Traci stories (by BettyHT)

Summary:  Ten stories — In A Triangle, Hoss renews the family friendship with a family from Arizona but that brings up some painful memories and trouble as well as some possibilities especially for Adam.  In Another Angle, Adam goes to Arizona to get his fiancée and runs into trouble with the Apache. In A New Angle, there’s a cattle drive, a worried father-in-law, a romance for Hoss, and Will and Laura come back in a mess.  In A Trust Broken and Fixed, there’s a bank robbery, trouble in the family, and an illness. I Still Love You is about Roy and Mary Coffee help Ben see his role as a father more clearly. The Black Egg has Adam and Traci try to find peace by living in Boston but find that it can’t erase the losses they’ve suffered. In Another Guise, there are some who want to disrupt the Ponderosa operations and will use any means to do so. Adam is the first target, but who else in the family is in the crosshairs and why? It’s a drama with an air of mystery. In Runaways, three boys from a CA reform school end up hiding on the Ponderosa and the family are caught up in their drama.  In A Boy and His Horse, Adam has to teach his son the value of honesty and integrity while keeping his son’s trust.  Frogs and Other Stuff is about Adam, Hoss, and Joe getting a better understanding of what their father faced with them as they were growing up.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  132,292


A Triangle

Chapter 1

The stage was late as always so Adam was pacing around the stage depot like a caged cougar. He had been asked by his father to complete a number of errands in town and then escort their guests to the Ponderosa. Hoss had been on a buying trip to Arizona and had met some old friends of the family who had moved there after losing their ranch in the Comstock to gold seekers who killed and ate their cattle, and cut their timber. Maxwell Maxim had owned a small ranch and couldn’t afford to hire men to protect his property. After his oldest son was killed trying to stem the tide of gold and silver seekers onto their property, Max had sold his ranch for a pittance and moved the rest of his family to Arizona where he raised prime beef and bred horses. Neither operation was large but Max insisted on high quality breeding stock so his beef was sold as brood stock and his horses were highly prized by those who could afford one. Finally Adam heard the familiar sounds of the stage heading into town up the steep grade and he stepped down next to the carriage to wait. As the stage came to a stop, four people alighted, Max, his wife Naomi, son Darren, and daughter Traci. Max gave a hint of a scowl when he saw which Cartwright had come to greet them but quickly masked it and offered his hand in greeting.

“Well, good afternoon, Adam, it is good to see you after all this time.”

“Good to see you as well, Mr. Maxim. Good day, Mrs. Maxim, Darren, Traci. I’ll get your luggage loaded up in the carriage and we can be on our way.” Adam had seen the looks from Max and Darren and knew they had never forgiven him. Well he had volunteered to do the line shack duty just for that very reason as he had suspected they would feel that way. He would let Hoss entertain the young lady, and Joe and Darren would likely have plenty to talk about with their common interest in horse breeding. He was the odd man out and wouldn’t be missed.

As Adam drove he pointed out things that had changed since the Maxims had left eighteen years earlier, and a lot had changed in that time. There were churches, businesses, schools, and stores that had been built on what had been open areas when the Maxims had been here last. In fact the Ponderosa was a lot larger than it had been and was far more diversified in its economic pursuits than it had been. The conversation was polite but not warm. Adam felt like a tour guide who had never known these people. Mrs. Maxim and Traci offered a few friendly comments but halted when Max sent a glare their way each time. After a drive that seemed much longer than it was, they arrived at the ranch house where Ben, Hoss, and Joe rushed out to greet their guests. Adam hung in the background until everyone headed inside.

“Adam, you can let that go until later or have one of the hands do it.”

“Pa, it won’t take long to unhitch the team and get them groomed and fed. I’ll be in shortly. You should get inside now too. You wouldn’t want to miss telling all the stories you have about the last eighteen years. I’m sure they have a few stories for you too.”

Ben thought Adam had an odd look about him, but sometimes he was just that way. He would talk about what was bothering him when he was ready to talk and not before so there was no reason to force the issue. Ben walked inside to the boisterous reunion that was well underway. Adam unhitched the team and led them into the barn. After stowing the harness, he groomed each horse taking his time. Sport was standing there as if he needed some attention and Adam thought he might be the most receptive audience he would have for a while so he groomed him too.

“Forgiveness comes hard for the Maxims, old boy. It’s been eighteen years. That’s longer than I was old when it happened. But they still blame me for MJ’s death.”

“Of course we do. You could have saved him, but you ran away and left him to die.”

Startled by the sudden harsh comment, Adam whirled around ready to draw.

“Oh, now you’re ready to draw down. That day you were just a coward and my brother’s dead because of it.”

Obviously, Max had indoctrinated his surviving son into his version of what had happened. Max had never been able to look at what happened objectively. Adam supposed it was because the guilt would eat away at him if he did. It was far easier to blame Adam.

“There were six of them. MJ and I got separated, and three went after him, and three came after me. I guess if I had stayed and died too, that would have made your father happier? Back then rustling cattle often got you killed. They wanted us dead so they would be safe.”

“Well you ended up protecting your own hide, but you left my brother to die.”

“Did you hear anything I said? There were six of them, and we were both sixteen years old going up against experienced guns. You really think your version of the story makes any sense?”

Darren had been edging closer with each statement, and caught Adam with an uppercut and then a blow to the back of his neck. Adam fell but as quickly as he could, he rolled away and got to his feet. He was stunned but wouldn’t be caught by surprise again. Darren was built big and broad like his father, but Adam was strong and sinewy with the long hard days of work on the ranch. They traded blows, but Adam was losing ground mostly because those first blows had hurt him and made it difficult for him to put everything into his punches.

“Thunderation, what is going on here?”

Ben’s bellow stopped the fight immediately. Darren walked to his father’s side and the two of them walked to the house.

“Adam, I want an answer.”

“Darren doesn’t like me, I guess.” Adam stalked out of the stable walking away from the house.

“I want you to come back here and give me a civil answer.”

Adam raised his left hand in a small wave and kept walking.

“Pa, you know how he is. He’ll talk with you later. Just let him calm down some.” As usual Hoss was trying to be the peacemaker. He had no idea why Adam was fighting Darren but knew they wouldn’t be getting an answer from Adam at that moment.

“Joseph, you go after him and make sure he doesn’t do anything else stupid. Tell him I want to see him.”

Ben saw that Naomi was still there and offered his arm to walk her back to the house. Hoss did the same to Traci who kept looking at Adam’s retreating back. Hoss had been very attentive, and she liked him, but the ride in the carriage this afternoon had left her with strong feelings of attraction for Adam. She didn’t dare say anything because it would hurt Hoss and infuriate her father and brother. But her heart had been stolen away already, and she feared that it would get very complicated if she ever acted on her feelings.

After walking a short distance, Adam sat on a stump. He took inventory of his injuries and decided that although he hurt everywhere, nothing seemed to be seriously damaged. He wasn’t sure if Darren’s attempt had been to hurt him as a punishment for MJ’s death or if he was trying to kill him for the assault had been vicious. Adam had fought with all the tricks he knew just to avoid the worst of the blows. After about a half hour, he headed back to the house knowing that Joe was shadowing him. When he got to the washroom door, he addressed his younger brother.

“You can tell Pa I’m taking a bath. He can see me in the washroom.”

As Adam entered the washroom, he noticed the door to the kitchen was open and correctly surmised that Hop Sing had been waiting for him as the faithful friend carried in hot water and added it to the tub that was already half full with a cake of soap already floating in it. Adam thanked him and then started stripping off the torn and dirty clothing. As he slid into the water, he winced a lot. The soapy water stung in a number of places. He had soaked only a few minutes when his father showed up. He had been hoping for a bit more time to soak the aches and pains.

“I can’t understand your behavior. They just got here, and now they’re talking about leaving.”

“I’m heading out to the line shacks early tomorrow. You’ll have at least a week of uninterrupted time with your guests.”

“They are our guests and I expect you to apologize for your behavior.”

Adam paused before answering, but there was just no diplomatic way to say what he needed to say. “There won’t be an apology.”

Ben was steaming now and not because of the steam rising from the bath. “Then I will apologize for you. You can sleep in the bunkhouse tonight so that you will have no cause to disturb our guests any more than you already have. Joe can pack your saddlebags for you.”

Adam nodded as his father turned on his heel and left. Joe came in a few minutes later and asked what Adam wanted packed, and he returned a short time later with clean clothes for his oldest brother and packed saddlebags. Hop Sing said he would be up early to pack provisions for him. After his bath, Adam pulled on the pants and shirt but didn’t tuck the shirt in. He walked with his boots and saddlebag out of the washroom intending to head to the bunkhouse.

“I’m sorry my brother did that. I should have expected he would do something. Papa has been telling him for years that you were the cause of his brother’s death.”

Setting his boots and saddlebag down, Adam was surprised that Traci was there and that she seemed sympathetic to his plight. “You don’t think that?”

“No, Mama and I have talked about this often. Papa sent MJ out there to work by himself. It was only luck that you were working in the same general area for your Pa. That you would choose to work together shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Those men being there was just horribly bad luck for the two of you. But if Papa had not sent MJ to work alone, he wouldn’t be dead. That’s why he blames you, I think and Mama thinks so too. If he didn’t, the guilt would eat away at him that he sent his oldest son to his death. I was only a year younger than you but I understood you weren’t ready to take on six gunmen. If you had, you would be dead too, and I wouldn’t want that.”

“Thank you for that. Tonight has been difficult and it’s good to know that not everyone in your family hates me.”

“I could never hate you. You were my first love. You were the first boy I ever kissed, well really kissed. You were so exciting to be with. I could never forget the times we were together. You’re even more exciting now.”

Traci had walked very close to Adam. She had been married, but her husband had died of spotted fever, and they had never had any children. He had been a nice husband, but he never had made her feel like she felt at this moment. She wanted Adam right then and there. All she did do however was to kiss him and put her arms around him. It was a quick kiss and a hug that promised there was more if he wanted it, and then she was gone, but not before Hoss saw Adam and Traci kissing. He had looked out his bedroom window when he heard voices for he had wondered what was up when he thought he heard Traci walk down the hall. Now there was another man angry with Adam, but Adam didn’t know that yet.

*****

Chapter 2

Thinking about all that had happened had cost Ben most of his sleep that night. He knew that he had been terribly unfair to Adam. He realized that Darren had sought out Adam in the stable. Therefore, it was unlikely that Adam had done anything to provoke the fight that apparently Darren wanted to have with his oldest son. Ben had remembered all the recrimination from all those years ago and worried that Max still felt that way. He could think of no other reason for Darren to be so angry with Adam because the boy had been very young when all this had happened. If it was that way, then it would be better that Adam would be away from the house, but he shouldn’t leave with his father’s harsh words as his last memory. With such high hopes for this visit, Ben had badly overreacted when things had turned unpleasant.

More than anyone, Ben knew that he should have trusted Adam and known that there was a reason why he had been provoked into a fight. Now he needed to be sure to listen when Adam talked. He had had this conversation with himself several times in the past but one of his failings was always expecting Adam to be perfect and blaming him when things weren’t perfect. Ben intended to talk with him in the morning to apologize and listen to what Adam had to say. He knew he should have done that the night before, but Joe wasn’t the only one in the family with an explosive temper that affected his hearing. Ben knew he needed to apologize for his words and for his actions. As he dressed, he realized that both of those had made it impossible for Adam to speak to him last evening.

When Ben got downstairs very early, he was surprised to see Hoss already at the dining table. Hoss had planned to talk with Adam as well, but he wasn’t going to be apologizing.

“He’s already gone. I got up early to see him, but he had already left.”

“Hoss, why did you need to see him?”

“I saw him kissing Traci last night and I was gonna tell him to back off from my gal.”

“You’re serious about her then?”

“Pa, I spent a lot of time with her in Arizona when I was there. When she got here, I felt like I was whole again. It seemed like a piece of me was missing until she got here. I want to ask her to marry me.”

“Hoss, are you sure that’s wise. Unless Adam forced a kiss on her, and I can’t believe he would do that with any woman, then she may not be so sure if she is in love with you.”

“Well, I think she’d be sure if Adam wasn’t trying to grab her away from me.”

“Where was he when he kissed her that you could see? He slept in the bunkhouse last night so he wasn’t in the house.”

“I saw ’em kissing outside. He had his shirt unbuttoned and he was barefoot.”

“Well she must have met him outside the washroom then. Son, Adam didn’t go to her. She went to him. Now perhaps that was just a kiss between friends. They dated when they were much younger and in fact, right up until MJ got killed and her father made her break it off with him. I agreed with it at the time because I thought the two of them were too young to be so serious about each other. Marie thought that they had gotten much too close if you know what I mean. She was worried about what would happen.”

“That was a long time ago, Pa. They was just kids then. This is serious. She’s been married and widowed. Those feelings for Adam were gone a long time ago unless he keeps doing things to try to bring them back.”

“Hoss, I’m just asking you not to jump to any conclusions. I remember the last time, and you could have killed him.”

“Maybe I should have.” That statement by Hoss made Ben sizzle. He wasn’t going to let that line pass without letting Hoss know how much he disapproved of his thinking.

“That is no way to talk. Regan kissed him. Traci may have done the same. He’s your brother. He would give his life for you. You can’t talk like that. I won’t stand for it.”

“Yes, sir.” But Hoss’ thoughts were another matter entirely.

Hoss dropped his head and stirred the food on his plate. He didn’t feel much like eating and sat waiting for their guests. But then Traci came to the table and asked about his promise to take her riding. Ben noted the change in his son’s demeanor, and worried that Hoss had in fact fallen in love already. Ben didn’t see the same signs in Traci. She was nice to Hoss and flattered him, but there was no fire, no sense of a desire for intimacy. What he suspected could lead to serious problems: Traci was being a friend to Hoss and he misinterpreted the signs, and Traci was attracted to Adam. However Hoss was clearly falling in love with Traci so there seemed to be no way for this to work out well.

For the next several days, Hoss and Traci went riding and had picnics. He showed her all of his favorite places on the Ponderosa. He sat on a blanket sharing a beautiful vista each midday when they stopped to eat. Hoss wanted so badly to kiss her, but the timing never seemed right. After lunch she would quickly start to gather up everything to stow it in the saddlebags, and then when they returned, she would rush to the house to tell her mother all about their day. He loved to see her so excited and talking so animatedly when he would enter the house later. He couldn’t get enough of seeing her.

On Thursday evening, Hoss asked Traci to go to town with him and have dinner. She agreed because she wanted to do some shopping. She invited her mother to come along but Naomi declined when she saw the pained look on Hoss’ face. She knew how interested he was in her daughter. What she was unaware of was that her daughter was interested in another Cartwright, the one she had loved so long ago and never forgotten. Traci used to lie with her husband, close her eyes, and dream that it was Adam who was moving above her. It was the only way she could get excited about satisfying her husband’s needs. He was a good man, and she did not resent him ever, but he never knew of course that her closed eyes meant she was fantasizing about another. Traci always thought of it as a harmless way to enjoy sex and never expected to see Adam again either.

Remembering a tall, dark, slender youth with a beautiful smile who was attentive to her and loving, she had been almost shocked by the transformation when he had met their stage. Her adolescent fantasies had never done justice to the man who stood before them. Adam was a gorgeous man who seemed to exude sexuality. His smile was just as beautiful but the broad chest with the hair peeking out at the neck and the overall grace of his movements had her thinking about him in bed even as they drove to the Ponderosa that day. She liked Hoss and thought they were becoming great friends for she missed seeing those adoring looks he gave her when she was busy with someone or something. He hadn’t tried to kiss her or hold her so Traci was in the dark about his true feelings. If she had known, she would have been honest with him. The only thing that she had noticed was that when she asked questions about Adam, he was reticent so she had stopped asking. She asked Joe instead and he was more than willing to talk about his oldest brother and told her a number of stories frequently delighting the whole group at the dining table with one escapade or another. Again, with her attention on Joe, Traci missed seeing the glower that Hoss would give Joe for building Adam up with these stories.

Dinner went well, but Traci was having a hard time concentrating on a conversation with Hoss. She was taken with all the hustle and bustle of Virginia City, and when she wasn’t observing, her thoughts went to Adam. He was expected home the next day. Hoss was attentive and gentlemanly. Again, Traci missed the signs. She sat a chaste distance from him on the carriage seat, and chatted with him on the trip to town and then back to the Ponderosa. With her mind preoccupied with Adam, she failed to see the adoring looks and the wistful ones as Hoss wondered how he could get close enough to her to put his arm around her. He was too shy and she was too oblivious so nothing happened. Hoss was still happy about the time he got to spend alone with her though.

Friday was another delightful day for Hoss as Traci helped him with a weak newborn colt whose mother had died. They were bottle feeding it and working to keep it warm enough. If they could keep him alive for a few days, then his chances were very good. Hoss told her that most foals like this died because it was so hard to live when the mare died. Traci was well aware of that having worked on her father’s ranch. They heated water and soaked wool blankets before draping the steaming blankets over the colt. They fed him warm milk as often as he would take it. By the end of the day, they had the colt standing which was a very good sign. He was also drinking each time they brought him milk. Hoss has a huge grin until he heard hoof-beats followed by Adam walking into the stable leading Sport and his packhorse.

Dusty, sweaty, tired, and sporting a weeks worth of beard, Adam was in no mood for conversation as he saw Hoss and Traci. However Traci found him exceedingly attractive because he looked so masculine especially in those chaps. He nodded as expected with their good news about the colt, but then he said he was headed to the washhouse for a bath and a shave. He unsaddled Sport, and then groomed both of the horses. He gave them feed and water before leaving. As much as he needed attention himself, Traci was impressed that he took care of the horses’ needs first. When she said that to Hoss though, he just grunted. Traci wondered why the two brothers didn’t like each other. She liked both of them and thought they should have been the best of friends not knowing that it was her presence that had made all the difference.

After about a half hour and with the colt doing better, Hoss suggested that Traci could go in the house and get cleaned up for dinner. He would wash up and get a plate from Hop Sing later. As Traci headed to the washroom, she remembered that Adam was in there so she went to the kitchen instead. Hop Sing showed her where to wash there. As he went to the dining table with dishes and silverware, Traci noticed the large pot of water on the stove. She smiled and hefted it and found it wasn’t too heavy for her. She opened the door of the washroom and stepped in. Adam was washing his hair. Traci stepped forward and from behind him, poured some of the water over his head rinsing it.

“Just a minute. Let me stand and you can pour the rest over me to rinse me off. I got this water pretty dirty.” Adam had assumed it was Hop Sing. He stood and Traci poured water over his back but as he turned she stepped back and set the pot down. Adam stood looking at her in shock, but part of him rose to the occasion. Before he could grab the towel from the chair next to the tub, Hoss stepped into the washroom. Not knowing anything of what had happened, Hoss saw his brother standing naked and aroused in front of the woman Hoss loved. Adam grabbed the towel and wrapped it around his middle barely concealing himself as he stepped out of the tub. He was speechless and then even more so when Hoss hit him knocking him back against the wall.

“Hoss, no, it was just a joke. Adam didn’t do anything.” Traci grabbed Hoss’ arm before he could attack his brother again. By then the commotion had drawn a crowd. Adam was scrambling to grab the towel again and cover himself and at the same time held a hand to his jaw wondering if it was broken. He had a lump forming on the back of his head too where it had connected with the wall as he flew back with the full force of a Hoss hit.

“What is the meaning of this?” Ben was astounded and furious and it was communicated in his bellow.

Traci was going to explain, but her parents escorted her from the room after seeing Adam wasn’t dressed.
“I will not have my sons fighting in my house.”

“Tell him. I didn’t hit anyone.”

Adam stood and grabbed his pants. He pulled them on and then his shirt. During the whole time since he had hit Adam, Hoss was standing and glowering at him. Adam had no doubt that if Ben wasn’t there or if Traci had not been there earlier, Hoss might have beaten him nearly to death. He had never been afraid of his brother before but he was at that moment.

“Pa, he exposed himself to her. He was, he was, you know, and standing there right in front of her. He ain’t no brother of mine to do something like that.”

Hoss turned and stormed out of the washroom. After a few minutes they heard hoof-beats and knew he had ridden out. Adam explained what had happened. Ben wasn’t happy but could see that Traci had thought to play a harmless prank and it had gotten out of hand. But what could they do now? In the great room, as Max listened to Traci’s story, he thought the same but had drawn a conclusion. He saw a way to hurt or even kill Adam without doing anything directly himself. He would let Hoss do it.

*****

Chapter 3

Ben waited up for his middle son to return. He knew he would. Adam might go off alone to think things through, but Hoss and Joe would always return when their tempers had cooled. When he heard Hoss ride in, he grabbed his jacket and walked to the stable. Talking without a potential audience might help. Hoss was talking quietly to Chubb and rubbing him down. It was apparent that he had been ridden hard. It was so unlike Hoss to abuse an animal like that. Ben knew that he had been terribly upset not to notice what he was doing to his horse.

“I thought perhaps you would like to talk some. I waited for you.”

Hoss said nothing as he began brushing down his horse. He was embarrassed at his outburst but was still angry. The thing was, he wasn’t sure whom he was angry with. The more he thought about it, he couldn’t pinpoint who deserved his anger.

“Having trouble putting your thoughts into words or is it that you don’t want to talk to me?”

“Pa, I just don’t know what to say. What Adam done was wrong, but he didn’t know how I feel about Traci so I can’t rightly blame him for moving in on her. But I just never thought he would do something like that with a nice lady like Traci.”

“Hoss, can I tell you what happened?”

Hoss nodded and moved to sit on a hay bale. He didn’t think anything his father said would help, but he was willing to be polite. Ben saw the attitude. It was common with Joe and on a lesser scale with Adam but was not the usual attitude for Hoss. This whole mess had affected his middle son deeply.

“Traci was trying to play a joke on Adam. She saw the water on the stove and took it into the washroom to embarrass your brother. He was washing his hair and she poured some water over his head. He thought it was Hop Sing and stood up asking for the rest of the water to be poured over him to rinse off. When he turned around he was as shocked as Traci had been when he stood up. There was no terrible behavior by either of them. It was a prank gone wrong. Traci has apologized to Adam and to me for what she did. She didn’t think about what could happen. She has told her parents that it was all her foolishness that led to the problem.”

“But Pa the way he was standing there. It looked like he was pretty interested in Traci.”

“Hoss, put yourself in his place. If you had been away for a week, sitting in your bath, and as you stood, you saw a beautiful woman. Is it so hard to understand why Adam reacted?”

Dropping his head, Hoss knew his Pa was correct, but he didn’t like admitting it. He was still mad at Adam and didn’t want to apologize but knew he had to now.

“Are you mad at Adam for what happened that was out of his control or for not knowing that you were interested in Traci, because I have to say, I don’t know why you still seem so angry?”

“Pa, every time I get real serious about a woman, it seems Adam or Joe or both of them mess it up for me. And it seems to be happening again. They can have just about any woman they want. Why does he have to be interested in the one I want?”

“Well, first of all, until tonight, I don’t think Adam had any idea you were interested in Traci. And you have to remember they had a relationship many years ago. Those feelings don’t just go away because of time and distance. They may even have been in love. Who knows with two people who were so young? Being together may be sparking some of those old feelings for them.”

“So are you telling me to give up on Traci? To just let Adam have her?”

“Hoss, I spoke with Adam earlier. He said he is not in love with Traci. He said she came to him a week ago. They kissed, and he finds her very attractive. There’s no reason for him to lie about that. He said he likes her as much as he always did. He will not be pursuing her, but as he said, he can’t control her actions or how she feels. You need to speak with Traci and clarify your feelings to see how she feels. If the two of you find out how you truly feel about each other that should help this whole situation a lot.”

The next morning, Adam headed out early to avoid another confrontation with Hoss. He felt if he stayed away from the house, there would be less chance of any more misunderstood actions. When Hoss found out he was already gone though, he wondered if Adam was feeling guilty about something and afraid to face him. The two brothers really needed to talk. Instead Hoss had a short, and for him, an unpleasant conversation with Traci.

“Hoss, I’m sorry if I led you on. I never meant to do that. I didn’t know that you were romantically interested in me. I thought we were becoming great friends. I hope we can still be friends but I have to tell you how I feel because you deserve my honesty. I would never play games with you or trick you. You never told me of your feelings and you never tried to kiss me or hug me so I had no idea how you felt.”

“I was trying to be a gentleman and wait until the time was right. I showed you all my favorite places on the Ponderosa. I thought we was getting along just fine.”

“We were, we were. But you see there never was going to be a right time. I just don’t feel that way about you. I am so very sorry to have to say that to you. I don’t ever want to hurt you and I think I have. You have been a wonderful friend and I needed that. I’m afraid that I have ruined that too.”

“Nah, I’ll always like ya. I was just hoping for more, I guess.”

“Hoss, I was ignorant of your feelings and that was insensitive of me. I hope you can forgive me.”

“Of course, that’s what friends do. Now, ma’am, ifn you don’t mind, I’d like to just get to work now. Maybe you could check in on that little colt today for me?” Traci knew that they had lost something when Hoss referred to her as ma’am. He was putting distance between them.

“I would love to do that, Hoss. I will take the best care of him that I can. You’ll see.”

Hoss had to smile a little at Traci’s desire to do something to make him feel better. She was being a good friend and showing great concern for him. He would have to settle for that he supposed. Much of their conversation had been overheard by Max who had hoped to use this love triangle to get to Adam, but Hoss was being so reasonable and Traci so honest, it wasn’t working they way he wanted it to go. He began to plot to see if there was a way to get Hoss to attack Adam anyway. He needed to get Adam and Traci together in a situation in which Hoss would feel obligated to intervene. He didn’t know what that was yet but if there was a way to keep throwing the three of them together, then at some point, maybe he could light the fireworks.

As Hoss saddled up to ride to the branding corrals, Ben was saddling Buck so that he could ride out to speak with Adam. He still needed to apologize more in depth for his actions and his words from the first trouble they had had with Darren. There had been so much going on that they had not had enough time together to really talk about that enough. When Hoss asked where he was going, he told him where and why. Hoss nodded. He was starting to think he probably should find some time to talk with Adam and apologize for his behavior because the more he thought about it, the less reason there was to be angry with his older brother. Like his father, he had badly overreacted and needed to apologize. It was amazing how often it seemed they needed to apologize to Adam. Perhaps they ought to consider that the next time they didn’t trust him. He mentioned it to his father who chuckled a bit.

“It certainly couldn’t hurt. That brother of yours is remarkably forgiving. For that I am very grateful.”

“Me too, Pa, me too.”

“Your mother taught him well. In that, he is so much like Inger. She could forgive anyone for anything as long as they were genuinely sorry.” The two rode off in a better mood.

As they left, Max walked inside and saw Traci at the dining table. She was finishing her breakfast and was dressed as if she intended to work. He asked her and she told him about the colt which he already knew of course but didn’t let on. Then he said that he had seen Adam that morning and he had asked if Traci would be able to bring some lunch out to him. Max gave the exact location where Adam was working because he had overheard Ben tell Hoss, but it made his false message seem authentic. He planned to be at the branding corral later to mention to Hoss that Traci was bringing lunch out to Adam and that perhaps it would be proper for another adult to be there so there wouldn’t be talk that could besmirch his daughter’s reputation. He rehearsed and when he thought he had just the right tone for his remarks, he headed over to watch the branding.

When Ben got to where Adam was working on the fence, he was surprised to see him sitting in the shade instead of working. That wasn’t at all like his industrious diligent son so he worried as he rode up to him and dismounted.

“Did something happen? Are you hurt?”

“Just taking a break, Pa. Got a little bit of a headache and working in the sun aggravates it. I’ve been taking breaks and that helps.”

“Maybe you ought to head back to the house.”

Adam gave his father one of those looks that spoke volumes. Ben realized too that Adam being at the house would not be a good idea. Hoss needed time to adjust to what was happening and Adam being at the house with Traci was not a good way to give him that time. Ben smiled and Adam knew that he understood.

“What brings you out this way? I’m assuming of course that you are not intending to stay out here mending fence line with me.”

“No, but a week ago, I said some harsh words that were as uncalled for as they were unfair. I needed to apologize and each time I wanted to, you weren’t there or we spent more time talking about Hoss and Traci and making sure everything was good between us. So I made a trip here so we could talk. It’s a talk we have had before unfortunately but all I can say is that I will try to do better.”

Ben knelt down next to where Adam was seated. Adam reached out his hand and his father grasped it and his arm. Adam nodded. They were quiet for a bit.

“I forgave you a week ago, you know. I didn’t need to hear the words. I knew you would feel badly once you calmed down.”

“Why didn’t you say something that night?”

“You were upset and I was too. Seems that when we try to talk under those circumstances, things get said that would be better left unsaid. By the time I walked back, I could have talked but you were still angry. The next morning, I guess I only wanted to avoid the Maxim family and only thought later how that must have looked to you.”

“Hoss was waiting to talk with you too.”

“Well that could certainly have helped avoid some unpleasantness if I had known how he felt about Traci.”

“How do you truly feel about her? Are you sure that some of those old feelings haven’t been dormant? That perhaps you do still love her?”

“I like her a lot. I will always feel very strongly about her and there is some of that love there yet. Something more could have developed there.”

“Could have?”

“I can’t even think about that knowing how it would make Hoss feel. It will be better if she heads back home, and Hoss and I can clear the air between us. I hope he understands now that I wasn’t trying to take her away from him. I had no idea how he felt. I don’t think Traci did either. She’s not that kind of woman.”

“I just wanted to be sure of how you felt. I didn’t want you to have to hide your feelings. You’re very good at that.”

Adam smiled. He was doing it at that moment, and his father didn’t know. Therefore, it was logical to assume he could fool Traci and Hoss too. It was the right thing to do in his mind, so he was doing it. With a smile, Ben took his leave and headed back to be with his guests. Adam went back to work still feeling that pounding in his head. He was very good at hiding symptoms too, but he shouldn’t have. He had already retched up his meager breakfast and knew that he had the signs of a concussion. He ought to go back and just go to bed but wouldn’t give in to a physical ailment nor did he want Hoss to think any thing else negative about him. He loved his brother so much and it hurt immensely to be at odds with him.

*****

Chapter 4

Hop Sing was quite happy to pack a picnic lunch for Adam, but he was also confused. He liked Miss Traci but he had thought she was Hoss’ girl. For five days he had packed picnic lunches for the two of them. But then last night she had gone into the washroom with Adam to tease him and now she was taking a lunch to Adam. It was all very confusing.

Traci knew where blankets for picnics were because she had been on a number of picnics with Hoss so she got one of those. She saddled up a horse, packed the lunch in saddlebags, secured the blanket, and headed off to where Adam was working. Her parents had left with Ben to see the rock paintings up on the plateau and would not be back until evening. Her brother was with Joe at the breaking corrals. Hoss was at the branding pasture, so Traci thought that she would have some uninterrupted time with Adam to see where she stood with him. So far she had been unable to tell.

As Traci rode out, Hoss was about to do the same. He too wanted to talk with Adam and get things right between them again. Later as he neared where he expected to see Adam, he saw Traci with Adam in her arms. He stopped almost in shock and then turned to leave. He had thought Adam had made it clear that he was not going to pursue Traci and now was already hugging her less than a day later. As he rode away, he was shocked to hear a pistol fire from behind him. Turning around, he saw that Adam was now on the ground and Traci was beside him. Traci looked up at Hoss again and fired in the air once more. Hoss had no idea what had happened but he was ready to find out so he rode fast down the hillside.

“We were talking. Suddenly he put his hand to his head and fell against me. I tried to hold him up, but I couldn’t, and he fell. Hoss, there’s something terribly wrong.”

“Did he say anything else?”

“He was sitting by the tree when I got here. He said he had a headache. Then he asked why I was here and I told him my father told me his message.”

Adam was grimacing and sighing deeply. Traci and Hoss watched him carefully waiting for him to open his eyes. Hoss grabbed his canteen.

“What was the message?”

“He said that Adam wanted me to bring lunch out to him. But Hoss, Adam said he never told my father that. So, we were wondering why my father wanted me to come out here.”

“Your father told me that I ought to come out here because it was just you and Adam. He said to protect your reputation, I should be here too.”

Groaning, Adam opened and then closed his eyes. His head was lying on Traci’s lap and thankfully no one was firing his pistol any more. That had really hurt. He listened to Hoss and Traci talk. He felt Traci’s hand by his and grasped it. Traci hardly noticed as she was so surprised by what Hoss had said.

“Well, that’s a funny thing for my father to say. What do you suppose he’s up to with these messages?”

Adam had finally gotten the context of their discussion. “He wanted Hoss to catch us together so Hoss would get mad.” Adam’s voice was weak, but they were both happy that he was coherent and fully conscious again. Traci sat back on her heels and thought about it.

“You think Papa wants Hoss to beat you, don’t you?”

Adam looked at her and nodded slightly but grimaced at his action. Hoss was dumbfounded. He had been manipulated by Max and didn’t like it at all. On the other hand, he had been coming over here to talk with Adam so the plan wouldn’t have worked anyway. Then he remembered his anger at seeing Adam in Traci’s arms and realized the plan could have worked. But more importantly at the moment, why had Adam nearly passed out?

“What about you? Traci said you had a headache and then passed out and fell. What’s wrong? and don’t hide anything from us; this is serious.”

“I didn’t pass out. I just fell. I have had a headache since last night. This morning I was nauseous and could barely eat and threw up what I did eat. I can barely stand to take a sip of water now and then. Being in the sun makes it worse. Standing makes it worse. Hammering really makes it worse. And please, nobody shoot a pistol again.”

“You know you probably have a concussion.” Adam again nodded slightly and then grimaced again. He thought to himself that he needed to stop doing that. Hoss was feeling guilty knowing it was his blow that had caused this. Traci was feeling guiltier than Hoss because it was her actions that had been at the root of the trouble between the brothers. Now she was seeing them as they normally were.

“You know the two of you don’t have to look like you’re at a funeral. I’ve been hurt before. I’ll be fine.”

“Probably but we need to get the doc to take a look at ya. First, we need to get you back to the house and into bed where ya shoulda been all day. Traci, can you get Sport over here? Watch out cause he likes to nip people sometimes.”

Traci picked up Adam’s hat and carried it to Sport. Holding the hat, she untied the horse and led him over to Adam. She tightened up the cinch and made sure everything was as it should be because the worst thing for Adam now was to fall. She handed him his hat and he put it on and grimaced again. She could see that he was hurting worse than he admitted. She helped Adam mount up as Hoss stood on the other side of Sport to make sure he didn’t topple over the other side of the saddle. Once he was secure, Traci and Hoss mounted up and rode to either side of him and that irritated him quite a bit.

“I’m not going to fall off my horse.”

“That’s right because Traci and I are gonna make sure ya don’t. Now just be quiet, and we’ll get you home.”

Once they were at the house, Hoss and Traci helped Adam in to the house and up to his bedroom. Hoss said he would go to have Joe ride for the doctor. Traci stayed with Adam. When Hoss returned, he found Traci sitting at Adam’s bedside holding his hand. Adam was lying quietly and could have been sleeping. Neither seemed aware of Hoss’ presence at the door. When he saw the two of them sitting like that it seemed so natural he was envious but also happy that Traci was there to give his brother comfort. It had been a rough time for Adam in the past year with Laura leaving him for Will and the long recovery from his back injury. As he stood and watched, Adam started to struggle to sit up. Hoss moved into the room quickly.

“Now, brother you need to just lie here and take it easy.”

Adam was grimacing in pain. “It’s worse when I lie down like this. It was better when I was sitting.”

Unsure of what to do but trusting for the time being that Adam’s observations were correct, Hoss asked Traci to go in the other bedrooms and grab some pillows. He helped Adam sit up, and when Traci brought the pillows, they settled him back against those. Adam sighed as he sat there.

“Thank you. That helped.”

Sitting quietly with Adam, Hoss and Traci waited for the doctor. Occasionally Adam would open his eyes and ask for something such as closing the curtains because the light was too bright or asking for a cool drink. When Paul arrived, he wanted to know the background of Adam’s injury. Not much surprised him with these men any more, but he did get a bit angry at how Adam had chosen to spend the day.

“So you suspected you had a concussion, and you thought the best course of action was to ride out to hammer on some fence posts in the hot sun? Is that about it?”

Adam nodded and then grimaced.

“I would think you have had enough head injuries to know that nodding is not the best way to answer my questions. Now if everyone else would leave, I’ll do an examination of my patient.”

As Paul was examining Adam, Ben arrived home with the Maxims and was surprised and worried to see Paul’s carriage in front of the house. When he rushed inside, he saw Joe and Hoss immediately and saw that Traci and Darren were there too.

“Adam?”

Max entered directly behind Ben. “Did Hoss give Adam a sound thrashing?”

A perplexed Ben looked at Max, but Hoss and Traci exchanged knowing glances with Joe. Max’s question had confirmed their theory.

“Yeah, Pa, it’s Adam. Paul’s up there with him now. Traci and I brought Adam back here cause he nearly passed out. He’s got a dandy of a headache too.” Seeing Ben’s look, Hoss had to add more. “Nobody hit him or nothing. It’s from last night.” Ben sighed in relief at that at least. It wasn’t much longer before Paul appeared at the head of the stairs and walked down to let then family know how Adam was doing.

“As suspected, Adam has a concussion. I was worried that his symptoms might mean brain edema, but I think the ride, working in the hot sun, and nothing to eat caused him to nearly pass out and fall. Hoss and Traci had him in the perfect position for his injury before I got here. Keep him in bed propped up on those pillows until the headache is gone, and he should be fine. It’s not even that bad of a concussion. He’s completely aware of his surroundings and his memory is fine although he is a little groggy. Someone should be with him for the next twelve hours or so just to be sure that he does not worsen or fall trying to do something by himself.”

