injury to his head?” But it only took a moment for Hoss to understand what had happened as did all the others. Drew had been beaten and died from his injuries. In most courts of the land, anyone who was injured during a punishment and subsequently died was considered to have died ‘accidentally’ and was not considered to have been murdered.

Diane was the next to speak. Joe may have met her at a dance and been attracted to her because of her blond hair, blue eyes, and the lilt of her accent as well as her graceful movement and refined manners and speech, but her words were the best evidence to all of them that Joe had chosen wisely and that she would fit in quite well in this family. “So if you are afraid this will happen to that little boy, what are we going to do about that?”

No one was sure what to say. Ben was the first to speak though. “I guess the first thing is to watch for evidence that they are hurting the boy. So far we have suspicion and nothing more. If we can get some proof, then we can step in to do something.”

Insistent, Diane pressed for more. “How are we going to get the evidence?”

Looking at Adam, Hoss knew that answer as did his older brother who responded. “We need to have Harold spend more time with our sons playing. We need to get to know him better, and perhaps then he’ll talk to us and tell us what we need to know.”

“Boys, it won’t be easy. It’s his father and his mother. They may be hurting him, but he loves them too. If anything happens to them, who will he have? He’s probably very frightened of everything. I think that the stories you’ve told me about him make a lot of sense now. Lots of times bullies are scared. They take out their frustrations on others probably so they don’t feel so powerless. He’s a lost little boy but also a dangerous one with that background. Keep that in mind too.”

“Papa, does that mean that Hunter and me can play with Harold or not?”

“Hunter and I can play with Harold.”

“You want to play with him?”

Adam rolled his eyes as his father and brothers laughed breaking the tension. It was almost a perfect imitation of the conversations that Adam and Little Joe had when Adam had tried to correct his grammar at that age. Hunter and Alex of course had no idea why the adults were laughing. Adam tried to explain it eliciting more laughter but finally getting the boys to understand. The family piled into carriages to head home then.

Over the next few months, Harold was invited on many occasions to play with Alex and Hunter. It meant that his mother didn’t have to supervise him and she seemed very happy to hand him over to Hoss or Adam even for overnight stays. In fact, she and Jared seemed quite happy to have him gone for days at a time. When there were overnight stays, Hunter stayed at Adam’s home with Harold in Alex’s room. The three boys would sleep on the two bunk bed mattresses that Adam would put on the floor for such occasions. Side-by-side and covered with a large sheet, the two mattresses made a bed big enough for all three to sleep comfortably. Harold never removed his shirt to sleep keeping that and his longjohns on no matter the temperature. It convinced Adam that he was hiding injuries but he could hardly insist that the boy remove his clothing even if his son and Hunter stripped off their clothing and pulled on a nightshirt each time. He offered one to Harold each time, and each time it was politely refused. That was one thing they all noted though. Harold’s manners improved markedly over those months spent under the supervision of Adam and Hoss.

There were no more incidents with Jared either and no more threats of any kind against Adam. Jared had a surly kind of greeting whenever he saw Adam but there was no more of the disrespect, and he followed the rules at work causing no more trouble there. Hoss thought that perhaps he had lost his temper over what he perceived as being embarrassed by Adam’s reprimand of him at work. It was a significant overreaction if that was all that it was though so Adam didn’t let his guard down, and Charity reminded him too every time he left the house. Davis found that he liked staying at Adam’s place so they had someone extra to keep watch too at night or when Adam was gone.

It all came to a head unexpectedly during a fun fishing outing. Adam and Hoss had the three boys fishing while Ben and Joe were entertaining the ladies in the cool shade of the pines further back from the shores of the lake. The plan was that there would be fish to roast over the fire for lunch. Of course, Hop Sing had packed plenty of food in the baskets knowing that sometimes those grandiose plans of catching enough fish by lunchtime to feed a dozen people didn’t always work out.

Standing out on a flat rock in the lake, Adam was helping each of the boys to bait their lines and cast them out. They had a few small fish already but certainly not enough to feed a dozen people. Hoss was fishing from a rock closer to shore and had caught a few larger fish. Earlier, he had tossed the boys across the small opening between the rocks and Adam had caught them, but Hoss had been unwilling to try to jump that space himself. Adam and the boys were on a large rock surrounded by water. Alex had declared it their island. Harold said he was the king then, but Alex looked up and said that probably his father had to be the king. Harold had laughed and agreed. Things were going well until it was time to head back for lunch. Adam tossed the fishing poles and then the fish to Hoss. Next he tossed Hunter over because he said he was the heaviest and he had to do it while he still had the strength. The boys had laughed at that. Then he tossed Alex and Hoss caught him easily. Last up was Harold but when Adam grasped him to toss him, he must have grabbed him in a way that hurt him because Harold suddenly grabbed onto Adam causing the two of them to fall into the water. Hoss began to laugh so hard he fell down. Hunter and Alex sat beside him in near hysterics as Adam stood up with a soaking wet Harold. Water dripped from the two of them and weeds were hanging from various parts. Adam did his best to appear dignified as he walked up the shore toward the trees carrying his wet charge. It wasn’t easy though with everyone there breaking into hysterical laughter too. He set Harold down, took off his hat, and then sat down to remove his boot.

“”Harold, sit down, take off your boots. We’re going to have to get these wet things off so they can dry.”

“It’s all right. They can dry right on me.”

It was then that Adam noticed some blood on Harold’s side. “You’re bleeding. I don’t know how that happened, but now we definitely need to get that shirt off so we can take care of whatever happened to you.”

Looking terrified, Harold backed up and then ran for the trees shocking everyone. Hoss was going to go after him, but Adam held him back sliding his feet back into this wet boots. “Let me go. I think we’ve got a common experience here that may help. Let me go to him.” Adam found Harold slumped down next to a tree and sobbing. He put a hand on the boy’s shoulder and his heart nearly broke when Harold looked up at him with a look so hopeless and forlorn.

“My Pa’s gonna kill me for this. He told me nobody was ever supposed to know or he’d kill me. I did my best to hide it. Now you know, don’t you? He’s gonna kill me.”

“No, he won’t. I won’t let him hurt you ever again.”

“How can you stop him? He’s my Pa. He said nobody can stop him.”

“I can. I will. Trust me. No one will hurt you like that again.” Adam knelt down and wrapped an arm around Harold who stiffened at the unaccustomed feel of a man’s arm around him like that. Slowly he relaxed as nothing bad happened. Adam pulled the boy closer to him with his other arm, and then gently picked him up to carry him back to the family. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do, but he had made a promise, and he always kept his promises.

*****

Chapter 5

Before Adam got out of the trees, Charity was there to greet him with two blankets and a few soft towels. “We’ll take care of the two of you here in the trees where there’s some privacy, don’t you think. Harold, is that all right with you?”

With his face buried in Adam’s shoulder it was difficult to hear his answer but he clearly shook his head affirmatively. Adam moved to set him down then and slowly unwrapped the boy’s arms from around his neck looking him in the face when he did so. Harold averted his eyes obviously ashamed that he had been crying. Adam reached up and used his thumbs to wipe the tears from the boy’s cheeks.

“There’s no shame in crying when there’s a good reason for it.”

“I bet you never cry.”

“I have.”

“When did you ever cry.”

Pursing his lips and then blowing air out through them, Adam knew he had to open up in order to gain the boy’s trust. “Almost three years ago we were going to have a baby and the baby died. I cried then. Charity cried too. We cried together.”

Looking at him to gauge whether he was telling the truth or not, Harold saw that his eyes glistened with unshed tears. He looked to Charity and saw the same brightness in her eyes. That was a revelation to him that adults could cry too. He thought that adults only lost their tempers and got very violent when they were unhappy.

“You’re still sad.”

“Yes, something like that takes a long time to go away. Maybe it never will, but it gets easier to live with each day, and now we have Carrie too. Having Alex and Carrie to love helps.”

“What did you do with your baby when she died?”

Charity knelt down next to Harold then. “We buried her in the garden. She wasn’t but a small thing hardly bigger than my hand, but she was our baby. We planted roses there. We think of her as Rose even though we never actually named her.”

“When my Mama died, Pa threw the body in the river.”

Shocked almost into speechlessness, Adam finally was able to respond. “But we saw your mother this morning when we picked you up to take you to church and then on this picnic.”

“Oh, she ain’t my real ma. She’s a woman Pa got in a saloon to cook and clean and such. She acts like my ma and Pa calls her that, but she ain’t my real one.”

Exchanging glances over Harold’s head as he peeled the wet pants from his legs with their assistance no longer worried what they would see, both Adam and Charity wondered what other secrets they might learn. That had been a great shock. There were more to come as Harold opened up to them. Adam helped him remove his shirt and then his long johns to the waist before asking Charity to turn away. She was already aghast at the scars as well as a few wounds and bruises on the boy. Adam helped him slip off the long johns, dry himself, and then wrap the blanket around his legs up to his waist. Then he and Charity tended to the wound that was bleeding before pulling the blanket up to the boy’s shoulders.

“There, do you feel better now, Harold?”

“Yeah, I feel a lot better. My name ain’t really Harold, you know.”

“It isn’t?”

“Nope. My name is James, I think. At least, that was the name I had before they said I had to be Harold. That was the name my Mama called me. Well, sometimes she called me Jimmy. I don’t remember back any further than that. Maybe I had another name before that. Marvin used to be another name too. I forget right now what it was.”

Growing ever more suspicious, Adam calmly asked another question. “Did your father have another name too?”

“I guess maybe. I mean, I only ever called him Pa so I’m not sure about that.”

Keeping his voice calm and deliberate, as Adam undressed and dried himself, he asked more questions. “Where did you live before you came here?”

“We lived in a town. Then we had to leave in a hurry. We lived all over for a while. Mama got sick and died. Then we went to another town, and Pa was with these other men for a while and then we had to leave real fast again. Then we came here.”

“Did you come over mountains to get here or over flat lands?”

“It was some of both, but mostly it seemed like mountains. It was a long way, and sometimes we didn’t have enough water, and then we found this river. That’s where Mama got sick.”

“You seem to have a very good memory.”

“Mama said I had a real good mind. She said I was gonna do big things one day.”

“Yes, well right now, I think we all need to head back and have some lunch before Hoss eats it all.”

Looking down at the blanket he wore, Harold, or James, wasn’t so sure that he should head out to where the others were. Adam and Charity saw his indecision. Charity called for Hoss who came to them in a few minutes. It was clear that everyone had been wondering what had been happening. She asked Hoss to carry the boy out to the picnic and be careful not to dislodge the blanket.

“No, ma’am, I surely won’t. We men got to make sure not to let the ladies see anything that would scare ’em now would we, Harold?”

“No, Hoss, we sure wouldn’t.”

Charity gathered up the wet clothing, and Adam followed behind holding his blanket tightly around him knowing that his wife or one of this brothers might think it quite funny to dislodge his blanket at least a little to try to embarrass him. Seeing his tight grip on the blanket and his look, Charity grinned as did Ben and Joe when they saw him. Charity spread the wet clothing out over bushes in the sun. Diane got up to help her and inquired about Harold hoping that he was all right.

“He is, and he isn’t. We all have to talk later when the children aren’t around.”

Nodding, Diane looked as if she had expected that answer. With a few raised eyebrows and looks, Adam had more or less communicated the same thing to his brothers, father, and Pru. After lunch, Adam reclined against a tree ready to take a nap because he could hardly go anywhere wrapped in a blanket. After Charity nursed Carrie, she handed the baby to him, and he held her as she fell asleep, and he closed his eyes as well. Charity told Harold to go ahead and lay down next to Adam and rest until his clothing was dry enough to wear.