To Hoss, Joe, and Traci, the disappointment that Max was showing was far too obvious. Hoss asked if he could sit with Adam first as Ben went up to see him. Everyone else cleaned up for dinner. Once they were in Adam’s bedroom, Hoss explained to Ben what they suspected was happening. Ben found it hard to believe at first, but Adam agreed with Hoss and said that Traci thought the same. The false messages Max had delivered were the key evidence, but as they discussed it and Ben noted his question when he realized earlier that Adam was injured was enough to know beyond a reasonable doubt that he wanted Adam hurt. “He’s never been rational about MJ’s death. Well, they will be here for another few days. We need to be alert to avoid any more trouble. It’s good though to see the two of you on good terms again.”

Ben smiled as he left the room, but had a frown as soon as he was away from his sons. Now he would have to determine how to handle the situation to make sure there was no more trouble. He would ask Joe to talk with Darren, and he would try to talk with Max. This old grievance needed to be resolved.

After dinner, Traci brought some tea and broth up for Adam. Hop Sing had assured her that even with his nausea, he would be able to sip these slowly and he needed to do that. Hoss was relieved when she got there because the smells from downstairs had been making him salivate for almost an hour. Adam was drowsy so there was little conversation to keep his mind off the food.

“Should I spoon it to you.”

“Give it to me. I’m not an invalid.”

“Joe said you’re a cranky patient.”

“Well he ought to know. He’s pretty cranky when he’s laid up too.”

Slowly sipping the beverages, Adam looked up toward Traci to see her looking at him with concern. He smiled to let her know he was fine, and as a way to apologize for snapping at her and she held his left hand as he used the right to drink broth. He would avoid Hop Sing’s tea for as long as he could. Everyone downstairs had gone outside to see the colt that Hoss and Traci had saved. Joe took some milk and he and Darren were going to feed it. The others who knew that this colt surviving was an unusual accomplishment wanted to get a good look at him. Hop Sing asked Hoss to take a biscuit upstairs to see if Adam would eat it with the broth. With a chicken leg in one hand and the biscuit in the other, Hoss made it to Adam’s room but paused outside the door. Traci was sitting by Adam’s side holding his hand, and the two of them were talking quietly. Hoss coughed so he wouldn’t intrude and then brought in the biscuit. Adam thanked him but Traci blushed and Hoss wondered what they had been discussing. He decided not to go there and headed back downstairs to finish his dinner.

*****

Chapter 5

“Hoss is really good with animals.” Joe was very proud of his brother Hoss and what he could do with a sick or weak animal and liked hearing Darren’s praise. Ben and the Maxims had gone back inside leaving Joe and Darren with the colt.

“Yeah, my brother Adam is darn good with them too, but no one can take care of a sick critter like Hoss.”

“You like Adam?”

“Of course I do. He’s my brother.”

“So you hafta like him?”

“Nah, but we have plenty of go rounds. Actually as long as he isn’t here, I can tell you this. I like getting in fights with him and arguing. I love the way I can set him off. His face gets red and he stomps all over. Sometimes he bellows as loud as Pa.”

“But why do you like him then?”

“He’s taught me more things than I can list. He’s been watching out for me since I can remember. Sometimes he forgets I’m a man now and that can be a little irritating. But I know he’s stuck in that way he has of wanting to protect his family.”

“He didn’t protect my brother. Pa says he was a coward and ran away. That’s why I don’t have an older brother like you do.”

“You know, we were only about four years old when that happened. I can’t say I know what happened that day, but I have to say I’ve never seen Adam run away from a fight. I’ve seen him head to cover, or try to help others. But run away? Just not him.”

“But Pa says he ran and that’s why MJ got killed.”

“Darren, if you and me were up against six gunmen and got separated and three were chasing you and three were after me, would you lead the other three back toward the three already shooting at me?”

That left Darren speechless. What if by leaving, Adam was drawing three gunmen away from MJ? That would mean that each of them had a chance. Maybe it was just bad luck like his Ma said that one of them got around behind MJ and shot him. Ma also said that maybe if he had ridden away instead of hiding in some rocks, he might have been able to get away like Adam did.

“You know they caught some of the men who did it. It was after your family had moved away. Pa said he wasn’t sure where you were, and Adam was the only witness anyway. He testified even though those men said they’d kill him if he did.”

“What happened?”

“Two they never caught. Two got the gallows. The two youngest ones got twenty years each hard labor. Now that I’m thinking about it, I guess they’ll be out in about two years.”

“Do you think Adam’s scared?”

“No more than he is about any of the other men he’s taken on who have threatened him for telling the truth.”

“Does that happen a lot?”

“Some. He put one of his friends and business associates in prison too. He helped prove that he robbed a way station and murdered the manager.”

“But how is he facing a man with a gun?”

“I have to tell you, Darren, there is no man who is more like ice in a gunfight than Adam. He’s faced down several men including a couple of gunfighters and won. I’ve told him when I’ve been mad at him that he doesn’t have a heart. But that’s wrong cause he really cares for his friends and family. But geez, when he’s got to, he can shut his feelings right off and do a cold smart shot like nobody else I know.”

None of this information fit with the stories he had heard over and over again from his father. His Ma and Traci had told him repeatedly that his father said it was Adam’s fault but really blamed himself. He had to focus his anger on Adam or otherwise go mad with the guilt he carried for sending his son out to work alone when he knew that dangerous men were prowling around looking for gold, silver, cattle, or anything else they could get. It had been a rather lawless time in the early Washoe diggings, and family and friends had to watch out for each other. Max had been careless and it had cost him a son. Darren had a lot to think about. He liked Joe a lot and liked Hoss too. He couldn’t see how they could like Adam if he was the coward that Max said he was. But Darren loved his father. After all those years of hearing about Adam and then seeing him that day in Virginia City had made Darren’s blood boil. He couldn’t wait that night to confront the man his father blamed for his brother’s death. Now he had to wonder about all of it, and started to think he might need to apologize to Adam as well. His father was not going to be happy at all about this turn of events.

By the time that Joe and Darren were heading to the house, there was a wall cloud bearing down on the Ponderosa. Joe ran in the house to alert his Pa and Hoss, and then ran back to the stable to start securing things. He got the colt into the stable and put him in a stall. Outside he started grabbing anything that might blow away and hauling it in the stable. Soon his father and Hoss were there too as were Darren and Max. Inside the house, Naomi helped Hop Sing close all the shutters. Then they ran outside to grab wood and kindling. In a very bad storm, the temperature might drop a lot up in the mountains like this so they needed to be prepared. The first thick drops of rain were battering the house by the time the men rushed in and secured the front door.

Upstairs Traci heard all the commotion. Adam had fallen asleep after drinking Hop Sing’s tea under protest. Earlier Hop Sing had come upstairs to retrieve the cups and when he saw the tea untouched, he had stood next to Adam glaring at him until he drank all of it. There was probably something in there to soothe because soon after that Adam had fallen asleep despite his earlier complaint that he couldn’t sleep well sitting up. She had perused Adam’s books and found a number that she liked. She saw too that he had a book on the table by his bed, and when she checked that one out, began reading the book about the submarine. It might never be possible but she was a woman who liked to dream of things that never were and hope that they might come true some day.

After a short time, Joe came in to secure the shutters on the window. He offered to sit with Adam or put another blanket on him, but Traci said she was fine, and Adam looked comfortable the way he was. She said she would be fine as she had found a fascinating book to read. Joe couldn’t imagine how that could be true but accepted her at her word. Once he got downstairs, he was sure to tell Hoss that Adam was doing fine. Anyone could see how badly Hoss felt about what had happened. Joe asked Darren if he would like to play some checkers and then told Hoss he would play the winner. In a move wholly uncharacteristic of him, Joe cheated at checkers in order to lose. He wanted his brother to get involved in something for he knew he would just brood otherwise.

The storm battered the house all night long disturbing everyone’s sleep. About dawn, Traci donned her robe and walked down the hall to Adam’s room. A very sleepy Joe was sitting in a chair doing his best not to fall asleep and clearly failing.

“I’ll sit with him for a while if you want to go back to bed.”

“Nah, it’s my turn. I’m supposed to wake Hoss in two hours.”

“I can sit with him until then. I’ve been in bed since nine, so I have gotten some sleep. You look like you haven’t gotten nearly enough.”

“No, you probably didn’t know it but a big tree branch went through the roof of the bunkhouse about ten. We were all out there cleaning up and patching the roof as well as we could with that wind. Then we set pails on the floor to catch the drips. Luckily, it didn’t come in too far so no one got hurt. I’m guessing that when the storm clears, we’re going to have a lot of work to do.”

“Could you two be quiet so a man could die in peace?”

“You’re not dying.”

“Well, little brother it feels like it and it sounded like hell broke loose around here, so what was I to think?”

“Traci, he must be feeling a lot better if he can smart-mouth me. You’re welcome to him. I’m going back to renew my acquaintance with my pillow.”

Traci chuckled and Adam smirked one of those classic canary ate the cat smirks of his. Joe was gone and Traci was there. It had worked out rather well; even better than he hoped. Then Traci saw his face change. He knew he shouldn’t have done it, but he did want to be alone with her. He had slipped up. Now she knew it too.

“It’s a tragic tale, isn’t it, Adam? If we could get someone to write it, perhaps it would rival Othello or one of the other tragedies.”

“Nothing can come of nothing.”

“King Lear? What do you mean?”

“We can’t say it. We can’t express it. No future can be built on nothing.”

“And so we have it. All that is left is ‘Parting is such sweet sorrow’?

“I never did like Romeo and Juliet. It always seemed so wrong that there were no possibilities for a different outcome, but now we are in that same spot.”

Joe had walked back to remind Traci to get Adam to drink some water as Paul wanted him to keep taking fluids. He heard their conversation as he neared the door, and he retreated to his room. He was thinking he had talked to Darren at his father’s request, and now perhaps he ought to talk with Hoss next.

“Well, let’s talk about something else then if you’re not tired. I started reading that Jules Verne book and I loved it. Would you like me to read to you?”

Adam leaned back on the pillows as Traci began to read, and the rain continued to pound on the roof. After about an hour, Traci looked over and he was sleeping. She had looked up numerous times to see his eyelids drooping and then he would wake up and pay attention for a short time until he started slipping toward sleep again. Finally he had lost the battle and succumbed to a healing sleep. Traci turned the lamp down again and rocked in the chair. In less than an hour, she would wake Hoss to take over. That didn’t happen though as she fell asleep in the chair not waking until hours later as Adam hissed her name.

“Traci, Traci, please, I need you to get Hoss.”

Not knowing what was wrong, she heard the urgency in Adam’s voice and hurried to knock on Hoss’ door. Hoss came to the door in his nightshirt, and when she said Adam needed him, he rushed there. She was going to follow but Hoss closed the door firmly and locked it. She heard the click. She went to her room to dress worried about what was wrong. After washing, taking care of needs, and dressing, she returned to Adam’s room and heard him cussing softly through the open door. When she walked inside, Adam was dressed in his pants only and trying to shave but apparently having some difficulties. He had a mirror propped on his desk but already had nicked himself.

“Having trouble?” Traci was having a difficult time not staring at his chest. The muscles and curly hair seemed to be calling out for her to touch his chest. Luckily Adam didn’t notice or hid the fact that he did. All Traci got for her question was a snarl.

“Even if I squint, I’m having trouble focusing.”

“Then let me do it.”

Taking the razor, Traci wiped it dry and stropped it several times. Then she applied more shaving cream to Adam’s face and began to shave him. In a short time, she was done and there were no more nicks.

“Where did you learn to do that? You’re quite good.”

Before she could answer, Max was standing in the doorway.

“You should not be in a room with a half naked man. You need to leave immediately.”

Max was glowering at Adam much as he had those years before when he had accused him of being a coward and letting MJ die. That time Adam had stood defiantly but there had been uncertainty and even a hint of fear. He had shook a little as he stood there under Max’s glare and faced his accusations. Today, the defiance was there but the rest was not. The man who sat looking at him wasn’t afraid of him. With the dark look Adam was giving him, Max felt a little uncertain, and perhaps even a bit scared himself and took a step back.

“Traci was helping me and the door was wide open. Nothing improper happened and you owe your daughter an apology for insinuating that she was being improper in her behavior.”

Traci finished wiping the razor and replacing it and the strop in the leather case Adam had handed to her. She picked up the towel she had used and took the basin of dirty water to toss out. Once all of that had been accomplished, she walked by her father who stood at the door. He wasn’t sure of what he wanted to say but had a great desire to lash out.

Adam spoke first. “Don’t even think to threaten me in my home. You best be on your way before you talk yourself into more trouble than you can handle.”

“Are you threatening me?”

“No, stating a simple fact. You don’t want to face me in a fight.”

“You can’t even shave yourself, and you think you can beat me in a fight.” But Max stepped back and left just the same. There was something about Adam that made his heart beat faster and his palms sweat and not many men could do that to him. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck still standing up as he withdrew and walked away.

*****

Chapter 6

Once the rain stopped at midday, Ben and his sons walked outside to survey the damage. Part of the stable roof was missing, but inside the stock were uninjured. There were tree branches laying everywhere it seemed. Undoubtedly, there were fence lines down and other damage. As the men came out from the bunkhouse, Ben started issuing orders. They needed a complete list of damages and then they could start on repairs. The bunkhouse and stable were the first priority. Luckily they had their own mill so they could get the lumber they needed. Hoss volunteered to ride to the bridge to see if it was useable, and what might be needed for repairs.

Several hours later, Hoss returned. The bridge to Virginia City was damaged but the supports were solid and horses could use it. Carriages and wagons could not until some repairs had been done to the sides and the roadbed of the bridge. The roads west and south of Virginia City had washouts of the roadways in places and some bridges were gone. Telegraph lines were out. It would take days before any stages were heading out. For now, there were supply wagons expected from Reno and the only working telegraph line was to Reno. So nothing too serious had happened but it meant the Maxims would be extending their stay. Darren told his father they ought to spend time visiting neighboring horse ranches to see what stock was available that they might want. Joe had mentioned several ranches they might want to visit. Ben was very grateful to Joe for that suggestion. If Max agreed to do as Darren suggested, there would be a lot less trouble around the Ponderosa until the Maxims left for home.

After a few days, Adam was fit enough for light work and volunteered to go fix the fence line he had been working on when he fell and needed help. Ben agreed it was a good choice for the last thing they needed now was for some of the herd to go wandering off through a broken fence line. Hop Sing was busy with preparing food for the crews repairing the bridge, the roofs, and numerous other problems. Traci was helping Hop Sing in the kitchen and volunteered to bring a lunch to Adam later. Adam picked up the tools and supplies he needed and headed out. His father had told him again that morning how thankful he was that Adam had purchased so many supplies and stored them in the tool shed. They had the tarpaper, nails, wire, and other items that they needed very much and which many people couldn’t get because the supplies had been bought out in town, and it would be days before more arrived from Reno.

Just before noon, Traci finished her work in the kitchen and got a sincere and long thank you from Hop Sing. She took the sack of food prepared for Adam and rode out. When she got to the same spot where he had fallen many days earlier, she didn’t see him and had a sudden foreboding which was squelched when he walked up from a small pond leading Sport. He had simply taken his horse to water and now brought back and let him graze. Adam helped her off her horse and kept his hands on her waist as she reached the ground.

“I have ham and beef sandwiches, some fruit, and some cheese. What would you like?”

“This.” Adam bent down and kissed her as he pulled her close to him. Then just as suddenly he pulled back. “I’m sorry. I should not have done that.”

“I’m not. I’ve been dreaming of a kiss like that for eighteen years.”

“But you know we can’t. It just can’t work out.”

Traci reached out to pull Adam to her but he resisted. “Just once. Can we, just once?”

Adam closed his eyes and groaned. He wanted her so much but it was an impossible hope. Traci stood on tiptoes and caressed his lips with hers. Adam responded and kissed her passionately opening the flood of desire and passion each had kept tightly damned up. Their passion was so all encompassing that when they lay in each other’s embrace later, they couldn’t speak. It seemed there were no words that could express how each felt at that moment.

“I knew you loved me as much as I loved you. You hide your feelings so well but you forgot that I knew you very well at one time. I knew you couldn’t have changed that much.”

“You’ve guessed the truth but there’s another truth I can’t avoid. Anything between us will hurt my brother, and I can’t do that. You said ‘just once’ and that’s what it has to be.”

“I know, but I wouldn’t have given this up for anything. It was all I hoped it would be and more. Now my dreams will be of this and not some adolescent romantic fantasy of what might have been.”

” We should get dressed before someone rides over here to check on us.” Adam stood and pulled Traci up next to him. He helped her button her dress in the back and clean the grass from her hair. “I wish I had a brush or something.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll use a curry brush or something in the stable before I go in the house.”

Adam grinned at her practicality, and she smirked back at him. “I had some practice with that eighteen years ago. I couldn’t walk in the house looking like I had been rolling in the grass with you then either.” They were still sparring verbally when they heard a horseman approaching. Once again it was Hoss.

“There’s been an escape of inmates from Nevada State Prison. They had a bunch of them here doing road repairs and such, and they overpowered the guards and took off. They have the guards’ guns and horses. They got the keys too so they got their chains off. Adam, Traci, them two yahoos that was in on the killing of MJ was in that crew.”

Traci looked at Hoss and then at Adam with such a confused look, they both realized she didn’t know so they told her the story that Joe had told Darren. Adam gathered up his tools as Traci packed the lunch he had not eaten. They mounted up to ride to the ranch house when they heard shooting. Hoss and Adam wanted to go see what was going on, but felt a need to protect Traci too.

“I can shoot well enough to protect myself. Let’s go see who’s in trouble.”

All three headed in the direction of the gunfire but Adam instructed Traci to stay behind them. When they reached the crest of the next hill, they could see Darren and Max being pursued by gunmen. They had a pretty good idea who the gunmen were. As they watched, Darren’s horse stepped in a hole and went down. Darren rolled free, turned, grabbed his rifle, and returned fire using his horse as a shield. It would only work for a short time as the pursuing men fanned out to come at him from several directions. Max attempted to ride back to help his son but the gunmen were already between them.

“Adam, I’m going down there to help get him outta there. You take care of Traci.”

“Hoss, you’re too big a target and I’m a better shot. You give me your horse and get behind some rocks. Give me covering fire, and take good care of Traci.”

Lowering his body behind his horse’s neck as much as he could and leading the other horse, Adam raced toward Darren. Max saw what he was doing and took refuge behind some trees and gave covering fire for his son. Hoss and Traci started doing the same from the other side up on the hill. The gunmen had to stop but were unwilling to give up completely. They started advancing on foot moving from one cover position to the next. Max, Hoss, and Traci had too many spots to cover and were unable to drive the men back.

As Adam reached Darren, the gunfire intensified and he had to dismount to avoid being hit taking refuge with Darren behind the downed animal and releasing the two mounts that were panicking anyway. The two men talked when not taking a turn firing at the men firing at them.

“Well, my Pa would have said it was a cold day in hell when we could expect Adam Cartwright to show up to help us in a gunfight. Glad I don’t think that way. Now, you happen to have an idea how to get us out of this mess?”

“There’s a draw over to our left. If we can get to that, we can climb to higher ground without them seeing us.”

“So all we have to do is run about a hundred yards over open terrain and then we’re safe.”

“Yeah, that’s about it.”

“How we gonna do it?”

“Run about a third of the way to where you see that little depression. Lie in there and give me some cover, and I’ll join you. Then we’ll pick out the next spot.”

“That’s your brilliant plan? Joe said you were pretty smart, and that’s all you got?”

“Yeah, that’s it. You got a better idea?”

“Nope. Who’s up on that hill shooting?”

“Hoss and Traci. I’m hoping all this noise will draw some help because we’re gonna have to rescue your father next. All right, now, run.”

Working in tandem, Adam and Darren worked their way to the draw. Adam dove in last and felt an impact on his foot when he did. He looked down and saw that the heel had been shot off. Thankful that the gunmen were not better shots, he and Darren climbed up the hill to be met by Traci and Hoss. Soon after, Joe, Ben, and some of the hands were there. Seeing the array against them, the gunmen took off with the Ponderosa men in pursuit. Max walked out from the grove of trees leading his horse. He had almost lost another son, and Adam Cartwright had saved him. His mind was spinning. He felt faint and nauseous. Traci and Darren ran down the hill to meet him. He dropped his rifle and the reins to his horse so he could hug his son and his daughter. Then he clutched his chest and fell.

*****

Chapter 7

A wagon was brought from the Ponderosa and Naomi rode to be with her husband. They had piled a mattress from the bunkhouse in the back and blankets. Once they reached the valley where Max laid still unconscious but breathing, Adam, Darren, and Hoss carefully placed him in the wagon. Naomi and Traci climbed in beside Max and Hoss got on the bench seat to drive the wagon home. Being careful not to jostle the patient too much, Hoss drove slowly. Adam went ahead to make preparations for Max at the house. They would put him in the downstairs guest room. Ben and Joe had come back from the group chasing the convicts and Joe had ridden to town for the doctor. Hopefully he would arrive without too much delay because they all feared what had happened. Hop Sing helped Adam gather towels and clean linens and air out the room. There wasn’t much else to do as they waited.

Creaking harness and a squeaking seat let Adam and Hop Sing know that the wagon had arrived. Hop Sing held the door open in the slight breeze and the men carried Max into the house. Once they had him on the bed, Naomi, Darren, and Traci stayed to undress him and put him in his nightshirt. He had emptied his bowels and bladder on the way so they had to clean him up first. Naomi said they should never mention that to him because he would be humiliated and couldn’t help himself in the condition he was in. Both of her children had been around men who were injured and knew that it could happen so they just nodded as if to say of course. Traci rolled up the soiled blanket and clothing and took them to Hop Sing who had smelled the man as he was carried in and had soapy water ready to soak the soiled blanket and clothes. He assured Traci he had done it before and would have the clothing as good as new so that her father would never need to know. Everyone was operating under the presumption that Max was going to be all right, but he had not yet regained consciousness and that was worrisome.

After watching from the porch, Hoss came in to announce that the doctor had arrived. He also had someone with him. A young woman followed Doctor Martin into the house and both were directed to the bedroom where Max was. Soon his family came out to join the Cartwrights in waiting. It took over an hour before the doctor was able to give them some news and most of it wasn’t good.

“Mrs. Maxim, I know you believe your husband may have suffered a mild heart attack. I’m not sure if that is true. That in itself would be serious but sometime before or after that fall he took, he had a stroke. He is only semiconscious at this point making it difficult to determine the full extent of the damage done but he has lost feeling in his right leg. That may be all that is affected but we will have to wait for him to be fully conscious to do a complete evaluation. His heart has a regular rhythm and is strong enough to make me believe it was a very mild heart attack or perhaps it was the stroke that caused everything.”

“What can we do for my husband?”

“I’m leaving my niece Jillian here to help. She has extensive nursing experience and has been assisting me. If there is anything she can’t handle by herself, she will have someone get me. Until then, follow her instructions.”

Ben walked his friend out to his carriage.

“How serious is it, Paul?”

“I really can’t say. At this point, it looks like a mild stroke with minimal damages. Considering the stress he was under at his age, it’s not that surprising. I would like things kept calm and quiet for him.”

“Paul, there is something more going on.” Ben proceeded to fill Paul in on the history with the Maxims and that Max had apparently not given up on his anger at Adam for MJ’s death.

“Well, that certainly would have aggravated any condition that could cause a stroke. Ben, somehow, that anger has to end or he’s walking himself right into his grave at this point. That kind of prolonged stress is exactly what he needs to avoid. Will you tell Jilli about this so she can monitor his condition if he gets upset about it again.”

Assuring Paul that Jilli would know the whole story, Ben waved as Paul drove off. He came inside just as Traci came walking out in tears. He stepped inside and Adam had stood and was looking at Hoss. Hoss said, ‘Go, go, she needs you now.’ and then sat back down. Ben could tell that Adam was torn. He wanted to go comfort Traci but didn’t want to do it at the expense of hurting his brother, so Ben intervened and told him to go see to Traci. Darren had his arm around his mother who was crying softly and looked at Ben and Hoss wondering what dynamic he had missed. He knew Hoss was interested in his sister and that Adam had been when they were much younger. But it was Adam who Hoss and Ben told to go comfort his sister.

Outside, Adam found Traci leaning on the corral fence and crying. As soon as he touched her shoulder, she whirled and was in his arms with her head on his shoulder. “Oh Adam, you don’t think that our relationship had anything to do with Papa’s stroke, do you? He would have been so upset if he knew, I know he would.”

“No one knows, sweetheart. We’ll keep it that way and no one gets hurt.”

“Except you. We didn’t do anything wrong and yet we can’t be together.”

“Nothing from nothing.”

“But it isn’t. We both know something now, but we have to walk away like it isn’t true. You don’t want to hurt Hoss any more, and I can’t tell Papa now. It would all be such an entertaining drama if we weren’t part of it.”

“In time, your father will be all right. Paul Martin is not prone to false hope and false expectations. He told you and your family exactly what he thought. A mild stroke is something that many people have survived and lived many years.”

No longer crying, Traci stood in Adam’s embrace getting solace from him. He ran his fingers through her hair and chuckled.

“You didn’t get to run a comb through this yet. There’s still some grass in it.”

“Well after everything that happened, no one would be surprised by that.”

“I can have Hop Sing draw a bath for you if you wish. Just go up and get a change of clothing and I’ll tell him.” Adam pulled his handkerchief and wiped tear streaks from her face. He smiled wistfully at her, and she knew too why he did it. There would be few occasions when they could hold each other without concern. This was one of those times. Traci thanked him and left to do as he had instructed. Adam stood watching her until she went in the house, and then with his head down, he headed to the kitchen to ask Hop Sing to draw a warm bath for her.

Hoss had watched from the window by the desk. Joe just shook his head at the sight. Joe had told Hoss that he wasn’t really in love with Traci, and that Adam was. He told him too that Traci loved Adam and not him because no one could determine how love would go. No one can make someone love them. It happens. Hoss had said he didn’t think Adam loved Traci even if Traci still had feelings for him, but now as he watched as Adam walked away looking so dejected, he decided he had to think about it more. As Traci came inside, Hoss assured her that her father would be all right in time. She didn’t look distraught any longer, but there was sadness about her in how she looked and how she walked. She told them she was going to take a bath.

Joe walked over to Hoss. “Do you need to see any more? It should be somewhat obvious to you at least. Do you want to put your own feelings over those of your brother? He’s going to let her walk away so he won’t hurt you. Can you do the same?”

“Joe, I just ain’t so sure it’s love they’re feeling. It could just be that they’re feeling that way cause of the way they once was. Heck, he ain’t even kissed her.”

Hoss walked outside. Darren had overheard much of their conversation. His mother was sitting at the dining table drinking coffee with Ben. Darren walked to the desk where Joe was now seated.

“He really doesn’t see it.”

“I know. Just by the way they look at each other kinda gives it away even if they don’t do or say anything.”

“I wasn’t watching for it with the two of them, but once you mentioned it, I thought about it. Hoss found them out at Adam’s work site and the lunch was still packed in the sack. That I know because we ate it while we were waiting for the wagon. What did he think they were doing instead of lunch?”

“My brother Hoss believes what he sees and what he hears directly. He’s not so big on noticing how someone looks at someone or how they look when that someone leaves the room.”

“So unless he sees them in a lovers’ clinch, it’s not true to him?”

“Ya, that about sums it up although I think he’s paying more attention now. I’ve tried to tell him, but he wants to be in love with Traci and he wants her to be in love with him. Tried to tell him it doesn’t work that way. If it did, he’d be married to Bessie Sue for years already.”

“Who’s Bessie Sue?”

“Oh, she’s a big gal who’s decided Hoss is the one for her. Hoss likes her well enough but he’s never loved her. Doesn’t mean she doesn’t keep trying to make him fall for her though.”

Hoss came back in and Joe and Darren stopped talking. Jillian came out from the bedroom to say that Max was conscious and he could have one visitor so Naomi went in to see him. Darren sat with Joe and Hoss waiting to see if he would be able to see his father. Soon, Jillian signaled him to come to the room too.

“He needs to see you to be sure that you’re all right. Don’t talk too much about what happened. Just assure him that you are fine. Try not to get him too excited about anything.”

As Darren entered the room, Jillian closed the door letting the three visit quietly. Ben asked if she should be in there, and she said that too many in the room would be too difficult for Max. She would stay close. Hoss was looking at her and appreciating her looks. Joe nudged Darren who noticed Hoss’ stare too.

“Why don’t you go over and introduce yourself?”

“Aw, shucks, Darren, she’s just here to be a nurse for your father. She don’t need me bothering her.”

“Well if you offered her a cup of coffee and some dinner, you wouldn’t be bothering her.”

Hoss nodded and smiled before walking over to introduce himself and do just that. Darren smirked at Joe. If this didn’t make Hoss understand, nothing would. If he really were in love with Traci, he wouldn’t be so anxious to get to know Jillian. Adam had come in quietly and was sitting, observing, and thinking that it appeared that Joe and Darren were trying to help him out.

Over the next few days, there were some good developments. As Max rested, his leg began to respond to the therapy that Jillian administered. Max had numbness and tingling in his right leg but could move it. He had some tingling in his right arm and hand but no numbness. Otherwise, he was unaffected. Two days after he was brought home unconscious, Jillian determined that he could have the talk with Adam that he had requested almost as soon as he could talk.

“Adam, I’m not sure I can change all the way I think about you and what happened to MJ. But you saved Darren’s life and you kept Traci safe. No matter what I thought before, I know you’re a brave man now and you did what a brave man would do. I am very grateful and there are no words that I can say to tell you how much I thank you. With what happened to MJ, I know you was only sixteen years old and I was more’n twenty years older than you and should have known better. If I hadn’t sent MJ out alone, the two of you would never a been in that situation.”

“Thank you, Mr. Maxim. I know that had to be hard for you to say.”

“So, let’s just let bygones be bygones?” Max stuck out his hand to Adam who stood and took Max’s hand in his.”

“Yes.”

“You are a man of few words, but you certainly make your point.”

“I should let you rest now. Jillian said we had ten minutes and then she was going to kick me out of here.”

“That is one fine nurse, but I would never be able to deal with such a bossy woman. It’s no wonder she’s not married.”

“I do need to get going if you don’t mind. I have some work to do for my father.”

Adam left just as Jillian was coming back to the room. She was giving instructions to Naomi next on Max’s care. The Maxims were planning to leave in a day, and there were things that Jillian wanted to make sure that Naomi understood. After reviewing the requirements that Max take it easy for some time and avoid stress, Jillian asked if they needed anything else. When they didn’t, she packed her bags and asked for a ride to town.

Within a day, the Maxims would be gone too, and life on the Ponderosa would return to normal except for the sadness for one Cartwright who was losing another woman he loved. He consoled himself with the fact that she at least was not harmed and had a fulfilling life in Arizona to which to return. That didn’t help him sleep at night though.

*****

Chapter 8

Before dinner that night, there was a round of story telling of things that had happened in the years the families had been apart. No longer were there any bad feelings hanging over the two families. They had a friendship forged in fire now. Joe and Hoss had many stories to tell and Darren turned out to be a fine storyteller too. The best storyteller in each family though remained quiet. Even when Joe had everyone laughing uproariously with the Hoss and the leprechauns tale, there was little reaction from Adam. He had pulled that mask down and nothing much was showing. When the bull fighting tale started, Joe urged Adam to describe Hoss being pushed down the street by the bull as he was holding on for his life. Adam did a brief description that got a few laughs, and then it was back to the other three telling and embellishing stories. Both Ben and Naomi were concerned about their eldest offspring. Neither knew enough to be able to discern the whole truth although both suspected. Traci yawned and started to take her leave of the group to head upstairs. Adam said he was heading outside for some fresh air.

“Well, maybe that’s what I need too. A dose of this crisp Nevada air might just rejuvenate me. All too soon, we’ll be suffering in the Arizona heat. A little fresh air before dinner might be nice.”

Adam held the door for Traci and then followed her outside.

“Would you like a walk? I don’t think I just want to stand around here. Too many prying eyes.”

“A walk would be delightful.”

And they walked and maintained their polite conversation. It wasn’t what they wanted most, but it was what they had decided it would be. After about twenty minutes, Traci abruptly stopped.

“I can’t do this. Either kiss me and hold me, or I have to go back inside. This being together and not together is torture.”

Adam dropped his head and looked away. As Traci started to leave, he stepped toward her and pulled her into his arms to kiss her as passionately as he was able.

“Adam, there has to be a way.”

“I’ve been thinking. At some point, Hoss will find another woman to love. Then it won’t matter. Can you wait for me? I don’t know how long it will be, but I can’t love another.”

“Oh, if it takes five years, it won’t matter. I just need to know there’s hope. I need to know that one day we’ll be together. We’ve got something and we can’t just turn our backs on it. Love doesn’t happen that often.”

They were interrupted by calls from Joe and quickly stepped apart.

“Hey Adam, Adam. Oh there you are. We’ve just decided that it’s Darren’s last night and we ought to go to town to give him a proper sendoff. We want you to come along.”

Hoss and Darren were right behind Joe with the same hopeful expressions he had.

“Adam, I need to give a proper thank you for what you and Hoss did for me. Without the two of you, I wouldn’t be here now. How about it?”

All three could see Traci’s telltale signs that she and Adam had been kissing. Her lips were red and a little puffy, and she was flushed. Hoss was the only one at all surprised by that, but after what Joe had told him, he had been more observant. He knew now that Adam and Traci had strong feelings for each other. What he didn’t know was how to let Adam know it was all right with him. He was thinking that maybe after a little whisky, he could just tell him how foolish he’d been and that he wouldn’t want to be a roadblock in the way of happiness for him

“You should go. My brother can be a lot of fun, but he needs someone to keep him from ending up in jail. I have a feeling that Joe and Hoss may not be the best candidates for that.”

Joe had to say something. “Hey, I resemble that fact.”

Hoss was just confused by that statement. Darren told him that after a couple of drinks, it would make more sense. He and Joe headed back toward the stable to saddle up some horses.

“Hey, Adam, you coming with us?” Hoss was hoping he’s say yes so that at some point they could talk. Traci would still be here when they got back. “I told Pa we wouldn’t stay too late. He’s got some work he wants us to do tomorrow. ‘This is still a working ranch. If you go to town during the week, I still expect a day’s work out of you the next day.’ You know how he can give a sermon.”

Chuckling, Adam said he would walk Traci to the house and then meet them at the stable. By the time he got there, they had Sport saddled although Darren was rubbing his arm. Joe was giggling.

“We told him that your horse likes to nip people. He figured with all of his experience on a horse ranch that he knew better than we did. He’s paying for it now.” Hoss chuckled more at that comment from Joe.

“If I woulda known he was gonna do that, I woulda let ya saddle your own damn horse. Why do you keep such an ornery mount?”

“He’s not ornery with me.” Adam rubbed Sport on the neck and the horse turned and nuzzled his master and friend.

Hoss tried to explain. “He may be ornery, but he is one smart and loyal horse. He’s stuck around a number of times when Adam’s been hurt or shot. Came back here to get help a few times too. He’s like Adam’s horse and his dog.”

As the four men rode to town, both Hoss and Joe were wondering what had changed. Adam didn’t seem as sad nor was he as crabby and short with them as he had been. Once they were in town and after the first drink as they sat nursing their second drink, Hoss had to ask.

“So, brother, ya got anything ya want to share with me and Joe?”

Joe was glad that Hoss asked because he wanted to know too. Darren had no idea what was going on because he didn’t know Adam well enough and had not endured his snide remarks the past few days. Adam wondered how much they knew but wasn’t ready to discuss this yet. Hoss finally accepted that he would have to be the one to just say it.

“I know about you and Traci.”

With a guarded expression, Adam looked at Hoss not knowing if he was angry or hurt or both. Instead, Hoss looked worried and Adam had no idea why he would look that way.

“Hey, Adam maybe I oughta buy you another drink?”

“Hoss, this is fine. I don’t need any more.”

“Well, maybe I do.” Hoss signaled the saloon gal who willingly came over to fill his glass.

She would have sat in his lap with all the whiskey he was buying from her tonight but he said ‘maybe later’ and let her go.

“Adam, I got something to say and I want ya to hear me out before ya say anything.” Hoss took a deep breath and started. “I been a darn fool. I wanted Traci to love me and I wanted to love her. I thought I had first dibs on her and so I could win her. Joe done told me that love ain’t a competition like when we’re trying to get a new gal in town to pick one of us. He says love just happens and ya can’t make it go one way or another. Before I was just seeing what I wanted to see and Traci liked me and I liked her. But I been watching you and Traci and I know ya love her. If she loves you, I think ya should just tell her to stay. There, I said my piece.”

Joe was observing and loved Adam’s reaction. “Hoss, you did it. You left Adam speechless and you know how hard that is to do.”

Adam frowned at Joe and then looked to Darren.

“Hey, two weeks ago if I had known you were interested in my sister, I would have called you out. Now, go for it. You two are enough alike that she should be happy, and the pickings down in Arizona leave a lot to be desired. There’s about a hundred men for every single female, and Traci says ninety-nine of em ain’t worth having and the other one is already married.”

All of them laughed at that. It sounded so much like Traci it was like she was there.

“It’s gonna take Pa some time to accept it after everything, but he’ll come around. One thing he cares about a lot is that his daughter is going to be happy. So you better do right by her.”

“So what are you waiting for, older brother? I got a gal who wants to sit on my lap and I can watch over these two younguns without your help.”

Hoss stood and so did Adam who looked at Hoss wondering if he really had meant everything that he had said. Hoss shoved him in the shoulder. “Go on. Go. She ain’t gonna wait for your ugly puss forever, you know.”

That got a grin and a thank you before Adam grabbed his hat and headed out the door.