Two hours later, Charity woke Harold and told him that his clothes were dry enough to wear. Grabbing his blanket tightly to keep it securely around him, he went behind the tree to dress. He was smiling when he came back and still had a couple of hours to play before they would head back to the ranch. He knew too that he was spending the night at Adam’s house so he was relaxed. With the children playing at the shoreline under the supervision of Joe and Diane, Ben and the others gathered by Adam who finished dressing and Charity who had Carrie again. It was time to discuss what Harold had told them. By the time they finished telling what they had found out, the whole group was as stunned as Adam and Charity had been when they first heard those things. By this time though they had been thinking about that information for over two hours and had drawn similar conclusions.

“Charity and I both think that there’s a good chance that Jared is a wanted man. I’m going into town tomorrow with Harold or rather James to see Paul Martin and get a full report written on his injuries. Then we’ll see Roy to see if we have enough to keep him away from his father. I’ll ask Roy to check through his wanted posters and flyers to see if he has anything resembling Jared.”

“He mighta come a long way. Ifn he came as far as it sounded like he did, he might have done bad things in California or even Colorado or someplace like that. Might not be a poster or flyer in Roy’s office.”

“Then he can send out wires asking about him. I’ll pay the cost if necessary. Pa, if that doesn’t work, I have another idea and I’ll need your help.”

“I’ll do what I can. What do you need me to do?”

“For now, come into town with us tomorrow and agree to help as needed.”

“I can do that, but, son, are you sure that you and Charity want to take on the responsibility of this boy? He’s going to be a real handful.”
“I know that, but I made him a promise that no one would do that to him again. I keep my promises. I won’t let anyone hurt him like he’s been hurt. We’ll find a home for him where he’ll be properly cared for like a child should be.”

“And if you can’t?”

Charity moved to Adam’s side. “We have room at our house if need be.”

As planned then, the next day, Adam took Harold to Doctor Martin for a complete examination. Not only did Paul find the scars from more than one whipping, but he found evidence that the boy had broken ribs in the past and had a broken arm at least once. He could tell that by the feel of the bones in his left forearm that had healed while slightly displaced and could feel the thickness of the ribs on one side of the boy’s chest. It wasn’t enough proof to charge Jared with anything, but it would help if they could find something else. Unfortunately Harold was too young to press any kind of charge. No court would accept a charge by a child that young against a parent. Next, Adam went to Roy’s office where he had Harold tell Roy what he had told Adam. Harold was reluctant but Adam said that Roy was like a father to him and a good father not like the one he had. They looked through Roy’s wanted posters but found nothing resembling Jared. Roy agreed to send out wires seeking any information and letters as well but warned it could take some time to get any information back.

“Now from what we know, this here boy is in danger if he’s got to go back to that home. How you planning on keeping him safe?”

“Roy, I was hoping you could help with that.”

“Boy, you don’t know how much I wish I could. I’d like to lock that man up and throw away the key, but there isn’t a law in this whole country that would let me do that. I don’t even have enough to say I gotta take the boy from him.”

“Roy, what if I pressed charges?”

“What kind of charges could you press against him?”

“Not against him, against Harold.”

“What? You gone plumb loco while I been sitting here? The boy is the victim here.”

“Yes, he is, but you already said there isn’t a law to protect him. You also know that usually it’s friends and neighbors or family who step in and take care of things like this. Well, that’s what I’m doing. Harold attacked my son with a wooden sword and caused an injury that bled. I want you to charge Harold with assault.”

“Now, Adam, that’s just crazy.”

“Hear me out, Roy. I already talked this over with Pa and Harold. That’s why they’re not upset as you are. Harold is too young to sit in your jail. You would probably send an offender as young as he is back home with his parents except we know his mother is not his mother. Now what if an upstanding citizen was willing to be his guardian until his trial?”

With a smile as he began to understand, Roy leaned back in his chair. “You Cartwrights are always thinking and plotting about things. Now I see where this is going. Yes, I can charge young Harold here with assault. I’ll have him placed in the custody of Mister Benjamin Cartwright until his trial. I guess you probably know the circuit judge isn’t due here for another two weeks. You’ll have to keep him with you until then, house him, feed him, and not let him go anywhere without your say-so and a responsible man in charge of him at all times. Is that clear, Mister Cartwright?”

“It is very clear, Sheriff Coffee. I always take my civic duty very seriously. I can promise you that young Harold here will not set foot off the Ponderosa except to attend church services for the next two weeks. He will be here when that circuit judge arrives in town.”

Turning his attention to Adam, Roy offered one bit of information. “Now you do know that you have until the time of the trial to withdraw these charges. If he walks into that courtroom, those charges stand and he faces the judge.”

“Yes, Sheriff Coffee, I am aware of that. I will let you know about that.”

“I bet you will; I just bet you will. Well good day to you all, and I’ll be sending you that bill for the wires, Adam. I’ll send Clem out to tell Jared about his son. I don’t suppose you would rather do that?” Ben and Adam remained impassive as Roy expected. “Didn’t think so. Hard to know how a man like that is going to react. You keep your eyes open out there.”

Despite the warning, walking out of Roy’s office, Ben and Adam were smiling, but Harold wasn’t so sure so he had to ask. “Does that mean I get to stay with you?”

Putting a hand on the boy’s shoulder, Ben leaned down. “Yes, it does. Officially, I am in charge of you.” Harold’s face fell a bit at that news. “I am ordering you to spend the next two weeks at my son Adam’s house and follow every rule there, or you will be hearing from me. Is that clear, young man?” Ben’s gruff words were offset by his light tone and the merry look in his eyes.

Harold couldn’t stop grinning. For the first time that he could remember, he felt happy and safe. He walked next to Adam to the carriage and climbed in sitting in the middle as he had on the ride in letting the two men get in beside him. He didn’t mind being squeezed between them. It felt like security. It was a feeling that he had not had before but he liked it.

*****

Chapter 6

At home, Adam had a different set of problems to face. Alex now had a full-time competitor for his parents’ attention other than Carrie. He had adjusted to Carrie needing his mother’s attention, but Adam now would have to give attention to Harold which was going to be more of an issue. In fact, it was likely that Harold was going to need a lot of attention. Alex was a very nice, intelligent, and generous boy, but he was also five-years-old and needed his father. Charity and Adam had to talk about that. It wasn’t a problem the first night, but they knew it would surface so they had to discuss it. After they had the children settled for the night, and had Davis and another man on alert that there could be trouble, they had a chance to talk. Sitting at the dining room table, with all the windows shuttered tightly, they shared a dessert and talked quietly.

“Have you thought about what happens next?”

“On the ride home, James talked quite a bit. We started with that. He wants us to call him James or Jimmy like his mother did. He has good memories of her even if they’re hazy. He doesn’t know why she was sick. He told us that she moaned and cried a lot as she laid in bed. They ended up leaving town anyway and she was sick the whole time. I’m beginning to think she wasn’t sick at all. It sounds more like someone who was beaten.”

“Why do you say that?”

“He said she had a hard time walking. She was all bent over and held her stomach and her face looked funny. His words. But he was four years old at the time. He didn’t have the vocabulary to describe anything more accurately nor does he remember it any more clearly than that. He did say that Jared gets very angry sometimes and then he drinks which makes him even angrier. He says they all have to hide when that happens. If you don’t hide well enough, well, you’ve seen the results on that boy.”

“Do you think that’s what happened when you got shot at?”

“I was thinking about that. The shooter wasn’t that far away and with a rifle. But if he was angry and had been drinking, that would make it more difficult to sight in on a target and then to keep the rifle steady. That may be why I’m still alive and not because of my lightning fast move to get off Sport and into cover.”

“Oh, after all these years, don’t shatter my hero image of you.”

“You’re sassy.”

“I’d love to have more fun with you right now, but first we need to talk about James and about Alex. My heart goes out to James, but I see a lot of trouble for us if we try to keep him here. I don’t want to put our children, especially Carrie, at risk. She is very vulnerable right now.”

“You don’t think that James would do anything, do you?”

“Adam, we have to be realistic. He’s never had a decent home. He doesn’t know how to act around others. Alex can stand up for himself, but Carrie can’t and won’t be able to for a long time. We don’t know what kind of temper James has. We saw some of it when the boys played together. He’s not shown any lately but he needs us desperately. He’s on his very best behavior because of that.”

“Pa has said something very similar. He thinks that once this is all settled, there could be some tough times with James and getting him settled in with a family. He thinks too that he belongs in a family where the children are older or where there are no other children.”

“It might be best if the other child or children were female too, don’t you think? That way there wouldn’t be that competition. He needs a father very badly especially at his age.”

“Yes, and here, he would be competing with Alex who needs the same thing. He’s also just a bit older than Alex which wouldn’t sit well with our first-born.”

“Yes, but he needs you around for some time yet because you’re the one he trusts. He’ll trust whomever you tell him to trust. You said he talked to Paul and to Roy because you told him he could. I know he trusted your father because you said he should. Any solution to this has to include you.”

“I’m confused a bit now. You want us to find him a family but you want me to continue to be part of his life. How can that be?”

“If you think about the things we’ve said, there’s a perfect solution available.”

Watching the small smile on Charity’s face, Adam knew it had to be something very clever that he was missing. Then he got it and smiled too. “You are one smart woman. I’m so lucky that you agreed to marry me. Now, do you think they’ll agree?”

“We have time. You said Roy had nothing on Jared yet, but we both know that’s probably only a matter of time. There’ll be something. Once he’s out of the picture, then it will be a matter of getting a permanent family for James. We can work on that during this time. I think Alex will be all right with it as long as he knows it isn’t permanent. It will be an extended guest kind of thing. There may be some small problems but nothing serious.”

“Do you want to bring it up to them or should I?”

“I’ll talk to her and you talk to him.”

“Drop the idea rather casually?”

“That’s what I was thinking. Let them kind of come together on it themselves.”

“And if they don’t?”

“Then we barrel in and tell them all the good reasons why they should make James part of their family.”

“I like that. You have a plan and a back-up plan.”

“I learned from the best.”

“Let me show you how much I appreciate that compliment.”

The kiss took them into their usual way of showing each other how much they appreciated the other and enjoyed their company. Both slept well then until Carrie let them know she needed attention. As usual, Charity got up with her, changed her diaper, and nursed her. By the time she came back to bed, Adam was soundly sleeping. Slipping into bed beside him, she slid back against him until his warmth enveloped her and he moved his arm around her unconsciously in his sleep.

In the morning, he awoke first and gingerly disentangled himself from Charity as he did almost every morning. He shaved and dressed. Then as Carrie was stirring, he picked her up, put a clean diaper and a clean gown on her settling her next to Charity for her morning feeding. Charity was groggy but opened her gown to let her daughter suckle and the two snuggled together as they did each day. Adam found that he often had a tear or two in his eyes as he watched that scene each morning and had to wipe his eyes with his handkerchief before he left the room closing the door gently. He checked the boys’ room and both were still sound asleep. His usual practice was to have breakfast at the main house with his father, brothers, and Candy whenever he could so that they could talk over all of the ranch business. Having missed several of those meetings lately, he thought he needed to get to this one. Davis met him at the stable and told him everything was quiet so Adam told him that he had put on a pot of coffee, that breakfast would be ready at the usual time, and that there were bread and preserves the men could have with their coffee first. Both were appreciative that he showed that concern for them and headed for the house as soon as he rode out. In the trees southeast of Adam’s house, Jared was very disappointed because he had expected Adam to ride toward the mill or town. Planning to bushwhack Adam on the way, Jared had instead to give up that plan and head to work instead as Adam rode in the opposite direction.

At the main house, the meeting was already started when Adam got there. Everyone was very serious surprising Adam with the intensity of the meeting. The men seemed a bit surprised to see him as well.

“I missed too many of these lately. I wanted to make this one and get back in the swing of things. What’s got everyone so concerned because I can see it on all of you?”

“We’ve got fences down and cattle counts are down, or I should say the calf counts are down. We’ve been doing the roundup and branding, and we should have a lot more calves than we have. There’s no evidence that they’re being taken by any predators so something else is happening.”

“Human predators?”

“With the fences down in spots, it seems the logical conclusion. Now Hoss and Joe said the three of you saw fences down on Todd’s place too. My guess would be if we check with the other ranchers, we’re going to find others having the same problem. Someone is coming in and taking the calves to build up a herd.”