“How fast do you think he’s gonna be riding?”

The three men laughed and Hoss headed over to talk to his favorite saloon gal, at least for tonight, and order some whiskey and let her know his lap was now available. Adam was already at the city’s edge and urged Sport into a gallop. He intended to get home as quickly but as safely as possible so although a run through the meadow and up over the ridge would be faster, he kept to the road. When he rode into the yard and went in the stable to put up Sport, Ben came out to see what was wrong.

“Nothing’s wrong, Pa. Everything’s finally right. Where’s Traci?”

Then Ben understood. Something had happened and Adam was ready to make his feelings for Traci known. “She’s inside packing. She’s going to be helping her mother get her father home safely.”

Nodding, Adam headed to the house. He took the stairs two at a time and was upstairs before Ben got back in the house. Naomi had just come out of the downstairs guest room to see him disappear around the corner.

“I thought our sons were making a night of it in town tonight?”

“Well, apparently plans for one of them have changed.”

When Adam got to Traci’s door, he stopped and watched her as she packed. She turned expecting Ben or her mother to be there and was shocked to see him. He grinned at her and she knew something good had happened. He explained what Hoss had told him and that Darren had accepted it too.

“But I do need to leave tomorrow. Mama needs my help with Papa.”

“I’ll come for you whenever you’re ready.”

Traci moved to him and they kissed. It was the kind of kiss that promised more not the desperately passionate kisses they had had earlier when they thought it was the last time they might be together. Adam held her in his arms then as she wrapped her arms around him. He buried his nose in her hair and inhaled deeply. She was doing the same with his chest. They stood that way for some time until an ‘ahem’ from the doorway let them know they had company.

“Traci, your mother needs you to help downstairs.”

After Traci left, Ben just raised an eyebrow at his eldest son.

“Yes, Pa, we’re a couple. We don’t have any formal plans of any kind yet. Traci has to help her mother with Max and who knows how long that could take. Then when she lets me know, I’ll go get her.”

“You’re getting married then?”

“I haven’t asked her, but I think we both know that I will. This is all pretty new now that Hoss gave me his blessing.” Then Adam explained the conversation he had with Hoss and then with Darren in town. “There’s no rush now that we know we have a future. We’ll have to show some restraint too I think in respect to Hoss’ feelings despite what he said.”

“Son, you’re thirty-four. If you’re going to be giving me those grandchildren, you better think about moving this right along, don’t you think?”

“Ah, Pa, there may not be any grandchildren.”

“The two of you already discussed that but not marriage?”

“Traci was married for almost ten years and was never pregnant. She may not be able to have children.” Ben had a pretty good idea why they would have had that conversation, but they were both old enough to make their own moral choices. It wasn’t something he would condone, but his son was past the stage where he needed his father’s permission.

“I hope you know that I have certain standards I hope you will respect in this house.”

Adam knew his father would understand the relationship that he and Traci already had, but also should have known that they would respect their parents’ homes. He gave one of those sardonic looks at his father, who just raised his hands in mute surrender. They understood each other.

Walking downstairs, Adam and Ben saw Traci talking with her mother. Naomi gave Adam a smile and then returned to the guest bedroom to care for Max. Adam took Traci by the arm and guided her outside.

“Did I do something wrong?”

“No, but I wanted to do this.” Adam pulled her to him and kissed her with open mouth kisses as he caressed her back. “Would you like to take another little walk?” His voice was hoarse with passion and Traci could just manage a nod herself. This time they walked toward the stable and then behind it. Once there, Adam pushed Traci up against the barn wall as he pressed his body into hers and kissed her thoroughly.

“Once was not enough, was it?”

“You are my obsession. You are in my thoughts and in my dreams. All I want is to be with you, to talk with you, hold you, kiss you, and love you.”

They had only been gone for about twenty minutes so Adam didn’t think his father would be overly suspicious. They walked arm-in-arm back to the porch as if that was all they had been doing. In the near darkness, no one would be able to tell otherwise. Once they were seated, they heard the door creak open and Ben came out with a lantern.

“It’s getting dark. I thought you might like some light. Hop Sing said he could have some coffee and cookies out here soon if you wanted them.”

Thanking his father for his thoughtfulness, Adam grinned at Traci as Ben returned inside. His father’s plans for keeping them chaste were rather endearing and of course well after the fact when they were needed.

“Adam, does he always act as if you’re still seventeen?”

“Shh, whisper! He’s probably sitting at his desk chaperoning. And to your question, yes, far too often.”

Hop Sing brought out a tray with cookies and coffee. Both thanked him, and once he was gone, Traci moved over and sat on Adam’s lap as he fed her cookie pieces.

Adam and Traci were still up and talking on the porch when Hoss, Joe, and Darren returned. No one was in jail so it had been a good night. At least that’s what they thought until the three stabled their horses and walked toward the porch where Adam and Traci were seated. There was only one lantern burning but it was enough. Each of the three was sporting some fresh bruises, and Joe was limping.

“What happened to you? Hoss, I thought you said you could watch over these two?”

“Well, Adam, I did. But you see, there are some people who just don’t have a sense of humor.”

“He’s right, Adam. Joe was just trying to get a laugh and this big guy gets all mad and throws him over the bar. He smashed into those shelves and he’s lucky to only have a few stitches, not that he can show you with a lady present. Course, it’s Traci, so it ain’t really a lady, but we still ought to act like gentlemen.”

Traci threw her boot at her brother. She had removed them earlier when she was sitting on Adam’s lap. Now they made handy missiles. They had heard the horses coming so she had been chastely sitting in a chair when they arrived in the yard. Now she wanted to hear what was so funny.

“Well, you might not be aware of this, Traci, but Joe ain’t afraid of spiders or frogs or none that stuff. So he pulled this trick he does sometimes to scare people.”

“Oh, no, you didn’t let him do the frog and the spider, did you? In a bar with a bunch of men who’ve been drinking? What were you thinking?”

“Adam, now come on. That thing he does is funny.”

“Will someone please tell me what he does?” Traci was getting frustrated, so Hoss thought to explain it to her.

“Well you see, he has this spider that’s kind of a pet except he don’t bring him everywhere cause he’s kinda big and most people just want to squash him. Right now he’s hiding somewhere in the Silver Dollar and we’re gonna have to go look for him in the daylight.”

“Hoss, just tell her the trick!”

“Geez, Adam, you sure are getting impatient as you get older. Traci, are you sure you wanta be with him cause he’s kinda crabby like this a lot?”

“Hoss!”

“Well, all right. Joe puts this spider under his hat, and sometimes he puts one of them little tree climbing frogs we got around here on his tongue. Well he takes his hat off, and people get shocked and then he answers them by sticking out his tongue with the frog on it. People usually jump back and it is so funny, it always gets a lot of laughs.”

Trace had to smile because she could see Joe doing something like that and it did sound funny. “But what happened tonight?”

“Well, he did it to that foreman over to the Bar Eight and he ain’t got no sense of humor at all. He jumped back and everyone started laughing, so he up and grabbed Joe and threw him over the bar. Well, I, uh, objected to that, and we threw a few punches and then Darren and Joe were there and his friends stepped in, and that was about it until Roy got there.”

Adam dropped his forehead into his hand. He didn’t want to hear much more of this. But he had to ask.

“How much were the damages and the fines?”

“Well now, it wasn’t too bad. Sam says about a hundred ought to cover it and most of that is for the bottles that broke when he threw Joe over the bar. But Roy tacked on twenty each for disturbing the peace. Then we have to pay Doctor Martin too, well actually, we gotta pay Jillian cause she stitched up Joe.”

“Stitches? Where?”

“Well, let’s just say that sitting a horse is less than comfortable for out little brother right now. Hey, the good news is that Jillian said she’d have dinner with me on Friday night.” Hoss was grinning. Joe was grimacing.

“Yeah, I’m laying on a table with my naked butt stuck in the air, and our brother decides that’s a good time to go chatting up a lady and asking her for a dinner date.”

“Well, Joe, you was just lying there not talking, and I didn’t want her to think we didn’t like her after all that time she spent here and all.”

Joe rolled his eyes and Adam did think it was funny. As the three men went into the house, Adam looked at Traci.

“Time for bed?” Noticing how she reacted, “And don’t give me that look. Your parents have to get used to the idea of us already so let’s not do anything to make that any more difficult than it already is. Besides, Pa has a sixth sense about these things. I’m surprised he wasn’t watching over us on the porch. Of course, that window by his desk is open so he can hear anything out here anyway.”

Traci snickered as they heard movement inside the darkened house. Adam had mentioned in a whisper earlier that he thought his father might be sitting at his desk while they were out on the porch. They gave him a reasonable amount of time to get up the stairs, and then walked in and kissed good night before retiring to their separate bedrooms.

*****

Another Angle

Chapter 1

Hawthorne, Tonopah, Goldfield, Beatty, Indian Springs, Henderson, Kingman, and Seligman: Adam thought he might be able to recite them forever. Finally he hoped to be in Flagstaff tomorrow. Riding a stage to get his bride-to-be was only fun in the sense that he would finally get to bring Traci home and begin a life with her. Meanwhile, he was eating dust and getting calluses on his butt. During the journey, it had either been so windy that nothing could keep the dust out of the coach and out of every sensitive spot on his body, or there was no wind and therefore no relief from the unrelenting heat. He could swear the coaches they used for these out of the way routes were made without any kind of springs at all. That, and he had to wait in each town, sometimes for hours, until packages and mail could be collected and packed on board after everything brought to these out of the way little communities had been offloaded. Apparently the schedule meant nothing as long as the stage left town on the same day it was scheduled to depart.

Therefore, it was no wonder that Traci had sent word that her father had not tolerated the trip well at all, and she would need to stay to help her mother longer than they had anticipated. Almost three months after he had last seen her, hugged her, and kissed her before watching the stage roll out of town, Adam had gotten a message that she was packing and ready to head north to be with him. He had said he would get her as soon as he got the word, and he had left as soon as he could despite his father’s objections that he was leaving them short-handed at a critical time. If all went reasonably well, he would be home in time to help with the fall cattle drive. He hoped that would satisfy his father even though it might upset his wife. He planned to ask her to marry him in Prescott so that her family could be present and so that her parents wouldn’t be upset about him traveling with her for over a week to get home to Virginia City. Then to satisfy his family, they would marry again once he arrived back on the Ponderosa. Everything had seemed much simpler when he was making these plans. Now he knew it would be difficult to get hotel rooms for each night on the return trip as the stage lines were that unreliable. They would have to take what they could get whenever they reached a town.

The next morning, Adam was groggy from lack of sleep for the heat had been insufferable and the mattress in the shabby hotel was so uncomfortable, he had pulled the bedding and slept on top of it all on the floor. He grabbed his valise and headed to the stage depot and wondered at all the people in the street. Apparently something had happened but all he wanted to do was get out of this town and head toward Prescott.

“Hey, mister, you ain’t gonna get to ride that stage today.”

Adam looked at the station manager wondering what the cause of the delay would be this time.

“Injuns, mister, we don’t want to send no passengers out. Just the stage and the mail are going.”

“What happened?”

“It’s just like that Felix Ward case from sixty-one. Them Indians done kidnapped another boy. Them Apache just don’t learn. The Army already took some captives again to try to trade for him, but you know what happened last time.”

“No, I’m afraid I don’t. I’m from Nevada and we don’t always get the details. What happened?

“Well the Army had their captives from Cochise’s band so he took some white people hostage. Said he didn’t have Felix. Well the Army got impatient, and they hung them six Apache. So them murdering Injuns killed and mutilated the hostages they had, even the women and children. Nobody could tell if they cut em up before or after they kilt em. Never did find that Felix though.”

“What does that have to do with me not being able to ride the stage today? If the driver can go, why can’t I?”

“Well, Mr. Jeffords, he made a deal with Cochise and they won’t bother no mail stage but if there’s a passenger, sometimes they don’t honor the deal. They already got those three Prescott hostages and might not bother to take another, but why take a chance.”

Adam felt like an icicle had just penetrated his chest. He knew the Apache would not have raided into the town itself so some ranch was the more likely target.

“Who did they take from Prescott?”

“Well they got the missus, and a daughter and a son from one of them big fancy horse ranches east of there, somewhere between Cottonwood and Prescott. I don’t know the names, but the people over at the newspaper probably have it if you’re so all fired curious.”

At a dead run, Adam went to the newspaper office that had been pointed out. He pushed his way through the crowd outside and asked to see a reporter. Finally, a young, thin, blond man stepped forward.

“Can I help you, sir?”

“Do you know the names of the people taken by the Apache? I was going there to marry my fiancée, and the description is too similar.”

The young man yelled back over his shoulder to someone in the back who yelled back ‘Maxim’ and Adam gripped the counter and dropped his head. He turned to leave when the young man called out to him.

“I’m sorry, but from your look, it has to be them. If you need help, the only person I would go to is Thomas Jeffords. He’s in town too. I saw him early this morning coming out of the stage office.”

“Why him?”

“He and Cochise got some kind of arrangement. I don’t know all about it but Cochise lets the mail stages through with no problem. If anyone can help you with this mess, it’s Jeffords. I wouldn’t trust the Army after what they did last time.”

“What does he look like? How can I find him?”

“See those two boys there on the bench outside. They’re my sons. Promise the first one to bring you to Jeffords two bits and they’ll find him.”

After making a deal with the two boys, Adam went to the telegraph office to let his family know the little he knew. The he went to the restaurant and ordered coffee only. He didn’t think his stomach could tolerate food. After less than thirty minutes, a slight but confident man walked in with one of the blond boys. Adam tossed two bits to the boy and to his brother who was dragging along behind in dejection. The two yelled thank you and ran off. After introductions, the two sat.

“I’ve heard a little of your story. Want to tell me the rest?”

“I was going to Prescott to marry Traci Maxim. Her mother Naomi and brother Darren are the other two hostages if my information is correct. I don’t know what happened to Max.”

“They left him behind because they thought he was crazy.”

“He had a mild stroke a few months ago. If he gets excited or upset, his speech becomes somewhat garbled. Otherwise, he’s pretty healthy although I don’t know what the stress of this has done to him.”

“How can I help you, Adam?”

“Can you get me to Cochise so we can talk?”

Tom Jeffords leaned back to appraise this man. Several years before, Tom had made friends with Cochise by doing just what this man proposed to do: go into hostile territory and approach Cochise with respect to talk about how to resolve this situation.

“What makes you think that will work?”

“Cochise knows my father and brothers. His men shot me so I was unable to meet him personally, but I believe he saw me lying on a blanket while I was unconscious. My father was honest and forthright with him, and I’m hoping he will accept that I can do the same.”

“Well, I hope you have some money. You’re going to need a horse. Let’s go get packed up to go.”

“Where are we going?”

“I’ll let you know that when we are out of town. Too many ears here and it’s too soon to let the Army have that information.”

Within an hour, Adam had a horse and saddle and was headed out of town with Tom Jeffords to go to Sycamore Canyon to meet with Cochise. On the Ponderosa, Joe and Hoss had already left, heading south to help their brother or console him. At this point, there was no way of knowing which it would be.

*****

Chapter 2

By the end of the day, Tom Jeffords and Adam had nearly reached Sycamore Canyon where Cochise had his current encampment. There was no evidence of campfires and Adam had to wonder if they were in the right place. After hours of riding and conversing with Tom, Adam was impressed with the man’s knowledge of the Apache especially the Chiracahua. However, there was so much at stake here, he couldn’t help but worry. Tom pulled up his mount at that point and looked pointedly at Adam.

“You can turn back now. If you go forward, you have to trust your life to Cochise and the Apache. They may kill you.”

“I have to do this. I can’t let Traci die because I did nothing. If I die, then that’s what happens, but I have to try.”

“You aren’t afraid of dying?”

“I don’t want to die, and I’ll do what I can to prevent it, but no I’m not afraid. I trust I know where I’ll be going next.”

“Interesting attitude. You have the type of character the Apache respect. Just hold true to your principles no matter what happens.”

With that, Tom nudged his horse into a fast walk. By now, they had been observed and it wouldn’t do to be too aggressive or too timid. Adam fell in behind him. When they reached the outskirts of the camp, more than a dozen men materialized behind them out of the rocks and brush. They had been followed. Tom slid off his horse so Adam followed suit, but where Tom walked forward unhindered, one of the men hit Adam in the back with a war club. Adam slammed against his horse and then with a fierce expression, he turned to face his attacker. He towered over the man but took no action even though he made it clear with his stance and demeanor that he would not be struck by the man again. Some of the Apache men laughed and one shoved Adam to encourage him to walk forward. They took his horse and Tom’s and tied them off to small saplings.

“Greetings, my brother. These are bad days.”

“Greetings, Cochise, my brother. Yes, there is sadness for many today.”

“Who is this stranger you bring among us, this man with the fierce face and anger in his eyes.”

“You know his father, Ben Cartwright and his brothers Hoss and Joe?”

“Yes, is this the brave one who was shot?”

“My father would say I was the foolish one that day.”

“Foolishness and bravery are not so different. If you had got the water, they would have called you brave.”

Nodding his head in agreement, Adam relaxed a little. If they were planning to kill him, it would likely have happened already. He looked around and saw a wickiup with a man standing guard and assumed that was where the Maxims were. Cochise saw his gaze.

“They are family to you?”

“The young woman is to be my wife.”

Cochise gestured and the man at the wickiup pulled the flap up and gestured to those inside to come out. Darren came first and he helped his mother out as Traci helped Naomi from behind. It was clear that Naomi had been injured in some way. As Darren and Traci looked over to the group of men, Traci gasped to see Adam there. She was afraid he had been captured too but then realized he was still wearing his gunbelt.

“May I go to them?”

Cochise nodded and Adam put his hand on his pistol lifting it out to hand to Cochise. At least ten men had leveled weapons at him as he pulled the pistol. Once he handed it to Cochise, they relaxed.

“I trust you would not do something foolish.”

“Cochise, I would not but I cannot vouch for Darren who would probably do anything to protect his mother and sister.”

Cochise accepted that because the young man was quite large and had been difficult to subdue. Adam walked carefully to where the Maxims stood. Once he reached them, Traci couldn’t hold back any longer and rushed into his arms.

“Why are you here? What is going on?”

“They’re holding you as hostages against four of their own who were taken by the Army who think they have kidnapped a young boy.”

All three of the Maxims went pale at that information. They were well aware of what had happened in the Felix Ward case. Things were looking very bleak for them.

“I’m going to try to work something out with Cochise. Tom Jeffords is helping me. You just need to stay strong. I will do anything to get you free of here. You have to be strong. Don’t show any weakness. They respect anyone who can take punishment and privation without complaint.”

Darren was maintaining a fierce look, but Naomi and Traci were looking almost blank. Adam sounded strong and resolute, but his heart was breaking. He couldn’t show emotion here but he wanted so desperately to do so. He wanted to grab Traci in his arms to hold her and reassure her he was doing everything he could. He hoped that the look on her face was because she understood and not because she thought he didn’t care enough.

Tom called to Adam that his time with the Maxims was up. He kissed Traci gently and could do no more. He had to be stoic. The three Maxims were herded back into the wickiup and the flap was closed again. Adam turned and walked back to Cochise and Tom Jeffords.

“I need to bring this boy back to the Army to settle this. Do you have any idea where he is?”

Cochise was impressed that Adam was direct and that he did not accuse them of this deed they denied.

“It is as before. The boy is with the Coyotero. They are camped on the other side of what you call Coconino Lake. There is good grass there now and the lake has water in it.”

Adam looked at Tom.

“It’s a shallow lake and dries up completely sometimes. But it’s a very big lake when it’s full like now. A good place to camp and let your horses graze.”

“How can we get them to give up the boy?”

“They will trade for him or you could challenge. Either way, you cannot be sure it will work.”

“Yes, but if we can find him there, however it works out, Tom can let the Army know that you do not have him so that the hostages and the captives could go free. What would they want in trade?”

“Rifles and ammunition would be their first choice but they would know as I do that you could not bring them those. Bring them horses and bright cloth. They can trade them to the Aravaipa here or the Jicarilla in Mexico or to the Comancheros to get the rifles they want so much.”

Tom looked at Cochise and wondered what he wasn’t saying. His expression was always guarded but those who knew him well knew when he was worried, and he was worried now.

“What worries you, my brother?”

“The Coyotero could kill you both. Then my men will hang at the Army fort and I will have to kill these people I hold here.”

“Then send someone who will stop the Coyotero from killing.”

Cochise looked at his men and saw some support there. Warriors were hard to replace. If they could get the four men back without losing more, it would be an accomplishment worth some risk.

“Tomorrow morning, Taza and Naiche will meet both of you at the stacking rocks. They will give you safe passage to the Coyotero.”

Tom nodded and motioned to Adam that it was time to leave. Adam thanked Cochise who handed his pistol back to him. They had a lot of riding to do before darkness settled in and a lot of things to gather in Sedona. It was much closer than going back to Seligman or Flagstaff. As they rode out, Tom told them that Cochise had made a big gesture.

“Taza and Naiche are his sons. Taza will likely be chief one day. By sending them with us, he is giving a very clear and direct message to the Coyotero not to harm us.”

Adam nodded but all he could see was that look of desperation and sadness on Traci’s face as she was herded back into that wickiup. Even if it meant his life, he had to free her from captivity.

*****

Chapter 3

Early the next morning as the hint of dawn broke over the mountains, Adam led a string of horses from the livery stable. The first in line had a pack across its back carrying bolts of colored cotton cloth. Tom Jeffords rode up as he was starting to ride out and the two continued on until Tom told Adam when to veer off to the left. Soon they passed a stack of rocks and three riders pulled out to join them. Taza and Naiche had brought Darren with them. He was not armed but he was not tied either. Taza spoke briefly to Tom.

“Cochise thinks he may be of use to us with his size and frankly doesn’t want to have to deal with him in camp any more. He thinks the two women are sufficient hostages.”

“Darren, how are the ladies?”

“Adam, Traci is holding up fine but Ma is sick. She needs medical care soon.”

“We’re doing what we can to make that happen.”

As they rode, Adam filled Darren in on what they were planning to do. Then they rode in silence and Adam’s mind was filled all too often with that last view he had of Traci with the fear in her eyes and the hope that he could do something. He had not slept that night for whenever he closed his eyes, he saw Traci’s face as he had seen her retreating back into the wickiup. Even if he died on this mission, Tom Jeffords would have the information to get the hostages released. At least that was his fervent hope, and hope was the only thing keeping him going. The five rode steadily to the east until Taza and Naiche signaled that they should ride south. The smoke of campfires was on the wind and they knew they were close.

Suddenly they were surrounded by armed men. None were directly threatening them but their looks were not friendly either. They rode slowly as the men flanked them and rode behind. In just a few minutes, they rode into the Coyotero camp. A man who had to be their chief was standing among the wickiups and had several men to either side of him. He did not ask their names as that would have given them status and recognition. Instead he demanded to know what they wanted.

“We have come for the white boy you took.”

“We have never taken a white boy. Look elsewhere for your lost pup.”

“You took Felix Ward five years ago and traded him to the Aravaipa who traded him to the Rope clan.” Tom Jeffords had given Adam some inside information.

The chief stood quietly.

“We brought horses and bolts of cloth for a trade.”

“It is not enough. You must win a challenge. When you lose, we get the horses and the cloth and if I let you live, you leave.”

“And if I win.”

The chief and most of the warriors present laughed at him for that statement. No white man who herded cattle and horses could beat an Apache man in a fight.

“If you win, then you get the boy, and I get the horses and the cloth in trade.”

“And I decide if I will let you live.”

Tom Jeffords thought he might have gone too far with that statement. The chief pointed to one of the warriors who stepped forward. He would be the one to fight Adam.

“Adam, let me do it. I’m bigger and stronger than you.”

“No, Darren, that isn’t what will win this fight.”

Sliding down from his horse without losing eye contact with the man he was to fight, Adam took off his hat and gunbelt. Then he moved away from the horses and the men as did his opponent. Within seconds, the man charged Adam and they began to wrestle. For the next fifteen minutes, they wrestled. The Apache man used his teeth to his advantage several times until Adam hit him square in the mouth bloodying his lips. Many blows were struck, and the worst for Adam were several blows to his back as well as a number to his abdomen. But Adam was taller and stronger with enough skills learned from his Paiute friends that he was doing quite well overall surprising the warriors there. Just when it looked like Adam was gaining an advantage, one of the other men stepped up behind him and kicked him between the legs. Adam dropped onto all fours. His opponent was ready to move in with a killing blow but when he raised his arms to bring them down on Adam’s neck, he was suddenly struck in the ribs by Darren’s arms in a savage blow. He crumpled to the side and then had trouble rising.

Then Darren glared at the other warriors daring them to interfere again. Adam slowly made his way to his feet but was still hunched over as his opponent finally made it to his feet. Darren was worried that Adam would be defeated but he noticed that Adam was standing oddly for someone who was severely injured. He was balancing on the balls of his feet. As his opponent rushed to him with another attempt at a killing blow, Adam exploded upward with a vicious uppercut to the man’s jaw that threw him on is back on the ground. Adam jumped on him and pulled him into a wrestling hold where he could not bite nor hit nor get his feet on the ground for leverage. Adam had won.

There were many menacing looks, but the presence of Taza and Naiche meant that the Coyotero had to honor their agreement. Tom nodded toward the horses and men were quick to take them into their possession. At a nod from the chief, the flap of a wickiup was pulled back and an eleven-year-old white boy was summoned from inside. When Adam saw him, he had a difficult time maintaining his stoic expression for it was obvious that the boy had been beaten. There were dark purple bruises and red marks as well as others that had faded to shades of green, brown, and yellow. In addition, there were numerous small cuts and abrasions that were red and fierce looking. Adam walked quickly to where the boy stood with Tom right there beside him within seconds.

“Hello, Timothy, my name is Adam and this is Tom. We’re going to take you back to your family.”

“Can’t. They shot my pa and burned up our house with ma and my brothers. There’s nobody left.” The boy had a neutral affect showing no emotion at all.

“That’s not true. Your pa survived his wounds, and your ma and brothers hid in the root cellar while the house burned. Your pa did a good job covering it with brush and they never found it.”

“Really?”

Tom stepped in quickly to give instructions to the boy on how to act. “Tim, we need you to walk out of here and show no tears and no anger. Walk with your back straight and your eyes straight ahead. We’ll be with you and then we’ll ride out of here without looking back.”

Adam stumbled a bit as they walked to their horses, and Tom glanced at him. He was concerned that he was seriously hurt but knew this was no place to investigate that. Pale and sweating by the time they mounted the horses, Adam was well aware he needed help but knew as Tom did that any show of weakness at this point could be devastating. He simply said they needed to get moving, and the six rode out with Tim riding with Tom. Once back at the stacking rocks, Taza and Naiche left to let their father know the first part of the plan had worked. Now Adam and Tom had to get the Army to release the captives. That would turn out to be more difficult than anticipated, but at least they weren’t hanged yet so there was still hope that the situation could be resolved without any more death.

*****

Chapter 4

Once the riders reached Cottonwood, there was a huge gathering in the street as people were excited to see Timothy released and relatively unharmed. All of them hoped that this situation could be resolved without more bloodshed because in five years earlier, hundreds of settlers and soldiers had died before peace could be restored. A telegraph was sent to Sedona to let them know that Timothy was safe and on his way to Fort Whipple with Adam and Tom. Darren headed for his home to see to his father. He would return to Sedona to meet with Adam and Tom and hopefully they would go to Sycamore Canyon to retrieve Naomi and Traci. Understandably Timothy wanted to go directly home but they needed him to prove to the Army that the Chiricahua Apache had not played any role in his abduction. Adam was shaky in the saddle but managing to the three of them headed to Fort Whipple. Once at the fort, they announced who they were and the guards let them in.

Tom walked with Tim to the commander’s office and Adam followed. Once inside, they were greeted by the fort’s commanding officer. Adam had noted that some of the horses they had here looked like horses they had sold from the Ponderosa. He hoped that might ease their introductions and it did, but the commander harbored some suspicion of both of them anyway. He didn’t like Tom Jeffords relationship with Cochise, and now Adam had met with Cochise and negotiated a deal with the Coyotero. Neither of those actions fit with the commander’s view of what white civilians ought to be doing in Arizona Territory and he told them that. Adam dropped his head and took a deep breath. He was trying to be diplomatic but the commander’s attitude was making it difficult. He also had slept only a few hours in almost three days, had been pounded in a fight, and ridden hundreds of miles in a few days. He had spent more time sitting a saddle than doing anything else. He was sore, tired, worried, and now frustrated.

“All we want you to do is to do what you promised. You said if the boy was released, you would release the captives. Tim is here!”

Tom was getting very worried. He wondered what the commander’s agenda was because he was obviously not ready to release those captives.

“What is it you want, commander?”

“I want justice. The Apache cannot continue to raid and kidnap, kill and wound, without consequence.”

“But the captives you have now were not part of these raids. The Coyotero did those not the Chiricahua.”

“No, but these men were in the raids Cochise led five years ago. No one was ever punished for those and I have an opportunity to rectify that omission.”

Neither Adam nor Tom could believe what they were hearing. Adam responded first.

“You will be condemning two innocent women to death.”

“With what’s probably happened to them at the hands of those savages, they’re better off dead anyway.”

Tom grabbed Adam before he could assault the commander. The threat was enough and the commander yelled for his clerk to have guards remove Adam and Tom from the fort. They were forcibly ejected from the office, handed the reins of their horses, and escorted from the fort. Tim was left in the custody of the Army.

“If anything happens to Traci, I’ll kill that popinjay!”

“Adam, stop it. You’ve been reasonable and rational until now. Threats like that won’t get us anywhere. Get yourself under control and let’s figure out a plan.”

“Let’s go to the Maxim ranch. Darren is there and so is Max. Maybe they know someone who can help.”

Adam and Tom had to ride into Prescott to get directions and then headed out to the ranch arriving late in the day. Adam saw some familiar horses and had the first smile albeit small that he had been able to muster since he had been in Seligman and heard the news. Riding up to the ranch house, four men stood on the porch of the imposing house and waved greetings. Hoss came down the steps first and grabbed Adam in a bear hug.

“Boy howdy, I am sure glad to see ya. Joe made me ride faster than I ever did in my life. We brought extra mounts and that boy hardly let me stop long enough to unpack jerky.”

“Thank you, thank you both. We could really use your help.” Darren and Max looked especially concerned by that news. They had hoped to hear that Naomi and Traci were on their way back.

“But they got the boy back, why won’t they release the captives?” was the question voiced by all four once Adam and Tom started explaining. Tom told them he thought that the commander had a hidden agenda and that somehow these captives were important in his plans. All four also got quite upset when Adam told them through gritted teeth what the commander had said about the fate of the two women.

“I know some people but it could take too much time.” Darren had been in the Union military during the Civil War and had connections. “The commander I know is at Camp Colorado. He has been working to improve relations with the Apache in order to keep travel safe. He has friends in high places too because he served with Howard in the War. I’ll head to town and send off some telegrams. Then I think I’ll head to Camp Colorado to see if I can explain better in person. I hope someone can rescind that Whipple commander’s orders.” Darren mounted up and left.

Tom offered to head to Cochise’s camp to reassure the chief that all that could be done was being done. He knew that Cochise was likely to be more patient than the Whipple commander, but it wouldn’t hurt to let him know what they were doing. Of course, his presence in the camp would keep Naomi and Traci safer because Tom was confident that nothing would happen to them while he was there.

Earlier Joe had seen Adam grimace in Hoss’ bear hug. He could see he had been in a fight as well. “What happened to you? You look like you took on a grizzly and lost.”

“I had to fight to win Tim.”

“But you said you traded horses for him?” Hoss was confused.

“Yeah, they let me trade the horses for him because I won the fight.”

“Your brother fights dirty too. Those warriors appreciated that.” With that last comment, Tom turned his horse and left.

“Well, welcome to my home. I certainly wish it had been under better circumstances, but at least they didn’t burn the thing down. I guess them thinking I was crazy helped me out that way. You all need to get some rest. Inside, Minerva can show you to rooms. Adam, there’s plenty of food on the table as well. We had sandwiches before you arrived. The bedrooms will stay much cooler if you leave the doors open.” Max was back to being in charge. Now that they had a plan, he was less worried but knew he wouldn’t sleep. He wondered at first how these three Cartwrights could sleep at all and then remembered they hadn’t slept much in the past three days.

*****

Chapter 5

As dawn broke the next morning, Hoss dressed hurriedly when he awoke. He expected that Adam would be up and anxious to go and didn’t want him riding off alone. When he walked down the hall and glanced in Adam’s room though, he was shocked. Adam was using the chamber pot and his urine was brown. He was naked and there were bruises all over especially on his back.

“Why didn’t you say how bad you was hurt?”

“I have to get Traci free. I can’t stop until she’s out of there.”

“Well, you’re gonna stop right now. Won’t do no good if she gets rescued and you’re dead. You know as well as I do that the only place you should be right now is in bed. There’s no way I’m letting you get on a horse today so you better just lay back on that bed right now.”

Hoss put his hand on Adam’s forehead and was relieved that he was warm but there was no sign of a fever. It was hot here so being warm was expected. Adam had jerked his head away as Hoss had checked for fever, but although Adam had the strength of will to resist Hoss, his body had nothing left to fight. Hoss pushed him on the shoulder and he fell back on the bed.

“See there, you can’t even sit up ifn I give you a little push. Now just rest easy and I’ll get something up here for you to drink.”

Leaving the room as Adam slid back and pulled a sheet over himself, Hoss stepped back in and picked up Adam’s clothes.

“These need washing anyway, and it’s more of a guarantee that you ain’t gettin outta that bed.”

“Hoss, please, I have to get Traci.”

“That’s what Joe and me are here to do. We’re gonna get that gal back for ya, don’t ya worry. Good thing, little brother made us hurry.”

“Why is that a good thing?” A sleepy Joe had emerged from his bedroom and only heard the last part.

“Our older brother’s got some banged up kidneys and needs to stay in bed. I told him we’re gonna get Traci for him, and he needs to stay in bed.”

Snickering when he saw Hoss had Adam’s clothing, Joe nodded.

“Don’t you worry, older brother, Hoss and I can do this.”

“Why does that not reassure me coming from you?”

“Hey, it’s only those schemes of mine that backfire sometimes.”

“Sometimes!”

“Well, yeah, sometimes. Well, anyway, you know I’ll do what I say I’m gonna do when it’s important or die trying.”

“Well that’s got me worried too. This isn’t your fight or Hoss’. This is my fight and I ought to be the one risking my neck.”

“Now it’s a good thing Hoss is already downstairs with your dirty clothes cause he would have been really hurt hearing you say that. Traci’s part of the family now, or have you changed your mind about that?”

“Of course not.”

“Well then, let us do what family does, and you just get ready to welcome her home.”

“Just tell us where to go, and we’ll go see to her.”

“Sycamore Canyon. Max can tell you how to get there.”

“Thank you, older brother, for trusting us. We’ll bring her back.”

Lying back on the pillow, Adam nodded and then closed his eyes. He hurt all over and just sitting up had made him light-headed and nauseous. He knew that his brothers were correct but hated that they were. He wanted so much to be there for Traci when she was finally released. He heard horses head out and assumed his brothers were off on their rescue mission. He hoped that Darren had been successful in his quest as well, and that Tom had managed to keep things cool-headed in the Apache camp. All he could do now was wait. He heard uneven steps coming up the stairs and down the hall and knew it was Max. Max came in with a tray of Minerva’s tea and some biscuits. As he set the tray on the table by the bed, Adam looked at him and saw how worried he was suddenly remembering that Max was in the same situation: wanting so badly to rescue his love and helpless to do anything.

“Minerva will bring you clean clothes shortly, but your brothers had her hide your boots. I don’t even know where she put them, so you’re stuck here like me. She said the tea and biscuits would settle your stomach. How she knows you need that is beyond me.”

Accepting a cup of tea, Adam sipped slowly and found that after about ten minutes, the nausea was lifting. He asked for a biscuit, and then he and Max sat quietly for a time drinking tea and eating biscuits. Sitting, drinking, worrying, and waiting were about all they could do. Minerva brought more tea as often as she could. When Adam complained he it was too difficult to eliminate the tea and he didn’t want to drink any more, she said it would get easier if he drank more. He found she was correct. She was the Maxim version of Hop Sing. Adam did wonder why Minerva had been spared from the Apache raid.

“Why didn’t the Apache take Minerva?”

“They won’t take any black people. They know the whites won’t bargain for them, and somehow have a grudging respect for the ‘buffalo people’ as they call them. She’s been with us since we got here. She was a runaway from Texas and got caught up by the Comancheros. They sold her to us, but we told her she was free to go. She couldn’t believe that we would pay money for her freedom. She decided to stay and work for us. She had a husband for a time who worked for us too, but he ran off on her when he found out she was going to have a baby. The baby was stillborn, so we’re still the only family she has.”

Nodding in appreciation of the key elements of that story, Adam liked that Max called her ‘family’ because that was how he thought of Hop Sing too. Somehow that story brought the two men even closer together than the shared love they had for Traci and the shared torment over the captivity of the ladies they loved. Once Minerva brought Adam clean clothing to wear, the two men moved to the porch and sat in the big rocking chairs there. Minerva brought them light snacks and more tea. As dusk descended, Max urged Adam to go in and lie down, but he refused. He would wait on that porch until the next day if he had to. Shortly after darkness had blinded them to any approaching riders, they heard horses. Adam stood and leaned on the post next to the steps with Max at his side. Several hands came out of the bunkhouse with rifles to see who the riders were. The hands had been in town having a good time when the ranch was raided so now there were always at least two hands armed and ready at any time of day or night. The halloo from Darren made everyone relax their guard and start to smile. He would only be back if they had been successful.