“And we think we know who that is, don’t we?”

“Dadburnit, Adam, it’s the only thing that makes sense. We know he ain’t got many cattle over there, and he ain’t got much pasture to support a big herd and get a lot of calves, but he’s always talking about how he’s gonna grow them calves and take ’em to market. The only way he gets a that big herd in a hurry is to take calves from other ranches and raise ’em up.”

“He can’t be doing this alone. It’s only him and Marvin over there.” Adam was a bit skeptical.

Ben looked around the table. “We discussed this before you arrived. We think that maybe Roy needs to do some checking on Jared around here and not just sending out wires to see if he’s wanted elsewhere. Joe has to go to town to see about some things for his wedding. We thought that perhaps the two of you could go see Roy and talk to him about this.”

Turning his attention to Joe, Adam had to smile despite the tone of the conversation. “That’s right. It’s less than two weeks now, isn’t it. Yes, I would be more than happy to go to town with you to do that. Joe’s good with guns too. I’ll need someone like that watching my back because Jared may be gunning for me after yesterday’s news. I thought he might show up last night or this morning, but he didn’t. The day isn’t over yet though so I’m not sure yet what will happen.”

“Good, Candy will take some men out to see about repairing the fences and doing some herd counts, and Hoss will take a man to see if they can find any tracks where men have taken our stock. We’ll need Davis back here to handle the roundup and branding. Can you hire some men to do the sentry duty at your house? We could use all the hands working on the ranch right now.”

“While I’m in town, I’ll hire men to do the sentry duty. I’ll keep the one man at the house today and send Davis here to work the roundup. He was getting used to staying at my place though. He may not like moving back here.”

Ben was agreeable. “He can still stay at your place when he’s not out on the range. I have no problem with that. For now, he can stay there at night as long as he takes charge of all the branding during the day.”

The men headed out then to their assigned tasks with Adam and Joe having a pleasant time going to town with a chance to talk about Joe’s upcoming marriage and Adam’s complex problem of what to do with James. When Joe heard Adam’s idea about where he and Charity thought James would do well, he liked the idea.

“You know, Diane and I were talking too and thought that he might cause some problems if you thought to keep him as part of your family. This makes a whole lot more sense. Diane is going to like the idea too. She was worried about him. This will make her happy for him.”

*****

Chapter 7

In town, Adam went with Joe on his errands picking up the ring Joe had ordered for Diane as well as a necklace he planned to give to her to wear on their wedding day. Adam complimented him on his fine taste in choosing the elegant necklace, and Joe thanked Adam for the example he had set in purchasing jewelry for Charity for five years. That brought smiles to both of them. They headed to Roy’s office after that and were surprised to find he wasn’t there. Clem said he was over at the bank and would probably like to talk with them there if they wanted to try to catch him while he was still there. It was all very intriguing so they hurried to the bank and found Roy in the bank president’s office. The bank president was assuring Roy that everything he had told him was the complete and honest truth. Roy had him repeat the gist of it to Adam and Joe.

“Jared Butler paid cash for his ranch. It was cheap. We hadn’t been able to get a buyer since we foreclosed on it. It needed a lot of work and you both know that it doesn’t have very good land unless it rains a lot. In dry years, it can’t support more than a few hundred head. That’s not much so most ranchers weren’t interested. We were looking to get rid of it when he walked in with cash.”

“So he doesn’t have to make payments?” Joe was stunned.

Watching the brothers, Roy could see that Adam was thinking. “So if he doesn’t need money for payments for the ranch, he’s working at our mill to get money to buy something else. What could that be?”

“Now, that’s what got me over here to ask this here question that you just heard the answer to. I was asking around town a bit about Jared and I got a mighty strange bit of information over to the general store and from Cass’ mercantile too. Seems that Jared’s been buying up supplies like he’s got a big spread only we both know he don’t even have one man working for him. It’s just him and his older boy. He only has but that one other boy and his wife to feed, but he’s in town here buying a load of supplies every week. He bought blankets too, tinware, pots and pans, and a case of whisky too. Buys quite a lot of whisky, too much for even for a hard drinking man. Folks was wondering if he was selling to someone else.”

“We’re missing stock, mostly calves if we’re right. We think Todd is too, and probably other ranchers. They’re rustling our young stock, probably raising them in remote parts of the ranch staying out of sight. Based on what you’ve said, it seems like it might all be fitting together like a big puzzle.”

“Now why would they do it like that?”

“No one would know if he keeps them out of sight. He’s got men working for him but no one sees them of if they do, they don’t know that they’re working his spread. Probably look like a couple of drifters. Meanwhile he has to feed them and pay them until he can sell what he’s stolen and get some money in the bank. He’s working for us to get cash. That’s why he told us he only needs money for the first year’s payments. It’s a good plan, but they’re too greedy, and they’re sloppy. If they had taken smaller numbers and fixed the fences after they took them, we would still be wondering if we just had a bad year for calves. It happens. With the fences down and our numbers so low, we were looking for another reason. They could have done this every year for a long time and we might never have suspected them.”

“But they took too many and left a trail.”

“That’s about it, Roy. If he had taken say twenty from us, and perhaps five or ten from some of the other ranches, they could have had up to a hundred fairly easily. That would have added up to a nice income with no investment except some time. He’s taken probably three times that many or more. It means he has to hire men to help and work to get money to keep it going, and they’ve left evidence behind.”

“I don’t know that I got enough to send a posse onto his place.”

“Hoss is out looking for tracks. If he finds them, you’ll have enough. We’ll let you know.”

“Thanks, Adam. I ain’t got nothing back from those wires, and the letters probably only started arriving at places about now.”

“Well, let me know too if you find out anything. The sooner we can put him behind bars, the better for everyone.”

“You’re that sure he’s gonna end up there?”

“Roy, you’ve had a lot of experience with criminals. Aren’t you?”

“I got to admit I’m darned suspicious, and I’d sure like to take a look round his place. You tell Hoss that ifn he finds them tracks of stock heading on over to Jared’s place, I want to know that right off. I don’t want you all heading on over there yourselves. This is a matter for the law so you come tell me. You can ride with me, but I got to be the one in charge. Is that clear to you?”

“It’s clear, Roy. We wouldn’t have it any other way. Right, Joe?”

“Uh, right, but I guess we’ll have to be sure Pa agrees with us.” Seeing Roy’s look, Joe quickly amended his statement. “Oh, I only meant to say that we have to be sure to tell Pa that we agreed with what you wanted. I’m sure he’ll be agreeable.”

“Say, Adam, how’s that boy settling in on the Ponderosa?”

“He’s fine. He was sleeping when I left the house this morning, but I’m sure he and Alex are having a good time today.”

“So he’s at your house. Kinda figured that was what was gonna happen. You fixing on keeping him there with you?”

“Only for the short term.” Then with Joe grinning beside him, Adam told Roy the idea that he and Charity had about the long term placement of James that they thought would work out the best and why.

“Sounds like a good plan to me. He’ll still be close to you, but he’ll have a good father all to himself. He needs that. Good. I hope it all works out.”

After bidding farewell to Roy and getting a quick lunch, Adam and Joe met with a few men that they knew were reliable and hired them to work to protect Adam’s home. They often worked as temporary deputies for Roy so they could be trusted. Next the two brothers headed out to the mill. They wanted to check on things and also to make sure that Jared was at work. Adam thought he would enjoy the ride home a lot more if he knew that Jared was at work and not sighting in on his back. At the mill, he did his best not to let Jared see him while he spoke with the plant manager who wanted to fire Jared because he was back to making a lot of trouble that day and the day before. Adam assured him that Jared wouldn’t be there much longer but that it was better to have him there where they could keep an eye on him. He promised the whole crew a bonus once Jared was gone which brought a smile to the plant manager’s face.

“Can I sort of let that rumor go round?”

“If no one repeats it to Jared, it would be fine.”

“Heck, nobody talks to him unless they got to. Thanks, Mister Cartwright. That should bring up the morale just fine. Any idea how long we got to put up with him?”

Looking at Joe, Adam shrugged. Joe spoke first. “I’d say a week might be a good guess.”

Adam nodded. “That’s probably about right. If we’re lucky, maybe less.”

“Good. We can handle that. At least there’s an end in sight.”

“We have to be very careful now though. He may be sensing that things aren’t going his way. By now you know that we took his younger son from him. He’s mad about that. If he gets a feeling that we’re checking on him or watching him, there’s no telling what he may do next. The key is to try to act as normally as possible around him but at the same time watch him. If he seems to be doing anything out of the ordinary, be sure to let us know.”

“Adam, we better go so we’re well on our way before any of the men see us and say anything.”

“You’re right. Let’s go. We probably stayed here too long already.”

In some ways they had been there too long because Jared became aware that they had been there. However that they had not wanted to be seen was interpreted by him as Adam being afraid of him. That made him feel good about things and he left work in a better mood than when he arrived. When he got home, he wasn’t as happy though. Marvin had some news for him that was unsettling.

“I rode out to work with the men today like you said, Pa. We saw Hoss Cartwright and some other man snooping around near our fence lines with the McCarren ranch. They seemed real interested with the spots where we brought some of them calves in.”

“You said you had brushed all them tracks out real good.”

“I did. I brushed them out just like you said. I brushed them one way and then the other. I threw sticks and stuff over them too after I brushed them. Ain’t no way anybody could see any calf tracks anywhere.”

“What about your tracks? Did you do the same to all of your tracks?”

“I think so. Pa, what if I didn’t? What’s anybody going to care about one set of boot marks or one set of horse tracks?”

That earned Marvin a stinging slap across the face and string of curses. “That’s all they need. All they ever need against a man like me is suspicion. Next they’ll be talking to the sheriff and have him out here snooping around. Now we gotta move these calves somewhere so they can’t be found. It’s gonna be a lotta work.” Jared dropped his head as he rubbed his neck. “I still need the money from that mill job. At least for a while yet, I can’t quit. You’re gonna hafta help Mort and Dobie move them calves and you better be sure to cover them tracks better this time. You take them back to those box canyons we found and get ’em in there. I’ll send Mabel with you. She can do the cooking and such, and she can start earning her keep by bringing grass to them calves. There ain’t enough in them box canyons. There’s water but not enough grass. You hear me, boy. You got that?”

“Yes, Pa, I got it. We move the calves to the box canyons. We brush out the tracks so nobody can find them. Mabel comes along to do the camp chores and such and she can get the grass to feed the calves. Pa, do we take all the calves?”

“No, of course not. You leave the ones we own right where they are. You come back after you get the rest taken care of, and you’re gonna hafta handle them on your own. You got that?”

“I got it, Pa. That’s a lot of work. I’m not sure I can do all that.”

“Listen, boy, you’re almost fourteen. You want to make that next birthday of yours, you’re gonna get that work done, ya hear me?”

Jared had more pointed reminders for Mabel when he told her what she had to do. Then he sent them on their way before going inside to eat his supper and have something to drink. He had some thinking to do too as to what he was going to do next. This had all seemed like a great plan when he started, but it had turned out to be more work than he liked and a lot more trouble. He wished there was a way to get money out of the deal a lot faster so he could move on. He didn’t like that Adam Cartwright had stolen his younger son away from him. It wasn’t that he loved the boy, but it was the principle of the thing. Nobody took anything from him. He took things from them. That’s when he smiled. He had an idea. While they were busy getting ready to raid his ranch to catch the rustlers thinking that was his big plan, he was going to come up with a new plan. It was going to be a plan to take something from those Cartwrights to get even with them and get him free of all these people who were dragging him down with responsibilities. He spent the rest of the evening planning out his new endeavor.

On the Ponderosa, Hoss had reported back what he had found.

“I found a lot of what looked like brushed out tracks from our place and from Todd’s place. Now you know I can’t tell Roy what those tracks were. I found one set of boot tracks and one set of horse tracks. That’s it. They had tried to cover that they had brushed out the tracks but they weren’t very good at it. From the boot prints and the hoof prints, I’d say the rider was a woman or a boy. There wasn’t much weight there. Coulda been that young Marvin. Can’t be sure.”

It wasn’t enough for a posse but was enough probably to get Roy to go out to Jared’s ranch and question him and perhaps have a look around. Hoss and Joe decided that while he was doing that, they might have a more informal look around too. Candy decided he should go with them. Ben told them to be careful. Adam would take the information to town the next morning to see if Roy would go to the ranch, and Adam would volunteer to go with him. Jared should be at work so they would tell Mabel they would be taking a look around. At least that was the plan. They all went to bed thinking it was a good plan not knowing that on Jared’s ranch, they had already started to move the stolen calves that night.

*****

Chapter 8

The next morning, Adam went by the McCarren ranch on his way to town to let Todd know what was happening and what they planned to do. Todd wanted to ride along to which Adam was agreeable. It would seem more of a united front that way when they went to Jared’s ranch and not like the Cartwrights had Roy doing their bidding. Of course, that meant that Adam got to spend some time talking about James and what had happened in that situation since they had last talked. Todd brought up something that Adam in his concern for the younger boy hadn’t spent much time considering.

“Have you thought that by rescuing James, you might have made things worse for the older boy? I mean if this man has the temper you say he has and has hurt those boys, he must be mad as heck about what you did. He can’t do much to you so that leaves Mabel and Marvin. Out here, lots of people would look at Marvin as a young man but we both know that he’s still a boy too. He works like a man but he needs a father’s guidance and care still. It seems a shame that the two boys are separated too. They should be together. They’re all they really have for a family with their mother dead and their father as good as dead as awful as he is.”

Riding quietly lost in thought for a short time, Adam took a deep breath and pulled Sport to a halt. Todd stopped and looked at his brother-in-law wondering what had happened. He saw that Adam was very sober but also had the hint of a slight smile playing on his lips.

“Todd, I was supposed to drop this hint and let you think about it. Charity was going to do the same with her sister and hope the two of you would think it was a good idea to adopt James into your family. Your daughter is older than James so she could take care of herself, and as a girl, she wouldn’t be competing for your attention. I would still be around although as his uncle not his father. I think James is hoping that I will want to be his father because of all I’ve done to protect him so far, and at some point, I am going to have to disappoint him. Now you have brought up Marvin and his need for protection, a family, and that the two boys ought to be together.”

When Adam paused, Todd’s mind was whirling. He was at first shocked because he had thought like many that Adam planned to take James as part of his family. He couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t so that was his first question. After Adam explained the reasons why he and Charity were concerned about that, Todd agreed that they had probably assessed the situation correctly. He and Virginia had not had any more children despite both of them desiring more. No one knew why of course but Virginia was older so perhaps that was why. The thought that he could have two sons was very appealing. Adam cautioned him not to get too carried away with that thought alone but to think of how those boys had been raised and the difficulties there would be in getting them to learn how to live good Christian lives.

“Adam, Virginia is great with children. She’s so kind and patient. You’ve seen that in her. She could help James a lot. I don’t have that kind of experience, but I’ve worked with a lot of young hands on the ranch. I have to say I think I’ve done a good job with some of them. I think I could do the same with Marvin and I would have even more time with him because he would be in the same house with me. Adam, I’m going to talk to Virginia about this as soon as we’re done with this other business. I can’t make any promises but right now, I’m thinking it should happen. That man should not have those two boys. They belong in a decent family, and no matter what anyone says about me. I’m a decent man and we have great friends and family to help us.”

“Todd, you are more than a decent man. I can say right now that I have never been more proud to call you my friend. Now, let’s get going. We’ve got a lot to do today.”

When they got to Roy’s office and explained what Hoss had found, Roy did agree that he would ride out to ask a few questions hoping that Mabel might say something or that Marvin would. On the ride to the ranch, Todd told Roy what Adam had suggested. Keeping a straight face all through the telling, Roy never let on that Adam had told him that idea before he had told Todd. When Todd wasn’t looking, Adam and Roy shared a knowing smile. At the ranch, they were very disappointed though to find no one at home. They took a short ride around and eventually found Marvin tending to a small herd with a normal looking number of calves with the cows that were there. The large bruise on Marvin’s face got their attention. Roy asked.

“Now what happened to your face there, boy? That looks mighty painful.”

“Nothing much. I bumped into a stall post in the barn this morning. That’s all. I’m kinda clumsy, I guess. That kind of thing happens to me all the time.”

“I’m real sorry to hear that, son. Now, do you know your neighbors here, Todd McCarren and Adam Cartwright?”

“I seen ’em around.”

Dismounting, Todd walked over to where Marvin was standing. Marvin stepped back as if he worried what would happen, but Todd reached out his hand to greet the young man. Almost hesitantly, Marvin took his hand.

“It looks like you know what you’re doing out here. Those cattle are calm and look well cared for. You do good work. I could sure use a man like you on my spread.”

“You could?”

“I sure could. Of course, you’re stuck here, but if you ever have a chance to leave or want to leave for any reason, you are welcome at my place. Know that you have a home there if you ever need one. You know where my place is, don’t you?”

“Yessir, I do. I seen your place when I was out riding a few times.” Embarrassed a bit then because he had admitted something he shouldn’t have known, Marvin stopped talking.

Todd ignored the faux pas and kept going. “Yes, you can come by day or night. We’re friendly folks and we would never turn anyone away who needed a place to stay no matter when they got there. You remember that. You are always welcome at our place no matter what, all right?”

“All right, sir. Thank you. That’s good of you to say.”

“I’m not just saying it, Marvin. I mean it. Now, good-day to you. We’ll be heading back.”

As Todd rode away with Adam and Roy, Marvin wondered at the conversation. It seemed as if they knew how miserable his life was. It has sounded like an invitation to run away. Adam Cartwright had been there. He was the one who had rescued Harold from this mess. Had he brought in someone to rescue him? Marvin began to hope that was true and think about the possibilities. He dreamed of working for a man like Todd McCarren who shook your hand instead of slapping your face, who talked to you like a real person, and smiled at you. He had nothing left here. He began to think of how he could leave with Jared knowing where he was. The more he thought about it, the more he realized it wasn’t going to be difficult at all. For the first time since his mother had been alive, he smiled. He had a plan. He needed to see Hoss Cartwright or some of those other men riding near again so he could put his plan into action. Once his father was out of the way, he had a place to go. He would get to see his brother again, and he wouldn’t have to worry if he would live to see the next day. It was frightening thinking about defying his father, but he had to do it, and that handshake from Todd McCarren had started the process. For a very long time, he had wanted to fight his father and the things he made him do, but his father was a formidable man. Now though, Marvin felt that he wasn’t alone. He had others who wanted that same fight.

Nothing much happened the next day as storms rolled through all day. Wind, rain, and lightning kept everyone indoors most of the time except for those who had to be outside working or who had to travel home after work. Drenched from his ride, Jared was in a foul mood when he arrived home. Marvin wasn’t back yet so Jared left his wet horse in the stable for his son to groom when he got back with his own wet horse. He headed to the house and then remembered that he had sent Mabel to work with the two men hiding the calves and helping to keep them fed. There would be no warm supper, no one to warm his bed, and no one on whom he could vent his frustrations until Marvin arrived home except he knew the boy had a way of sensing these moods of his and was unlikely to show up in the house that night. He stomped around for a while, grabbed a bottle of whisky for a companion, and spent the evening with it. As expected, Marvin groomed and fed both horses, secured the stable, and then climbed into the hayloft where he had made a secure hiding place for himself. He had spent many nights there feeling badly for his little brother who couldn’t escape the house and their father’s temper. He felt good that Harold was finally free of it, and he leaned back and tried to remember those prayers his mother had taught him so he could pray that he would be delivered from this hell on earth too.

On the Ponderosa, plans were being discussed with all family members and Candy. The children had been put to bed. Charity didn’t like one part of the plans and said so. Adam tried to reassure her that all precautions were being taken, but she was still unhappy that he was going to be in a vulnerable position. Diane wasn’t there or she would likely have been as unhappy because Joe was going with Adam. Hoss and Candy were taking some men and going on another mission with the hope that by the end of the next day, they might have resolved the worst of the problems with Jared Butler.

“Now, you’re sure that he’s gonna try for the payroll?”

“Hoss, some men at work got mad at him and they had words. They spouted off at him that he was probably going to get fired, but he told them that it wouldn’t matter because by the end of the week, I would be sorry I messed with him. He said he would have taken from me the two things I valued most, and he would be gone.”

“Wouldn’t those things be Charity and your children?”

“It would be if you think like me or like you or any of the people in this room. That’s what the men in the plant thought too so they told the manager. They thought that he was going to go after my family especially Alex and Carrie or possibly Charity. To be safe, we’re staying here tonight, and they’re staying here tomorrow. Pa will be watching over them until this plays out. The men I hired will be here too. But no, try to think like Jared. He doesn’t value his children and apparently didn’t value his wife. He likes money and himself.”

Nodding, Hoss looked around at the rest. “You all think so too, dontcha? He knows Adam brings the payroll to the mill every two weeks on a Friday. Tomorrow is payday. But why change his plans now? Why would he do something like that now?”

For that question, Ben answered. “Adam and Todd went out to his place with the sheriff. He may have seen men looking around near his place or Marvin or Mabel may have seen them and told him. He must know by now that we suspect him of the rustling. He already lost James and could face some legal consequences there if we can ever prove anything against him. Even if James is very young, Jared has to worry about what he might have said by now. He doesn’t have time to sell those calves or that ranch to get his money.”

“So he’s like that cornered mountain lion. He’s gonna come up ornery and mad as can be. We gotta be ready for him to do anything, don’t we? Aren’t we worried about that other boy over there?”

“We are, but I told you what Todd told him. Todd has talked to Virginia now, and they agree. If it works out, they’ll take both boys, but no matter what, Todd will take Marvin in. He’s been watching for him hoping he’ll come on over.”

“You know, when we ride on over there tomorrow, maybe we oughta take Todd with us. He can ask Marvin ifn he wants to join up with us. What dya think about that?”

Adam and Joe grinned as Ben put a hand on Hoss’ shoulder. “Asking Todd to go with you and if he would ask Marvin to join up with you is a marvelous idea. It will give the boy the chance to get out of there if he wants it. He’s had time to think about Todd’s offer. He’s a boy, but he needs to make this decision. It’s going to make a big difference in the rest of his life, and I can’t think of a better pair of men to help him make that choice than you and Candy. Remember though that you are asking him to turn on his father. That’s going to be a hard step for him to take. If necessary, let him leave with Todd. Don’t push him to betray his father if he’s reluctant.”

Waiting to hear if anyone had any additional objections or questions, Ben asked if everyone was ready to get some sleep. “So tomorrow we’re up early. Now Adam and Joe, I want you to be sure to give Roy time to head out and get his men in position before you leave town. We’ll have our men in position by then too. No matter where Jared goes, he’s going to be watched, but you two need to keep a close watch. In something like this, we have to be ready for the unexpected.”

With that, they all headed to their beds to get some sleep although everyone knew that there would be some tension to banish before they could rest easy. Adam had hoped to make love with his wife, but instead had to soothe away the tears. Charity fell asleep in his arms after crying in his arms as he reassured her that he would be very careful. He wondered at her emotional reaction but she was only a few months from having delivered Carrie so he thought it was still probably that. He closed his eyes and hoped that the baby wouldn’t wake too soon.