Max went down the steps as fast as he could and as the riders came into view in the dim light shown by the lanterns Minerva had set out on the porch, he nearly cried when he said ‘Naomi’ as she slid from the saddle and ran to him. Traci dismounted and looked at Adam as he leaned on the post of the porch. He smiled at her but didn’t approach her. In her mind, she felt he didn’t want her because that is what she had feared all along. She had seen other white women returned from captivity and their men had rejected them. To spare her worry, Hoss had only told her that Adam was exhausted and needed rest as the reason he had not come with them but now his absence in the rescue party only reinforced her fear. She rushed into her father’s embrace and began sobbing for all that she thought she had lost. Not understanding what had happened, Max held his wife in one arm and his sobbing daughter in the other and went into the house. As they passed Adam, he wanted to reach out to Traci but she avoided looking at him. Hoss walked up on the porch next to his brother wondering what had happened.

“All the way back here, all she could do was ask about you or talk about you. Now she avoided you like you done something wrong. I don’t rightly know what happened.”

Dropping his head, Adam had nothing he could say. All he had wanted was for Traci to be found and now it seemed as if he had lost her anyway. Hoss put an arm around his brother’s shoulders as Joe walked up to them. Joe looked at Hoss wondering what had happened and Hoss shrugged for he had no idea either.

“Hoss, could you help me down the steps and lean me up against a tree over there.”

At Hoss’ questioning look, he explained he needed to go and he couldn’t walk that far without something to lean on. His strength had been sapped by the kidney problem he had. Hoss did as he asked, and then Adam asked for some time as he said it took him a while to go because it was still difficult although not as bad as it had been earlier. Hoss walked inside and explained to Joe about Adam. Minerva came in the room and looked around.

“Where’s that sick boy I been nursing all day?”

Embarrassed to have to say where he was, Hoss finally stammered it out.

“Well he shouldn’t be out there all alone. Boy can hardly stand by himself and I know he can’t walk back here by himself. Took two of us to get him down those stairs before and then back up to the porch.”

Not believing what she was hearing, Traci pulled free from her father’s embrace and raced out the door and down the steps. Adam was kneeling by the tree with his head down. Traci ran to his side, knelt next to him, and wrapped her arms around him.

“If I’d known that falling down would get me a hug like that, I would have done it before.”

“No one told me you were sick. I thought you didn’t want me any more.”

Looking at her like she was talking crazy, Adam touched her face with his hand cupping her chin and raising her to look directly at him.

“I would have given my life to get you back. I would have given anything I had. You are the most precious, most valuable, most beautiful woman in the world. All I want is to never be separated from you again.”

Traci kissed Adam gently then. From the porch, they heard Minerva call out.

“C’mon now child, we have to get that boy in here before he catches a chill on top of everything else.”

“It’s still hot out here. How could I catch a chill?”

“Lordy, you mountain boys don’t know a chill when y’all feel one.”

“Mountain boy?” In a whisper to Traci, he added “Will she always treat us like we’re seventeen-years old?” Traci laughed and Minerva heard the change in her. It was a laugh like when two people who are very close to one another are sharing a secret. It made her know that her Traci was all right.

*****

Chapter 6

Later Traci was sitting on the side of the bed where Minerva had instructed Hoss to put Adam. Hoss had helped him ready for bed, and then come out to tell Traci he wanted to see her.

After kissing him, she had asked one more question.

“Why were you barefoot tonight? It’s dangerous to be barefoot around here with the snakes, spiders, ants, and scorpions.”

“Hoss and Joe had Minerva hide my boots after she took my clothes so I couldn’t ride out after you.”

“Mama said she could tell how much you cared. You were so businesslike when we saw you at the camp that I thought you were just doing what you felt obligated to do, but Mama said it was how you had to act. She said it was an act, and that you were really hurting inside. I was so scared and I wanted you to hold me, but you said to hold it all in and I did.”

“You don’t have to hold it in any more.”

Traci dropped her head to his shoulder and the tears came. Adam shed a few of his own as he suffered with his lady love. He stroked her back and held her tightly. After she had a good cry, she leaned over to kiss him.

“Sorry about the salty kiss.”

“Sweetheart, any kiss of yours is welcome.”

Naomi came to the door and told Traci it was time to let Adam sleep.

“You aren’t married yet so you’ll be sleeping in your own bed.” Max was right beside Naomi with his arm around her waist. He had not left her side since she had arrived home. Naomi felt a little sorry for Traci not having the comfort she so desperately wanted but it just wasn’t right to let them sleep in the same bed. Traci kissed Adam good night and whispered in his ear. He grinned at her and she left with less sorrow than she had had. Once the house was quiet except for Hoss and Darren snoring, Traci put on her robe and went back to Adam’s room. She slipped into the bed next to him and rested her head on his chest. Adam wrapped an arm around her and kissed the top of her head. They had a short whispered conversation and then snuggled in to sleep.

“Goodnight, sweetheart.”

“Goodnight, love.”

And that’s how Naomi found them the next morning when she went to Traci’s room and found that her bed had not been slept in. Max came up behind her as she stood with the door to Adam’s room slightly ajar.

“Let them be. I know how sick he is and nothing is going to happen except he will give comfort to our daughter. Now close the door, and we’ll go have some breakfast.”

“Are they gone yet?” Traci whispered to Adam and he pulled her to him for a kiss as an answer. “I guess they’re gone.” And Traci kissed Adam and kept kissing and kissing. “Whoa, I may be sick but I’m not dead. If you keep doing that, there’s going to be a problem.”

“All right then. Last night you said you had a question for me and would ask in the morning. Well, it’s morning.”

“Yes it is, and aren’t you full of energy this morning.”

“Stop delaying. What were you going to ask me?”

“Will you marry me here?”

“Well of course I’ll marry you. I already told you that months ago. Oh, you mean like now, and here. Oh yes, of course.” And she began kissing him again.

“If your family can make arrangements, how about as soon as possible?”

“That won’t be fast enough.”

“Well, it will have to be. Now why don’t you go back to your room to dress and let me do the same here.”

“I could help you?” Traci had that impish grin she liked to use when she was teasing him.

“First, I need to use the chamber pot. I don’t think you want to be here for that. Then I need to shave. I’ll open the door when I’m ready and we can go down to breakfast together and tell your parents the news.”

“Mama is going to be so happy. She was afraid we’d be married on the Ponderosa and she wasn’t sure if Papa could make the trip again so soon.”

At the breakfast table, everyone had finished eating by the time Adam and Traci made it down the stairs. Adam did the stairs by himself but used the railing. At the bottom of the stairs, he put his arm around Traci and she steadied him as they slowly walked to the dining table. Once they were there and while they were still in an embrace, they told Traci’s parents of the change in plans. Naomi jumped up and kissed Adam on the cheek. Minerva came in from the kitchen beaming. Max was happy because Naomi and Traci were happy.

Hoss said he had to go to town to send a telegram to their father, and Darren said he would ride with him and talk to the minister. Usually the groom did that but Adam still couldn’t ride. It was decided that Hoss and Darren would take the buckboard so that they could bring some supplies home for the wedding celebration that Max and Naomi hoped could be by the next day. Although there was a lot to do, it was for a joyous occasion and would help erase the trauma of the raid and captivity for everyone.

Decorating and cooking were done by Minerva and Naomi with the help of a young wife of one of the hands who lived on the ranch. The men cleaned up the yard and repaired some damage left from the raid. Luckily the Chiricahua had been worried that there might be hands coming in because of the gunfire and they had left without burning any of the buildings when they had kidnapped Naomi, Darren, and Traci. There was a pre-wedding dinner where they had some of the dishes made from food that had been left over from baking and cooking for the wedding feast. The plan was to have the wedding in the morning and then the feast would follow. After that, there would be some music and dancing but everyone knew Adam would not be dancing at his wedding for he could barely walk on his own by that morning.

The next morning was cooler than it had been but the heat was still intense. Adam stood by the minister’s side waiting for Traci who was walking toward him. He started to get dizzy standing for so long but Hoss was there to steady him and Joe came up on the other side of him and gave him a glass of icy water supplied by Minerva. Adam drank it down and then nodded that he was better. The minister understood the situation and made this the shortest marriage ceremony he ever did in his career. Once he pronounced Adam and Traci married, Hoss let go of Adam’s elbow and told him he was on his own to kiss the bride. He was highly motivated to do that right so he managed without assistance as Hoss mentioned later in his wedding toast to his older brother.

After sampling quite a bit of the punch, Joe had a few questions for Hoss.

“Now that Adam’s married, does that mean you’re next or can I go next?”

“Do you have someone in mind?”

“No, but I’m always looking. Now, this is Adam’s wedding night but he can barely walk so how’s he gonna be able to do anything?”

“Joe, walking and standing are not very important on your wedding night unless you got some mighty strange ideas about what people do on their wedding night.”

“Oh yeah, and no of course not. I was just wondering. This punch is really good, you know. I think I’m gonna go have some more.”

“Not too much more. We’re supposed to be leaving tomorrow. Pa needs us back at the ranch.”

“Well what about Adam? He needs him too, doesn’t he?”

“Of course, but remember what you said about Adam not being able to hardly walk? He’ll be traveling with Traci in a week or so they think. They’ll ride in a wagon or carriage to come back. Adam isn’t going to be riding a horse that soon.”

By early evening, it was clear that Adam had had enough activity. He and Traci were getting ready to retire to the house when they got a bit of a surprise. The ladies had fixed up the married hands house for Adam and Traci so they could have some privacy. The married hand and his wife would use a guest bedroom in the house for the next day. All of Adam’s things and those things that Traci needed had already been moved into the small house. It only had a small kitchen and dining area with one bedroom but it was all they needed. Some food had been set out there for them and there was wine chilling for them as well.

Unable to carry his bride over the threshold, Adam hugged and kissed Traci as they stepped inside instead. They continued that way until they got to the bed and then collapsed on it. Adam didn’t have to stand up until the next morning. By then he was starting to feel quite a bit better. Adam shaved, and they both refreshed themselves using the scented water that had been left for them. He and Traci sampled some of the food on the table, and then went back to bed but didn’t sleep. Max had said they were expected for dinner, and they didn’t get out of bed again until it was time to dress to go to dinner with everyone. Except Hoss and Joe had said their goodbyes the night before and had already left early that morning. Any lingering concerns Max may still have harbored about Adam were gone when he saw how happy his daughter was when she arrived with Adam at the house for dinner.

*****

Chapter 7

In less than a week, Adam and Traci were ready to set out for the Ponderosa. Max and Naomi had gifted them a pair of fine carriage horses and a covered carriage. They would travel to the Ponderosa in relative comfort. The horse that Adam had ridden down from Seligman was sold. Max sent two of the hands to escort them north because the Coyotero could still be a problem even though the Army had increased patrols all around the Cococino area. Once they reached Seligman, the two men escorting them returned to Prescott. Another week of travel at a reasonable pace and they would arrive back at the Ponderosa, Adam’s home and now Traci’s too.

After a few days, a telegram arrived on the Ponderosa for Ben.

“”Adam and Traci are in Beatty. Says that Adam needs to rest and they will be delayed. I thought you two said he was fine when you left?”

“Well, Pa maybe he can’t be in the saddle all day and then all night too.”

Hoss started laughing uproariously at Joe’s comment, and Ben had to stifle a laugh too for propriety’s sake at least.

“Joseph, your brother was injured, and I thought Hoss said he was taking a carriage or wagon to ride home instead of a horse or the stage?”

“That’s right, Pa. He was feeling better by the time Joe and me left, but you know how he pushes himself sometimes. Maybe Traci has reined him in so he don’t get himself sick.”

So Ben and his sons waited longer for Adam and Traci to arrive but after a week they still were not on the Ponderosa and there had been no more telegrams. Ben sent a telegram to Beatty and received a response from the hotel there that a Mr. and Mrs. Adam Cartwright had never been there. Ben rode into town after receiving that message and talked to Roy. Something was wrong. Roy telegraphed the sheriff of Beatty and was informed soon after that ‘Adam and Tracy Cartwright had never been in Beatty’. Alarm could not have been more pronounced in Roy and Ben when that reply came in.

“Now, how did he know that it was Adam and Traci Cartwright when I specifically asked about a Mr. and Mrs. Adam Cartwright?”

“Roy, he spelled her name incorrectly too like you would do if you only heard the name and didn’t see it written.”

“Now, mebbe you and I oughta ride down there and talk to them folks in person. I’ll just wire the governor’s office to get me some authority in that jurisdiction, and we can be on our way.”

“Joe and Hoss will want to come too. I’ll ride home to get them and by then hopefully you will have your reply because I’m heading straight to Beatty as soon as my sons are ready to ride.”

Before Roy could caution Ben about taking the law into his own hands, Ben was out the door and riding out of town. He must have set a breakneck pace riding because before Roy expected him back, he was there with Joe and Hoss and three extra horses. They meant to ride hard and fast. Roy got his own horse and a spare, and the four rode out.

Camping just one night, they arrived in Beatty late the following day. They took rooms at the hotel and Ben and Roy looked at the sign-in ledger. The pages for the days when Adam and Traci should have been here had been torn out. Roy pulled his badge and asked why the pages were missing. The clerk said that he had spilled ink and the pages were ruined so he had to pull them out. The man was looking everywhere but at them as he talked and sweat beaded on his upper lip. You didn’t have to be in law enforcement to know he was lying.

“Now, son, I got authorization from the governor to investigate the disappearance of two people in this town. Ifn I was you, I’d start telling the truth before I ended up in a cell.”

“I can’t tell you anything.”

“Can’t or won’t?” Ben’s temper was rising as was his voice. Joe and Hoss stood behind Roy and Ben making a formidable threat, but still the clerk seemed more afraid of someone else.

“Now, son, I’m the sheriff over to Virginia City, and these folks here are friends of the governor over to Carson City and he sent me here to help them. You don’t rightly want to have the government of the state of Nevada mad at ya, now do ya?”

“Can I help you folks?”

“Yes, and who would you be?”

“Well, I’m Sheriff Tomlinson. And who would you be?”

“I’m Ben Cartwright and I’m here looking for my son. Last we heard from him, he was in this town and now apparently he was never here.”

“I’m Sheriff Coffee from Virginia City.”

“Sheriff, you have no jurisdiction here.”

“Well, the governor of our fine state says I do. He sent me here as his agent to help find Adam Cartwright and his wife. I’m sure he’s expecting that you would be helping us.”

Watching the clerk as Ben and Roy were talking with Tomlinson, Hoss realized that he was even more frightened now that the sheriff was there. That didn’t make sense unless the sheriff was part of the problem. He leaned over and whispered his suspicions to Joe who also started watching the clerk. After just a few minutes, he looked at Hoss and nodded. The clerk was definitely afraid of the sheriff. The sheriff said he had checked with the clerk and there was no record of any Adam and Traci Cartwright staying there. Ben and Roy did not mention that he should not have known Traci’s name if they had not been there. Soon they took their leave and went upstairs to their rooms soon gathering in Ben’s room to discuss the situation.

“Well, we know the clerk’s lying. The sheriff is lying. Really got me worried, Pa.”

“Hoss, I know, I’m worried too. Something just isn’t right here but we haven’t got much to go on yet. Let’s get some sleep and Roy and I can nose around tomorrow and see what hornets we can stir up in this nest.”

“What are Hoss and I going to be doing?”

“Your going to be watching our backs so we don’t get stung.”

“Ya, boys, just do as your Pa asks and what ya done tonight. That was a good observation on the clerk and we wouldn’t have seen it as we was talking with the sheriff.”

Sleep was elusive but all got some rest. As they sat at breakfast the next morning, a large covered carriage pulled into town pulled by two matching black horses. Hoss almost spit his coffee out. He stood and stared at the carriage.

“Pa, that’s the carriage that Max gave to Adam and Traci. Those are the two horses he give em too.”

Joe turned and looked out the window and confirmed Hoss’ information. All four rose to find out who had Adam’s carriage. They were surprised and then not surprised to see the sheriff greet the man driving the carriage and assist the woman at his side in alighting from the carriage. The large M emblems that had been on the wheels had been removed but the outlines of the Ms were still there. They fanned out around the three people by the carriage as Roy approached.

“Well Sheriff Tomlinson, would you like to introduce me to your friends here? Maybe they seen Adam and his wife.”

Adopting a friendly expression he clearly didn’t feel, the sheriff introduced his brother and his wife. They owned a large ranch outside of town.

“Now where did you get such a fancy carriage out here and such a fine matched set of horses?”

“Oh, we’ve had them for ages, isn’t that right, dear?”

Mrs. Tomlinson was looking nervous but nodded at her husband’s question.

“Well, you see that is right interesting cause that carriage was at Max Maxim’s ranch in Arizona just over a week ago and those horses too. Now he gifted them to his new son-in-law and well, it’s a might strange that you have them now and sayin you had them for quite some time.”

Sheriff Tomlinson and his brother both went to draw but had four guns pointed at them before they cleared leather. Seeing inevitable defeat, they raised their hands. At this point, all that could be proven was that they had the carriage and the horses without a bill of sale. Theft was the only thing they could be charged with and there was reasonable doubt they each thought. Hoss and Joe disarmed them and Roy marched them to the jail locking them in the single cell there. He knew they would try to match up stories so he had Joe sit guard next to the cell. Mrs. Tomlinson had stood and watched the whole thing. Ben escorted her to the sheriff’s office and had her sit in the outer room next to the desk and he sat there guarding her. Roy went to wire the governor’s office that he needed some legal help in Beatty after telling Hoss to bring the hotel clerk in for questioning.

After the clerk admitted lying about Adam and Traci being there, they had enough to hold the Tomlinson’s on a suspected abduction. Hopefully it was nothing more than that. The clerk also said that Mr. Tomlinson had repeatedly visited the hotel trying to get Adam to sell him the carriage horses. Adam had refused and five days earlier when he and his wife checked out of the hotel, he had gotten quite angry and shoved Mr. Tomlinson who had then threatened him. Mrs. Tomlinson admitted that her husband had arrived home about five days previously with the carriage and the horses. That same day, the sheriff had come to the hotel, checked the register, and torn two pages out of that ledger telling the clerk that he had never seen the Cartwrights. Well they had most of the story now but the huge question looming over all of them was: where were Adam and Traci?

*****

Chapter 8

“Where do we look? It’s like a needle in a haystack to find two people in hundreds of square miles.”

“Pa, I think we can narrow it down some. Adam and Traci left town, so that would have been north. The Tomlinson ranch is north and west of here. Likely they took them somewhere north of town and then took the carriage to the ranch. They gotta be out to the northwest somewhere. Likely they are stranded with no horses to use.”

What Hoss didn’t say but they all knew, was that if they had not been killed outright, they were out in the wilderness with nothing to help them survive and probably had been out there for almost a week now. The governor had sent some agents from the attorney general’s office but they still only had a small group who could help search.

There was the sound of horses outside and then a knock on the door of the sheriff’s office. Mrs. Tomlinson, who had been released with no charges filed, entered with two young men following behind her. They were carrying a blanket wrapped parcel and placed it on the sheriff’s desk. Inside was Adam’s wallet, his pistol and gunbelt, his saddlebags, Traci’s small valise in which she carried any items of value, and Traci’s purse.

“We found these items in our stable in a tack box. I am assuming they belong to the people for whom you are searching. My sons can help.”

“Ma’am, I thank you for a bringing these things to us. It’s more proof though that your husband committed a crime. I can’t rightly let his sons help in a search for his victims. I hope you understand that.”

“Sheriff Coffee. These are my sons, Robert and James. Mr. Tomlinson was their stepfather and I assume he will be going to prison finally as will his brother. My sons will run the ranch. His reign of terror over us and over this town is over. Several men who worked for us have fled. I assume they were part of his criminal activities. Those who are left can help search as well.”

Now that certainly put a different light on the situation. Roy and Ben discussed what Hoss had said, and the Tomlinsons agreed that it was the most likely scenario.

“Sheriff, my brother Robert and I hunt up that way a lot. There’s Apache who travel through there sometimes. There are some nice places to camp though so if they found one of those spots, they could still be alive.”

Riding north town, the riders began to fan out over the terrain. After several hours, they found the discarded luggage. It had been thrown in a ravine. Walking all around the area, Hoss found tracks of two people and that of an unshod horse. Adam and Traci had made those tracks but who was the Native American who was with them? Was he friend or foe or just a stranger? Hoss with the help of the Tomlinson boys started looking for more tracks. They spent most of the day tracking finding only a few tracks at a time in the rocky terrain and then spending a lot of time looking for the next set. Late in the afternoon, they approached a grove of trees. They saw a wickiup and assumed it was an Indian camp. However they also heard a man and woman laughing and talking. Ben, his sons, and Roy immediately recognized Adam’s voice. They knew he was alive and the relief was palpable. They dismounted at the wickiup and ground tied their horses. Then they went in search of Adam and Traci following the sounds of laughter and talking. They saw their clothing first thrown over bushes. Then they found the two of them in a pool of water.

“Adam?” Adam whirled at the sound of his father’s voice and pushed Traci behind him. Neither was apparently wearing any clothing. Standing waist deep in water, Adam answered.

“Oh, hi, Pa.”

“We thought you might be dead or injured. Certainly struggling to survive. Can you tell me why you appear to be perfectly healthy and you didn’t let us know you were all right?”

“Well, first of all, we washed our clothing today, and while it dried, we were washing ourselves. Now if you don’t mind, we would like some privacy to get dressed even if we have to wear damp clothing.”

“We have your luggage. Hoss, Joe, would you please bring those valises here?” Once that was accomplished, the searchers went back to the wickiup and waited. Soon, Adam and Traci joined them there. Adam was limping and using a wooden staff to help walk.

“Thank you for bringing our luggage. It sure feels good to have clean, dry clothes to wear.”

“What happened to your leg, and would you please answer my previous question?”

“Well we got bushwhacked for the carriage and the horses. They took everything we had and then made us ride out into the middle of nothing. They left us there with no food, no weapons, and no horses. I’m sure they expected us to die.”

Joe was getting impatient. “Then how are you doing so well? You don’t look hungry at all and you are here in this nice spot with water and a wickiup.”

Adam started to tell the tale. “Cochise sent Taza to watch over us. We didn’t know, but the Coyotero are apparently still upset with me, and Cochise wanted to make sure there was no more trouble. When Taza saw us bushwhacked, he followed along until they abandoned us. Then he rode up to us and helped us get here. It wasn’t easy with just one pony either. He helped us build this wickiup and hunted for us the first day. I’ve been setting snares and catching some fish too.”

“Is he still here?” Hoss would have liked to see him to thank him.

“Probably but I don’t know if he’ll come forward with so many strange white men here.”

Hoss got the hint and mounted up to ride further into the trees. He came back in a short time to say that Taza had taken his leave. There was nothing for him to do here any more. Meanwhile Ben still had more questions.

“Why didn’t you contact us?”

“Well, I couldn’t ride, and Taza could hardly go into town to send a telegram for us. I wouldn’t let Traci go by herself. So we waited. Sooner or later, we thought you would find us. And you did! Either that or Taza was going to have to get some horses for us.”

“You neglected to mention what happened to your leg.”

“Ah, oh that, well, Pa, I got shot. It went right through but it hurt a lot. Traci used some of her petticoats to bandage it, and Taza cut me a walking stick. He let Traci and I ride on his horse as he brought us here.”

“Can you ride now?”

“I’m certain I can. Did you get our carriage back?”

So then Ben explained the whole story of the Tomlinsons and what had happened including that the sheriff was the brother and in jail too. Now charges of kidnapping and assault could be added. The next day they all rode back to Beatty and gave statements. With so much evidence, there was little doubt there would be convictions of the two Tomlinson brothers. Beatty was going to need to have another election for sheriff too. Then finally, weeks later than expected Adam and Traci arrived on the Ponderosa to begin their married life there.

*****

A New Angle

Chapter 1

“Why can’t I go with you on the cattle drive? I grew up on a ranch and I’ve been riding and shooting as long as you have!”

“Traci, you are not going with me. There is no way to set up a camp to accommodate a female, and I’m not sure I would like having my wife being watched over by a bunch of men who won’t see a woman for six weeks!”

“I was held captive by the Apache. You and I were bushwhacked and lived in the wilderness for over a week with nothing other than the clothes we were wearing. How can being on a cattle drive be anything at all as bad as that?”

Sitting on the porch as nightfall approached, Ben, Hoss, and Joe were reluctant to go back in the house. Adam and Traci had been arguing about the trail drive for quite a while and it had become louder and louder. They could hear every word now, and it didn’t seem there was any way for this to turn out well. Several times Ben had thought he could go in and try to mediate the dispute, but then another round would start and he would decide it was best to stay out of their argument. Hoss had gone to the kitchen door and gotten coffee and cookies for them to snack on while they waited for the fireworks to subside. Hoss wished he could have gotten the checkerboard but wasn’t going anywhere near Adam when he was this upset.

“We’ve been married less than a month. I promised to love, honor, and protect you. How can I do that and boss a cattle drive at the same time?”

“Yes, we’ve been married less than a month, and yesterday, I had to endure a party to celebrate our marriage with all of your old girlfriends making some rather pointed remarks about whether I was up to the challenge or not. Well, you riding off and leaving me for six weeks isn’t a very good way to show them that you made the right choice!”

Suddenly there were comments they couldn’t hear well enough to understand as Adam first and then Traci were speaking much more softly and less often. Then there was silence. After a few minutes, Ben got up, tapped out the ashes from his pipe, and began to walk to the front door.

“Pa, you sure ya wanna go in there?”

“Oh, Hoss, it’s all over now. One way or the other, it’s settled.”

Hoss and Joe looked at each other wondering how he could possibly know that as he had been hearing the same things they had before the silence.

“Boys, when you’re married, and I’m hoping that is sooner rather than later, you will know that an argument is over when there is silence. I’m sure by now they’re upstairs in the bedroom. Bed is where I think I’m heading as well. Goodnight.”

Picking up the tray with the empty plate and cups, Hoss headed to the kitchen still thinking about what his father had said. Joe followed him in and then the two of them went from the kitchen to the great room finding it empty. Hoss walked over to bolt the front door.

“Hey, Hoss, how do you suppose he knew they would be upstairs in their bedroom? We never heard them say anything about going to bed.”

“Well, Pa’s been married three times. Musta been how they was talking or something and he figured it out.”

Once they reached the top of the stairs, the sounds they heard let them know exactly what Adam and Traci were doing. No matter what Adam did, that bed of his squeaked and those rhythmic squeaks they were hearing now could only mean one thing.

“Well, Hoss, they ain’t fighting any more.”

“Wrestling though.” Hoss laughed and went into his bedroom as Joe continued down the hallway to his. The next morning as Ben walked down the hall, he smiled as he heard the same squeaking. Adam had always been an early riser. About fifteen minutes later, Adam and Traci joined him at the breakfast table. They could hear noise upstairs and knew that Hoss and Joe were getting up as well but all three had finished breakfast by the time the other two came plodding down the stairs. Adam was getting his old rifle from the gun cabinet. After taking a box of cartridges, he relocked the cabinet. Hoss knew that Adam would take his Henry rifle along so he wondered at the extra weapon.

“Expecting trouble, older brother?”

“No, just being prepared.” Then he picked up two saddlebags and headed outside with Traci who was wearing a riding skirt.

“Hey, Pa, do you know what’s up?” Hoss was very curious. Joe would have been too except he was still half asleep.

“Adam and Traci made a deal. She’s going on the drive. She will be the cook’s assistant and not complain. She will wear a pistol at all times and dress in riding skirts and not pants. And I’m sure there are a few other fine points your brother has made her swear to that they did not share with me.”

“Well, I’ll be. That little gal won an argument with older brother. Never thought I would see the day.”

Chuckling, Joe had to make a comment. “Maybe the deal has some fringe benefits for our brother. Don’t think he would want to do without now that he’s married.”

“Joseph, you should be careful to be respectful in your comments when they concern Traci. I don’t think your brother will appreciate such comments especially because there might be some crude comments he will have to deal with on the drive. You know the men may not appreciate having his wife along.”

“Ya, Joe, we’re gonna have to be there to support Adam if any of the men complain. You know some of them think a woman is bad luck on a cattle drive.”

“Yeah, well they better not say anything against Traci where I can hear em.”

Ben and Hoss had to smile. Joe had become very protective of his new sister-in-law. Hoss reminded Ben to take the letter into town that he had written to Jillian, and to drop off instructions with the International House restaurant and the mercantile. Hoss had made arrangements for some small gifts to be delivered in his absence, and for a few lunches to be provided as well. He very much liked Jillian and didn’t want her thinking he didn’t care when he was gone for a month and a half.

The drive was taking so long because this was the biggest drive they had ever attempted and ironically might be the last one they would do. If the spur line was finished by spring, they would only have to bring the cattle to the railroad and ship them out anywhere in the country. However they had far too many cattle on the range and knew winter losses would be excessive unless they culled the herd to a manageable size.

In the stable, Adam was trying to review the important issues involved in this cattle drive. Traci was not being cooperative.

“I like you in chaps. Kinda draws the eye right there.” And she touched him so he couldn’t possibly mistake the point she was trying to make.

“Now we talked about this. On the drive, you can’t act this way. Any teasing comments or behavior or anything like you just did are going to cause problems. We have to act like family but we have to be reserved in our behavior. If you could treat me more like a brother than a husband, it would help.”

“But we’re not on the drive yet.”

By the look on Adam’s face, Traci knew she had to stop. He had been gracious enough to let her win the argument at least partially. She would be on the drive at least and not sitting at home missing him. She told him she would behave and he leaned over and kissed her.

“We might find a little time to misbehave, but let’s make sure it’s the right time?” As Adam grinned at her, she grinned back. What could go wrong when a man like her husband was in charge. She was looking forward to her first cattle drive.

*****

Chapter 2

That day, the cattle were moved off the Ponderosa as fences were removed and then replaced. They made good time with the herd for the first day and everyone was in a good mood by the time they could settle in camp and have dinner. Traci had found that being cook’s assistant was much harder than she expected not knowing that she was being tested. Cookie gave her as much work as he could to see if she would quit. If she was a quitter, he needed to know right away so he could get someone to help him before they were too far on the trail to hire someone. It was hard enough on those mountain trails to get meals prepared, and move the chuck-wagon three times per day. They were the last ones working in the evening and the first to work in the morning every day although of course men took turns watching over the herd at night.

Behind the wagon and away from the men, Adam threw down his saddle and bedroll and grabbed another bedroll from the wagon for Traci. He was going to watch over her at night, and if he wasn’t there, one of his brothers would. He thought Cookie would be able to keep her safe during the day. Traci walked behind the wagon after finishing dishwashing and then packing everything away that would not be needed for breakfast. She dropped down next to Adam exhausted and a little grumpy. Adam pulled her into an embrace and she expected to be kissed but instead he started massaging her back.

“Hmmm, that’s nice.”

Then he did kiss her before telling her to lie down. She smiled hoping that there would be more and again there was but not what she expected. Adam began massaging her calves and then her thighs.

“Oww, that hurts a little.”

“You’re using muscles you probably haven’t used a lot like this. This will help.”

“How about you? Is there something I could massage on you to make you feel better?”

“No!” then he whispered “Traci I warned you about this. There is no privacy here.”

On the other side of the wagon, Joe and Hoss snickered at the ‘No’ that Adam had almost yelped for they could guess exactly what had happened. The whispers afterwards confirmed the intimacy. After a short time, all four were sleeping though because it had been a very long day. At about three in the morning, Hoss waked Adam for they were going to ride herd for the last shift. Hoss had to smile as Adam slid away from Traci who had been sleeping nestled against his chest. As he stood he settled her back into the blankets the two of them had used. She started to wake and he told her to go back to sleep for she had another hour of rest before Cookie would wake her. She just groaned at that and snuggled back into the warmth of the blankets as Hoss and Adam walked to the remuda to get their mounts for the day.

“That looks like a real nice way to wake up in the morning.”

Hoss was grinning at Adam who smiled a little sheepishly before retorting.

“Thinking about doing something about that for yourself?”

Then it was Hoss’ turn to look a little sheepish. He hadn’t asked her yet because being with Jillian made him too nervous to ask. He admired her so much and it hurt his self-confidence a bit as he wondered if she would say yes if he asked. So by his reasoning, if he didn’t ask, she couldn’t say no.

“She’s going to say yes, you know.”

“And how would you know that? You know a lot but I didn’t think you could read minds.”

“With the way she looks at you gave me the first clues. The other one came from a little bird.”

“Traci? She done told Traci she would say yes?”

“Hoss, you know I can’t break a confidence with my wife and tell you something like that.” Grinning as his back was to Hoss, Adam finished saddling his mount. As he turned back to look at Hoss, he saw his brother frowning in consternation, and he wondered what else could be wrong.

“Do ya think Pa would mind another woman in the house?”

“Pa would be overjoyed, and as soon as spring rolls around, I’m going to start building a house for Traci and me so it won’t be two women in the house for long.”

“You’re the oldest. Shouldn’t I be the one to move out?”

“Traci and I would like a little privacy. A new house it is.”

Then Hoss knew exactly what he meant.

“Maybe I’d like a new house too.”

Adam grinned at Hoss’ smile. They always did understand each other so well.

On the hill overlooking the camp, four men watched as Adam and Hoss rode out. They had planned on rustling some of this huge herd, but now had a different idea.

“If we take some of them cattle, we got to herd them somewhere, change the brands, and then get them to a buyer who doesn’t look too close to see what he’s buying. If we take her and get the cash box, we can be away from here so fast, they’ll never catch us. Then when we get far enough away, we let her go so even if they follow us, they’ll have to take care of her.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why would they need to take care of her?”

“Well, we might have a little fun before we let her go.”

The three older men laughed and young Jake was embarrassed. He so wanted these men to respect him as a man, but he had never even thought about doing something with her so he knew they were laughing at him again. The four men trailed the chuck wagon as the camp broke up later. The more that Jake watched Traci, the more he fantasized about what he would do so he could impress these three hard men. By midmorning, the wagon was well away from the herd and the four rode down to intercept it.

The outlaws broke from the brush along the trail and surprised Cookie and Traci who had been talking and not expecting any kind of trouble. Cookie and Traci were ordered to drop their weapons and Traci was ordered from the seat to go in the back and get the cash box. Once she did that, Jake jumped off his horse to get the cash box and hand it to one of the other men. Then he grabbed Traci forcing her up against the wagon and trying to kiss her. Traci fought back but Jake was much taller, stronger, and almost in a frenzy with her resistance.

Earlier Adam had sent Joe to ride to the chuck-wagon to tell them of a slight change in plans and that they would need to set up camp later and further along the trail so that they could take advantage of water holes. Joe saw the wagon just about the time that Jake tore open Traci’s dress and attempted to fondle her. Joe pulled his pistol and yelled for him to stop. Jake made the last mistake of his life then as he drew down on Joe. Cookie used the distraction to pull up the rifle Adam had stowed by the seat of the wagon and had the other three men covered before they could draw. Faced with two guns already pointed in their direction, the three men raised their hands. Joe wondered if the shots would bring help or if it would stampede the herd. Unfortunately, it was the stampede as the men riding herd had no warning that anything might spook the cattle. Joe heard the thunder of hooves as nearly six hundred cattle started to run. He ordered the outlaws off their horses and told them to lie on the ground. He stripped off his jacket then and wrapped it around Traci’s shoulders before searching in the wagon for rope that he used to bind the men’s hands and arms. They would all wait here to see what the results of the stampede would be.

*****

Chapter 3

After almost four hours, the first riders from the herd reached the wagon. Hoss had sent them back because they had expected the wagon at the lunch stop and it wasn’t there, and Joe had not returned either. Hoss had his hands full as temporary trail boss, and he expected there was a good chance he would have to boss the rest of the drive. Adam and Hoss had been near the front of the herd when the cattle broke into a run. Along with two other men, they rode to turn the herd and had done so but Adam had gotten into the thick of the herd and his left leg had been gored. The wound itself wasn’t too serious by trail drive standards, but just a few weeks earlier, he had been shot in the right calf so riding a horse was difficult if not impossible for him at the moment. He had told their father that the healing wound on his right leg wouldn’t interfere with his ability to do the job, but now both legs were injured.

When a rider returned to explain what had happened at the chuck-wagon though nothing could stop Adam from climbing up on a horse and riding back. Hoss could see the blood soaking the bandage again before they had ridden more than a mile and urged him to stop, but he wouldn’t even listen as he pushed his mount to go faster. When they got to the chuck-wagon, Adam dismounted and promptly fell. Hoss rushed to his side to help him.

“Ya durn fool, ya ain’t gonna help Traci ifn you hurt yourself any worse. Now let me help you to the wagon.”

As they neared the wagon, Joe stood. Hoss could see someone wearing Joe’s green jacket leaning against the wagon wheel and knew it had to be Traci. So did Adam, who tried to walk faster to get to her. Once at her side, Adam dropped to his knees next to her. Traci didn’t look at him. She didn’t even move. Adam reached out to touch her, and she cringed.

“She’s been like that ever since it happened. She won’t say a word. Cookie and I tried to get her to drink something but she won’t let us near her.”

The pain in Adam’s leg and the blood loss and shock were making it difficult for him to think. He started feeling woozy as well and turned and almost collapsed up against the other side of the wheel where Traci was sitting. He stretched out his leg, and Joe asked what happened.

“Durn fool thinks he can turn a herd all by himself and got gored, and then he rides back here before we could properly take care of that leg.”

“I didn’t try to turn the herd by myself. I just made a slight miscalculation and ended up inside the herd instead of outside.” Hoss had pulled bandages and other medical supplies from the wagon and knelt down by Adam’s leg.

“You’re hurt!” They were the first words that Traci had spoken since the attack on her. She moved then to look at his wound, and reached for the bandages to unwrap the soggy mess.

“Now, Traci, darlin, you don’t have to do that.”

“Let me take care of him!” Traci almost yelled the words. Adam nodded to Hoss to let her care for the wound. After she removed the bandage, she reached for the wet soapy cloth that Hoss had prepared and carefully cleaned the area around the wound glancing up at Adam to make sure she wasn’t hurting him. He kept a neutral face to reassure her. When she poured some alcohol into the wound though, he couldn’t help it and cried out. Traci immediately moved to his and held him.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I didn’t want to hurt you.”

“Sweetheart, it’s all right. It feels better already.”

Reassuring Traci again that he was doing better, Adam continued to watch Traci trying to determine how he should act and what he should say. She went back to care for his leg powdering it and holding a thick wad of bandage to the wound. After about fifteen minutes while everyone remained silent, she lifted the wad, nodded, and took more bandage to wind around his leg. Then she sat back on her heels and looked at Adam.

“Come here.”

Those two words started a torrent of tears. Traci lost all control and dropped into Adam’s embrace. He held her as she sobbed into his chest until she had no more tears to shed and had only shuddering gasps left instead of sobs. He had never expected this and wasn’t sure what to say next. He had been doing all right so far, so he went with his next thought.

“I love you. I’m so sorry this happened to you.”

That statement made Traci start crying again. Adam looked up at Hoss wondering what he should be doing.

“You’re doing just fine, older brother. You take good care of her now, and we’ll take care of everything else.”

With Hoss’ care of wounded animals, he knew that sometimes what was needed most was close contact and reassurance. Adam was doing all that he could for now. Traci had to cry the demons out. He suspected it was the cumulative effect of all these things that had happened in the last month. What he didn’t know was that there was another reason for her emotional collapse.

“I’m so sorry, Adam. I don’t know why I can’t stop crying. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

“Nothing’s wrong with you. You’re so damn close to perfect I have to pinch myself every morning to be sure I’m not dreaming that I’m married to you. You have every right to cry. What happened to you should never have happened, and I am so sorry it did. With this big herd, they would have known we were carrying an unusually large amount of cash. I should have had someone riding shotgun on the wagon.”

“This isn’t your fault. It’s the fault of those four rotten men.”

“Exactly! Now, will you tell yourself that? It’s true for you too.”

There would be more episodes of tears over the next weeks as the drive continued. Adam was with Traci all the time though so she had a shoulder to cry on whenever she needed it. What she wanted most though they couldn’t do as there was no privacy for the two of them especially with Adam injured and unable to walk very far. Every day Adam rode in the wagon with Cookie, and Traci rode beside the wagon. Adam carried his rifle at the ready and Traci did the same. They would not be surprised again. In the evenings, Hoss and Adam would confer about how the day had gone. Hoss handled everything he could, but made plans with Adam and Joe in the evenings. Joe continued as ramrod and his experience in that job helped things run smoothly.

Except for a few cattle lost in the stampede and which provided beef for meals, the herd arrived safely at the stockyards and there was a large money draft to be deposited after the men were paid. Those along just for the drive were paid off. Those from the Ponderosa were paid and given a bonus before being sent back to the ranch. A couple of the temporary hands who had done well were told that if they arrived on the Ponderosa in spring, there would be a job for them and that they could collect a small signing bonus then.

Because of some lingering tenderness in Adam’s leg, he went to see a doctor at Traci’s insistence. There was a small abscess that had to be lanced. The doctor assured him that otherwise, the wound was healing well and he had nothing to worry about. Cleaned up and bandaged again, the leg didn’t give him any more trouble. While they were at the doctor’s office, Adam mentioned that Traci had been attacked and that after five weeks was still very emotional and sometimes cried to the point of retching. The doctor asked to examine her and then came out to call Adam in to the room before giving his diagnosis. Contrary to what her first husband had always claimed, she could in fact get pregnant and was. Adam stood in shock and Traci was worried he was unhappy. After all, he had accepted her assertion that she couldn’t get pregnant and now two and a half months after their wedding, she was pregnant. Then he looked at her and she saw the tears in his eyes.

“I’ve won the biggest jackpot there ever was.”

Traci rushed into his arms as the doctor stood smiling before retreating to give them some privacy. It wasn’t that often he got to give all good news to a couple.

*****

Chapter 4

The four Cartwrights rode back to the Ponderosa with the chuck-wagon and Cookie. Cookie wasn’t much for ranch work but they would keep him on for the times they needed a cook out on the range or on a drive if they did another one. Traci tired quickly, and Adam’s leg was still healing from the procedure the doctor had done, so they made slower progress than they would have otherwise. After Adam told Joe and Hoss the news though they were more than happy to cater to their sister-in-law who was carrying the first of the next generation. Hoss liked riding with Cookie because they had wonderful meals for the entire trip.

As they neared the Ponderosa though, all of them were anxious to be home where they could get a bath, clean clothing, and a nice soft bed. Traci was especially interested in the bed. Now Adam understood why she had been both so amorous and so frustrated on the drive as the doctor had told Traci that could be a side effect of pregnancy and not to worry about it, so she told Adam as soon as she could. They had one night in a hotel before they had headed for home. Adam benefited from all the times Traci had wanted to make love with him and couldn’t. Hoss had joshed him about the big smile he was wearing that next morning and when Traci came in the restaurant with a nearly identical smile, Joe spit his coffee out he laughed so hard and so suddenly. On the trail, they teased Adam and Traci quite a bit, but were always gracious in allowing them privacy without making them ask.

As soon as Joe saw the buildings of home appear in the distance, he took off at a gallop and Hoss was right behind him. Traci would have liked to do the same but knew Adam wouldn’t want to yet. She rode with him but they did pick up the pace. When they entered the yard, they saw unfamiliar carriages. Joe came out to tell them they had guests, a lot of guests. Pa had been surprised but had managed to find room for all of them. Will and Laura with Peggy were there from San Francisco where Will had established an import/export business after selling the ranch. And Max and Naomi were there to see their daughter. Adam had sent them a letter explaining what had happened on the drive and they wanted to be there to be sure their daughter was all right. Max was not happy.

“You dragged my daughter on a cattle drive! I can’t believe you had so little consideration for her that you would do that.” were the first words Adam got from Max after saying hello. Naomi gave him a sympathetic look for she knew how protective Max was of his daughter.

“Papa, I argued for hours with Adam to get him to take me along. It was my idea.”

“Well he should have known better.”

“He did, but Papa, you know how I can be.”

Indeed Max did know how Traci could be and how formidable she could be in an argument. However he wasn’t quite ready to forgive yet. Then Laura had to interject her thoughts just as Max was thinking it through and calming down.

“My husband would never let me ride in skirts like that with a bunch of men who have no wives. The way that they would look at a woman is just not something a respectable woman would want.”

“Laura, you’re not helping.” Adam was rather pointed in his remark as he looked with irritation at Laura. Again, he was thinking that Will had done him a favor by his underhanded courtship of his fiancée. It had been a betrayal that saved him from a much worse fate. He wrapped his arm around Traci’s waist as he stood waiting for Max’s next salvo for he knew there would be one after Laura’s comment except Laura wasn’t done yet.

“Well, aren’t you at all interested in why Will and I came to visit. We wanted you to be among the first to know. We’re going to have a baby.”

Standing quietly, Adam waited for Max to have more to say and he did complaining about how Will treated his wife as a woman and Adam treated Traci like a cowhand using the pregnancy as the proof of the contrast between the two. When Adam and Traci said nothing, Joe stepped in to the conversation thinking that his brother and his sister-in-law needed some help.

“Adam, tell them. Traci can do it all, and have a baby too.”

Adam grimaced as he felt Traci tense up beside him. They had wanted to announce to the future grandparents first before telling anyone else. Well it was too late for that now. Max couldn’t believe what he had just heard.

“You dragged your pregnant wife out on a cattle drive! What kind of selfish bastard are you anyway?”

Turning away from Max, Traci burst into tears and then ran outside. Giving a glare to everyone, Adam quickly followed.

“Maxwell Maxim, I have had about enough. Every time you criticize Adam, you are criticizing your daughter. She loves him and he loves her. How they conduct their lives is none of your business as long as he keeps his vows to her and her to him.”

“Naomi, then you think it was all right for him to take our daughter on a cattle drive?”

“I’m sure he argued long and hard against it, but she is her father’s daughter, so if she went on that cattle drive, you are as responsible as anyone else. You’re the one that taught her to fight for what she wanted. Well she did!”

“Mr. Maxim, Adam didn’t know Traci was pregnant until the drive was over. He never would have let her win that argument if he had known. She didn’t know either. Adam had to see the doctor about his leg, and he asked the doctor about Traci’s crying and all, so the doctor checked her out and told them. That’s the first they knew.” Hoss thought they needed all the information especially because Max had drawn a wrong conclusion already.

Naomi had to add one more thought. “Max, we thought Traci would never have children. This should be a joyous occasion not a sad and angry time.”

There was silence as Max thought and most of the others held their tongues hoping that Max was done. Even Laura was uncomfortable. She didn’t like anyone criticizing Adam like that. Laura understood Naomi’s point perfectly: if you criticized Adam, then you were criticizing the woman who chose him. About that time, Ben thought to try to defuse the situation a bit by offering sherry to everyone. Hop Sing had been waiting to bring out snacks and did so now that things were quieter. The discussion turned to more mundane matters of travel and business.

After more than an hour had passed since Traci and Adam had stormed out of the house, Ben, Hoss, and Joe were getting a little worried. Hoss volunteered to go find them and make sure everything was all right. Hoss looked everywhere he could think and then thought to look behind the stable and that’s where he found them. Traci was cuddled into Adam’s chest as he sat against the stable wall. He was caressing her back as his other hand slowly stroked through her hair. Adam noted the movement at the corner of the stable and smiled at Hoss. Adam gave Hoss a thumbs-up and Hoss left to go tell everyone that the two of them were doing just fine.

“Who was it?” Traci didn’t even look up. She continued to rest against Adam’s chest listening to the rhythm of his heart and how his chest rumbled when he said something to her. She had a hand inside his shirt and was playing with the hair on his chest.

“That was Hoss. He looked worried so I suppose they were wondering if we were upset or fighting.”

“Well it’s a good thing he didn’t come out any sooner. He would have gotten quite an eyeful, and I don’t think I could have handled any more today.”

“You are quite the loving wench lately. I think I am going to like having you pregnant. We’ll have to have more after this one.” Traci pinched his nipple for that one. “Oww, I was just teasing a little. You wouldn’t want me to do that to you every time you tease me.” So Traci pushed back his shirt and kissed the offended nipple. That led to more kissing and loving, and it was another hour before they decided to head back to the house.

As Traci and Adam entered the house they heard laughing and talking. Everything seemed so normal. Naomi came up to Traci with a big smile and hugged her daughter. Then she hugged Adam and kissed his cheek. She whispered in his ear, and then announced loudly enough for all to hear that Adam was her ‘dream come true’ for her daughter. Traci asked Adam what her mother had whispered and he whispered it to Traci after his father came up and congratulated both of them.

“She said I really ought to shave next time before I kiss you that much.” Traci’s hands went to her cheeks and she could feel the warmth of her reddened cheeks. Now everyone except perhaps Peggy would know that there had been some major kissing going on and probably could guess everything else too. Adam leaned down to whisper in her ear one more time before dinner. “It really is all right. We’re married. We’re entitled to kiss each other as much as we want.”

That Traci never left Adam’s side and the whispering the two did when no one was congratulating them made an impression on Max who walked over to the couple making them nervous.

“I’m sorry. Everything I said was uncalled for. I just worry so much for my daughter that I forgot that isn’t my job any more. I protected her and indulged her for years. Adam, you are going to be paying for my indulgences to my daughter for a very long time, I’m afraid.” There were a few chuckles at that and finally everyone laughed. The tension was broken and dinner could proceed.

*****

Chapter 5

After dinner everyone gathered in the great room to relax. Adam noticed Peggy looking at him furtively at times but she had yet to greet him. Assuming that Peggy was not happy that he was married, Adam thought to give her some time to adjust to the new situation. Adam sat on the settee with Traci next to him and Naomi on the other end. Max took the red chair and Ben the blue one. Will pulled two more chairs over to the seating and he and Laura sat there as well. Hoss had excused himself earlier to go to town, and Joe offered to show kittens and a new colt to Peggy. With a pointed look at Adam, Peggy agreed to go with Joe.

“Adam, why is that little girl upset with you?”

“Well, I did promise once to wait until she was old enough to marry. I guess she feels I didn’t keep my promise.” Adam chuckled at the memory for he had never thought that Peggy would have taken him seriously.

“You did promise to marry, but I guess that doesn’t matter too much to you to break promises.” Laura was being rather pointed in her comments and Adam had no idea why. Will leaned over to touch Laura on the arm and whisper to her, but she angrily pulled her arm free.

Traci felt Adam tense up next to her. Joe had told her most of this story but she was feeling that there were some things she didn’t know and that only Adam would be able to explain. She leaned her head onto his shoulder and closed her eyes. Both Naomi and Max were confused by the way the conversation was going, and then were concerned by how tired their daughter looked. Adam leaned down to ask Traci softly if she wanted to go to bed, and Traci wrapped her arms around his shoulders and snuggled into his neck. Adam slipped his arm under her knees and put his other arm around her back lifting her easily and then walked to the stairs and up to the second floor. It made his leg hurt but he wasn’t going to admit that to anyone. As he got closer to their bedroom, he realized Traci was chuckling softly into his chest. Once he got her in the bedroom and closed the door, he dumped her on the bed.

“Hey, now what was that for? I got you away from that awful woman and into our bedroom. I would think you would be happy about that.”

Not sure how he was feeling, Adam turned and sat on the edge of the bed.

“You wanted to blast her, didn’t you? You wanted to make some snide remarks and put her in her place. Why does she still get such a rise out of you? Do you still love her?”

The “No” was forceful and immediate. Then a more reasoned response was forthcoming. “I’m not sure how much I ever loved her. I loved Peggy and felt sorry for her, and I loved the idea of getting married and having my own family. Those things I’m sure of. But I never loved her like I love you. Loving you has taught me what really being in love is.”

“Then why does she bother you so?”

Sitting pensively for a time, Adam finally realized something. “I never got to say how I felt about what Laura and Will did. I wanted to be chivalrous and let Will take her away and marry her. I just never thought it would bother me so much and for so long that they did all of it behind my back. That neither of them had enough concern for me to tell me what was happening. It all happened without me being able to do anything.”

“And now you feel bad for being the gentleman in all that mess. Would it have made you feel better to call them names and tell them you never wanted to see them again?” Traci thought she might get a laugh or at least a smile out of him for that. Instead he remained very serious.

“But you don’t know what people said to me after that. It’s not easy being the cuckold.”

“Is there anything I can do to help heal those wounds?”

“Ahh, yes indeed, you do that for me every minute of every day. But I suppose I could use some attention right now to the sorest spots.” Adam laid back on the pillow and swung his long legs up on the bed.

As Traci began unbuttoning his shirt she addressed him in a very clinical voice. “As a doctor, you might find my methods of healing a bit unconventional.”

“Would these methods involve removing all of our clothing? Because I very much appreciate those methods when you use them.”

“Well, yes, in fact, that is exactly what I had in mind along with some therapeutic touching and kissing.”

“Then doctor, I’m all yours. Do your job however you see fit.”

Later as Laura and Will walked to their bedroom at the end of the hall, there was no mistaking what those rhythmic squeaks were all about. Laura couldn’t tell whether she was more angry or sad at that moment. When she slipped into bed in the room next door to Adam’s room, she turned her back on Will as tears slid down. All she wondered was how she had made such a complete mess of everything and now she knew there was no hope with Adam either. His love for his wife was evident in everything he did with her.

The next morning as Laura walked down the stairs, she saw Adam with Traci standing in front of the fireplace. He was holding her close and kissing her.

“Do you have to do that constantly to irritate me?”

Looking to the stairs, both Adam and Traci were shocked by Laura’s comment. There seemed to be no limit to her bitterness over Adam being married.

“I hug my wife and kiss her because I love her. It has nothing to do with you. You have your own husband and a baby on the way. I would think that would be enough for you and perhaps you could think about being happy for us to have the same thing.”

“But that’s just it. I don’t have a husband. Will said he would marry me but he hasn’t. He goes out all the time to drink and to gamble. He comes home with his jacket smelling like some saloon girl. I gave him all the money from the sale of the ranch and he put it in that pathetic business of his and now that’s gone bankrupt. I was hoping to find some help here from you, but you have no interest in me. It’s all so hopeless. I’m going to be out on the street, alone, and having a baby. I thought that you at least would be concerned about Peggy, but you haven’t even talked with her since we’ve been here.”

Once Laura was finished spewing all of her unhappy news, Adam and Traci stood in shock. Ben had walked out of the kitchen with a fresh cup of coffee in time to hear all of her statement. He was as shocked as his son and daughter-in-law. Will had seemed so in love with Laura and asked her to marry him so they had all assumed that the marriage had occurred. They had never been invited to a wedding celebration but considering how Will and Laura came to be together that was not surprising. Now to find that Will and Laura had never married was shocking in the extreme. Ben and Adam were both ready to have a talk with Will, and Will knew that as he had been nearing the top of the stairs when Laura made her declaration. As Will appeared at the top of the stairs, Laura turned and burst into tears before making her way outside. Traci looked at Adam, shrugged, and followed her outside.

Walking toward the stairs, Ben was angry. “Will, would you like to explain those things that Laura just said?”

Will walked down the stairs and over to the fireplace before turning to address Ben and Adam. “I don’t love Laura. I think I loved the conquest of Laura. I loved being able to take her away from Adam. Sorry about that, cousin. But the more time I spent with her day in and day out, I realized I couldn’t imagine spending the rest of my life with her.”

“But, Will, she’s going to have your baby? Apparently you liked her well enough for that.” Adam couldn’t believe how callous Will was.

“If it’s my baby. Laura has been seeing another man who has ‘consoled’ her about her plight. She admitted that to me when I told her that I had been indiscreet a few times. So where does that leave us? She’s right. My business has failed. I’m not suited to a job that keeps me in one place doing one thing. I couldn’t take ranching and apparently couldn’t take running a business either. So here we are: destitute, unmarried, a baby on the way, and disliking each other more and more each day.”

Dropping his head, Adam massaged his forehead. He had no idea what to say to all of this.

Thinking furiously, Ben was trying to come up with solutions and failing as well. Both men were used to working out a plan when presented with a problem. This was such a mess neither could see a way to resolve any part of it.

“Well, cousin, has enough gone wrong to absolve me of all blame for ruining your chances with Laura? With what you have now, can you be a little generous and forgive me for what I did?”

Nodding, Adam’s thoughts went to Traci as he wondered what his wife was saying to his former fiancée. They would all soon find out as Traci walked back in with Laura whose face and eyes were very red. Traci got right to the point.

“We’re going to get Laura and Peggy a place to stay in town, and help her get a job. She will continue to use the Cartwright name. Will will stay here and the two of them will work out some solution to their problems as time goes on. Nothing that was said here this morning will be shared outside of this house and this family. As far as anyone else knows, this will be a separation of a married couple.”

As Adam gave a small smile to his wife, Ben nodded impressed with how well Traci could handle a problem. More and more he realized how perfect she was for Adam, and how grateful he was that Adam had not married Laura.

*****

Chapter 6

As the five of them stood in an awkward silence, Hoss came in the front door all smiles and with a jaunty walk. He saw how everyone looked and wondered if someone died.

“Everybody all right here?”

Adam answered. “Just some family problems. I’ll fill you in after breakfast. Where have you been? Are you just getting back from town now?”

Having the good grace to blush a little, Hoss replied. “It got a little late with Jillian last night so I took a room at the International. Had breakfast there early and headed home.”

“Well?”

“She said yes!” Adam slapped Hoss on the shoulder and then grabbed him in a hug before he realized what he was doing. He released his brother then but Hoss grabbed Adam in a bear hug lifting him off the floor. After he set him down he had to express his feelings. “Thanks older brother, for the good advice and for that hug. That hug said more than any words could.”

Traci came over and kissed Hoss on the cheek.

“Hey, I don’t think I ever got to kiss the bride. With holding Adam upright, there just wasn’t time.” Hoss grabbed Traci and kissed her.

Max and Naomi got to the top of the stairs and were amazed. Hoss was kissing Traci but Adam was standing next to them smiling. Ben looked proud as could be. Laura stood to one side and had obviously been crying. Will was on the other side of the room looking dejected. Max scratched his head and looked at his wife. “Do you have any idea what is going on around here?”

“None at all, but Traci has certainly married into an interesting family. Let’s go down and find out what has happened.”

Telling her mother that she would share details after breakfast, Traci did say that Hoss was now engaged so that explained a little at least of what had happened. Breakfast was entertaining as Joe and Peggy joined the group and everyone had to congratulate Hoss who sat beaming when he wasn’t eating. Joe couldn’t stop smiling and teasing his brother and Adam did the same.

“I thought you said you ate breakfast already?”

“Sure did, older brother. But that was two hours ago and I’m hungry again.”

After breakfast, Adam and Traci were taking Max and Naomi on a tour of the Ponderosa including the spot they wanted to use for a home site. Will was enlisted to head to town to make arrangements for a place for Laura and Peggy to live. Hoss and Joe had chores to do and Ben was busy with the ledgers as he often was. Laura and Peggy sat on the couch wondering what to do.

“Mama, why doesn’t Uncle Adam love us any more?”

“Well, he found someone else to love.”

“Do you think Uncle Will is gonna find someone else to love too?”

“I don’t know, dear, I don’t know.”

“Why do we have to live in town? Why can’t we live here?”

“Adam and his wife live here, and soon Hoss will have a wife here too. Then Adam and his wife will have a baby too. There just isn’t room for all of us here.”

“I wish you would’ve married Uncle Adam like you said you would. Then we would be living here and all of us would be happy.”

“No, dear, I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think I would have made Adam happy.”

“Well, I would be happy.”

“If you love Adam, then you should want him to be happy. He’s happy now I think so you should be happy for him.”

“Well, I don’t want him to be happy. This is all his fault.” Peggy jumped up and ran from the house.

“Peggy, Peggy, come back here, Peggy.”

From his desk, Ben had heard it all.

“Laura, maybe Peggy is hearing what you’re not saying. You came back here to see if you could win Adam’s heart again, didn’t you?”

Laura said nothing which was confirmation enough for Ben.

“Laura, we will help you. But if you do anything to interfere in Adam’s marriage or make trouble for him or his wife, you will find that I am a very angry and effective enemy to people who hurt my family.”

“So, I’m not family?”

“Not at this point. You chose to live with Will without benefit of marriage. That was your decision and you’ll have to live with it no matter how this all turns out. We will of course help with the child if we can. Laura, is the child Will’s?”

“Will told you there was another man? Did he tell you about all the women he’s been with?”

“Yes he admitted to all of that and told us what you have told him.”

At that point, Laura didn’t know what to say. She knew the baby was Will’s. She had only told him that to hurt him. She had not cheated on him with another man as she had cheated on Adam with Will. This time the other man was a married minister and had truly been counseling her. But she did what she did when the problems were too much to face.

“I’m going to our room to pack. Peggy and I will head to town as soon as Will has arranged for a place for us to stay.” With that, she walked quickly up the stairs leaving Ben just shaking his head and more than ever grateful that Adam had not married her. By late that afternoon, Ben had Hoss give them a ride into town. Hoss was willing to help and this also gave him another opportunity to see Jillian. Ben asked him to at least be home that night if he would though as there was more than enough drama in the family already.

By late afternoon, Adam and Traci returned with her parents who had enjoyed the day very much. Traci had explained what had happened and given some history to help them understand. The whole thing made Adam squirm especially when Max and Naomi questioned him about it. He wanted to tell Traci to stop several times but she seemed determined to tell his entire history to her parents. Traci couldn’t seem to stop talking and Joe had obviously done a good job filling her in on his past. There were more and more questions he had to answer or appear rude. But apparently her parents had liked his answers or at least accepted them because they were all smiles and in a jovial mood. Adam did plan to have a little talk with his wife when they had some privacy for she had made him exceedingly uncomfortable.

Greeting the four when they rode in the yard, Ben had good news. They found that Laura was already gone, and it only made them happier. Then Hoss came riding in the yard with Jillian and the night was destined to be festive.

“Well, Pa, I figured if Laura and Peggy was both gone, there was a guest room that was sitting empty so I invited Jillian to spend a few days here getting to know the family.”

Hoss asked Adam to help and each grabbed one of Jillian’s bags and carried them in the house. Watching them talk, Ben raised an eyebrow. He was hoping that Hoss wasn’t planning what he was afraid he was planning because it looked like he was plotting with Adam and that could mean almost anything. As it turned out, Hoss was making plans but not in the way Ben envisioned. After a wonderful dinner with another of Hop Sing’s fabulous meals, Hoss and Jillian asked if they could have a few moments to announce something. Because everyone there knew they were getting married, they had to wonder and even worry a little as to what this announcement would be.

“Well, I know I just asked Jillian yesterday to get married up with me, but we don’t want a long engagement. We was wondering if it would be all right with everyone ifn we was to get married next Saturday. I know it’s just over a week away, but we already talked with the minister and he’s all right with it if you are.”

With hopeful expressions, Jillian and Hoss surveyed the family. Adam had that sly smirk that said he was happy for them, and Traci leaned into him smiling with the romance of it all. Joe was all grins and waiting for their father’s word. Ben leaned back and sighed.

“”Sudden marriages seem to be a pattern with my sons. You have my blessing, Hoss and Jillian. We will do our best to make sure you have a wonderful wedding. Will it be here?”

“Yes, Pa, Paul said he’s good with that and will be here to give away the bride. And Joe, I was wondering if you would stand with me?”

Joe looked to Adam immediately and Adam grinned and gave him a thumbs-up. Hoss had already asked Adam what he thought of his plan and gotten his endorsement. Both of them had thought it was just what Joe needed right now with all the attention his older brothers had been getting. Joe jumped up and grabbed Hoss in a bear hug just as Hoss stood.

“I’m guessing that means you will?”

Almost too overcome with emotion to speak, Joe nodded yes. Then Jillian asked Traci to stand with her and there were tears at the table. Traci was so happy she couldn’t imagine anything going wrong, and then chastised herself for that thought. The last time she thought like that all sorts of bad things had happened. So instead, she started thinking of everything that could go wrong. Soon she was smiling again because most of those thoughts were about Joe, and she knew Adam would enjoy this story when she told him later.

*****

Chapter 7

“I value my privacy!”

“Well you don’t seem to value it that much when we go skinny dipping in a pond or make love out in the meadow!”

“That’s different.”

“How, because it’s your choice to risk someone coming upon us? Because being naked and making love in the great outdoors excites you? But my sharing perfectly innocent things about you with my parents is wrong?”

Adam and Traci were having their first big fight about something personal. It was relatively subdued as there were so many people in the house, but they hissed questions and statements at each other as they sparred.

“I don’t want everyone knowing all those private concerns.”

“It’s not everyone. It’s my parents, and I have to tell you I always tell stuff to my mother and I’m sure she repeats it to my father, so there aren’t that many secrets you have anymore with us.”

“Traci, it’s just that some of those memories are painful. I don’t want to be confronted with them.”

“My parents would never do that. My mother loves you like a son. My father is starting to come around too. He really likes you. They would never hurt you intentionally.”

Sitting on the side of the bed, Adam stared straight ahead. “Just what have you been sharing with your mother?”

“Well, she said you really ought to do something about that squeaking in the bed. I know you kiss me every time you think I’m going to moan or yell out because you think that will let everyone know we are making love, but apparently the squeaks have been alerting everyone ever since we got back here.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because it doesn’t matter to me. We’re married and it’s perfectly normal for us to make love. Besides, when Laura was here, I wanted her to hear. I think that’s what set her off that morning. That ruined her plans.”

“Plans, what plans?”

“Oh, love, she was here to win you back. I wanted her to know there was no way that was going to happen.”

“You were jealous!”

“Well of course I was, you big oaf. I love you and no other woman is going to get a chance to try to steal you away.”

“I would never go, you know. I love you too much.”

“Even if I tell my parents all about you?”

“Even then, but please no more of that.”

“Would you rather I talk to them when you’re not around, because I will continue to confide in them? I have done that all my life.”

“Is that why they wanted us separated when we were younger? Somehow, they had the idea that we were getting too serious.”

“That was Marie. She came to talk to Mama. I think she thought you were going to get me pregnant and then you wouldn’t be able to go to college.”

“I wonder how she knew.”

“Some people just notice little things and figure it out. You do that. However I do miss some obvious things that are going on around me, and I should have noticed how uncomfortable you were with our conversation.”

“Let me think about this. Meanwhile, we could make some squeaks so that everyone knows our argument is over and we made up.”

“You’re insatiable!”

“I thought you liked that about me?”

“I do!”

And their first argument concluded as most of their arguments would: in bed and showing love to each other with every kiss and touch. Downstairs everyone relaxed when they realized the argument was over. They couldn’t hear what it was about but the sounds were clear enough. Max was especially relieved. He worried so much about his daughter and wanted her to be happy. Naomi had assured him over and over that she was happy, but he still harbored some negative thoughts about Adam although each day he was coming to like the man more and more.

Hoss and Jillian had gone outside and the argument was over by the time they came back in. They had talked about it because they had heard as it began, and Hoss told her about Adam’s assertion that he and Traci needed a house for some privacy. Hoss told Jillian he had expressed the same idea, and she agreed with it bringing a huge smile to his face. Then he wrapped his arms around her and kissed her passionately. Just the night before he had started to be a bit more aggressive in his physical approach to Jillian and had found she liked it. He was very much looking forward to being married to her.

The following Saturday dawned with thunderstorms pounding the house with heavy rain and rattling the windows. Hoss was so worried that his wedding day would be an awful thing but by ten in the morning, the storms were gone and the sun was shining. There was a freshness in the mountain air that could not be rivaled anywhere. Adam told him the storms had come and gone so now it was like starting over which he would be doing in just a few hours. Joe was more nervous than Hoss it seemed and sought out Adam several times to rehearse his wedding toast. Adam had installed a lock on his bedroom door because of the possibility of someone in his family stopping in to see him without remembering that he was married. Joe ran up against that lock twice and each time Traci had looked at Adam and said thank you. When they were all finally dressed, rehearsed, and ready to go, everyone lined up in the great room. It would be crowded but the yard was too muddy. Joe stood proudly at Hoss’ side and Adam and Ben stood in the front row. Traci walked in first followed by Paul escorting Jillian.

When they were saying their vows, Hoss forgot to answer. He had been looking at Jillian’s eyes and never heard the preacher finish the question. Joe nudged him in the arm and Hoss looked at him in irritation. Joe mouthed ‘I do’ and Hoss said ‘Huh’ which got a big laugh and brought the big man back to the present.

“I do!’ was said with conviction then and Jillian and Traci both jumped. That meant there was more chuckles in the crowd. Luckily Jillian answered when it was her turn and the minister pronounced them husband and wife. Hoss got to kiss the bride in front of everyone and it was the most chaste kiss anyone had ever seen at a wedding. Joe’s toast as they ate dinner was tasteful and touching surprising many there and endearing him to a number of females for his sensitivity so he enjoyed female companionship all night long without even trying.

The most surprising event of the day though was a shocker to the family. Several men made approaches to Laura. When one man put his arm around her shoulders to walk with her, Will walked over and told him to keep his hands off his ‘wife’ which of course she wasn’t. The man retorted that Will had walked out on them so she had a right to find someone else to take care of her and the baby. Well that incensed Will and there was a knock down drag out fight before Adam and Ben got the two combatants separated.

“Will, would you like to take Laura upstairs and talk?” Based on what he had seen, Ben was thinking that Will perhaps did love Laura even if he didn’t know it. “Laura, perhaps you would like to tell Will what you told me?” The two walked inside and didn’t come out again until dinner was served.

“What was that all about?” Adam was in the dark as to what Laura had told Ben.

“Laura has been keeping some secrets and she needs to talk honestly with Will.”

“Well, that would be a first for her.” Adam walked off to find Traci because he had lost her in the commotion caused by the fight. He found her on the porch. She had left without a jacket so he took his off and wrapped it around her shoulders. Traci was looking away from him and he didn’t see the tears in her eyes.

“What’s wrong? Did I upset you somehow?”

“No. The situation upsets me. I just had to get out of there with what people were saying.”

“What were they saying that upset you so?”

“That the baby she’s carrying is yours.”

Unable to respond because he was in so much shock, Adam said nothing. Traci looked at him then expecting the worst but when she saw his face, she knew.

“I’m sorry. I should have ignored the gossip.”

“Sweetheart, the only baby I have fathered is the one growing right here in your tummy. Laura showed you today the reasons why she and I are not together. She has obviously used her pregnancy to garner sympathy, and then she flaunted her relationship with those men to make Will jealous. She’s doing her damn best to lure him back, and I think it’s working.” Adam took his hand and placed it over Traci’s lower abdomen. Leaning forward, Traci let her actions speak for themselves. She wanted her husband to kiss her and he did.

Soon after dinner, Hoss and Jillian wanted to leave for their honeymoon so that they could arrive before dark. Looking around for his older brother to say goodbye, Hoss couldn’t find him and he and Jillian decided to go. Later they would say they should have known they would find Adam and Traci sitting together on the porch and kissing. The two couples said their goodbyes and Hoss drove off in the carriage. Joe had loaned him the use of his cottage and Hoss planned to spend the next week there. Will came downstairs with Laura and drove her and Peggy back to town. He had a valise in hand so no one expected him back. Most of the guests left soon after. In fall, dusk came early and the temperatures dropped at night. Everyone wanted to be in a warm place.

*****

Chapter 8

After furniture was moved back into place, and dishes and food were put away, everyone headed upstairs to bed. Once they were behind the bedroom door, Adam and Traci began kissing again. There was something about weddings that made Traci amorous. It made both of them almost as amorous as when they had an argument. It seemed all that heat had to go somewhere. In fact when Adam was feeling a little tired one evening, Traci had offered to argue with him to get him in the mood but just the memory of the argument was enough.

“What do you suppose Hoss and Jillian are doing right now?”

“Well, I think Hoss is probably unbuttoning Jillian’s dress like this.” Adam began unbuttoning Traci’s dress and when he finished he helped her slide it off her shoulders and let it fall to the floor. He took her hand and helped her step from the fallen dress. “Then, next, there would have to be the removal of the petticoats.” And Adam began pulling those down and helping Traci step out of them.

“Then of course there’s…” but he had to stop as Traci was unbuttoning his shirt. Then she ran her hands over his chest and pushed his shirt off his shoulders letting it drop behind him. Next she leaned in and kissed his nipples before snuggling into his chest and inhaling the maleness of him. Her hands were busy too as she unbuckled his belt and then unbuttoned his trousers letting them drop to the floor.

“Why do you wear such loose trousers? Without a belt, your pants would fall down.”

“Any tighter and it would be uncomfortable in certain spots.” And Traci used her hands to caress the spots she thought he meant. “Ah, exactly.” Adam’s voice was getting hoarse and he was breathing rapidly. Traci loved having this power. He pulled her chemise over her head and wrapped his arms around her before falling back on the bed with her on top of him. They continued their lovemaking in much the same way that Hoss and Jillian were enjoying their first night together except for the falling on the bed part. Hoss would never dare do something like that unless he knew the bed had been adequately reinforced. He used a more conventional approach and slid in next to his wife.

Later, Hoss asked Jillian if she was hungry. He had brought a big chunk of their wedding cake with them and his appetite needed some sugar. When she said yes, he brought a large plate but forgot the fork. Jillian said they didn’t need one, and using her finger scooped up some cake with frosting and deposited it on her chest. Then she told Hoss to eat his cake and enjoy it too. He didn’t recognize the historical reference but certainly enjoyed eating cake more than he ever had before. The next morning, when Hoss woke, he laid on his side adoring his wife as she slept next to him. When her eyes slowly opened, he kissed her and asked if she would like a little morning delight. She did.

On the Ponderosa, Adam awoke and did much the same. He watched Traci sleep. He noticed that her breasts had gotten a little fuller and her cheeks were a little rounder. He loved how the pregnancy was increasing those nice feminine curves she had. He slid his hand down to see if he could feel the bump she swore she already had. He couldn’t tell.

“Believe me, it’s there. I can tell every time I get dressed.”

Nuzzling her neck, Adam asked her the same question that Hoss had asked Jillian and got the same response. Afterwards when they were lying snuggled in each other’s arms, Traci suddenly turned and looked at Adam.

“There weren’t any squeaks!”

Laughing, Adam told her that he and Hoss had used linseed oil and oiled every spot they thought could be the cause of the squeaks.

“We did his bed too.”

“Did you put a lock on his door too?”

“No, but he asked me to take care of that this week.”

Later, after church, Max announced that it was time for he and Naomi to head home. He said they would be leaving on Monday. That Sunday, there were less at the table for dinner, and on Monday, even fewer. On the following Sunday, Hoss and Jillian were there and that was the seating for the winter. Hoss and Jillian on one side. Adam sat on the end with Traci to his left. Joe at next to Traci and Ben sat at the head of the table.

The three brothers took care of the various tasks that had to be handled before winter set in. The cattle were moved from the high pastures down into the low pastures. The lumber and timber operations were shut down. The mill was closed and cleaned and the water wheel was disengaged. Lots of tool and tack repair would be taken care of in the winter and those items were stored away until the heaviest snows fell. Adam and Hoss would make a supply of horseshoes with the forge and other metal items they might need. Lots of wood had to be chopped and stored up for the winter. Extra supplies were bought for the cellar and the pantry. By December, they were ready for the winter. It would be the first Christmas in eighteen years that there would be women on the Ponderosa. Ben was a little melancholy as that brought back memories of Marie but also very happy that soon he would be a grandfather.