*****

Chapter 9

By dawn the next morning, Jared Butler was up in the trees near Adam’s house. His plan was to trail him to town, wait for him to get the payroll from the bank, and follow him from town taking him by surprise on the road. He guessed he could kill him, take the money, and be on the road to somewhere before anyone had any idea what he was doing. He smiled as he thought about his plan. He thought that they were going to be moving against his rustling operation without any idea that he had changed his whole strategy for getting some money and getting revenge at the same time. However by seven, he was getting concerned about what was happening. There was no smoke coming from the chimneys in the house not even the kitchen. There was no light there and only two armed men who made periodic forays about the place but did their best to keep out of sight too. He waited another half-hour, and when nothing more happened, he made a short ride through the cover of the trees toward town. He saw what he feared, as between town and the mill, men were moving up along the ridgeline secreting themselves in cover. He swore softly to himself wondering how they could possibly suspect that anyone had made plans to get that payroll today. On a hunch, he turned back and made a wide circuit so that he couldn’t be detected. By late morning he was nearing his ranch only to see a large group of riders heading toward the box canyons with none other than Marvin leading them. He swore again. He had been outwitted at every turn. He had nothing except his life and his freedom at this point. Not even daring to head back to his house to get extra clothing, ammunition, whisky, or other supplies, he was stuck with what he had taken with him that morning. Luckily he had planned to travel, but he had also planned to have money with him. He knew then that the first traveler he encountered was going to be a very unlucky man. He wheeled his horse and turned toward Carson City. For the time being, he was going to cut his losses and run, but he swore to himself that he would be back. No one did this to him and got away with it.

Riding to town with Joe, Adam wondered if he had planned for every contingency worrying that he had not. With a viper like Jared, there was always the risk that he was going to do something unexpected which was the greatest worry. He was also concerned about James, who despite being sheltered from what they were doing, had heard enough to know that they were taking action against his father or at least precautions. That morning as Adam had prepared to leave the house, James had asked if he could make a request. Adam had asked what it was.

“Could you try not to hurt my Pa too much. I know he can be bad, but he’s my Pa. I only got but the one, and I don’t want him to die. Mama already died, and I don’t even know where Marvin is.”

Putting an arm around the boy, Adam had reassured him that he would not harm Jared unless he had to do something to protect himself. “If he will be reasonable, no one has to get hurt.”

“I don’t think my Pa knows how to be like that. He gets real mad. When he gets real mad, you gotta be careful. Don’t let him hurt you. Please don’t let him hurt you.”

“James, I won’t. That’s why Joe is coming with me. And I saw Marvin two days ago. He was all right. Mister McCarren told Marvin that he could come live there if he wanted to.”

“But if Marvin goes to live there, then will he still be my brother?” James had a very worried look. He had lost so much already. He was scared that he could lose even more.

“He’ll always be your brother, no matter what. You want to be with Marvin, don’t you?” “Yes, I want Marvin. I miss him. He tried to help me sometimes. But I want you too. You won’t send me away, will you? You won’t send me back to Pa, will you?”

Adam pulled James closer to him to let him know he would always be protected so that it wasn’t only his words but his actions that sent a message. “No, never. You will always have a good and safe family. I will see to it, and I’ll always be around, but maybe if you want to be with Marvin, there’s another way. We’ll talk when I get back today. I know you’re so young, but there’s a decision you’re going to have to make. You can talk to Charity too if you’re worried. She can talk with you too about Marvin. She knows what I know about him.”

Looking back at Charity who was holding Carrie, James didn’t look so sure about that. “But she’s a woman.”

Smiling, Adam talked loud enough for the others to hear. “She certainly is a woman, but she is very smart. She knows all about a lot of things. She can talk to you about Marvin and about him possibly living with Todd’s family. My Pa can talk to you about it too. It will give all of you something to talk about while we’re gone. I hope to have good news when I get back.”

Hoss leaned over then to add his thoughts. “I hope to have good news for you too. Things are gonna start looking better and better for you around here. You just remember that. We’re all gonna see to that. You trust us, right?”

James nodded. He did trust this family. So far everything they had said had been true. He had staked everything he had on them being truthful, and it had worked so far. He crossed his fingers and hoped it would continue. As Adam walked out the door, both Ben and Charity saw those crossed fingers he held tightly behind his back as Adam smiled at James and at Alex before he bid them all a cheery goodbye and left. Over the next couple of hours, both James and Alex got a long lesson on uncles, cousins, and adoption and what it all meant. They had lots of questions, and Ben and Charity were very patient in explaining all of it to them even though some things had to be explained in several ways and more than several times. By lunchtime, they seemed to have understood most of it. They would probably need repetition of some of the ideas but the thought that James could be reunited with Marvin, live in a family with him, but still have Adam close by as an uncle was slowly seeming to be acceptable to James. Alex seemed to like that idea and began to try to convince James it was the best for both of them because they would each have a father all to themselves then instead of having to share one. Ben and Charity smiled a bit at Alex’s personal agenda in his persuasive argument, but it did seem to help sway James so they said nothing about it.

About that same time, two major developments relating to James’ future were taking place. One was that Adam and Joe made it to the mill with the payroll without anyone making any kind of attempt to rob them. None of the men concealed along the way ever saw anyone that whole morning. The money was put into the pay envelopes and readied for the afternoon payout. They waited and when nothing happened, the men were paid, and the mill was shut down for the weekend. Roy rode up to the mill as they were preparing to leave.

“I sent all the men I had hired back to town. Ain’t nothing happening here today. Now what you told me made sense. I can’t see where we got it wrong.”

“I don’t either, Roy. Somehow, we miscalculated. I hope Hoss and Candy are having better luck catching the rustlers.”

That was the other development. As Joe and Adam mounted up to ride for home and Roy was about to leave, they saw a wagon approaching. The outriders clearly included Hoss so they waited to find out what had happened. Candy and Hoss were riding with the wagon that was driven by one of the Ponderosa hands with Mabel sitting beside him. There was no one else with them. Adam was the first to address the new arrivals.

“Don’t tell me they all got away?”

“Well, we met up with Marvin, and he took to Todd right off just like we thought he might. He told us everything that Jared had said for him to do. Then he led us to the box canyons where the rustled stock was being held. Soon as we got near there with the men, two men hightailed it outta there like their tails was on fire. They had a good enough head start on us that there wasn’t much point in chasing ’em. We didn’t have enough men either to chase them and to get the stock back.”

“So we got all our stock back?”

“Yup, Joe, every one of ’em. Course some got the wrong brand on ’em. We’ll have to sort ’em all out later. Some are Todd’s too. Some probably belong to other ranchers. We’ll figure that all out in time. He had calves and some yearlings mostly.”

“And your guest here?” Adam tipped his hat to Mabel who smiled almost involuntarily.

“Well, older brother, seems she ain’t so happy with ole Jared anymore either. Oh, and his name ain’t Jared, Roy. He’s Cyrus Reed. Mabel here tells us that he’s wanted in Stockton California for the murder of his wife and in a few other towns for robbery. She thinks maybe there might be a few other murder charges too but ain’t sure. Ifn you send out wires with that name, you oughta get posters with his name and picture. She didn’t know about all that stuff when she agreed to go with him. She was only trying to get out of a job she never wanted. Then when she wanted to leave him, he told her what he done with his wife and threatened her with the same.”

“James said she hurt him.”

“Yup, she admits she done wrong, but says it was never more than a slap or two. She ain’t the one who broke his arm or ribs. She says his pa did that. All she wants is to get out of here. I figure we can take care of that for her, can’t we?”

With a look that conveyed good riddance, both Adam and Joe nodded. Roy said he would need her statements and cooperation, and then he would get her a stage ticket out of town. He guessed one to Carson City would get her far enough away so she could look for a job and a place to live. She agreed that would be acceptable. Adam asked about Marvin then.

“He done went home with Todd. He said he’d stay there as a hand unless Todd brings James there. Then he’ll move into the house and be part of the family for James’ sake. I guess he done a lot of thinking on this. Todd was agreeable to it. I think Todd’s pretty sure James will be joining his family. I sure hope Pa and Charity worked their magic on him today so he understands. He’s mighty young to have to face all this.”

“He’s already faced worse, Hoss. He’ll get through this.”

“What happened here? You get that varmint?”

“Nothing happened?”

“Nothing? Ya mean he got away?”

“Roy will look for him now, but we need to head for the ranch to be sure there’s no trouble there.”

Both Joe and Hoss agreed with Adam on that count. Roy took charge of Mabel as the three brothers headed back home. There had been no trouble on the ranch and no sign of Jared either. After James greeted Adam with a rather mixed style of greeting, Ben explained to him what they had been discussing for much of the day. Adam pulled Alex aside for a moment.

“Son, I need to talk with James one more time about his father so I need you to be understanding about me not spending time with you right now. After I talk with him, then I want to talk with you and you can tell me anything you need to tell me or say anything you want to say. All right?”

“It’s just this one time?”

“I can’t make a promise on that, but I think so. I think we’re getting close to getting this

settled permanently.”

“Good. It’s all right then. I’ll wait.”

“You talk with your Uncle Hoss and Uncle Joe about what happened today. I bet they have a few stories to tell especially your Uncle Hoss. I think you’re going to want to hear those stories.”

That seemed to pacify Alex for the moment. Charity gave Adam a thumbs up signal to let him know she thought he was handling things well. He took a deep breath and hoped it would continue as he asked James to step outside with him because they had to talk. On the porch, he sat on the bench and had James sit beside him. Wrapping an arm around him, he began to talk hoping to make James understand.

“For a long time, I wanted children very much. Then I met Charity and married her. When Alex was born, I was very happy. Charity and Alex made my life so much better than it was before. Then I was blessed with Carrie too. God was very good to me. I have a son who loves me, and I love him very much.” Adam felt James squirm a little in his grasp and could imagine what the boy was thinking. “Now not every man is so blessed. Todd McCarren wanted sons very much too, but God didn’t send sons to him the way he sent a son to me. However, now Todd thinks that God sent him sons perhaps another way. He wants so much to have a son that he can have by his side every day, to teach him, to love him, and to show him how to be a good Christian man.”

“But doesn’t he already have my brother, Marvin?”

“Yes, Marvin has agreed to go live there with Todd. But, you see, it isn’t the same. Marvin is almost a man. He’ll be out working with the men. He won’t need Todd the way that Alex needs me. You see Alex still needs me a lot. I only have so much time to give and I owe that to Alex. Todd has a lot of time and no one to give it to. He wants to give it to you. If you go live with Todd as his son, he will give you all his love and time. He wants you so much. You know Virginia and their daughter. You know how happy all of them are, but they would be so much happier with boys in the family too. It would make the family complete.”

“Like my family was missing girls.”

“Well, yes, you could say that. And I would be your Uncle Adam because Virginia is Charity’s sister. We would get together often. Alex would likely be your best friend as well as your cousin, and Alex’s cousin Hunter would be your friend too.”

“Would Hoss and Joe be my uncles too?”

“No, but Hoss would be your cousin because he’s married to your cousin Prudence.” James looked confused making Adam certain that he was muddying the waters too much. “You know, the simplest way to put it is that we think of Todd and Virginia as family and we see them a lot. They’re neighbors too so we work together on a lot of things. You know how often we see each other. It would be more often if you boys were over there because Alex and Hunter would want to see you, and so would I.”

“You would?”

“Of course I would. You’re very important to me. I would never let you go completely. One way or another, you’re part of my life now and forever.”

“Forever?”

“Yes, no matter where you go to live, I want to make sure it’s a good place to live in a good family, and I want to make sure that Marvin has a good life too.”

“But it won’t be at your house?”

“No, I don’t think that’s the best place for you. You had a long talk with my pa and with Charity about it. I’m sure they explained all that to you. So now, I know you’re very young, and you shouldn’t have to make such an important decision at your age, but you do need to do it. Will you go live with the McCarrens and Marvin?”

Looking up at Adam as if to be sure it was what Adam thought was best, James waited only a few seconds before nodding. He couldn’t talk though. It was too much for him at that moment. Knowing that, Adam pulled him into a hug.

“You’ll stay here with us tonight. Tomorrow, we’ll all go over to the McCarrens and we’ll see about getting you settled in there. I think that you’re going to be happy there. James, if there is ever anything that you need to tell me, you know you can always come over to my place to talk to me, right?” Adam felt his answer more than he understood the mumbled yes. “And you can talk to my pa or to Charity too. You need to trust your whole family now. You have a lot of people on your side now, and we’ll all fight for you. You’re not alone any more.”