Just before Christmas, Will stopped out to tell the family his news. He had been working in town for the freight company and now there were going to be sending him out to get orders and arrange contracts. Laura would continue to work at the seamstress shop as long as she could and then would do piece work in their home. Will dropped the blockbuster last.

“We got married. For real this time and the minister was very discreet marrying us in our home with his wife as the witness. I have to be a father to my child, and I’m trying to work with Laura to be a family. Peggy is happy that I’m not leaving. Wish us luck.”

Ben was the first to respond. “And the other stuff?”

“I haven’t been in a saloon since I moved in with Laura in town. I can’t say I never will but I’m trying. Laura is trying not to mention Adam in every conversation we have and that helps too.”

There wasn’t much Adam could say to that so he just nodded. Hoss and Joe offered congratulations and Will headed back to town. Traci and Jillian had stood silently. Neither of them could imagine being in Laura’s position, and were so grateful they weren’t.

The only other issue that came up that winter was when Ben asked Adam what he was working on and Adam said ‘house plans’ which of course caused Ben to ask for whom he was doing those. When Adam said it was for him and Tracy, Ben was only mildly surprised. But when Adam said the second set were for Hoss and Jillian, he got upset.

“I had thought that my sons would live here. This is a big house and needs children.”

“Pa, it is a big house but it’s already crowded with all of us here. When we have the baby, there’s going to be crying at night waking people. Hoss and Jillian are expecting too so within a year, this house will seem too small. We’re not going far. Hoss is building closer to town to help Jillian with her nursing work. I’ll build closer to the lake. Neither one of us will be more than a twenty minute ride from here so you’ll see your grandchildren a lot.”

A number of conversations like that took place that winter until Ben accepted that it was not only inevitable but sensible that his sons build their own homes. In spring, ground was broken for both homes and a new chapter was started for the Cartwright’s Ponderosa.

*****

A Trust, Broken and Fixed

Chapter 1

“What do you mean you fired Jenkins?”

“Pa, I gave him a direct order, and not for the first time, he said he wouldn’t do it. I mapped out a new line for the fence, and he said the crew wasn’t moving it.”

“Adam, why is this the first I’ve heard of the fence line being moved.”

With a deep sigh and a deep breath, Adam continued. “We talked about it last week. I told you that there had been some shifting of the rocks and such on that south slope of the lowest pasture and that we needed to move the fence line so that it would be more stable.”

“Well, you may have mentioned that, but I’m asking when I gave the okay to it because I do not remember saying that was all right.”

“So I have to check out every little thing before I can do it. This wasn’t a major project. It was just moving a fence line over by about one hundred feet.” Adam’s anger was building. More and more he felt impotent with every decision evaluated by his father and often found lacking not on merit but because it wasn’t the way his father would have done it.

“Yes, if your decisions end up costing us a valuable employee, then yes.”

With no way to answer that without making the argument worse, Adam remained silent. Although a hard worker when he wanted to be, Jenkins was a troublemaker and rarely did what he was told to do the way he was told to do it.

“Is Jenkins still here?”

“Yes, he’s in the bunkhouse packing up his gear. I decided to stay away from him because he already took one swing at me today.”

“What did I pay all that money for an education for you if this is how you learned to handle people who work for us? I’m going to go talk with him. Wait here. This conversation is not over.”

Adam walked over and sat in the blue chair dropping his head into his hands. Traci had overheard much of the argument but waited until Ben left. Now she walked slowly down the stairs. At over seven months pregnant, she had to be careful with her balance on the stairs. She walked to Adam and started to massage his neck but he pulled away. He had had a headache for the last two days and the pressure on his neck made it worse.

“You don’t have to be mad at me.”

“I’m not. I’m sorry. I have a headache and that didn’t help.”

Adam reached around to pull his wife to his side. He rested his head against her swollen abdomen and tried to sense his child inside there.

“He hasn’t been kicking much today. Maybe he’s sleeping.”

“You’re still sure you’re going to have a boy?”

“As sure as I can be.” Traci smiled and Adam managed to return the smile but she saw that the smile didn’t reach his eyes. There was a squint about the eyes that suggested anger or pain. She thought it might be a combination of both. Ben walked back in and his anger softened a bit as he saw Traci. No matter how much he questioned Adam’s judgment lately, his choice of Traci as a wife had been a great decision. However the matter of Jenkins was another story altogether in his mind.

“I’ve rehired Jenkins. Tomorrow I want you to work it out with him. And there will be no fighting and no firing. After that you can go to town and pick up the month’s payroll. You’re always going into town anyway so you may as well do some work while you’re doing it.”

Traci felt the tension in her husband and was angered as much as Adam by Ben’s words and actions. Inexplicably, he seemed to be targeting Adam with complaints as he worried about the spring work that had to be done. With work on the two houses for Adam and for Hoss progressing nicely, Adam did need to go into town a lot to pick up supplies and order what was needed next. For some reason, Ben didn’t see that as work. Adam dropped his head into his hands again. His headache had gotten worse.

“You don’t need to do all those theatrics for me. I’ve seen them all before so they’ve lost the impact you would like them to have.”

Raising his hands in supplication and surrender, Adam kissed Traci and walked outside to saddle his horse and head to the lower pastures where some sick cattle had been quarantined. There weren’t any supplies to pick up or order for the new houses because he had done that the day before but didn’t want any more negative interaction with his father. Once he arrived at the pasture, Shorty said he thought the cattle might have anthrax for he had seen it before and these cows looked the same as those had. The word made the hair on Adam’s neck stand up. Shorty told him he would shoot them if Adam didn’t want to but Adam said it was his job. He pulled his rifle and walked over near the cows and their calves. He didn’t like doing this and knew Hoss would be upset but it had to be done. He thought it better to get it done before Hoss had to see these animals suffering any more. Once he finished with the shooting, he told Shorty to have the men dig a pit and push the cattle into it.

“Don’t touch them though. Cover your mouths with bandanas until this is all done. Use some poles to do it or rope and pull them. Then once they’re all buried, cover this area with small fires and scorch the whole area they have been in. Whatever they had can’t be allowed to spread to the whole herd.”

From the ranch house, Hoss had heard the shooting and immediately feared what it was. He raced toward the pasture only to see Adam heading his way. Once he neared him and saw his face, he knew what he had done.

“You couldn’t wait to slaughter them animals, could ya.”

“Hoss, it had to be done.”

“No, it had to be your way. It’s what you wanted to do since the day we found them there. Now you got your way, but don’t expect me to forgive ya for it this time. I’m just so tired of you making these decisions without asking us.” Hoss rode off toward the site before Adam could respond. His headache was worse now with the shooting and then Hoss’ anger at him. At the house, Ben was talking with Roy and unknowingly creating another problem for Adam.

“Now, Ben, you know how that youngest of yours is always a gettin in trouble. Well usually Adam pays the bill and the fine to get him outta jail, so this time I just let him go and told him to have Adam settle up with me and with Cosmo. But Adam was in town yesterday and didn’t do that. So I need to ask you to settle that up. It’s one hundred for the saloon damage and twenty for the fine. Just disorderly conduct cause nobody got serious hurt.”

Ben handed over the cash and Roy thanked him. “Roy, I’m sorry my boys made you have to ride all the way out here. I’ll have a talk with them.”

“Now, Ben, Joe was just lettin off some steam. It was a long winter and he ain’t been the only young one in town doing that.”

“Well, Adam should have told me. I’ll be talking with him too.”

“Well now, good day to ya, and I hope next time we can have a more agreeable conversation.”

Before Joe returned home, Roy was gone so Joe had no idea of the hornets’ nest he was walking into when he got home. His father really let him have it and then sent him to the barn to do chores. That’s where Joe was when Adam arrived back at the stable.

“Adam, you just couldn’t wait to tell him, could you? Just had to stick your nose in my business again. Would you just stay out of my life and leave me alone.”

“Joe, what are you talking about?”

“You know what I’m talking about. You had to be a tattletale to Pa that I got in trouble in town, and now he’s really pissed at me, and it’s your fault.”

“Wouldn’t that be your fault for getting in trouble in town in the first place? And I did not ‘tattle’ on you. I have better things to do.”

“Oh yeah, maybe reading one of your stupid books or plucking that guitar while the rest of us work. Well let me alone here so I can work and you can go do some ‘important’ stuff.”

Knowing that there was no talking with Joe when he was this angry, Adam took care of Sport and headed to the house for what turned out to be another go round with his father. This time Ben took him to task for not letting him know what Joe had done. Adam had not known about it this time and told his father that. So Ben asked about all the other times Roy had mentioned and Adam couldn’t deny that.

That night, Adam and Traci retired early. There had been tension and not much talking so it was too uncomfortable to be with the other members of the family. Jillian and Traci had talked and neither of them could understand all the anger among the four men. In bed, Adam had a headache and nothing Traci did could entice him to do anything so for the first time in their married life, all they did in bed was sleep.

The next morning, Adam saddled up Sport for the trip to town. He skipped breakfast because he wasn’t hungry and didn’t relish sitting with his father and brothers either. After kissing Traci goodbye, he headed out but soon slowed his pace for his headache was still there. Arriving in town in the late morning, he headed directly to the bank. It seemed to be a busy place with all of the horses in front. One man stood outside the bank and gave a glower at Adam as he walked to the bank’s door making him wonder how he could possibly have made anyone else angry with him. Once he stepped inside, though, he knew. He had a gun poking him in the back almost immediately and saw the tellers packing money into saddlebags. A hand pulled his pistol and emptied it.

“Well, well, well, lookee who we got here, boys. Adam Cartwright. Couldn’t have planned things this well.”

“Jenkins.” Adam almost spit the name out. Jenkins slammed him in the gut with his fist doubling him over.

“This is really your fault. I was making an attempt to go straight, but you were just never satisfied. Well you ruined that opportunity for me so you can help with this one. You’re gonna carry that loot for us and ride out of town with us. Gonna make people think twice before shooting when they see you riding with us.”

After straightening up and looking Jenkins in the eye, Adam retorted: “What makes you think I’ll do that?”

“Oh, I know where your wife lives. You do anything to mess this up, and little Traci and that brat she’s carrying are gonna join you in the graveyard out by that lake you love so much. Or maybe, better yet, I’ll let you live so you know what you caused.”

Adam’s shoulders slumped and Jenkins knew he had won. They had their hostage and their shield. Later Jenkins thought he could make him pay for all the wrongs he had inflicted. Oh yeah, this was going to be fun was his thought. Once the tellers finished packing up the saddlebags, Jenkins handed Adam his empty pistol and told him to holster it. Then he was handed the saddlebags and ordered out of the bank ahead of them. No one knew yet that the bank was robbed and with Adam, they ought to be able to ride out quite a ways before there was pursuit.

Walking to the bank to talk with Adam after seeing him arrive earlier, Roy was almost ridden down by Adam as the gang headed out of town. Adam did not acknowledge him except for saying ‘Roy’ and then the group rapidly rode away. Roy picked himself up from the street and headed to the bank with strong misgivings seeing the bank door standing open and no one in sight inside the bank. Within minutes, he had the answer he feared: the bank was robbed and Adam was a hostage carrying the loot. He wondered how he was going to tell Ben even as rumors spread through town that Adam Cartwright had robbed the bank.

*****

Chapter 2

Roy sent a rider to the Ponderosa to alert them to what had happened. As quickly as he could, he rounded up a posse and headed out to find the gang. From what the tellers had said they had overheard, it appeared that Adam might be in grave danger. Within two hours, the posse saw two men riding their way. By the size of them, it wasn’t difficult to recognize that Joe and Hoss were joining the posse. At first the posse had made good progress but now there were very few signs of where the gang had gone and they had slowed down as each sign caused them to start looking for the next sign. If they had to track them this slowly, they would never catch them. Hoss was one of the best trackers around so perhaps he could help them speed up their pursuit. The gang appeared to be headed north and soon would be in untracked wilderness of mountains and desert. If they got that far, catching up to them would be unlikely.

The posse was more successful in their pursuit with Hoss leading but they were still walking their mounts and had to assume the gang was riding away at a much faster pace. They continued until it was too dark for even Hoss to find a trail. The plan was to head out at dawn as soon as Hoss could pick up the trail.

“Gotta wonder how hard he’s really looking. What if his brother was in on the robbery?”

“What did you say?” Joe overheard the conversation among some of the other posse members and was incensed. He sometimes got quite angry with his oldest brother but always had the utmost respect for his high standards. The last person who should be accused of something like this was Adam. Roy stepped forward because he had heard the same grumbling.

“Now all a ya heard what the tellers told me. He was forced to do it and had an empty gun in his holster. They done said those men threatened his wife and unborn baby ifn he was to resist them. Now how can you question his role in this mess?”

“Well you’re the only one we heard it from and you and them Cartwrights are mighty tight.”

“Ifn you feel that way, maybe you oughta head back to town come morning.”

“Yeah, that would suit you fine, wouldn’t it. Then he’s get away for sure.”

“Now I know you and Adam have had some run-ins in the past but that ain’t no call to say he done this. You need to cool down and start thinking straight. Ifn you ain’t got it worked out by morning, then you just are gonna have to go back to town. And that goes for anyone else in this here posse. We came out here to get the money back and rescue Adam Cartwright. Ifn you ain’t gonna help us do that, then you ain’t a part a this posse no more. You got that?”

“Thanks, Roy.” Hoss said it but Roy knew it was from Joe too.

“Boys, I know Adam didn’t have nothing to do with this. That Jenkins has been causing trouble ever since he got inta town. Now he did look familiar and when I get back, I’m a going through all those wanted posters I got stacked up cause I think I may find him in there. I know now that Adam only knocked me down so those men couldn’t shoot me down although I did wonder a lot about it at first. But I reasoned it out. I didn’t know there was a robbery, but they woulda seen me as a threat with the badge and all. Your brother saved my life. Now I gotta do the same for him. Let’s get some sleep.”

The next morning, the posse headed out as soon as Hoss could find signs of the trail they had taken. Tracking them was as difficult as it had been the day before.

“Roy, these tracks are a day old. We’re falling too far behind.”

“Hoss, what do you suggest?”

“Well, they been heading due north. Maybe we should just ride hard north and see if we can catch em.”

“Probably the right idea. Soon they could head in a different direction though and then we’d never find them.”

“We’ll find em, Roy. One way or another, we gotta find em.”

The posse rode hard that day and by the end of the day had not found anyone. They camped as darkness fell, and the mood in the camp was bleak. The gang had apparently gotten away with the money and with the hostage. However, just a few miles away, the gang was camped. They had plans to rob a bank in Reno before heading to the mountains to hide out but Adam was sick. He had caused them to stop a number of times that day as he retched.

“Jenkins, this ain’t working out. He ain’t much of a hostage if he’s dying, and his pappy ain’t gonna pay to get a corpse back either. He’s gonna want to have some proof his son’s alive before he pays us anything. All that pounding you did on him early today made it worse.”

“Is that how the rest of you feel?” Jenkins’ question got a murmur and nodding of heads.

“All right then, in the morning, we’ll head out and leave him here. If the posse catches up, they’ll be busy taking care of him, and won’t follow us. All right with you?”

From his bedroll, Adam listened. He did have a severe headache and had been nauseous most of the day. But he had forced himself to retch in order to buy time and leave some sign for the posse he hoped was following them. He probably had a fever, and had doubled over in obvious distress that morning as Jenkins hit him and then kicked him when he was down. That did hurt but he had played at being seriously hurt not only to stop the assault that he couldn’t stop with his hands tied, but also to make them think he needed all those stops as they traveled. The one concern he had had was that Jenkins would kill him instead of leaving him behind, but apparently he didn’t want a murder charge hanging over him so Adam was relieved on that point.

Back in the posse’s camp, Hoss stood and sniffed the air.

“Do you smell that?”

“You’re not going to tell me you know what Hop Sing is cooking for dinner, are you? Cause I won’t believe it if you say you do.”

“Nah, I smell wood smoke and I’m away from our fire. There’s another campfire out here and not too far away. I’m going up to that rise and take a look around.”

Walking purposefully up the hill, first Joe and Roy and then the others followed behind. Once they were on the top of the rise, they could see quite a ways and no one could see anything. Joe started to climb higher and a couple of the other men followed him because up here all of them could smell the wood smoke coming up the slope. There had to be a camp there somewhere. Finally, one of the men grabbed Joe and pointed. At first Joe couldn’t see anything but then he saw it too: small flashes in the trees just a few miles away. They hurried down the hill to tell the others.

“There’s a camp in the trees about two miles away. Looks like they got the campfire screened somehow but when people move around the light flashes off any metal they’re wearing.”

Roy started planning. “Joe, how close do you think we could get without them hearing us?”

“With the horses, we could probably be within about a half mile. Walking in there’s a lot of cover so right on top of them before they know it if we move quietly.”

“All right, then, everybody start saddling up and padding the tack.”

The posse’s horses were saddled and anything that might clink or make a noise was wrapped in bandanas or torn pieces of blanket. They doused the fire and buried it. They walked out to a clearing and all mounted up and followed behind Joe as he led them in the direction of where they had seen the flashes. When he signaled, each dismounted carefully and ground tied his horse. They walked in single file toward the outlaws’ camp. At Roy’s signal they halted and started to move off to either side. Earlier Roy had said to take their time and be very quiet. Joe began to crawl to the camp. He had volunteered to locate Adam and get to him as soon as the shooting started for no one expected these men to surrender. It was probably close to three in the morning before Roy thought he had everyone in position. He waited just a while longer to be sure Joe had time to do his surveillance and then had Hoss do a night owl hoot to let the men in the posse know they should move toward the camp. The outlaws were so overconfident, they had not left anyone on guard. When Roy yelled out for them to surrender, they rolled out of their bedrolls and scrambled to get weapons. Shooting commenced almost immediately. Joe had gotten to Adam’s side and rolled him away from the gunfire as soon as he could.

“What took you so long?”

“Adam, would a simple thank you be too much to ask?”

“Thanks, Joe.”

Joe started to fumble to untie Adam’s wrists when there was suddenly much more light. The outlaws had placed a screen of brush to hide the campfire from anyone looking for them. Hoss had kicked a bunch of the brush into the fire to light up the area so they could see what they were doing. The shooting had stopped.

“Durn fools. They never had a chance. Looks like they’re all dead, Roy.”

“Hoss, we gave them a chance to surrender, and that’s all we owed em.”

Having freed Adam’s hands, Joe stood to walk to where the posse had gathered but looked back when he heard Adam grunt. He was on all fours and trying to stand but not successfully.

“What happened to you?”

“Well, Jenkins let me know this morning that he didn’t appreciate having me around. I’ll be all right if you’ll just help me stand.”

As Joe helped Adam stand he realized he seemed very warm and placed his hand on Adam’s forehead. Before Adam could swat his hand away, Joe had detected a fever.

“You’re sick.”

“I’ve been better. But I haven’t had anything to eat in a day, and very little to drink.”

Alerting Hoss to their brother’s illness didn’t make much difference. They couldn’t do much for him out here in the wilderness anyway so the best thing was to get him home as quickly as possible. They rode as quickly as they could as soon as it was light enough to travel. That Adam’s hands had been tied and he had obviously taken a beating convinced the rest of the posse that he had nothing to do with the bank robbery, and everyone did as much as they could to make Adam’s return as pleasant as it could be but he retched a number of times and had trouble even drinking water without being nauseous. Several times Adam seemed to have forgotten details of what had happened and most worrisome to Hoss was that he seemed confused about how to get home as if he hadn’t ridden there thousands of times before. His memory lapses and his confusion worried his brothers more than the fever he had.

At the Ponderosa, Paul was dealing with the other medical crisis to strike the family. Traci had gone into an early labor with the stress of Adam’s kidnapping and worries about his safety. The baby was coming about five weeks early if their first estimates had been correct. More than ever, Paul hoped they had been wrong and that the baby was due earlier than they first thought.

*****

Chapter 3

Nearly a half day later as the posse neared the Ponderosa boundaries, Roy and the others rode toward Virginia City leading the horses carrying the bodies of the outlaws. Roy had the saddlebags with the bank’s money. Adam had been getting worse and Hoss and Joe were anxious to get him home. They asked Roy to send the doctor out to the Ponderosa not knowing that he was already there. With Jillian and Hop Sing helping, Paul had helped Traci had deliver a five pound boy who was healthy although a little small. They had cleaned up the afterbirth and changed the bed linens and gotten Traci into a clean gown. Paul handed her the baby then and told her to try nursing him. They waited and when the baby started suckling after a short time, sighs of relief could be heard. Paul and Hop Sing left and Jillian sat by Traci’s side.

“He is definitely his father’s son.”

Suddenly grasping what Traci had meant, Jillian started laughing but stopped when she saw the change come over Traci’s features as she worried about Adam.

“He’ll be home soon, I’m sure. Hoss would never let anything bad happen to Adam. And Joe is helping. They’ll bring him back.”

Soon they heard horses in the yard and Jillian went to the window. She saw Hoss helping Adam dismount and then holding him up. There didn’t appear to be any serious injury so she supposed that it was exhaustion that had affected her brother-in-law so.

“They’re back and Adam’s with them.”

Traci started to get out of bed and Jillian moved quickly to stop her.

“You need to stay right in that bed. Hoss will bring him up here to see you.”

There was a lot of noise as Hoss, Joe, and Ben helped Adam up the stairs. Paul was following along behind because he didn’t like how Adam looked: he was pale, sweating, and his eyes appeared glazed. He had not greeted Paul nor his father when he entered. Once Paul said that Traci had done well with the labor, he wanted to go upstairs. At their bedroom door, Adam paused and leaned on the doorjamb. He was the most precious sight Traci could imagine at that moment despite the beard, the bruises, and the dirty clothes. Traci had a light towel over their son as he nursed.

“Oh my God, Adam, this is the second miracle of the day. If the other men could leave us alone, I’ll show you our son.”

Adam moved into the room as if to comply and fell to the floor. Paul pushed through the three men and knelt at Adam’s side. He checked vital signs and found he had a very high fever. He asked Hoss to carry him to another bed for a more complete examination. Jillian had moved to console Traci who was extremely shocked by what had happened.

Without preamble, Hoss explained what they knew. “Doc, he was sick when we caught up to them. He couldn’t eat anything without throwing it up again. We got him back here as fast as we could but he seemed to be having trouble remembering things and he was confused about some things too.” Ben added a critical bit of information that Traci then reinforced. “He complained of a headache even before he was gone.” Within an hour, Paul had a diagnosis but everyone was scared when they heard it.

“Adam has encephalitis. It is an inflammation of the brain. The fever, the vomiting, the headache, the memory loss, and the confusion are symptomatic of that. Has he been sick with anything in the last few weeks?”

Traci answered. “He was a substitute teacher for a week when the teacher had chickenpox. He didn’t get it but he was sick for at least a week after he finished. He had a fever and he was very tired.”

“He may actually have had chickenpox, Traci. Some patients don’t get the major breakout of pox. He may have had one or two and they could have been in his hair or someplace else where they wouldn’t be noticed. The reason that is important is that illness may have led to this. With rest and good care, he should recover. His symptoms are actually rather mild for his disease. The memory problems are the most serious symptom but his exhaustion from his ordeal may have exacerbated that.”

Hearing ‘should recover’ was sobering for all of them. Ben asked what they could do.

“It’s not contagious. Do whatever you can to bring that fever down. Keep him comfortable and try to get him to drink. Otherwise, sit with him, and talk with him. Give him something to come back to. He may be unconscious for a day or two.”

Ben sat with him first. Hoss and Joe were exhausted from riding with the posse, and Traci obviously was exhausted after delivering their baby but she had still insisted she needed to see Adam. Joe had helped her walk down the hall and sit briefly at his side.

“Adam, I love you so much. Please come back, love. Our baby needs his father to teach him to sing, to fish, to ride horses. He needs his father to teach how to grow into a man. Please.”

With tears in his eyes, Joe helped Traci back to her room when Ben arrived with a cup of coffee and a book to read. Once everyone had retired to their beds, Ben began to talk.

“It’s not easy being a father. You worry. You wonder. But most of all every day you try to make the right decisions so that your child will grow into that loving, capable, and caring adult. Then they grow into that man, and you want to hang onto them as your child. I know that over the last months I’ve tried to convince you to stay living here with me. It’s that I fear losing you. Instead of convincing you to stay, I think my actions only reinforced your decision to leave. Please know that I have had a lot of time to think over the last few days when I feared for your safety and your life. I know that I have been hard on you many times. I try to justify it by thinking that it was because you were so capable you could handle anything. However, I truly believe I may be a bit jealous of you and all you have now. I always wanted a woman to grow old with, to be by my side in everything, and to raise our children together. That didn’t work out for me. I see you with Traci and I see a wonderful husband. Now I know you’ll be a great father too. Please come back to us so you can be both.”

Trying to read didn’t work for Ben. So he sat quietly and watched his son sleep. He used a cool cloth to wipe Adam’s face and his chest. He tried to get him to drink but he was too far under to do that. He opened the window to let in a cool breeze when he thought the room was getting too stuffy. After three hours, Hoss walked in to take a turn. Ben was reluctant to leave but Hoss said he would wake everyone if Adam awoke. He continued the careful ministrations that Ben had done. He also had some things to say and had to say them now not knowing if there would be another chance to do it.

“Shorty told me about them cattle. He told me what you told him. He said you shot them right then so he didn’t have to do it and so I wouldn’t have to see them suffer. I know you always do what you think is the right thing for everyone, and I had no call to blame you or say those things I said. You’re the best older brother a man could have. So would you please come back to us. There’s a lot of people in this house who love ya. We need you too. People always say how strong I am, but you are the strength of the Ponderosa cause you’re the one who holds us all together. You make a lot of the hard decisions and then you carry them out. Please come back and do that for us.”

Despite their best efforts to cool Adam down, his fever remained high. His body was fighting the infection and inflammation but it was taking a lot from him to do that. Joe came in the room early in the morning to take a turn. Again he bathed Adam in cool water and tried to make his comfortable. Then he had something to say.

“Pa told me that Roy is the one who told him about the mess I made in town. I was wrong not only to blame you but also not to believe you. You have never lied to me. Sometimes I didn’t like it when you tell me the truth, but I always know I can trust your word. I promise you now. If you will just wake up healthy and strong, I will never make a mess in town like I have been. I’ll do my best to be a responsible man and you won’t have to bail me out of trouble again. I’m always complaining that people don’t treat me like a man, but then I don’t always act like a man either especially when I get in trouble and need you to take care of things. Well I’m going to be a man and take care of my own business. After all, I have great examples of men to follow: Pa, Hoss, and you. Every one of you have shown me how to be a man. Thank you. And now if you would just wake up, this would all have worked out so well. You know how you like things to work out well. Well you gotta do your part now. Please.”

Joe had nothing left to say. He continued to bathe Adam with the cool cloths and try to bring that fever down. As dawn broke, he thought the fever might be less but couldn’t be sure. There was a shadow at his side and he looked up to see that Traci was there with their son.

“I’m going to feed him and I’ll be up now anyway, so let me take a turn sitting with Adam. And could you please carry the cradle in here?”

After nursing their son, Traci placed him in the cradle. Then she crossed the room to sit at Adam’s side and bathe him with the cool cloths. She took a spoon and put water at his lips which opened and he swallowed. She continued doing that until a cup of water was gone. She knew this had to be a good sign. She talked with him about all sorts of things.

“I haven’t told anyone what our son’s name is. I wanted us to do that together. So unless you want them to be calling our son ‘baby’, you need to wake up.”

A hoarse ‘All right’ made Traci gasp.

“Oh, Adam, love, can you open those beautiful eyes for me please?”

“No.’ was followed by “Feel stuck together.”

Traci moistened a cloth and bathed his eyes. Then she wet the cloth and placed it over his eyes.

“Now don’t fall asleep. I’m going to wake the others and let them know you’re awake.”

As Traci rushed into the hall, Ben was emerging from his bedroom where he had slept far longer than he intended.

“He’s awake.”

With a big grin, Ben went to knock on Joe’s door and Hoss’. Within minutes all of them had crowded into the guest room where Adam lay. Traci had removed the cloth and was again bathing Adam’s eyes which were gritty and clogged with matter. As she cleaned all of that away, she used another clean cloth to wet his eyelids again.

“Can you open your eyes now?”

Opening his eyes to the dimly lit room caused a huge response from those there who sighed in relief almost like a chorus and then each called out a greeting. Adam had trouble speaking but each word was clear once he was able to say it. Noticing Adam’s son lying in the cradle, Hoss had to ask.

“What did you name your son? We ain’t just gonna call him baby.”

Adam smiled as Traci chuckled. Adam whispered that Traci should tell them.

“Well I wanted to name him after an old boyfriend. He was my first love until I lost him, but I never forgot him. I have many wonderful memories of him. He will always be in my heart.”

Her words had made the group slightly apprehensive but Adam was smiling and suddenly Ben knew the baby’s name.

“You named him Adam?”

“Yes we did. He’s Adam Maxwell Cartwright. My oldest brother’s given name and my father’s with his father’s. Adam said we can call him AC like my brother was called MJ for Maxwell Joseph Maxim.”

*****

Epilogue

Building two new homes, organizing the spring roundup, and making preparations for Hoss and Jillian to welcome their baby took most of the next few months. Adam slowly recovered from his illness and had lots of time to spend with his son and wife. It was over two weeks before he was strong enough to venture from the house and ride in the carriage to his home site. Once there, he was amazed at the progress. He looked at Hoss who had driven him there and knew his big brother must have put in some very long days to get all the ranch work done and get to these home sites to supervise construction too.

“Thank you, big brother. I don’t know what I would ever do without you. This is wonderful.”

The two brothers walked through the house with Hoss watching Adam so he didn’t tire himself too much. Fatigue had turned out to be another symptom but the doctor said it would pass. There was finishing work to be done but the walls, ceilings, and floors were ready. It wouldn’t be long before Adam’s house was ready to move in.

“Is your house this far along too?”

“Nah, Jillian wants to have the baby at the big house. Then she says it wouldn’t be too bad to live there for a month or two letting Hop Sing help her like he’s been helping Traci. So there was no rush with my house. We’ll plan on moving you and Traci here in about a month. Then in about two or three months, Jillian and I want to move to our house and it should be finished by then. So the plan is when the crew finishes here, they’ll head over to my house and work on that.”

“Sounds like a good plan. You have done very well.”

Hoss sat up a little straighter with that compliment. He knew Adam never threw out meaningless compliments. If he said it, he meant it. When they got back to the carriage, Hoss pulled a blanket from the back and threw it up on the seat.

“Who’s that for?”

“As if you don’t know. I can tell how tired you got with all this walking. I want you to take that blanket and tuck it behind you, lean back, and close your eyes. You need the rest. I’ll drive slowly.”

Lacking the energy to argue and knowing that alone should tell him Hoss was correct, Adam pushed the blanket up against the carriage side and leaned into it closing his eyes and relaxing. Hoss assumed he fell asleep.

“There, now, I figured you’d go to sleep.”

“I’m not sleeping but I am resting. I heard you, you know.”

“Well of course you did. I’m right here.”

“No, that night when I fell. I heard all of you but I couldn’t answer. It was like I was in quicksand and couldn’t fight my way to the surface. But I heard you, I heard Pa, and Joe, and Traci. Every one of you helped pull me out of that abyss. I had to get to you when I heard those things you said. It was just so hard and took so long.”

“Well, older brother, I’m real glad ya made it back.”

“Me too, me too.”

*****

I Still Love You

Chapter 1

“Adam, you get over here right now. Didn’t I tell you to watch Hoss. And here is Hoss all covered with dirt and he needs his clothes changed again.”

“Pa, you said to watch him. You didn’t say he couldn’t play in the dirt. He was having fun.”

“Young man, you are seven years old and you should know some things without having to be told. Come here and drop those trousers.”

“But, Pa…”

“That just doubled the number you’re going to get. Would you like to sass me again and add on more?”

Without another word, Adam dropped his trousers and his drawers and bent over his father’s knee to get ten hard slaps from his father’s hand. He knew his father must be very mad at him again because these slaps were really hard and stung badly. The last few hurt very much because his bottom was getting pretty tender by then. It was going to be hard for him to sit for several days he feared. He stood when his father was done and watched to see if his father would try to hug him. Sometimes he did but usually he sat like he did now with those eyes glaring at him daring him to say anything. He was afraid of his father when he was like this and never knew what to do. His father had a lot of anger in him and Adam never knew when he would trigger it. Well he did sometimes when he knew what he was doing was wrong, but today he hadn’t and had paid the price for that ignorance. He would know now that watching Hoss meant he couldn’t play. He wasn’t sure what he could do but playing was definitely not all right when they were outside.

“Are you going to say anything to me?”

“No, sir.”

“I think an apology is in order, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir, I’m sorry.”

“Adam, I still love you. It’s just that I wish you would say you’re sorry because you meant it instead of because I told you to. Your mother would be so disappointed in you. She wanted you to grow to be a good man and you’re so often naughty. I don’t know what to do with you.”

Adam dropped his head in shame. He wasn’t sure what Pa love was. Ma had talked with him and told him things. She had hugged him and soothed his hurts. His Pa gave him chores to do, told him when to go to bed and when to get up, and punished him when he was bad. He guessed he was very bad because he got punished a lot it seemed. He vowed that somehow he would learn to be perfect so his father would not be so mad at him and his mother in heaven could be proud of him instead of ashamed. He wished Ma was here because she had loved him just the way he was.

Sometimes too Adam wished that he had an older brother who could teach him like he was teaching Hoss, or to take the blame for things that got broken so his little brother wouldn’t have to suffer a tanning. He had vowed at Ma’s death that he would take care of Hoss, and he meant to do that by teaching him everything he could and watching out for him so he could be happy. He had laughed in church on Sunday when Mr. Reeves bent over and everyone saw that his pants were split open in the back and his red longjohns were peaking out. His Pa had been mad at him for that too so he knew he needed to be careful when he wanted to laugh and look at his Pa and make sure it was all right to do that. He got a tanning after church in front of all the families as they left the church. His Pa said he still loved him, but Adam wondered what he meant when he said that. It sure didn’t feel like his Pa loved him a lot of the time.

On this day they were all supposed to go to town to pick up supplies so he took Hoss inside to get him cleaned up and into clean clothing. When Hop Sing saw the dirty clothes, he raised his wooden spoon as if to strike Adam for his carelessness too, but when he saw the fear in the boy’s eyes, he knew that he couldn’t punish him. He asked him what happened.

“Hoss was playing and got dirty. I’m sorry. I won’t let him play outside any more.”

“Boy can play; just keep out of dirt. Keep in grass so no dirt on clothes.”

Understanding now, Adam nodded vigorously. They had only lived here a short time. When they first built the cabin, the floors were dirt and Hop Sing would cut grass and spread it all over the floor to keep things clean. Adam would keep Hoss playing in the grass and there would be no more spankings for that at least. He smiled at Hop Sing and got a smile in return. He wished his Pa would smile with him sometimes. Hop Sing helped him wash Hoss and get him dressed in clean clothing.

Cleaned up and in clean clothing, Hoss asked Adam for a ride, and Adam let him climb aboard his back and walked him outside where their Pa was waiting with the wagon. When he saw his father’s stern look, he was afraid he had done something wrong again, but then Pa smiled at Hoss and took the toddler in his arms and climbed up to the wagon seat. Adam ran around the other side and climbed in beside his father. Sitting on the wagon seat was uncomfortable, but Adam didn’t squirm for he didn’t want to draw his father’s attention back to what had happened earlier. Hop Sing climbed in the back and sat against the side as he usually did. Adam smiled at their cook and friend, and then glanced up at his father to be sure he hadn’t done anything wrong.

Once when Ben was talking with Sheriff Roy Coffee, Adam had heard his father say that Adam’s mother had died because of childbirth. Now he was the only child she had so he realized he had caused his mother’s death. Then Ma had taken up a rifle when they were attacked by Indians and she was killed. She had wanted to protect Adam and Hoss so he figured he was at least partially to blame for her death too. He hoped that his father would still keep him after all that because he heard of how some children ended up in orphanages when their parents left them behind. He didn’t want that to happen to him. Sometimes he cried in bed at night but he didn’t want Pa to find that out. His Pa had told him to be strong when Ma died and he knew that meant he shouldn’t cry. So he never cried when he had a tanning and that seemed to upset his father but Adam didn’t understand why he was expected not to cry sometimes and expected to cry at others. It was easier just to never cry when his Pa was there.

Once they arrived in town, Ben gave a list of needed supplies to Mr. Cass. Hop Sing left to pick up things in the Chinese part of town. Adam had asked to go with him once but the look on his father’s face told him not to ask that again. Adam sat in the back of the wagon playing and talking with Hoss. Sheriff Coffee walked up to Ben and started talking. After saying hello and getting the obligatory questions out of the way, Roy had something serious to discuss with Ben.

“Ben, Mary asked me to talk with you. Sunday, at church, she was a mite upset with you spanking Adam there in front of everyone after church. Now all we saw was that he laughed just like the other children laughed when they saw ole Reeves there showing his red flag. The other parents shushed their children and explained why they shouldn’t laugh. You gave a good tanning to Adam for doing the same.”

“Roy, I have to raise my boy to be a good man. I have to teach him right from wrong.”

“Yesn, you do. But is tanning the only way ya got a teaching him cause I hafta say that boy looks afraid of you most of the time. I’ve had a few runaways in my jail who got in trouble and every one a those boys ran away from home cause their pa was too hard on em.”

“So, you’re comparing my boy to those ruffians now?”

“Now, Ben, don’t go getting your temper up. I just wanted you to think about it. That boy a yours is the best behaved boy I ever met. I just don’t understand why I hardly ever see him smile and play like the other boys here. He always got that look like he’s a scared rabbit about to run. And you tanned him pretty hard on Sunday and there weren’t nary a tear on that boy’s cheeks.”