James leaned back from Adam and smiled up at him. He knew that and it felt very good.

*****

Chapter 10

When Adam came back in with James, the whole family seemed on edge waiting to see their demeanor to guess how things had gone. It was clear that James had been crying so no one said anything about it, but it was that unwelcome guest in the room until after dinner. James was the first one to address the issue. He looked at Ben and had a question.

“Adam is going to be my uncle.”

“Yes, he is. He’s looking forward to it very much.”

“You’re Adam’s father.”

“Yes, I am.”

“Does that mean you’re my grandpa?”

Looking at James’ so very somber expression, Ben was at first inclined to explain to him all about relations and how he wasn’t going to be actually related to him, but he couldn’t. James was five-years-old, and in the past week, his whole life had been changed. There was no doubt that all of the changes had been for the better, but he faced even more changes in the future. He needed something to hang onto. Adam had agreed to stay in his life. Ben decided what he needed to do. “I guess I am. I’m the only one around here old enough to be a grandfather, and I’ve waited a long time to be one. I guess I could be a grandfather to you too. Do you like that idea?”

While Ben had thought and James had waited with some worry, Adam hadn’t realized he had been holding his breath until his father answered and suddenly he released his breath and sucked in a lungful of air. He coughed and Hoss thumped him on the back earning a scowl that only got chuckles not only from Hoss but from Charity and eventually from Joe and Prudence too who guessed what had happened. Although Adam attempted to make his family think that he was in absolute control of his emotional state at all times, they knew better. Alex asked his father why the others were laughing.

“Sometimes apparently they think it’s funny when a man has to cough.”

That didn’t make any sense to Alex, but it wasn’t the only time that what adults did was perplexing. He let it drop because there were more interesting things happening. He wanted to know more about what was going to happen with James so he listened as his soon to be cousin talked with his grandfather. There was talk about how it would be up to a judge but how that shouldn’t be a worry considering all the things that had happened. Todd was a good man who had never had trouble with the law, treated his wife and daughter with respect, and had a ranch to support a family. Then James asked a question that they had not thoroughly examined yet.

“Who gets Pa’s ranch?”

That was a touchy subject and Charity decided it was her turn to handle one of the delicate situations. “James, you know that your father hasn’t always followed the rules, don’t you?” James nodded. “Do you know that he probably stole money from other people?”

“He did?”

“Yes, he probably did. If that’s the case, the money he used to buy the ranch and the cattle wasn’t his.”

“What will happen then? Will those people come to live on the ranch?”

“No, they won’t but they will want their money back. The ranch and the cattle will be sold probably. Most likely there will be an auction. The money will go to the people who were robbed.”

“Oh. Can I get my stuff or will that be sold too?”

“We can get your stuff and anything that was your mother’s.”

“Can Marvin get his stuff?”

“I think Hoss said that Todd took him by there on the way home. He probably has his stuff already.”

“Good. Marvin tried to help me sometimes, but Pa used to say he better watch it. He said Marvin might not make it to fourteen if he wasn’t careful.”

“That’s terrible.”

“I thought so too.” James hesitated then but had to ask. “Ma’am, what did he mean when he said that. I mean, Marvin is going to have a birthday real soon. How could he not make it to his birthday? Was Pa gonna make him work on his birthday if he didn’t listen to him?”

“Yes, James, maybe that was what he meant.”

Feeling a bit bad about possibly misleading James, Charity felt better about it when she felt Adam’s hand on her back rubbing up and down softly. She turned to him to see him nod and smile gently at her. She had said the right thing in his estimation. Ben and the others told her the same later after the children were in bed.

“My dear, that boy has had enough ugliness in his life. You did the right thing in protecting him from that one.” Turning to Adam, Ben asked about the plans for the next day.

“I thought I would take him over to the McCarrens early. Todd and Marvin especially will be anxious to see him, and I would like as many of you to come with me as possible. The more of a big occasion we can make it, the better. The more he sees that we’re all in this together, the easier I think it will be on him.”

“What about Jared?”

“That’s the scary part. We don’t know where he is or what he is likely to do next. Pa, I want Charity and the children to stay here until this is settled. If he can’t get at me, I wouldn’t put it past him to come after my family. In fact, all of you could be at risk. He hates me the most, but we have all wrecked his plans. Every one of us is at risk although some more than others.”

“What about Todd?”

“He’s got men watching, but remember, Jared doesn’t know yet that his boys are going to the McCarren ranch. He probably thinks they’re both here. What I want to do is go after him before he comes after me.”

Charity gasped when he said it. Shocked, she said the only thing that she could. “No.”

“Would you have me wait for him to come up with a plan? If I go after him now, he won’t be ready for it. I’ll take any help I can get, but I have to stop him before he hurts anyone else.”

Getting up silently, Charity went upstairs to the room that she and Adam were sharing while they stayed at his father’s house. It was another fifteen minutes before he joined her there. She was very quiet and said nothing more about it until they were in bed. Carrie was asleep in the same room so they had to be quiet.

“I suppose you told your family your plans.”

“Yes and no. I had some ideas. We talked and worked out some things. Hoss and Joe are coming with me.”

“I guess I should have known you would do something like this, but Adam, every time you do something like this, I’m terrified that you will be killed. It’s especially bad right now. For some reason, I just can’t get this idea out of my head.”

“You had a very difficult time with Carrie. Those last few months were very hard on you and the delivery was even harder. You were afraid that you wouldn’t be here to take care of your family. Is it possible that the fear has grown and you’re worried about me too. We live out here where so many things are dangerous, but it’s a good life. We can’t ruin it by using our energy concentrating on the worst possible outcomes. How about thinking about how this could all turn out well? Think about what a relief it will be not to have to worry about Jared ever again.”

“That is a good thought. Keep that one in mind. Use it to banish all those dark thoughts. I’ll be as careful as I can be, and I’ll have others to help me. We’ll go to Roy first to find out what we can. By now, he has sent the word out on Jared or Cyrus. It won’t be long. You can count on that.”

Sadly, a farm couple wouldn’t be counting on anything any more. Cyrus had not found any lone traveler or even a pair of travelers to waylay to get money so when he had seen a prosperous looking farm, he had headed that way hoping to get at least a few dollars. He had but had killed both the husband and the wife in the process. Pocketing the twenty-one dollars and forty cents he found, he headed to Carson City. It wasn’t much money, but he had found a gold watch and a few other things he guessed that he could sell for some additional cash. It would get him a room in a cheap hotel, some whisky, and perhaps a card game to turn that money into a larger amount. He hoped to get more money to prepare to head back for revenge before word arrived and circulated that he was a wanted man. The new clothing he was wearing that he had taken from the farmer, as well as the new haircut would give him a chance at passing unnoticed for a day or two which was all he thought he needed. He found the card game and the whisky bottle almost immediately and at the same establishment. He won some and he lost some ending up about even by the end of the night. He headed out to get a room hoping to do better the next day.

Waking late the next afternoon, Cyrus headed back to the same saloon. He got into another card game. Men came and went. His luck was about the same as the night before as he won some and lost some until about ten that night. Two men joined the game and seemed to have the worst luck of any men with whom he had ever played cards. They had to fold on several big pots. He kept going until he had a lot of money, a girl on his lap, and a full bottle of whisky in front of him. The lady asked if he wanted to go to her room up the stairs. He couldn’t see why not so told her to lead the way. In her room, she poured him a generous drink, helped him undress and slip into her bed, and then began to disrobe. He couldn’t wait for the rest, but then he must have fallen asleep. That was the last thing he remembered. He awoke slowly, groggy, and with a head that felt like hammers were being pounded inside it. He wasn’t in the soft sheets of her bed any more either. There was a rough blanket, and when his eyes focused, a solid brick wall was all that he saw. He heard voices too. He pushed himself up and turned to see what the heck was going on. Staring at him through the cell bars was Mabel.

“Yes, Sheriff, that’s him. That’s Cyrus Reed. You got him. That’s the man I saw going into the saloon the other night when I was going to my hotel.”

A previous Cyrus Reed victim, Mabel, had arrived in Carson City, set out to look for work, but finding none, had returned to the hotel only to see Cyrus ride into town and head to a seedy saloon. She had reversed course, headed to the sheriff’s office, and told them who was in their town and what he had done. Word had been sent immediately to Virginia City and was waiting there for the Cartwrights when they arrived in Roy’s office. Not willing to see any innocent people hurt, Adam had suggested a way of getting Cyrus by playing to those things he liked: money and alcohol. Plied with plenty of both, it wasn’t difficult to drug him and then haul him off to the jail. Two deputies went in to play cards and lose money, and a cooperative saloon girl was paid by the Cartwrights to do the rest. After Mabel identified Cyrus for the sheriff, Adam thanked her for her help and reminded the sheriff that there were sizeable rewards for him. The sheriff assured him that Mabel would be getting all of them if she stayed in town to testify and collect the money as it arrived. The final thing he asked was if there was anything more that was needed.

“No, I think we have everything we need right here. We got word this morning that a couple was killed by him. Their boy finally made it to town. He saw it happen. Couldn’t do a thing about it, but he walked all the way here following this man to tell us what happened. If a jury doesn’t find him guilty of murder and sentence him to death, do you want us to send him to California to be tried for murder or Virginia City for rustling and such?”

“If need be, California ought to have a chance at him, but I trust the people here to do the right thing. We’ll be going now.”

“So do I, but I want to be sure we got all our eggs in a row on this one. There’s no way that murdering piece of trash ought to ever be a danger to anyone ever again. He ain’t leaving that cell except to go to the courthouse and then to the gallows. He’s got a bucket in there for what he needs to do. Man like him can live with the smell. After what he done to folks, I don’t rightly care what he says about it.”

Satisfied with the response and knowing the good reputation of the sheriff’s office in Carson City, Adam turned to Hoss and Joe who were grinning as they stared at Cyrus in the cell. Hoss stood even taller as he looked down at Cyrus who was trying to clear his groggy head and understand what had happened to him.

“Adam, this has got to be the best one we ever pulled off. I can’t wait to tell everybody how we done it. They just ain’t gonna believe it.”

“This is going to help a lot at home. Charity needs to know that I don’t take any chances that I don’t need to take.”

The sheriff added his approval too to a scheme that meant that no one had to risk being shot and killed nor had the city had to spend any of its money to carry out the plan. He thanked them again before they left. The three walked out of the jail then and untied their horses from the hitching posts in front of the building with hardly a pause in the conversation.

“I know. I seen the look ya got when we left yesterday. She was already kinda all teary eyed after James was over at the McCarrens. That went pretty good too.”

Joe had to add a comment then. “Todd handled that better than I thought he would. He told James that you would be around because you were a great friend and he often needed your help and advice too and he hoped you would be by more often. James really lit up when he said that. He gets to have all of you. I saw Charity wiping away a tear with all of that going on.”

“But she didn’t like Adam, or even us, going after Jared or Cyrus or whatever name he really is. Don’t matter much. I figure he’s got about a week or so left.” Hoss frowned then. “Say, what you gonna tell the boys about all this?”

“I don’t know. I guess I’ll have to talk to Todd and Virginia and let them decide. It’s their call now.”

“Yeah, I s’pose it is. Well, we’ll see ’em at Joe’s wedding and that’s on Saturday. We’ll see how things are going then. He’s gonna have to do some talking to Diane too about all this.”

“Yeah, older brother, you definitely complicated things. Diane had some doubts about living here and was coming around to thinking it wasn’t so bad at all until this mess.”

“Hey, I had nothing to do with bringing Jared here, and it was you two who said I should get more involved and have James over to play with Alex.”

The chuckles from Hoss and Joe stopped Adam. They had played him well getting him all steamed up and spouting by saying just the right things.