“It’s up to me to raise my son as I see fit.”

“That it is. I was just trying to see ifn you could take a look at how you’re doing that. Now Mary wants to know if Adam could come over tomorrow to help us out with berry picking and such. She’s wanting to make some pies and all that bending over in the berry patch makes her so darn sore.”

“Roy, I need Adam to watch over Hoss while I’m working.”

“Well, Hoss can come along. Mary can watch over him while Adam does the berry picking. Now Mary would be happy to pay him for his work with a berry pie or two. How’s that sound?”

So arrangements were made for Adam and Hoss to be at the Coffee’s early the next morning. Roy picked them up from the ranch, and Ben would come to pick them up at the end of the day and stay for dinner. When Ben arrived late that day, Roy met him on the porch with a glass of wine. It had been a long day so sitting and relaxing with a glass of wine was just the thing. As they sat, Mary opened the kitchen window behind them to set pies to cool. The aroma drifted down around the men stimulating their appetites. Adam stayed in the kitchen to help Mary prepare dinner. Mary knew as she did that, that it was time to carry through on the plan she and Roy had concocted. She started asking Adam questions hoping his father would hear the answers.

“So, Adam what do you do for fun at home?”

“Oh sometimes before I go to sleep, I read some. I have a book Ma gave me. If Hoss isn’t sleeping, I read to him.”

“No, I mean, don’t you play?”

“No, ma’am, I have to do my chores and watch over Hoss. I guess I play with him but I hafta make sure he doesn’t get dirty or get hurt cause otherwise I get a tanning.”

“Well, what do you do when Hoss takes his nap?”

“Then Pa says I gotta help Hop Sing. Usually he has me chop kindling or get wood for the stove. Sometimes he has me get the eggs from the chickens or milk the cow but he doesn’t ask me to do that if Pa is home.”

“Why not?”

“Well once, the chickens scared me some and I dropped the basket of eggs and a lot of them broke. And once I was hurrying to the house with the milk pail and it bumped my leg and I spilled most of it when I fell. Pa tanned me good for being bad. He said he still loved me though. What do you suppose he means when he says that?”

Mary had tears in her eyes for this little boy who wasn’t allowed to be a child. She knew she should keep going so his father could hear the effect he had on his son but it was breaking her heart to hear how calmly this boy explained being abused. Oh it wasn’t physical abuse. Nothing like that happened even if he did seem to get tanned a lot. It was the emotional abuse of a father ignoring his son’s needs.

“Oh, I think your papa loves you, but just has a hard time showing you. Now what about Hoss? What does he do during the day?”

“Oh, I watch over him and make sure he smiles and plays. I’m teaching him everything I know. I’ve been teaching him words. He talks very well for such a little guy. He don’t say them all right but I understand him. Lots of times I take to him to show him the baby animals. He really loves that. I give him rides but he’s getting pretty heavy so I don’t know how much longer I can do that. And if he breaks something or makes a mess, I tell Pa I did it so he don’t tan Hoss. I can take it a lot better than he can.”

“You’re a very good big brother.”

“Thank you, ma’am. I try to be. Ma’am if my father doesn’t ever want me no more, do I hafta go live in an orphanage or could I come live here? I’d work real hard for ya and not laugh or do any bad stuff.”

“Oh, Adam, your father would never abandon you. What makes you think that?”

“Well I heard him tell Sheriff Coffee once that I made my mother die. And then when Ma died saving us, well that was some my fault too. I think that’s why my Pa doesn’t like me much even if he says he still loves me. I guess he says he still loves me cause he has to cause he’s my Pa, but he don’t want to maybe. He don’t ever smile at me the way he smiles at Hoss. Sometimes he laughs but then he stops and looks at me. It makes me wonder what he’s thinking when he does that.”

On the porch, Ben was standing by the window now with tears streaming down his face. How could he have been so stupid and so blind. How much did he really expect a seven year old to understand even one as bright as Adam. He worried all the time about Adam being on his own and having to work so hard for such a young boy but Adam hadn’t understood the worried looks. Ben had been upset and angry at the world for the death of both of his wives but had never blamed his oldest son. He carried a lot of grief and sorrow within his heart and the only things that assuaged the pain were his sons. What Adam saw was concern but his interpretation was that his father was upset with him. Ben had to talk to him so he would understand. Ben walked to the kitchen door.

“Adam, maybe we should go home now.”

With a disappointed look, Adam slid from the chair next to Mary and went to pick up Hoss.

“Oh, Ben, you can stay for dinner. The boys have been looking forward to it all day.”

Holding Hoss, Adam walked over to Ben and was astonished to see tears on his father’s face. Whenever he had been sad and cried such as when Ma died, Pa had said be strong and don’t cry. Now his father was crying. He didn’t know what to do.

“Do you want to stay for dinner, Adam?”

Looking at his father trying to determine what the correct answer was, Adam was confused. He didn’t know what was happening.

“It’s all right, son. If you want to stay, just tell me and we’ll all stay.”

“Yes, Pa.” was said hesitantly and with a little stutter. This was new territory for Adam and he wasn’t sure how to act. Ben took Hoss from him and sat down on a chair. He motioned Adam over to him. He put his arm around his son and pulled him into an embrace.

“I’ve been doing a bad job of being a father to you, and I’m sorry. I will try to do better.”

“That’s all right, Pa, I still love you.” Adam stood stiffly in the unaccustomed embrace of his father.

And Ben thought that he had made amends and could undo the damage. As Mary saw the little boy who seemed so unaccustomed to being hugged, she wondered though if those early lessons would ever be undone. Or would this boy grow to be a man trying to please his father and hiding his thoughts and feelings while doing and saying what he thought his father wanted until the day came when he didn’t want to do that any more, and then he would leave?

*****

Epilogue

Slowly Adam rode through the crowded streets of Virginia City. He had just said goodbye to Traci’s parents who had come to visit to see the new baby and the new house. Now he had one more errand and that was to invite an old friend to dinner. As he rode up to the Sheriff’s Office, he had to smile. Roy was an honorary grandfather with the interest he took in AC. Adam had always felt like Roy was like a father to him as well as a great friend. Roy stepped out of his office about the time Adam arrived and greeted him.

“Well, now, I was a wondering when I’d see you next. The in-laws been keeping you pretty busy?”

“Yes, but now they’re on their way back home. Traci and I would like you to come to dinner tomorrow if you have time. She’s baking a berry pie.”

“Oh, and I do love those berry pies. Don’t get them near enough ever since my Mary is gone.”

“I remember her berry pies. It was like they were magic. After that first berry pie at your house, my life changed. I remember thinking at the time it must have been the berry pies we brought home. Now I know it was Mary, and I’m guessing you had something to do with it as well. Pa was a different man after that day.”

“Well now, I don’t think that’s true. I think that mebbe his sorrow had overwhelmed his good sense there for a while. Happened again when Marie died. By then the boys had you though and it weren’t so bad. Hard for a man to lose a good woman. I know that for a fact, and your pa lost three.”

“Yes, and had three boys to raise by himself.”

“He done a fine job there too. How’s he liking his new role as grandfather?”

“Roy, you wouldn’t believe it to see him holding our son. It’s like he’s in heaven with the smile he has every time AC is in his arms. Now Hoss and Jillian have given him a beautiful granddaughter and he couldn’t be prouder.”

“He’s a good man. He deserves the time to be a proud grandfather. He waited for it long enough.”

“That he did. Now I need to get going. I’m sure Traci has some things for me to do with guests coming for dinner tomorrow.”

“Who else is going to be there?”

“Well, Pa of course, and you. Gotta have my boy’s grandfathers there to celebrate his three month birthday!”

With a tear in his eye, Roy nodded yes as Adam turned Sport and rode home, a home he would never leave for he had found the love of a father and the love of being a father and it made him feel complete as a man.

*****

The Black Egg

Chapter 1

It had been brewing for months. Adam had stalked around the house like a caged cougar all winter. He was ornery and snide. He read a lot or worked in his room. Ben was frustrated with him and his unwillingness to try to adjust for the sake of peace in the family. Hoss spent time in the stable mending harness, and grooming the horses because he couldn’t stand being around his older brother when he was like this. Joe egged him on and enjoyed the red faces and the comments that were snarled his way for it seemed at least in this he had power over his older brother.

Any sympathy over Adam’s loss of his son and Traci separating from him to spend the winter with her parents in Arizona had diminished. But that Adam was deeply unhappy was clear to anyone who even looked at him. Ben looked at his son staring out the window at the heavy March snowstorm. There would be a lot of work to do to clear a path to the stable to take care of the animals there, and clear the heavy wet snow off the roofs so there would be no damage. For now, though, all they could do was watch.

Ben regretted his hasty decision in the fall to forbid Adam to go east for the winter. He had said he needed him here in the spring, and he wouldn’t be able to be back in time. He had told him he needed to be here when his wife decided to come back. Adam had said he didn’t think she would ever come back to him after what he had done. Ben had had no answer to that.

As he watched his eldest son now, his heart pained him for he knew that Adam would leave. Adam wouldn’t talk about it until he had worked it all out in his own mind, but he would not endure another winter like this, and he needed to do something to escape his nightmares. He would no longer ignore his own dreams. As much as Ben hated the thought, he also understood having a dream and chasing it, as well as wanting to strike out in a new direction to move away from sorrow. He had done so as a young man. Adam had waited much longer, helping to build the Ponderosa and help his younger brothers. Well the Ponderosa was now a huge empire, and his younger brothers were men.

At the window, Adam looked down at his hands. The scars were turning white as the redness faded away, but the memories didn’t fade at all. He had pulled at the flaming door unable to open it until Hoss had dragged him off his own porch just before it collapsed. The fire and embers had singed his clothing and hair. He had looked up to see Hoss kneeling next to him with soot on his clothing and his own burns and singed hair. There had been no more screams from his son then, but the screams continued on and on in his mind. He could never escape them. He had thought he had lost his wife and son, but Traci was found unconscious in the garden where she had been harvesting when the men rode up. Her memories too were painful, but she had been spared the worst of it. She was unconscious as Adam and Hoss rode up to find Adam’s house fully engulfed in flames and his son’s screams coming through the open window.

“Stop, Adam, you’ll just die if you go in there. Stop.” Hoss’ words echoed in his mind as well.

Then later, there were Traci’s accusations. “You, and your damn principles. You had to testify even though they threatened you. Well ‘you’ wasn’t just you any more, but you ignored that. You never thought that they would wait until they could hurt you in the worst way possible. You killed our son. He’s gone and he’ll never come back. How much are your principles worth now?”

The posse caught the men. They had not known of his son. They thought they were burning his house in retribution. His son was the innocent victim of revenge. The men were tried and convicted. That they would be sentenced to hang for killing a child was a given. Adam had sat in that courtroom each day, and then stood and watched as the men were hanged. But none of it brought any solace. Each day he came home to Traci’s silence until she announced she was going to visit her parents in Arizona.

“I’m not sure when I’ll be back.”

“Are you coming back?”

“I’m not sure of that either. I just know I cannot be with you right now.” And she had packed the meager belongings she had accumulated after they lost everything in the fire, and she had left.

Each night Adam lay in bed and stared at the ceiling wondering how he had made his life turn out so wrong. He had written a letter to Traci’s mother, and the reply had been to give Traci just a bit more time. He wasn’t sure what that had meant, but he worried that Traci would never come back. He had written to Traci as well but had received no replies to those letters other than a perfunctory reply that she was doing as well as could be expected.

As the winds diminished, it was time to work at removing snow. Normally this would be a fun time as men tossed snowballs and generally released the pent-up energy of being cooped up for several days by the bad weather. Instead, it was quiet. No one wanted to throw a snowball and get Adam to reprimand him about wasting time instead of working. Hoss and Joe had gotten used to walking on eggshells around him. Adam sensed it and announced he would grab a ladder and start removing snow from the stable roof if they wanted to finish in the yard. Once he was out of sight, the normal hilarity resumed although it was a bit quieter than it would have been had Adam not been so despondent and churlish.

After a few hours, Hoss decided to go see what Adam was doing because they hadn’t seen him in quite a while and the stable roof as well as the porch roof were cleaned off. He found him in back of the house leaning on the ladder. Hoss was about to make a comment about him loafing while they worked when he saw his shoulders heaving from what could only be sobbing. Hoss wrapped his arms around his grief stricken brother and realized in the silence that he could hear his child crying. Adam must have heard him as he worked. Hoss’ house had not been completed before the first snows so they had decided to spend the winter in the main house. Hoss had not realized how difficult that had made it for Adam. Ben had told Hoss that when Hoss and Jillian were up at night with their child as he fussed, Adam would dress and grab his hat and coat and leave the house. He couldn’t bear to hear a child cry.

“Hoss, I can’t stand it here. I have to leave.”

“I know you do. I’ve been expecting it. I bet Pa has too.”

“It’s just too hard, and I’m making everyone else miserable and I don’t know how to stop.”

“What about Traci?”

“I want to be with her. I don’t think she wants to live here any more either. But it’s her decision. If she doesn’t want to be with me, I’ll have to accept that.”

*****

Chapter 2

A week later, Adam received a message from town. He cleaned up, packed a valise, and said he wasn’t sure when he would be back. He met Traci in town as she requested. They talked for hours about what had happened in the months they had been apart. Both were reticent with each other and cautious not wanting to cause any pain, until Traci dropped her bombshell.

“Adam, we’re having a baby.”

Adam was sitting on a chair next to Traci who sat on a settee. He looked at her in shock.

“I didn’t know until I was at my parents’ home. I wanted to tell you, and I didn’t want to tell you. Mama talked and talked with me to help me reach a decision.”

“And what is your decision?”

“Well, it depends a bit on you too. I can’t live here. I can’t think of raising a child here. I would be worried sick all the time. I don’t want to live in Arizona either. With all the raids and children being kidnapped, I would never sleep at night.”

“How about Boston?”

“What?”

“How about if we move to Boston? I’ll get a job doing something in engineering, or architecture, or even teaching. I still own my grandfather’s home there. I have had people renting it, but we could live there.”

“Yes, we could.”

Moving to sit next to Traci, Adam wrapped his arms around her as she leaned into his chest.

“It’s going to take some time to arrange everything. Do you want to live here in the hotel until that’s done?”

Thankful that Adam understood her reluctance to return to the Ponderosa, Traci nodded as she wrapped her arms around him.

“It’s going to take some time for us to be ready too. Can you be patient with me? I may seem all right now, but I find myself breaking into tears at the slightest thing.” At Traci’s words, Adam looked down. He always found it hard to share his feelings, but if they were going to rebuild their relationship, it had to start with him. “Tell me.” And he told her of crying into Hoss’ arms only a week previously when he had heard a child’s cry, and how he had to leave the house every time that happened so he didn’t scream out his agony.

“So you heard him? You heard AC cry?”

“Yes. I tried to open the door but the fire had already warped it and it wouldn’t open. Hoss pulled me back before the porch collapsed.”

“That’s how you burned your hands?”

Traci realized how selfish she had been in her grief. Adam had tried to console her and help her. She had not realized the depth of his sorrow and should have because he had tried to be strong for her. He had taken care of the funeral arrangements and the burial by the lake. He had gone to the trial and the hanging. He had asked her every day what he could do for her. Finally spent, they were in each other’s embrace the first night Traci was back in the same room and in the same bed, but the intimacy was one of mutual comfort and care. For the first time in months, both slept without nightmares. They had at last achieved some solace by being together.

In the morning, Adam woke first. He was still wearing his shirt and trousers as he lay beside Traci. He watched her as she slept until she awakened and looked into his eyes. He leaned down and kissed her very softly. She smiled a little and relaxed against his shoulder. After a few minutes, she leaned toward Adam and kissed him softly. They were like a couple courting and trying to determine what the other wanted and would allow. For now, it was enough. They rose and dressed in clean unwrinkled clothing. Adam put his hand on Traci’s lower abdomen to see if he could feel the bump. He thought he could detect it, and Traci confirmed that was where it was. They had breakfast together, and afterwards each set out to start completing necessary tasks for them to be able to leave. Adam sent a number of telegrams, and stopped in at the bank and at his broker to make financial arrangements. Then he got Sport from the stable and rode home to tell his family what had been decided.

Much as Adam had expected, his father was sad at his news of leaving but not surprised. He got the same reaction from Hoss. Both were relieved that he and Traci were back together, and though it seemed that the decision to leave had been sudden, they realized that the two had simply been thinking along parallel lines that made it much easier for them to reach such a decision.

“When will you go?”

“We have some things to do to prepare. I think we’ll be leaving within two weeks though.”

“So about Easter then?”

Suddenly remembering the Easter celebrations the family participated in each year, Adam nodded. He did not want to be here to see all the children having so much fun, as he and Traci continued to mourn the loss of their child. He would make reservations to be sure they left before the Easter egg hunt started. He hugged his father and Hoss in a rare display of emotion for him, but he owed them so much for tolerating him for the last several months.

“Where’s Joe?”

“Down at the breaking corrals. He’s got some stock that need to be ready for the Army contract soon.”

“Adam, our younger brother doesn’t think you’ll leave. I’ve mentioned that I thought you would be going, and he told me I was wrong. Be gentle with him. This is going to be as hard on him as losing a parent.”

“I know, Hoss, I know. But it’s hard to think of a way to soften this. We’re leaving within two weeks, and we won’t be changing our minds.”

Deciding that it might be best to see his youngest brother with a lot of witnesses around to help hold Joe’s temper in check, Adam took Sport and rode to see him. Joe was apprehensive as he saw Adam. Adam had that look he had whenever he had bad news to deliver. Joe jumped down from the fence and walked toward Adam before he dismounted.

“It’s bad news, isn’t it?”

“Well, some might think it was good news.” Adam dismounted and ground tied Sport. Then he stood and looked his youngest brother in the eye. “Traci’s back.” Joe was going to whoop and grab him in a hug, but Adam grabbed his upper arms and stopped him. “We’re leaving, Joe. We can’t live here now. We’re going to Boston, and I can’t tell you when we’ll be back. I’m staying in town with Traci as we make preparations.”

Joe grabbed Adam’s arms and jerked his hands from him. “You always do that. You do what’s right for you, and don’t think about what this will do to others. How about Pa? Have you thought about how this will hurt him? Do you have any idea how much he missed you when you were away at college? And Hoss? You’re his best friend. How can you just leave him behind like this?”

“Pa’s given me his blessing, and Hoss too.”

“Of course they have. They would do anything for you. But you’re too selfish to see it. Well go then. Don’t bother coming back. If you turn your backs on us, don’t expect us to care.”

“Joe,…” But Joe stomped off to the corral again and gave a dismissive wave to Adam. They would be no more conversation at this point. Adam mounted up and rode back toward town never seeing the forlorn look of his youngest brother and the tears in his eyes.

In town, Adam met Traci at the hotel. She had purchased clothes for traveling including a jacket for it was still cool further north like this. She asked Adam how it had gone with his family, and he explained.

“They know where we’re staying?”

“Of course. I’ll have to go to the house to pack the things I have there. It’s not much.”

“Then we can spend some time with them, and talk a bit more before we go.”

“Did you tell your parents before you left?”

“Yes, I told them I would not live in Arizona with my child. They understood that decision. I also said I would not live in Virginia City or on the Ponderosa. They had more trouble accepting that. I told them I would let them know where I would be living after I had a chance to talk with you. Now I should get some stationery and write. There’s a lot to tell them.”

*****

Chapter 3

On the Saturday before Easter, Traci and Adam were scheduled to board a coach to take them east. Ben and Hoss were there early, and the four of them had breakfast together. Adam had said his goodbyes to Hop Sing, Roy Coffee, and Paul Martin the day before. All were sad to see him go but not surprised. Roy had made the most profound statement.

“My Mary told me years ago when you was just a youngun that you would leave some day. She said there was too much world out there for you to be satisfied here forever. I just hope you find your way back here someday.”

“Thank you, Roy. I don’t know what the future will bring. But I do know we won’t be back anytime soon. We need time.”

Roy had nodded in agreement. He knew about sorrow and the time one needed to adjust. He asked how Adam’s family was accepting the news, and found that Ben and Hoss were sad but had been expecting it so had had time to adjust. Adam told him that Joe had not spoken with him since he had told him. Nor had he seen much of him other than in passing or to exchange polite greetings. Adam regretted that very much but hoped his younger brother would understand someday.

At breakfast, the mood was somber but emotional too. All four had tears in their eyes as they finished eating. Adam and Hoss moved to carry the bags and a trunk to the stage. As the four of them stood at the stagecoach ready to say their goodbyes, Joe rode in on Sport. He came to the coach and Adam walked over to him.

“I wanted you to know, I’ll ride him and keep him in good shape. I just hope you come back when you can still enjoy him.”

“Joe, thank you. I hope you’ll understand some day, but I have to do this. Thank you for accepting it even if you don’t want to. It means a lot to me.”

As Adam went to put his arm around Joe’s shoulders, Joe pulled him into a hug.

“Never know when I’ll ever get one of these again.” In a whisper, Joe had one more thing to say before he said goodbye. “I never meant those things I said. I was hurting and tried to hurt back. It was wrong, but you should know I love you, and will welcome you back as soon as you feel you can come back.”

“Someday, Joe, someday, but I can’t tell you when or make any promises. I just can’t.”

Nodding in acceptance, Joe and Adam walked back to the stagecoach. It was time. Adam helped Traci up the step and then turned to hug his father in what he knew might be the last hug. He hugged Hoss and Joe too in another rare display of affection and then climbed aboard. The last they saw of him was a hand raised in farewell out the window as the stage pulled away.

In the coach, Traci held Adam’s hand and noticed how rigidly he was sitting. She knew how difficult the morning had been for him. After about a half hour, she asked if she could have her hand and massaged the stiffness out of it. Adam saw by her hand how hard he had been gripping her.

“I’m so sorry. I was lost in my thoughts and regrets.”

“I know. It’s all right. If it wasn’t, I would have said something sooner. I had the same problem when I left Prescott. We’re in this together now no matter what happens. It’s just the two of us.”

“Three.” And Traci smiled again at Adam’s willingness to be a family again. He had spent time wallowing in his grief, but that was over for both of them. They would work together, plan together, and soon she hoped, they would resume their intimate lives. It had been a long time, but both were hesitant to push things faster than the other could tolerate it. But tonight, she thought, she would let him know she was ready and see what his reaction would be. She smiled in anticipation. Adam saw the smile and hoped it meant what he thought it did. He took her hand again but gently and raised it to his lips for a kiss.

*****

Chapter 4

That first night was spent in a way station. Traci and Adam shared a room but the bed was sagging in the middle and squeaked with the slightest move. They held each other, kissed, and caressed but no more. It was enough though. Their hearts were healing as they touched and stayed close to one another. The healing power of having someone you love hold you each night was amazing. The other passengers on the stage asked them if it was their honeymoon, and they had to say that they had been married for two years surprising all of them. The woman traveling with them wished that her husband would look at her with that kind of adoration, and her husband wished that his wife would show by her actions that anything he desired would be his as he saw how Traci gave looks to Adam.

In Denver, Adam and Traci took a few extra days to rest from traveling and to enjoy some of the finer points of the rapidly growing city. Adam would take her hand or she would slip her hand through his elbow, and they would walk and find new restaurants to try. In the evening, they bought tickets for theatre shows. Then after, they would undress each other in the privacy of their room and Adam would gently take his wife. After two days of that, Traci asked him to please let his passion loose and not worry about hurting her. The pace of their lovemaking was frenetic as emotions were unleashed. It was cathartic and their lives began to settle into a comfortable closeness and shared intimacy that let them talk more freely and share their thoughts.

Then they bought tickets on the train and continued their journey. Another stop was in St. Louis, and then they took the train to Chicago and then to New York. They found New York to be bustling but dirty and dangerous as well. Adam told Traci what he remembered of Boston from his days there as a student which made her look forward so much to making that a home for them and their child.

Once Adam and Traci reached Boston, they found some of the same problems had developed there as they had seen in other cities especially New York. Fortunately, the problems did not seem as bad in Boston, and in the established neighborhood where Grandfather Stoddard’s house stood, there was little change. Some neighbors even remembered Adam although he had changed quite a lot from the tall slender college student most of them had known. He asked after the housekeeper who had worked for many years for his grandfather and found that she no longer worked. He made plans to visit her as soon as possible.

As Adam carried the bags and the trunk into the house, Traci was looking all around inside quite amazed at the workmanship of the woodwork and the trim in each room. It was an old home built in a traditional style but well crafted. The furniture was all old of course but still in good condition. There was a vase of fresh flowers and some fresh fruit and vegetables on the kitchen table. Next to those were two stemmed glasses and a bottle of wine.

“Adam, who would have put these things here for us?”

“David Wyatt was in school with me. He works as an investment broker, and handles all sorts of real estate transactions. He was the one renting this home for me, and I asked him to make sure the house was ready for us when we arrived. He’s the one who left the key for us at the bank.”

Before going to their home, Adam had stopped at the bank he would use while in the city and made sure all his finances were in order there. They had handed him an envelope with the key to his home. David had offered him a job with him, but Adam had declined because he had another offer from a friend who owned an architectural and engineering firm with his father. It was the type of job Adam dreamed of having. He had an open invitation to stop in there to discuss working with them.

“The carriage is waiting outside. We need to get going. We have a lot of shopping to do before the day is done. Linens, towels, soap, dishes, pots and pans, and some food are all on the list, and we only have a few hours to finish.”

It was during the completion of these mundane tasks that Traci looked at Adam and realized they were no longer grieving but were moving forward. She was amazed that only a month earlier, she and he had nightmares and had been unable to cope with their grief. If only they had turned to each other sooner for solace. She looked at Adam and when he turned to see her looking, she had one thing to say.

“I’m sorry.”

“Sorry? About what?”

“All the pain we suffered was my fault. If I hadn’t turned away from you, we could have started to heal so much sooner.”

“Sweetheart, that is the past. We’re together now and that’s all that matters.” And some polite Bostonians were surprised and a little scandalized as the tall westerner took his wife in his arms and kissed her right there in the middle of the market. Traci blushed a little with the end of the kiss and seeing all the people who were staring, but she felt so good inside, it didn’t matter much to her at all. They gathered up their purchases and returned to the carriage that was nearly overflowing with all of their purchases. The driver helped carry their packages in when they arrived home, and Adam tipped him well and then asked if he could be there the next morning at nine. Thinking that this might be a regular fare and a generous man at that, the driver agreed.

That night, Traci prepared a meal and they drank the wine. Both were exhausted after a long day, but once in bed and kissing, things rapidly progressed until they were making love in their new home. The next morning, as dawn broke, Adam awoke. He had not had enough sleep, but the sun shining in the window made it impossible for him to sleep. He rose carefully so as not to disturb Traci and left her sleeping peacefully.

Adam went downstairs to his grandfather’s desk that was now his and began to write a letter to his father. He had taken Joe’s words to heart, and he was determined never to let his father see a month go by without a letter from his son. He had written short letters as they traveled to let his father and brothers know that they were safe and all was going smoothly. In this letter, he described much of what they had seen and done. Then he talked of Boston and the people that his father would have known and how the city had changed. When Traci awakened and felt the cool bed beside her, she knew Adam had been up for hours before her. The smell of ham let her know he was preparing breakfast as well. She slipped on a robe and went downstairs to find him in the kitchen humming and cooking.

“Ah, good morning, my love. Have a seat. Breakfast will be served in minutes.”

“How did you know I would awaken at just the right time?”

“Well after I wrote a letter to my father, and took a stroll in the neighborhood, I came back and opened the bedroom door and made a bit of a clatter as I was cooking.”

“So the noise and the smells would awaken me. You could have just kissed me.”

“Yes, but then we would still be upstairs and I have an appointment at ten.” Adam grinned that gorgeous grin of his, and Traci smiled and shook her head. She had not felt this good in months.

“I’m going to see the old housekeeper later today if I can locate her. I want to offer her the chance to stay in her old room here. Is that all right with you?”

“Of course. The way you describe her, it would be delightful to have her here. She could tell me all about the city, and of course all about you as a young man in college.” Traci had a twinkle in her eye, and as Adam whirled around at her words, he had to grin again. She was teasing him. She hadn’t done that in months either.

*****

Chapter 5

As the carriage drove up to Morgan and Son, Adam was very impressed with the building. It was done to accentuate the skills of the people inside. It was an impressive building with all of the ornamentation one would expect, but there was also a sense of functionality in how the building was designed. He asked the driver to return in two hours. Adam wasn’t sure how long such an appointment would last, but he could always ask the man to come back again if two hours wasn’t enough time.

As Adam walked into the elegant lobby of the building, he was greeted by one of two clerks there who must have been alerted to watch for a man fitting his description for they called him by name. He was led up the stairs one level to an office and asked to wait. There were drawings on the very long table in the room, and as he waited, he walked around the table perusing the plans that surprised him. There were a number of design errors in each set of plans he saw. He couldn’t understand that level of incompetence in employees of such a firm. And they must have been employees because none of the plans had a Morgan name at the bottom but were names instead that he did not recognize. It was nearly an hour before the door opened, and his old friend, Jacob Morgan, and Jacob’s father Raymond greeted Adam.

“Well, Adam it is so good to see you. What do you think of the work we have going on here?” And Jacob waved his arm across the table of drawings.

A little uncomfortable in the position of criticizing the drawings of a firm he wished to join, Adam still had to be honest. “Are these preliminary drawings? I’m afraid I see design flaws in all of these.”

Raymond was the first to react. “Really. Could you point out the worst ones you see?”

Nervous at the question, Adam stepped to a plan that appeared to be for a large warehouse. “These load bearing walls are inadequate to support the roof and would likely collapse in one of Boston’s snowstorms. That is, if they lasted that long as the footings are too shallow for the walls and they might collapse of their own weight during construction.”

Jacob was looking at his father with a big grin on his face. Raymond nodded and reached out to shake Adam’s hand. Adam was completely in the dark.

“Would you work for us starting today? My son told me how good you were, and we need someone to clean up this mess for us as soon as possible.”

“What happened? Why are so many plans flawed?” Adam felt he needed to know what was going on, and Jacob laughed out loud at his question. Raymond frowned. Jacob had told him that Adam was very intelligent and discerning, but he was reluctant to discuss such important business with him so soon after meeting him. He had met him as a student but that was quite different than meeting him as a man.

“Father, we need to tell him. Adam is a man we can trust, and we need him.”

With a bit of reluctance yet, Raymond began to tell the tale. “We refused to pay kickbacks to the mayor and the city council members for contracts we were awarded. We hired some new men for contracts we were awarded, and those politicians to sabotage our work obviously planted one of them in here. The design flaws you saw are not easily discernible by building supervisors and foremen. One of those projects has already been started.”

Startled by that revelation, Adam asked which one, and was horrified to hear it was the one he had described. “Has anyone been hurt? Those designs could have a wall fall on the workmen?”

“No, and construction has been halted. We will have to redo the plans and try to salvage what has been done already. You haven’t answered my question yet. Will you work for us?”

Adam reached out to shake Raymond’s hand and accept the position. Then the three of them looked over all the plans for current projects marking spots where the plans were suspect. Adam told them he had a carriage scheduled to be there soon and wondered if one of them would accompany him to the building site so he could see what had been done and what might be done to rectify the situation. Jacob agreed it was a good idea, and the two of them walked outside to wait for the arrival of the carriage. The plans were in a large tube Adam was carrying, and Jacob was carrying a case of drafting tools. Adam would look the site over, take notes, and begin working on a plan that evening.

After visiting the site to observe, Adam dropped Jacob at the office, and promised to be there the next morning at nine. On the way home he stopped to visit his grandfather’s old housekeeper and cook. Mrs. Burke was so surprised to see him. He was so handsome and confident, it took her breath away to see him standing on her doorstep. Well in fact, it was her widowed daughter’s doorstep. Despite the changes the years had brought, they recognized each other immediately. Belle invited him in, and Adam gave her a kiss on the cheek and was then pulled into a hug. He smiled at the diminutive woman. He told her of his marriage, his child, the fire, and the decision to move here to Boston. He managed it all with only a tear in his eye, but Belle could see the depth of emotion behind those statements. She told him how her daughter had recently lost her husband and had to work any job she could find to pay the rent and buy food for the two of them.

“I have an offer for you then.”

“Now don’t go all noble on me and think you have to take care of us. We’ll manage. We always have.”

“Well, if I could, I would like to hire her. We need a cook and a housekeeper to help Traci. She’s going to have a baby in four months, and I want someone to help her with everything. And she knows no one here so it would be good to have someone for her to talk with every day who could tell her all about the city too.”

“Oh my, Mr. Cartwright, that would be wonderful. I’m sure my Eliza would love that. It would be so good to work for nice people and have a job she could count on.”

“Please call me Adam. You always used to call me Adam.”

“You weren’t my daughter’s employer then. I’ll call you Mr. Cartwright.”

“All right, how about if you call me Mr. Cartwright when anyone else is around, but please call me Adam when it’s just the two of us?”

“Yes, Adam, I can do that.”

“Would you and Eliza like to share your old room? Traci and I will use the large bedroom upstairs and there are still two other bedrooms there. One will be for the baby, and the other will be for guests. The downstairs bedroom is available.”

Then, Belle couldn’t stop herself and began crying. Adam wrapped an arm around her realizing for the first time that she had been putting on a brave front, and conditions were far worse than she had explained. Once she stopped crying, he advanced her money so that they could hire a carriage to move them to his home. He asked if tomorrow would be too soon, and Belle started crying again but nodded yes. As soon as he left, Belle started packing, and as her exhausted daughter returned home that night, she was overjoyed to hear that their lives had taken a distinct move upward.

*****

Chapter 6

When Adam returned to his home, he found Traci with flushed cheeks and looking exhausted. He looked around the house and couldn’t see any obvious changes so he wondered on what she had been working so diligently. Traci took his hand and led him to the back yard. There was a flower garden there that had obviously been neglected for years. There were piles of debris and leaves but what was revealed was beautiful. Rose bushes were blooming in various shades but dominated by red and pink hues. Adam was amazed and then remembered his father mentioning his mother’s fondness for roses.

“I never knew this was here. It had always been just a jumble of plants, and I had paid little attention to it. This has to be my mother’s rose garden. My father told me once how my mother loved roses. I put a bouquet of roses on her grave for her birthday every year I was here. There is a carving of a rose on her headstone.”

Traci hugged Adam. They had roots here now. This really was their home.

“It’s funny, but now I feel like we know your mother a little. Some of her has been revealed to us. Will you take me to the cemetery so we can put a rose bloom there for her and one for your grandfather too? It will be so meaningful coming from this garden.” Adam nodded.

Once they were back in the house, the two of them discussed the day. Adam was happy to report he was gainfully employed in his chosen profession, had hired not one but two cooks and housekeepers, and had arranged for the driver to pick him up in the mornings and evenings. He would also be available if Traci or one of their employees needed to go somewhere. Adam told Traci though that for now, she should not go shopping without him, Belle, or Eliza for there were dangerous parts of the city. Traci had plans for their backyard, but Adam admonished her to let him do any of the heavy lifting that might be required. She pointed out that he would be working very long days based on what he had told her of his new job. So he said he could hire someone to come in and help her clear the yard, and she agreed that was a good option.

Working almost to midnight, Adam only came to bed when Traci awoke and went downstairs to tell him he wouldn’t do very good work for his new firm if he was exhausted on his first day. Adam agreed and fell into a sound sleep in just minutes of sliding into bed. Traci smiled at him and snuggled up to him for her own peaceful sleep.

Early the next morning, Belle and Eliza arrived at the house with their meager possessions, and Adam greeted them and welcomed them to his home. They had lived on the salary of Eliza’s husband, and with his death, they had to sell anything of value that they owned just to survive. This job and place to live was a godsend. They quickly put their bags in the room, and hurried to the kitchen to begin by making breakfast. When Traci came downstairs, Adam made the introductions, and before he left, he heard lively chatter from the kitchen. He smiled as he walked out with his plans and headed to the office.

The next few weeks were hectic. Adam was immersed in damage control at the firm. Traci was busy getting her house in order, and working on the backyard gardens. Belle became the de facto mother for all of them giving sage advice and teaching her favorite recipes to both Eliza and Traci. For Adam, to come home each night to wonderful smells and the chatter of women in his home made him feel content like he had never felt before. He realized that in Nevada, he had much of this but he had felt guilty about leaving Traci alone each day, and then he worried too about leaving her without protection. That fear had proven prophetic, and he was determined that Traci would never be in such a situation again because of him. Unfortunately, the enemies of the Morgan firm were finding how he had thwarted their plans, and were making new plans that included him.

*****

Chapter 7

In Adam’s next letter home, he asked if his father could put a rose on AC’s grave. He told Traci he was making that request and tears filled her eyes. Each of them thought each day about their beautiful son who was gone, but most of the time the sorrow was manageable. This gesture by Adam brought it all to the forefront again, and they had to talk and hold each other. No matter how often they thought they had recovered from their grief, they found moments like this that let them know it would always be with them but just a bit easier to accept as time passed.

As Traci’s stomach grew, Adam became more and more attentive. Belle watched the man she had known so many years before and marveled at how much alike and how different he was than his grandfather and his father. He had that sober serious side from Captain Stoddard, and he had a fierce temper and determination like his father. Like his father, he too was following his dream. However, he had a gentle nurturing side that showed itself over and over again as well as a keen appreciation for literature and music that had to have been the result of being his mother’s son. Belle learned more of his history now that she had known before and understood how he could look so cold and detached sometimes when he was worried or angry. She knew he kept a loaded firearm in his desk and up in his bedroom to be sure he would be able to protect his family if he had to do so. She and her daughter felt so much safer in his home.