“See, Hoss, I can still do it just like when I was a kid. I can still get under his skin with a sentence or two. He’s a lot touchier than he wants people to think.”

“You two are quite a pair.” Shaking his head in mock disgust, Adam mounted up on Sport as they got on their horses. He paused before turning his horse in the direction of home. “And I couldn’t pick a better pair of brothers anywhere in the world. If you tell anybody I said that, I’ll deny it though.” With that, he did wheel Sport around and headed toward home. Grinning in pleasure, Hoss and Joe hurried to follow and matched him with one riding on either side of him as they left town.

*****

Chapter 11

There had been great relief on the Ponderosa when the telegram arrived telling everyone that Jared/Cyrus had been apprehended and no one had been hurt. Everyone wanted to hear the story of that capture, but were all relieved that no one had been injured. They were even more pleased to find that the brothers had managed to find a way to use the man’s vices against him. By the time they had arrived in Carson City, the sheriff had been all set to take Cyrus by force. Adam had said that he thought there were going to be people hurt or even killed if they tried to take him in that crowded saloon. The sheriff had agreed and asked if they had any other ideas. Adam did as did Joe. They discussed several ideas and then worked them into a scheme. The sheriff supplied the two men to gamble and lose. It wasn’t their money so they weren’t worried and they got free drinks and a salary while they were doing it. The saloon girl was also paid well for her services in giving drugged drinks to Cyrus when he had had quite a lot to drink so he wouldn’t notice especially amid the euphoria of winning pot after pot playing poker. She was amazed that the man actually made it up the stairs to her room and got undressed, but that last drink had done the trick. She guessed he was going to have a nasty headache but she didn’t mind. She had called him a pig, but then Adam had paid her a hefty sum from the money in the man’s pockets before they dressed him and hauled him off to the jail. In the morning, Mabel was summoned to give her statement that the man they had known as Jared Butler was in fact Cyrus Reed. There was also the identification of him by the boy whose parents had been killed by him. Adam left the rest of the money for the sheriff to give to the boy who was going to have to manage the farm on his own at only sixteen years old. The sheriff had guessed that he would probably sell it and sign on to work for someone else. Adam told the young man to head for the Ponderosa if things didn’t work out for him, and that they would find work for him. The boy was numb with shock over what had happened and didn’t respond, but the sheriff had said he would remember the promise for the boy’s sake and if necessary send him their way.

When the three brothers made their way home, they were greeted by Ben who then told Adam not to dismount. “Charity went back to your house when we got word that everything was settled. I think you have a few bridges to mend there. She wanted the children in their own beds tonight.” All of the men there had a good idea why she wanted that. She wanted time to talk with Adam privately. He nodded and turned to head home. Ben waited until he was out of range of hearing, and then smiled and enthusiastically greeted his younger sons. “Pru and Diane are both inside. They’ve been working on wedding preparations. Everything looks all set for Saturday. Those two ladies are as happy as can be although Pru is a bit uncomfortable, Hoss. I’m wondering if she isn’t getting close.”

“Oh, Pa, we got almost a month and a half or so to go yet. Joe and Diane set the wedding date early enough so that we could be here for the wedding. They didn’t want it to be like our wedding with Charity giving birth practically in the middle of it.”

“I certainly hope you’re right then.” Except that Ben was thinking the opposite was possibly true even as he hoped that what he had said was in fact true. For the time being, he dismissed that thought and asked about what had happened in Carson City. He expected to get quite a story, and with Little Joe doing the telling, that is exactly what he got.

At Adam’s house, the telling was much more low-key. Later with the children in bed, Adam and Charity had a chance to talk. “I was afraid again all the while you were gone. It is so hard to sit and wait not knowing if you’re going to come back alive or not. Adam, I don’t want to have to go through that again.”

“What are you saying? You’re not saying that you don’t want to be married to me, are you?” The terrible old insecurities hadn’t been banished apparently but only buried to be resurrected so easily.

Quickly moving to Adam, Charity gently held his face between her hands. “No, no, what I meant was that something has to change. You have a son and a daughter as well as a wife who love you very much and need you very much. Yet you risk your life. Why did it have to be you to chase after him? You already said that the sheriff in Carson City was about to arrest him when you arrived.”

“People would have been hurt and perhaps some would have died if the sheriff had gone about it his way. By doing it our way, he was taken without a shot being fired. What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing at all, but is that what you had in mind when you left here?” Adam couldn’t meet her eyes. “Of course not. You planned to use your gun against his gun, and you assumed you would be better than he was. That’s been a good strategy for you in the past, but Adam, you can be right on that a thousand times. You only have to be wrong once for it to be the wrong thing to do.”

“I would have only done what had to be done. Because we could find another way, we did. That’s how it is. Charity, he was a danger to us. He was going to come after us because we rescued James from him and because we stopped him from stealing cattle. A man like that doesn’t like to be crossed. Now what is this really about? You have been so emotional lately.”

“I think it’s because I see James and he has so little family left, and I have so little family left, and I can’t bear to think of losing the one person who holds me to this family.”

“Sweetheart, you are part of this family, no matter what. I plan to be with you a very long time, but even if I’m not, you’re a Cartwright now, and you’ll forever be a part of this family. James is part of our family now too although a bit more distant, but he’s our nephew now as is Marvin.”

Trying to get back on a more level emotional keel, Charity abruptly switched subjects. Adam was a master of such tactics and smiled indulgently as she did so. “Speaking of Marvin, he acted as if being reunited with his brother wasn’t all that important to him.”

“Speaking from experience, being a fourteen-year-old boy or almost there, you don’t want to appear emotional in front of a bunch of adults. He tousled the boy’s hair and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. At his age, it was the equivalent of an emotional outburst. I’m sure when he and James have some privacy, he’ll be better able to express his feelings.”

“Or maybe not. Perhaps he’ll be like another older brother I happen to know who holds a lot of that in dispensing them like pearls when he finds the occasion suitable.”

“Or he could do that. By the smile James had, I think he knew. He was very reserved too. I wonder how things went after we left. I guess I expected more of a reaction, but it was all so very calm. Everyone was so polite. James thanked us and said hello to Todd and Virginia as if he was spending the week like he was on vacation.”

“It was one of those situations that no one has ever experienced before. It wasn’t one where we could tell each other how we were expected to act.”

“True. All we said to James was that he should be sure to be respectful to Todd and Virginia and follow the rules they set for their house. I should probably go over there tomorrow to see how things are going. I did tell James I would be around. I don’t want him to think I lied and abandoned him.” Wrapping an arm around Charity, Adam gently turned her face up to his. “Now are we better on this other thing?”

“Yes, I guess I had to get it out of my system. It’s so frustrating to be the one sitting behind and waiting and fearing the worst all the time. I guess I need to find a way to keep my mind on other things when you’re not here.”

“Maybe you’re ready to start doing some of the work for the mill again. The paperwork is stacking up, and I could use the help. Let’s start working together again. I’d like that. I’ve got an order for some plans to draw too. I could use some help with ideas for the kitchen for those too. Would you like to see what I’ve got done so far?”

Soon, Adam and Charity were busy in his office working as they had before her pregnancy had called a halt to it. It had been nearly six months, and later that night both of them realized after making sweet love with each other that they needed that time together. In the morning, after breakfast, Adam took Alex to the stable and they worked together for quite a while on some small projects until it was time for lunch. Then Adam announced that he really did need to ride over to the main house because he was probably missed with all the work that needed to be done on the ranch especially with Joe’s wedding coming up and the rustled stock that had to be returned to its rightful owners as well as the branding that wasn’t quite done yet. Charity and the children bid him a cheerful goodbye, and he headed to the main house where he was greeted by Hoss.

“Hey, older brother, sleeping in this mornin’ again. We shur coulda used your help this mornin’ getting all that stock moved from here that old Jared or Cyrus or whosis stole. We got most of ’em sorted out now, I think.”

“Had some sorting out to do at home too.”

“Yeah, Pa said something like that, and Pru said she was kinda brooding while you was gone. Things better now?”

“Yes, you know the steam kettle never explodes as long as it can vent.”

“Yeah, and you got a powerful feisty one there. I bet she can really explode too.” Adam rolled his eyes and Hoss laughed.

Ben came outside then. “Are you two planning to have lunch with us or spend the time talking out here? Hop Sing is getting rather upset with us and we’re not the ones delaying lunch.”

Chastised, Hoss and Adam hurried inside to find the table crowded already, but it often was these days. Pru was there with the girls and Hunter. Joe and Diane sat on one end. Candy had found a spot but room was made for Hoss and Adam so that Hop Sing could bring out platters of food. A few low-key questions were asked of Adam which he answered telling them that things were going very well at his house. Because he didn’t use the word ‘fine’, they knew that the brewing storm had blown over. It wasn’t clear enough to Hunter though so he had to ask a question based on a few things he had heard his parents discussing at home.

“Uncle Adam, so did Aunt Charity tan your behind for running off to chase after that no-good jasper Jared?”

There was a lot of choking, snorting, and strangled swallowing that followed that question that was too late to stop and sounded almost exactly like something Hoss would have said anyway. It sounded so funny coming from an almost five-year-old that Ben was biting his lip as he looked up from his plate to Adam wondering what he would say. Adam had his eyebrows raised and was looking at Hoss even as he turned to Hunter.

“She wanted to do that, Hunter, but she couldn’t catch me. By the time she got done chasing me, she was too tired to do it, so we kissed and made up instead.”

“Ewww, why’d you have ta say that. I gotta eat here.”

There was more laughter then, and the rest of the meal passed in typical fashion for a Cartwright lunch. At the end of the meal, Ben asked Adam if he had been over to the McCarren ranch to see how James was doing.

“If things aren’t too busy here, I was hoping to do that this afternoon. Tomorrow, I’ll be available to work on anything you need done. I think I have everything else squared away now.”

“We’re making good progress. If you come over here tomorrow for breakfast, we’ll talk over what needs to be done before the wedding. I think that Joe has a request though.”

“Yeah, Diane was going to stay at Hoss’ house until the wedding, but Pru isn’t feeling the best. We wondered if it would be all right if Diane stayed at your house instead. If Charity could help her get dressed on the day of the wedding and if you would drive her here, then we would be all set for the day. I’ve got the carriage all set. I could have it at your place the night before when I bring her home after dinner.”

Joe was so hopeful in his expression that Adam had to smile. “I’m sure it’s fine. Let me ride home to make sure that Charity has time to get a room ready and organize things. I’ll be back later after I go over to see James, and I can bring all of Diane’s things to our house and get her settled in.

“Oh, you can bring her things. I’ll bring Diane by later.”

That brought forth a few chuckles before the group dispersed to their afternoon tasks. As Adam rode to the McCarren ranch, he had some time to think about what he was going to say to James. He hoped that the boy wasn’t too distraught at what had happened. When he arrived there though, he was amazed. James was apparently in a great mood and both Todd and Virginia remarked on how well behaved he was. He and Marvin had been given the option of having their own bedrooms but had opted to share one instead. Todd was beaming like a proud father and Virginia looked affectionately at him knowing how he felt having sons. She felt better too having more children in the house. It seemed more alive to have all those voices and all those activities going on around her. James came to her frequently with questions, and she loved being able to sit with him and talk to him about those things. Adam and Todd spent a little time talking privately about Cyrus and what was likely to happen to him.

“Have you told the boys the whole story?”

“I told Marvin. I thought he had a right to know. We talked for quite a while last night. He doesn’t want to see him. I said I would take him over there if he wanted to see him to say goodbye or anything else he wanted to say. He said he would rather not. I left the invitation there though. He knows he probably will hang soon, but I think he thinks it’s justified. He had a suspicion that his mother’s so-called illness was caused by his father. I don’t think he can forgive him that. I said that someday, we’ll head on over there to find her grave and make sure it’s a proper grave. He thanked me for that.”

“So they did find her body?”

“Yes, I got more information from Roy. He did throw her body in the river but it tangled in brush and was found soon after. She was identified and the posters went out on him after the doctor said she had been beaten to death. You know, she must have been a decent woman. How she got mixed up with him, we’ll never know, but she taught these boys as much good as she could. They got a good start because of her.”

“Well, I’ll be seeing all of you at the wedding on Saturday then. Anything you need, you be sure to let me know. I want my nephews to know that I’ll be there for them if they need something.”

After that and saying goodbye to the boys, Adam returned home. He and Charity welcomed Diane into their home. It was to make things more convenient for the wedding while maintaining decorum and her reputation. She was a very proper southern lady when it came to such matters, but she was also much warmer and quite funny. That was something that Adam discovered in the few days she was at the house. Charity already knew that of course, but he had never seen her in those more private moments having usually only seen her in larger family groupings. He was very pleased especially to see how well she got on with Alex and how she loved to snuggle with Carrie. On Saturday morning, as they prepared to drive to the main house, Adam paused briefly to express himself.

“Diane, I’m going to miss you. You’ve been a big help here the last couple of days. You haven’t been a houseguest as much as a great help to us. Thank you. If there is ever anything that we can do to help, please know that all you have to do is let us know.”

“Thank you, Adam, but all we need to do now is to get met to the wedding on time.”

“I can do that.”

*****

Chapter 12

Soon, the hectic early morning preparations for the big event were underway with Adam and Hoss helping a nervous Joe and reassuring him that all was going according to plans while Charity helped Diane with her hair. Virginia arrived and the two sisters closeted themselves in the downstairs guestroom with the bride while Ben waited upstairs with nervous groom and Hoss. Adam came downstairs to watch over the children. Todd agreed to help with that. Luckily Carrie decided that it was a good time to take a long nap. Marvin was there looking very handsome in a new suit and James had a new white shirt, black string tie, and black trousers that were a bit too long for him, and shiny new black boots. Adam smiled a bit looking at him dressed in almost identical fashion to the clothing he had worn that day except that he had on a black suit coat as well.

“James, you look very handsome.”

“Todd made me wear it.”

“You didn’t want to wear it.”

“Well, yeah I did.”

“Then that’s what you should have said. Are you calling him Todd. I would think that if you can’t call him father or Pa that Mister McCarren would be more respectful especially when you’re talking to other people about the man who has taken you in and wants to be your father.”

“He tanned me!”

“He what?” Surprised, but then taking a moment to think, Adam had to calm himself and ask a few questions. “A real tanning or a spanking, and what did you do to deserve that?”

“Well, I guess it was a spanking, but it still stung some. All I said was that Virg.., ah, well, ah, well, that Missus McCarren didn’t have the right to tell me what to do all the time. I told her too and then I told him. He don’t and she don’t. They ain’t my parents.”

“I wasn’t your parent either. Did I have the right to tell you what to do?” James looked a bit chagrined at that. “If you had talked to me that way or especially if you had talked to Charity that way, do you have any idea what I would have done?”

“Would you have tanned me?”

“I would have wanted to, but I would have controlled my temper like Todd did and given you what you deserved like he did. Did you say you were sorry afterwards?”

“No, I told him he didn’t have the right to do that either!” Suddenly James realized what he had admitted and also realized he had been in the wrong again. He wondered but then knew what Adam would have done if he had said that to him. “Oh, you woulda done that to me again, wouldn’t you?”

“Quite possibly. Todd was being very forgiving of you. He was far more gentle with you than I would have been. He must love you very much already.”

“Yeah, he told me that after he spanked me for being having a sassy mouth, but then he bought me all these new clothes to wear. I mean, not just the ones I’m wearing, but a bunch of other ones too. I got me a new nightshirt and everything. He got stuff for Marvin too. We went on over to the old house, and we got all the stuff that was Mama’s. He said it belongs to us now. We got it all in our room, but he said we could put it anywhere in the house we want to cause it’s our home now.” Almost out of breath from all of that, James noted that Adam was starting to smile.

“Sounds as if you like it there.”

“I guess I do.”

“Did you tell Todd and Virginia that?”

“I guess I should.”

“Now would be a good time.”

“I guess I could.”

“I would be proud of you if you would.”

“You would? I’ll go do it then. Could I maybe sit with you and Alex during the wedding for a while?”

“If you ask your parents and they say yes.”

“All right. I’ll ask ’em. They might want me to sit with them though. You wouldn’t mind if I did, would ya?”

“Not at all. Fathers do like to sit with their sons on important occasions. You know where to find me when you need me.”

“I sure do, Uncle Adam. Thanks.”

A short time later, Marvin walked up to Adam and cleared his throat to get the older man’s attention. Having seen him coming, Adam was ready though. “Can I help you with something?”

“I think you already did quite a bit for me. Todd told me that it was all your idea, you know, me and James living with him. He told me how you talked to him about it.”

“He did think it was a great idea.”

“I know. He told me how excited he got, and how that was the day he got down off his horse and made that offer to me before he had even asked Virginia about it. I guess I should start calling him Pa. It’s just that the word kinda sticks in my throat cause for so long, well, you know, it brings up bad feelings.”

“Have you talked to Todd about that?”

“I don’t know what to say. I mean what can you say instead of pa. There ain’t exactly other words for it.”

“Well, there are. Father is a bit formal, but there is papa. That would work for James certainly. There’s pappy. I have had friends who referred to their father as their pappy. One called his father pap. Some call their father pop or poppy. You could call him sir when you’re around the other hands. They would respect that, and then you could use one of the other ones when it was just the two of you.”

“And you’re my Uncle Adam now, huh?” Adam smiled. “I like that. I ain’t ever had so much family before. James and I was talking. We been talking a lot. It’s good to be able to talk and not worry about anybody getting mad about what you’re saying. Anyway, we like having family, and we only ever had each other and our ma who cared about us. It feels good to know that there are other people who give a darn. So I wanted to say thank you, and for you to know that I may have made mistakes in the past and I may make some again, but I’ll always be trying to do the right thing cause of you deciding to step in and speak up for us. So that’s all I had to say.” Slightly embarrassed and not sure how to end such a conversation, Marvin bit his lip as he waited for Adam to say something.

“We know that James had his name changed at least once. What about you? Were you always Marvin?”

“You know I don’t rightly know what my name was to begin with. My last name before was Eugene and I didn’t like that one. Mama called me Marty sometimes cause I think my name before that was Marty, but I’ve had so many, I don’t rightly know which one is mine. I kinda like Marvin and it’s the one James knows the best so I decided to keep it.”

“Sounds like sound reasoning to me. All right, Marvin. The wedding is about to begin. Why don’t we get all of these people seated so the minister can get this started.”

Marvin helped Adam usher the last of the guests to chairs and benches before seating himself by Todd who suddenly sported a big grin. Marvin leaned down to whisper to James who nodded and a short time later, Todd had another reason to smile. After the ceremony, he told Virginia that Marvin had called him pappy and James called him papa. She smiled too but tears came as well. James asked why she was crying, and Todd told him she was so happy. James frowned, but Todd said women were like that and to look around at all the women who had tears in their eyes because Joe Cartwright had married Diane. He looked around and saw that they did. Then he looked for Adam and couldn’t find him. He couldn’t find Charity either. He found Alex and asked him where his father and mother had gone.

“I don’t know for sure but Papa took Aunt Pru by the arm and helped her walk out. I saw Doctor Martin go with them. They didn’t come back yet. I think Aunt Pru is sick.”

About that time, Adam returned and moved quickly to Hoss’ side as he was shaking hands with guests who were filing out of the room. He stood next to Ben who stood beside Charity, and Joe and Diane in a short receiving line.

“Where you been, Adam? Get a call of nature right in the middle of things?”

Adam spoke very softly but urgently to Hoss. “No, but your wife did. Hoss, you need to go to your house. Paul is over there, and he would like Charity and perhaps Virginia to come help too. He thinks the babies are on their way.”

What was supposed to be a quiet private conversation stopped every other conversation in the room though when Hoss responded in shock to what Adam had said and did it very loudly. “On their way? Babies? Are on their way? Wait a minute, you said babies?”

Any chance of keeping any of it a secret was lost at that point so Adam answered in a normal voice. “That’s what the doctor said. He said babies. She’s doing fine but he said the babies seem to be in a hurry unlike mine who seemed to like to take their time. If you want to be in the house to hear the first one, you need to hurry. I’ll let your children know what is happening.”

Hoss rushed from the house as Charity went to find an apron quickly to cover her good dress and then rushed to follow him. Ben helped Adam round up the children and then once they were all seated on the stairs, Adam proceeded to tell them what was happening. Their big concern was if they were going to miss the wedding party. Assured that they could stay at the party, they were fine. Ben shrugged when Adam looked to him for advice.

“Let them enjoy the party. It’s probably the best thing.”

By the time the sun had set, Adam was sitting on the bench outside the house watching Todd drive out of the yard with Virginia and his daughter and two new sons. Joe and Diane had left hours earlier to spend the night in town after they had stopped at Hoss’ house to see the twins. Hoss was prouder than could be and said his face was sore from smiling. He had two more sons for a total of five children and couldn’t be happier. The twins were small, but Doctor Martin said they were healthy. They needed to be kept warm and fed often. Other than that, he had no special instructions for them. Ben walked around the corner of the house returning from seeing the two newest grandchildren.

“I thought you might be gone already.”

“Charity is inside nursing Carrie, and Alex is asleep on the settee.”

“Why don’t you stay here tonight. It’s late, and everyone is tired. There’s plenty of room, and it would be nice for me to have someone at the table for breakfast.”

“That would be nice. I’ll see if Charity wants to do that. I’m guessing she will. She’s probably more tired than I am, and I’m exhausted. It’s been a great day though.”

“Yes, it has been a wonderful day.”

“So Joe and Diane are going to stay here in the house with you?”

“Yes, I’m moving into the downstairs bedroom. No more stairs for me, and it’s warmer down here in winter and cooler in the summer. They’re going to take my bedroom, and turn Joe’s room into a sewing room and a sitting room for the two of them to have some private space. The other rooms will be guest rooms until they have children.”

“They’re planning on children then?”

“Joe says he has to have at least six now that Hoss has five.”

“Will he ever get over competing with us?” Ben’s look was the only answer Adam got on that one. “Yes, I do know better. Things certainly have changed a lot in the last few months. A lot of good has happened. I know that James and Marvin will have more adjusting to do and so will Todd and Virginia now that they’ve been introduced to the world of raising boys. Maybe you could help Todd out with some advice although I’ve been impressed so far with how well he’s been doing.”

“Yes, he had a great teacher too in his father. He will do well if he remembers how he was raised. I was thinking that we might bid on that ranch over there that Jared or Cyrus had when it comes up for auction. It isn’t much, but it does have a nice house and stable. It would make a nice place for a small operation for us. We could have some of our stock over there and a few hands to care for them. Then someday perhaps sell the place to a young man ready to take on a challenge of having his own place.”

“Someone like Marvin perhaps?”

“Possibly, but there are other young men we’ve helped get started. That’s not a place that will ever be a big ranch, but if someone wanted a modest spread to raise a family, it would do.”

“If the price is right, we should do it then.”

“Yes, you never know when someone will show up here and need our help. Now let’s go inside and see if Charity wants to stay and needs any help getting those youngsters up to bed.”

“You’re pretty sure she’ll want to stay.”

“Of course. I asked her earlier and she said yes if you were agreeable to the idea.” Ben chuckled then and wrapped an arm around his son’s shoulders as they walked into the house.

***The End***

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2 thoughts on “Charity and Adam Stories (by BettyHT)

  1. It is amazing that Lem Keith’s daughters turned out so well. And his sister may have been more evil than the brother. I really like that Todd was Adam’s brother-in-law and that those 2 kids were saved by Adam and Todd. So sad that it took a few hundred years to begin protecting children. Great story!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. Children of poor parents seem to go like the parents or the opposite way. These two went the opposite way. Families protecting children was the most likely situation back then. It took a long time before government stepped in and began to do it.

      Like

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