In the heat of midsummer in Boston, Traci was terribly uncomfortable. Nearing the last weeks of her pregnancy, she found the heat almost unbearable. Raymond Morgan offered the use of his cottage on Nantucket. Adam had cleaned up the plans that were faulty and overseen adjustments to the warehouse that had been under construction so that it was sturdy. Both Raymond and Jacob insisted that Adam should take some time to be with his wife. He told them that she was so near delivery, he didn’t think she would want to be away from home and that travel might be too much for her. When he said the same to Belle and to Traci, they laughed.

“I would love to be away from the heat of the city. To have you all to myself and sleep with cool ocean breezes sounds heavenly. I’m close enough now that if the trip does bring on labor, there should be no complications. As big as I am, I may have miscalculated the timing anyway.”

As Adam looked to Belle, she nodded in agreement. “I’ve helped birth a number of babies including you. We’ll be fine, and Mrs. Cartwright would feel much more comfortable there away from the heat and vapors in the city.”

So the decision was made. Adam rented a large carriage, and the four of them moved to the cottage on the Nantucket shore. They planned to stay for only a week or two, but the arrival of Matthew Cartwright only two days before they were scheduled to leave extended their stay until they had spent nearly a month relaxing and enjoying the clean, cooler beach environs. It was difficult to return to the city after that, but Adam needed to return to work.

On the first day back, Belle and Eliza made numerous trips out shopping to restock the house with necessities. They also spent time refreshing the house and making it spotless. Traci got to spend all of her time with her baby. As Adam dressed in the morning, Traci had sat in the rocking chair nursing their son. No matter how many times Adam saw this event, he was still moved almost to tears. His lovely wife with his child nursing at her breast made him believe more in God and his mercy than almost anything else. Adam and Traci had not been attending church regularly but both had determined that they should for they had avoided church just when they had needed most to be there. To his father, Adam had already sent a long letter talking about their vacation and the wonderful event that had occurred there.

When Adam got to work, he found a large box of cigars and a bottle of champagne on his desk. Within minutes, Raymond and Jacob were at his door asking how things had gone. Other than a telegram announcing the birth of his son and explaining he would be late returning, Adam had not communicated with anyone in Boston while he was gone.

“So, tell us about your son.” Jacob had several children and was doting father. He wanted Adam to have that happiness again.

Grinning, Adam told them. “I have a dark haired, slender son with the healthiest lungs who lets everyone know it when he’s hungry or wet. He sleeps a lot, and he’s growing fast.”

“What is the history of his name?” Raymond was very traditional and had made sure there was a biblical reference and a family history associated with the name of each of his children.

“There is none. We didn’t want to saddle our child with any family history or any expectation this time. His name is from the Apostles, and we don’t know anyone in the family with that name.”

A bit surprised at that, Raymond understood when he thought about the child they had lost. It sobered him for a moment though until Adam announced that they planned to have a party of their friends soon, and everyone could see how they had developed their garden into a beautiful space for entertaining, and then they could all meet his son as well. Jacob and Raymond were both happy at that announcement. It told them more than anything that Adam and Tracy were moving past their grief and building the future. They had been somewhat reclusive regretfully declining invitations to parties in the months they had been here. Now they were ready to socialize and that was a very good sign.

At that moment, in fact, Traci was working on a guest list. She had become a lady of leisure for the past two months and was ready to take on a task. This was the kind of thing she could do and still dote on her son. Then she penned a long letter to her parents. Like Adam, she didn’t want her parents worrying because it had been so long since they had received news. At least once a month they sent letters to their families, and when there was more news to share like now, they sent more.

On the Ponderosa, Adam’s letter from Nantucket had arrived. Ben was always just a little worried when one of these arrived. He couldn’t help the parental anxiety. Adam might be nearing forty but he was still his son and would always cause Ben to worry. Now that he couldn’t watch him walk up those stairs every day or ride out on Sport, he had to be content with the letters that arrived regularly. For that, he was immensely grateful. He didn’t know what had brought about the change in Adam, but Ben appreciated very much how hard he was working at keeping his family informed of everything that happened. This was a very thick letter, and Ben hoped it meant that their child had been born and all was well. As he read, his smile got bigger and bigger. He stood as he finished reading the letter, and headed out to the branding area to let his sons know they had a new nephew and that Adam and Traci were doing well.

*****

Chapter 8

At work in Boston, Adam was apprised of what had happened in the office. The man planted there had finally been found out. He had laid low as Adam had worked to correct the errors in plans, but with Adam out of town, he had tried to slip in errors in another building project. Based on what had previously been done, Adam had told them whom to watch and for what to watch in the submitted plans. Jacob followed Adam’s instructions, and the man was fired as soon as his sabotage was detected. They would continue to watch their employees for the possibility that there was another plant, but overall business could proceed normally. In city hall, though, there was rancor over what had happened for how could they intimidate other businesses into kickbacks if this firm was able to thwart them. A decision was made and a plan formulated to remove Adam Cartwright from that firm.

Nothing unusual happened for months. A dangerous sense of complacency descended on everyone. Adam and Traci had their first party and were gracious hosts. It was a small garden party, but everyone was impressed with the simple elegance of the entertainment and the buffet. Some had some idea that a couple from Nevada would be unable to impress proper Bostonians with their vast experience at entertaining, but all enjoyed the afternoon and evening in the beautiful garden with the fragrant rose garden that was the envy of all of the ladies in attendance. As a result of the party, Adam and Traci received numerous invitations to parties and events and found a great deal of joy by being able to spend one or two evenings out each week in the big social season.

As fall approached, both Adam and Traci began to dread the anniversary of AC’s death and how that would affect the other. Each Sunday, they went to church and were gradually getting to know the minister and his wife. Again each expected the possibility that the other would need some counseling to handle their grief. As the day approached, Adam was reticent to speak of it and Traci became somewhat withdrawn. Each suspected the other of harboring sorrow they couldn’t bring out.

Finally the day arrived. As Adam awoke and gazed on his sleeping wife as he did every morning, he worried how this day would be for her. Traci awoke, saw the worried look Adam had, and misinterpreted it to be sorrow. She reached for him and he wrapped his arms around her. They lay for some time like that. Then both started to speak at once, and then just as predictably each told the other to start.

“Adam, I want to remember the happy times. Do you remember the day that AC discovered splashing? That is one of my fondest memories. I look forward to the day when Matthew can do things like that and it will be soon.”

Because Adam was so quiet for the next few minutes, Traci was almost afraid to look at him. Then he suddenly left her embrace and went to his dresser returning quickly to bed with a sketchbook. Traci had no idea what he intended to do until he asked her to sit beside him as he opened the book. He had sketched himself in the bath with AC who was using both his arms and his legs to splash water all over. Tears started then but they were not of sorrow so much as of fond memories.

“When did you do this?”

“When I’m working on plans and get stuck or tired, I pull this out and remember a happy time, and then I sketch it out. In the days and weeks after that as I find time, I fill in the sketch. There are more.”

Adam and Traci only had one photo of AC and it was the small one they had gifted to Ben. The other larger portrait of Traci holding him had been lost in the fire.

“I’ve contacted the photographer who did the first portrait for us. He wrote to say that the materials were slightly damaged but that he felt he could do a basic print for us from what he has. He will produce and send it as soon as my payment reaches him. I want us to be able to remember the joy that boy brought to us.”

“Adam, that is wonderful. I’ve been worrying what the sorrow would do to you, but apparently you have come to terms with it.”

“And you?”

“Yes, I’m thinking like you are. I don’t dwell on the fire any more. I remember him each day as I hold Matthew. They do of course resemble each other. Matthew is a quieter baby, and certainly sleeps more than AC ever did. But he laughs and coos as soon as he sees one of us. He’s such a happy baby. I want this to be a happy family to help him grow up into a strong and capable man like his father.”

Things might have progressed further at that point except the happy baby was not so happy to be ignored when he was hungry and wet, and he let them know that.

On the Ponderosa, a few hours later, Ben and his sons rode to AC’s grave and each placed a rose there. Hop Sing had been nurturing a bush in a container that stood by the door of the kitchen. He had told them of its purpose, and Ben had tears in his eyes at his friend’s thoughtfulness. As they stood at the boy’s grave, Ben pulled Adam’s latest letter and read it aloud. He had been afraid it would be a sad letter, but there were all sorts of news items as well as an explanation of how Adam was working to keep his son’s memory alive even as he and Traci reveled in their joy of Matthew.

*****

Chapter 9

As Adam and Traci built their lives and home in Boston, the corrupt city hall politicians had been observing them and spying on them through men they had hired. They had a plan once they realized why the couple had left Nevada to come to Boston where Adam had interfered in their plans. He was much too intelligent an adversary to allow him to continue to reside in the city and work against them. Two men were dispatched to watch the house, and at the first opportunity, they were to carry out the plan to disrupt the lives of this family and make them flee once again.

Adam kept a regular morning schedule. He rose early, did some work in the garden, took a walk, and then went in to bathe and dress for work. Once he had breakfast, he would kiss his wife goodbye, and go out front where his regular carriage waited. On the morning the men had decided would be the day, they dressed as unobtrusively as possible. Walking from opposite directions toward Adam’s house, they converged on the front walk as the carriage pulled away. Walking to the porch, they opened the front door expecting that the ladies inside would only think that Mr. Cartwright had forgotten something and returned. It worked perfectly.

The well dressed ruffians surprised Belle and Eliza in the kitchen as they were cleaning up from breakfast. Eliza yelped until one of the men placed a hand over her mouth and threatened her with a knife. Upstairs, Traci was bathing her son when she heard the sound. She stepped from Matthew’s room to see two men at the base of the stairs. She quickly moved into the room to place Matthew on the floor. Then she raced to their bedroom. As the men worked to walk up the stairs quietly, they were confronted by Traci standing at the top of the stairs and holding a pistol on them.

“Now, ma’am, you know you can’t shoot us. You just put that down, and we won’t hurt you. We just want to have a little fun, and then we’ll be on our way. Your man can take you and the brat back to Nevada afterwards.”

“No, you will leave, now! I do know how to shoot, and you would be wise to just back down those stairs and leave before I have to show you how well I can shoot.”

The two men looked at each other, nodded, and when they turned back, they rushed up the stairs side-by-side. There was the roar of the pistol then, and next that could be heard was a wailing infant. In the kitchen, Eliza had managed to get one of the drawers open and had retrieved a knife. She was using it to try to cut herself free when she had heard the shots and then the crying. She hurried which caused her to cut herself several times before cutting through the ropes. She cut her mother loose and sent her to get the police. Ominously to them, the crying upstairs had stopped. Belle ran to the street and hailed a carriage asking the people inside to please get the police for Mr. Cartwright’s home had been invaded by two criminals and shots had been fired.

Within about ten minutes, two constables arrived at the Cartwright home. They entered carefully because of the report of the gunshots. As they walked in, they saw two men sprawled on the stairs. A quick examination showed that both were dead. They removed the bodies to the porch, and secured the knives they found. Then they cautiously went upstairs identifying themselves and calling for Mrs. Cartwright. They saw a head peek out from a bedroom, and when Traci saw who they were, she called them into that room. She had Adam’s pistol and told them she had used it to defend herself as the men rushed her with their knives. Then she had gone to comfort her son assuming that the authorities would be there soon. They took her statement, and told her not to worry as the whole thing looked very cut and dried. They left when the police wagon came to carry away the bodies.

When Adam raced into the house a short time later, he saw the blood on the stairs and his heart nearly broke until he heard Traci call to him from upstairs. When he got upstairs, he found her still holding Matthew. She had not cried or showed any emotion until Adam came in the room and she placed their sleeping child into his bed. She turned to Adam, and suddenly her resolve to stay calm collapsed, and she ran into Adam’s arms. He held her tightly and waited for the tears to end before he asked her what happened which caused the tears to start again. Finally, he comforted her enough that she could tell the story. She included the comment they had made about Nevada which she had neglected to tell the officers. They both knew who had been responsible for the attack. They would have to take more precautions and tell Raymond and Frank that the campaign against them had escalated.

With all the witnesses to the crime the two men had attempted, there was no way for the corrupt politicians in city hall to use this incident. Instead they sat down in another closed door meeting to develop a new, more subtle plan. It would be nearly a year before that one was started. It took that long for them to set the groundwork, and it would take another year or two to complete, but they were sure it would work. They were greedy men but patient. Once their plan was implemented, it would be the start of their grandiose scheme to loot millions from the public treasury.

*****

Chapter 10

Over the next months, Adam worked with the Morgans to set up a plan to thwart any plot against them. They acquired allies and hired people to help them including a ‘gardener’ for Adam who was actually a bodyguard for the family. Adam also formally checked out his regular driver and then hired him. He knew how to shoot as well from service in the Massachusetts regiment in the War so he was outfitted with appropriate weapons. Locks were installed on the doors in the Cartwright home. Even though they did not expect the next assault on them to be a physical one, they could not rule it out either so preparations were made. All three men met with their bankers and brokers to be sure that there could be no underhanded dealing there.

Alert for threats, Raymond, Jacob, and Adam waited almost two years before they discovered some irregularities. They didn’t know the meaning of what was happening though. Every month, cash was deposited into Adam’s account and into Jacob’s. Then drafts were brought in to make payments from those accounts. The payments were always less than the deposits, so the accounts began growing substantially. People were in place though to document what happened and to keep track of who brought money to the banks and who cashed in the drafts. This pattern continued for almost another two years.

Working in many cities other than Boston, the Morgan firm was handling more and more design work for palatial homes as well as large factories and warehouses which became a specialty of the firm. Under Adam’s design specifications, warehouses were built to suit the type of product stored there and the method by which producers moved the product into and out of those buildings. The efficiency he designed into the plans meant a more efficient and therefore profitable investment so the demand was high for a Morgan warehouse. Each of the men also designed some beautiful homes for some of the new millionaires in the East. Each of the men had styles that were distinctive. If they wanted large but traditional American or English style manors, Raymond drew the plans and supervised the building. If the buyer wanted a palace or castle style, then Jacob was the designer.

If however the buyer wanted a home with modern design elements and unusual touches that would make a unique home, Adam was the preferred designer. Often in the evenings, Adam spent time reading of the newest designs that were being made in the United States as well as in France and England. He asked for information on Japanese style homes and incorporated some of those into homes he built as well.

As the firm grew and prospered, Adam and Traci could afford some trips including one long foray into Europe that took over three months. They brought Matthew with them because although he did not appreciate the trip, they could not bear to be gone that long without him. Adam and Jacob built homes on Nantucket next to Raymond’s and the three often vacationed there together with their families. In the warmer months, Adam and Traci had numerous garden parties inviting not only their business friends but also men such as Sam Clemens and Edwin Booth who had become great friends of Adam. Those parties were so splendid that people rarely ever turned down an opportunity to attend.

All of these events were documented in the letters that Adam and Traci continued to write to their families on the monthly schedule they had set for themselves. From the Ponderosa came news of more children for Hoss and Jillian. Then remarkably Ben adopted another son, Jamie. The news they had been hoping to hear that made them the most joyous was when Adam read in a letter that Joe was marrying and later heard they had a child too. Traci’s brother Darren married and soon there was news of another niece and nephew as he and his wife had twins.

As another Christmas found the Cartwrights still celebrating separately, Matthew had a few questions for his parents.

“Are we ever going to go to Grandpa’s house for Christmas? Some of the other kids who live here visit their grandparents for Christmas. Why don’t we?”

“Matthew, those children have grandparents who live close to Boston or in Boston. Their families only have to travel a few hours or less to see them. My father and brothers live a long way away. It would take us at least a week of travel just to get there, and that’s if everything went well and we made all of our connections.”

“Mama, can we go see your parents then?”

“It would take even longer to go see my parents. There is a railroad that goes very near your father’s family and there are other shorter lines to take to Virginia City. But Prescott is still a long way from any rail line so it could take two weeks to get there because we would have to ride the stage at the end of the rail line.”

“Then when can I learn to ride a horse? I want to ride like you do.”

So arrangements were made and Matthew started riding with his father or his mother at the stable where they kept a few horses they owned. Buying a pony for Matthew and stabling it there was not a problem. Adam rode at least once a week, and Traci tried to get out even more when Matthew started riding. After dinner one evening, Traci had to ask.

“Are we ever going back to Nevada? I just have this feeling lately that you are missing your family and want to go back.”

“I do miss them. Almost every day, I wish I didn’t have to leave, but we did have to leave, and we have to keep Matthew safe.”

“He’s older now, and things seem to have settled down out there as the silver mines are closing down. Perhaps we should think of a visit?”

“I don’t know. We should think about how we could do that. But it would be months away at least before we could even consider it.”

Traci nodded. Adam’s work was scheduled into the next summer already, and he had trips to make to various locations to monitor progress on buildings he had designed. He was becoming more and more in demand as a designer of palatial homes. Each of those projects could take one to two years to complete so these new projects were far from complete.

As spring warmed the city and tulips blossomed and trees leafed out, the politicians at city hall were ready to spring their surprise. The mayor announced that he was beginning a major investigation into corruption in city contracts. After about a month of innuendo implicating the Morgan firm in that corruption, police officers appeared at the firm to arrest Adam and Jacob for bribery and kickbacks. Raymond wanted to stop the arrests but a few words stopped him.

“Raymond, we need to play this out. We have people in place to help us, and we have to trust them. Jacob and I will watch each other’s backs. You know whom to call. We’ll go peacefully, and hopefully see you soon. Please let Traci and Miranda know what happened, and alert our security people to keep a close watch on our families.”

“I’ll do that, Adam, and I hope our planning works.”

At that, Adam and Jacob were led away in handcuffs and placed in a police wagon. There they were treated roughly and arrived at the jail with a number of bruises and cuts. However nothing too severe could be done, so the rough treatment was tolerable. There were a few tense hours at the jail until U.S. Marshals showed up to take custody of them. There was quite a bit of wrangling, but even a local judge who was brought in had to admit that the marshals had the correct papers and the authority to take charge of the prisoners.

The mayor had called a special meeting and reporters had been invited. Unaware of what had transpired at the jail, the mayor produced a ‘secret’ ledger that showed payments to Adam and Jacob from the city, and then payments made to the recently deceased city council president. Suddenly investigators from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office swooped in to confiscate the ledger, and arrest the mayor and a number of city council members. Finally a representative of the governor’s office stood to speak and the reporters were all straining to get in a good position to report this suddenly engrossing story.

The agent laid out the results of the state’s investigation. He explained how the mayor and council planned to incriminate Adam and Jacob so that they could use that to intimidate other businesses into kickbacks. When they reporters asked why those two were targeted, the answer was that the Morgan firm had refused to cooperate in illegal behavior and the corrupt politicians had set out to make an example of them. The attack on Adam’s house was brought into the discussion, and it was explained how the failure of that plot had let to this one. It was a great story, and one that would hit the newspapers in cities across the country. Of course in that era, the next group of politicians were also morally and ethically deficient but at least kept their corruption on a small scale so as not to attract the attention of those who would expose them. The corruption in Boston never reached the level that was achieved in New York and Chicago.

As Adam was escorted to his home by marshals, Traci was a bundle of nervous energy. Matthew didn’t understand what was wrong but only that his mother was very upset. Adam knocked on the door, and Traci flung the door open when she saw him. He was bruised a bit but otherwise healthy. Traci threw herself into his arms and cried. Matthew came up to hug his father’s leg. He didn’t know what was wrong. Adam picked him up with one arm even as he held Traci with the other. Adam sat on the settee with his wife and son for the next hour. Finally Matthew was asleep on his shoulder and it was time to put him in his bed. Adam stood holding his son and looked down at Traci.

“Come with me. I’m going to bed too as soon as I get our son settled in his bed.”

Traci nodded and followed Adam up the stairs. After Adam had gotten Matthew undressed and into a night shirt, he returned to the bedroom to find Traci sitting on the edge of the bed just staring into space. He walked and sat beside her.

“Adam, I thought it would be safer here. I thought we wouldn’t have to worry about something terrible happening. But it’s just a different city, and danger is still around us. The only real difference is that our families are not here.”

“Perhaps it’s time to think of living some place outside the city?”

“Where could we go?”

“I have several commissions yet to finish, but I could work from Nantucket. You like it there and so does Matthew. There’s a small school there, and I would actually be closer to where some of my projects will be built.”

“Honestly, we could live there?”

“Yes, and we could take Belle and Eliza with us. There’re three bedrooms so we could accommodate them. I’ve made enough money from my work and from my investments that I don’t need to work as much as I used to. In fact, I wouldn’t need to work at all if we lived somewhat modestly.”

As Traci wrapped her arms around Adam’s neck and kissed him, he began unbuttoning her dress. He worked his way down her back until all the buttons were undone and then helped her slip the dress from her arms and dropped it to the floor as he pulled her into a standing position. He began kissing her cheeks, neck, and shoulders then. Traci unbuttoned his shirt and pushed it off his shoulders as they continued to undress each other. Finally able to relax fully, they made love with each other as they had done when they were first together.

*****

Chapter 11

The next morning, Adam asked Belle and Eliza if they would live with his family in Nantucket. Belle was all smiles until Eliza asked after Henry who was Adam’s driver.

“Well, I wasn’t expecting to need a driver in Nantucket, but Henry is certainly welcome to accompany us there and work in other capacities as needed.” Suddenly it all made sense to Adam: the looks that Eliza gave Henry were not just admiring looks from afar. The two of them had apparently developed a relationship. He liked both of them and having Henry there to help protect his family was an appealing thought. Adam had become more aware of how dangers could appear out of seemingly innocent situations. There was a room over the carriage house at his cottage that he had expected to use only for guests, but it certainly would be an appropriate place for Henry to stay and would be acceptable as well if Eliza and Henry decided to make it official.

Looking over the breakfast table, Adam saw Traci smiling. She had suspected that there was something between Henry and Eliza and had been proven correct. She was savoring the moment of having observed something her astute husband had missed.

“Now, do you want to go to the office with me to tell Raymond and Jacob what our plans are? We can bring Matthew too. He hasn’t been there in a while, and it may be the last time he sees it.”

Agreeing quickly, Traci went upstairs to dress in more formal clothing, and Adam took Matthew to his room to dress him for the outing. The five-year-old did enjoy dressing up and insisted on clean clothing every morning. Traci insisted that somehow he had inherited that trait from his father because as a child, she had dressed in a plaid shirt and pants almost every day. That Matthew favored dark colors was probably just his desire to be like his father.

At the firm office, Raymond and Jacob were not at all surprised at Adam’s decision. Under similar circumstances, either one or both of them might do the same. Adam had brought a lot more profit to their firm, and they would hate to see him go but he could still work on projects and commissions from Nantucket. He already had a full slate so for two years at least they expected he would still be with their firm. Others who wanted to avail themselves of his talent would have to wait until he finished his current projects that included a three story ‘cottage’ for one of the wealthiest families in New York who wanted an ostentatious showcase in which to entertain guests for the summer season.

“What is in that design that won you the commission? He’s a difficult customer to please but he and his wife are all enthused about your design.”

“I put a ballroom on the third floor ringed with windows and balconies. They can party up there with the most gorgeous views that anyone could imagine.”

Raymond shook his head. Neither he nor Jacob would ever have thought to reverse a design and put the ballroom on the top floor and the living areas below it. This was the type of situation where Adam’s engineering background served him well. Raymond began to think that architects should possibly be schooled as engineers as well.

“There’s a grand staircase in the foyer that leads to the second floor, and then there are matching staircases to either side that continue to the top floor. There’s a solarium on the back of the house. If lighted properly, it will look like a prism to the guests looking down from the ballroom balcony in the back.”

“He said something about swans?”

“In the center of the foyer is a water garden. It’s large enough that during parties, they could have two swans swimming in it as guests arrive.”

“What about living areas?”

“There was only room on the first floor for a library, parlor, and dining room with a kitchen and maid’s room in the back. The second floor has a sitting room with each bedroom and a water closet for each bedroom as well. He has asked about the possibility of expanding the first floor and that may happen. It will be a monument to excess, and may stand as a reminder of that for hundreds of years. If we earn all the commissions and fees that are possible, we may be able to choose to do only the projects we want to do.”

Raymond extended his hand and thanked Adam for all he had done to advance the firm promising bonuses on his current projects if completed within the two-year time frame. Jacob walked out with them adding his thank you to that of his father and asking if Adam would consult on projects that Jacob had accepted. Adam said he would be happy to do that. Jacob could come to Nantucket at any time, and they could work together.

“So, you’re not planning to be back in Boston at all?”

“No, in fact, I plan to sell the house here. We’re going to take the rose garden with us and some of the furniture, but the rest will be sold. We’ll live in Nantucket for the next two years and then we’ll see.”

For two years, Adam and Traci lived by the ocean. There were many people there in the summer months, but the town’s population was quite small over the winter months. Winters were mild compared to what Adam had experienced in Nevada. Eliza and Henry married and lived in the room over the carriage house. Belle was in the house and enjoyed her role as a substitute grandmother to Matthew. Matthew began attending school and was schooled as well by Adam in those subjects in which he excelled: writing and math. By the end of those two years, Adam had become a very wealthy man through his work and his investments. He told Traci that they could travel as soon as he finished the last of his commissions for he wasn’t accepting any more until they had a chance to travel and he could recover from working over fifty hours a week for two years. They talked and discussed options, and even asked Matthew which of their ideas he liked best. Before Matthew’s eighth birthday, they had made a decision.

*****

Chapter 12

Easter Saturday dawned gloriously. As he did each year, Ben Cartwright remembered as he awoke that this was the day that Adam and Traci had left. They had a son now and a life in New England, but how he yearned to see them again. Ben had been so happy to hear that Adam had moved his family to the small town of Nantucket. After everything that had happened, Ben worried about his son and his family. Although Adam had tried to downplay what had happened when he wrote, the newspaper stories had been all too clear in the descriptions of what those corrupt politicians had tried to do. Adam had been absolutely reliable in sending letters every month, and for the past few years, he had his son Matthew write too to the grandfather he had never met.

After breakfast, children began arriving with their parents for the annual Easter egg hunt on the Ponderosa. Neighbors, married hands, and Ben’s sons came with their children. Ben sat on his porch watching his grandchildren search for colored Easter eggs. Joe, Hoss, and now Jamie had blessed him with a number of energetic children to watch and enjoy. Jamie’s was too young to run with the others but his mama was carrying him around as Jamie picked up eggs for him and placed them in a basket. He cooed and laughed as much as a six-month-old can. Hoss and Joe were yelling out encouragement to their offspring to get the most eggs. Finally Joe and Hoss said it was time to head to the back of the house to look for more eggs in the garden.

Once the whole Cartwright clan reached the back of the house and the garden, two of the oldest grandchildren insisted that Ben join them in the hunt for eggs. Hoss handed his father a basket. Ben started to look for eggs and Hoss and Joe walked with him and seemed to be steering him toward the bench near the grove of pines in the back. When Ben reached the bench, he found a black egg sitting on it.

“Now who would ever want a black Easter egg?”

“I think I would.”

Ben whirled around at the sound of that rich baritone. He had not felt whole for the eight years since he had heard it last. Letters were simply no substitute. Adam stepped forward and his father embraced him almost out of necessity. He might have fallen if he had not had those strong arms to support him.

“You’re home. You’re really home.”

“Yes, and I brought a surprise.”

A dark haired lady emerged from the grove where Adam had waited for his father. A slender dark haired boy walked hand-in-hand with her.

“Pa, Traci and I would like to present our son Matthew. We’ve decided that Boston has become too large, dirty, and dangerous. We want to raise our son here.”

By now, Ben couldn’t control the tears that rolled down his face. He looked at Hoss and Joe.

“You knew and didn’t tell me?”

“We weren’t sure when they would get here. We found out late yesterday so Joe cooked up this surprise.”

“Yeah, Pa, you’re never going to forget this Easter egg hunt, are you?”

“I think that every year, I want to see at least one black Easter egg.”

*****

Another Guise

Chapter 1

Seeing red. He was literally seeing red. Gradually as sense filtered into his brain, he realized he was very warm. It had to be the sun he supposed that he was seeing through his eyelids. He tried to open his eyes, but that didn’t work very well. Then there was darkness and coolness as pressure was applied to his eyes. He realized slowly that the pressure was a cool wet cloth. When it was removed, and his eyes were wiped dry, he found he could open his eyes but the sun was very bright and he couldn’t see much looking straight up into the sky as he was. He heard a voice then, an unfamiliar voice, but it was the voice he had been hearing in his dreams though.

“Just a minute, there, pardner. I’ll just pull this tarp over a little further and give you some shade. There, how’s that?”

Opening his eyes again, he saw the blurry outline of a man. He squinted and the picture cleared a little but was still blurred. He blinked a number of times and realized how his eyes hurt. As full consciousness returned, he realized that everything seemed to hurt. His legs felt like lead, his arms were sending pains shooting up into his shoulders when he tried to move them, and his stomach was rebelling at all of it.

“Just take it slow and easy, friend. I found you out here all hog-tied and left for the buzzards. Somebody worked you over pretty good. Looking at you, I guess it would have been more than one. Anyway, you’ve been out of your head for most of the two days I been here with ya. Found ya yesterday and now today you finally wake up. Now, do you want some water?”

He tried to answer, but couldn’t make a sound. He opened his mouth and no sound emerged.

“Well, that looks like you’d like a drink. Now just open wide and I’ll pour in a little.” Bit by bit, he was able to swallow water until his stomach protested and he closed his mouth as a signal he could take no more. “All right, then, that’s a good start. I was starting to think I’d wasted my time saving ya. If ya didn’t wake up in this heat, you was gonna die from no water. Lucky for you, there’s a stream nearby. I been toting plenty of water but only got a few sips in ya while you were out. I put some in your mouth, and you swallowed a few times but the other times, it just ran out the side.”

The man wet the cloth in his hands with a liberal amount of water and bathed his face, neck, and chest. The coolness felt wonderful, and he closed his eyes.

“Nah, nah, nah. You stay awake for a while now. My name is Richard Sky. Lots of folks call me Kid. Seems like I don’t look like I’m growed yet, but I am. What’s your name?”

He thought for a bit, and information started resurfacing in his mind. He remembered a lot, and remembered how he had gotten in this state. “Adam, Adam Cartwright.” The words were forced out slowly but clearly. It was obvious that his mental faculties were intact even if his body was quite a bit less so.

“Do you think you could drink a bit more?”

At Adam’s nod, Kid tipped the cup of water to his lips again, and he was able to drink more. The cool water made him feel quite a bit better.

“Now I caught a rabbit this morning, and I found a potato in your saddlebags so I’m making us some stew. I’ll thin it out a bit for you so it’s easier to swallow. You’re gonna have to sit up a bit to eat. Do you think I could help you slide back a bit against that saddle and get you a bit more upright?”

Kid gripped Adam under his arms and slid him back a little and propped him up against his saddle. Adam had done nothing yet but felt exhausted. He just sat and watched Kid cooking and tidying up around the campsite. He realized as he sat there how badly he smelled and knew that he had relieved himself in his clothing while unconscious. He wrinkled his nose at the smell, and Kid noticed.

“Sorry about that, Adam, but you was already that way when I found ya. Not uncommon for that to happen to a man when he gets knocked out or shot. I’m just glad it wasn’t worse. I can help you to that stream and help ya get cleaned up if ya want.”

“Please.”

Kid moved over to Adam and pulled off his boots. Then he moved behind him to help him stand although Adam couldn’t get completely upright. He was able to slowly shuffle to the stream and Kid told him to just sit down in the water with his clothing on. He brought him a bar of soap and handed it to him.

“The water’s shallow here. Just sit there and soap up what ya can. The stream will rinse ya clean. You can peel off them clothes when we get ya back to camp, and you can wrap up in a blanket until your clothes dry again or you can wear the stuff ya got packed in your saddlebags but that appeared to be dirty already. I don’t do laundry, but if ya want, I’ll bring em to ya and you can wash em.”

Adam nodded and Kid brought him the soiled shirt, pants, and socks that were in his saddlebags. He had been headed home when he got waylaid by three men who held him at gunpoint, and then when he had nothing of value, beat him senseless. He wondered if they would have beaten him anyway for it seemed they were those kind of men. He assumed they intended to leave him to die up here on the mountain because if it hadn’t been for Kid, no one would likely have found him yet. It was only about now that his family was probably wondering why he was late returning. He owed Kid his life.

The cool water of the stream bathed away some of the soreness and pain he was feeling. He knew he would be uncomfortable wrapped only in a blanket, but it would feel so much better later to be in clean clothing and not smelling like a latrine. He tried to wash his hair but found he couldn’t raise his arms that far long enough to soap his head. He knew he would never be able to rinse it anyway so let that go.

Kid came back to check on him and helped him out of the stream and back to the camp. There was a blanket spread out on the ground, and Kid had him stand there as they worked together to peel off his wet pants. Adam unbuttoned his shirt as well and Kid helped him take that off too. Then Kid told Adam to lie down, and he pulled his socks off for him. Tossing a blanket to Adam, Kid went to the stream to rinse those articles of clothing and retrieve the others that Adam had washed. He spread them out on bushes to dry as Adam wrapped the blanket around himself. Kid pulled the saddle out from under the tarp that he had used to create a makeshift lean-to and placed the saddle behind Adam so he could lean on it.

After Adam and Kid ate the stew Kid had made, Adam leaned back on the saddle to close his eyes for a moment and promptly fell asleep. Kid looked at him and smiled. His plan was working perfectly so far. He remembered the conversation with his generous employer.

He’s the most suspicious one. Get him on your side, and you will have access to everything you need. Remember, disruption of their operations is the key to our success. If necessary, get rid of one or two of them, but that’s not to be your first method. It will make people more suspicious, and that old man and the oldest son are like bloodhounds when they sense a threat. Keep that in mind, but all four of them are dangerous to you and to us so be extremely careful.”

So Kid had come up with this plan to ingratiate himself with the Cartwrights and get close to their operations where he could do the most damage. The three fools he had hired had been too enthusiastic though in doing his bidding. He was afraid for a time that Adam Cartwright wouldn’t survive, but he had taken care of them to punish them for failing to do his bidding exactly as asked and for being a threat to the operation. They were buzzard food now, and no one would ever miss them.

The next step for Kid was to get Adam home to his family. If his family came looking for him and found him up here, there would be a nice thank you and then they would haul him off. To be sure to be offered a job and a place to stay, Kid needed to ride into the yard of the Ponderosa bringing the oldest son home to the everlasting gratitude of this family. That was the plan, and he would need to push Cartwright to ride sooner than he was really ready for it in order to be sure the rest of the plan worked. He had already set a few things in motion and needed to get to the Ponderosa soon to take advantage of those deeds or his plan would have to slow down. With the bonuses he had been promised if he could succeed, he was anxious to proceed at a fast pace. So he let Adam sleep for now. Once he got him dressed in clean clothing later, and with another good meal in him, he thought he would likely suggest going home himself. If not, Kid would bring it up negatively expecting he would automatically insist he was well enough to go. He smiled at his own ingenious methods.

Kid’s plan worked very much like he had thought.

“You know, after a few more days, you ought to be ready to ride, and I can help you get home. Your family must be worried sick right about now.” Then Kid watched Adam thinking and wasn’t at all surprised by his answer to that.

“Yes, my family will probably be starting to worry now. If you don’t mind helping, I would like to try to ride home tomorrow. It will take most of the day because I doubt I’ll be able to go very fast, but I want to get home as soon as I can manage.”

“Well, ifn you’re sure you want ta push yourself like that, I surely can help ya. All I wanted to do up here was hunt a little and get my belly full for a change. You don’t suppose that your family could spare some food when I get ya home, now do ya?”

Laughing softly then, Adam told Kid he was sure there would be not only supplies if he needed them but a good meal and even a job offer if he was willing. Kid smiled in appropriate response and gave a good little speech about his gratitude that Adam’s family would be so generous. By that night, Kid slept very well knowing how well his plan was working. It made him feel powerful to be able to manipulate people so well especially one who had been described to him as suspicious and intelligent. It gave Kid an exaggerated sense of his abilities which more than one person had pointed out to him in the past, but Kid just pointed at his successes and the money in the bank to show them they were wrong.

The next morning, Kid packed up the camp after breakfast and helped Adam get up on Sport. Adam was stiff in the saddle and by early afternoon, was swaying due to exhaustion from the pain and the effort not to fall off. Kid reluctantly helped him dismount and rest for a time under a tree. He gave him water and jerky to try to revive him enough to finish the ride. Finally about three, he knew it was time to push.

“Well maybe we should just camp here. A shame though cause we must be only two or three hours from your home.”

“I can do it. If you have to, tie me to the saddle. I want to get home today.”

Kid smiled as he went to get the horses. This man was a lot easier to manipulate than he had expected. He helped him mount up again and they headed to the Ponderosa main house. By the time they got there, Adam was laying across his horse’s neck and doing his best just not to fall off. He didn’t even seem to be aware that he was home. Kid began to help him from the saddle when suddenly there were men all around him helping Adam down and asking all sorts of questions.

“I was riding up in the hills just to do some hunting. I found him hurt and hog-tied about three days ago. Took until yesterday for him to tell me who he was and where he lived.”

A woman carrying a baby was soon there with tears streaming down her face. A boy who had to be about eight or nine stood with her and looked scared. In a way, Kid was glad he got Adam home. Kid had been orphaned early in his life and shifted around from place to place, used and abused, until he broke free of adult supervision at fifteen. He hoped he wouldn’t have to kill Adam for the sake of the children. He cared nothing for adults and could kill at will, but he never hurt a child or caused them suffering if he could help it.

*****

Chapter 2

So happy to see Traci, Adam smiled despite the pain and exhaustion he was feeling. Hoss helped him up to their bedroom, and then Traci helped him to undress and slide into their bed. It was such a relief not to have to move any more, and to be home, that Adam just wanted to rest, but he knew he needed to talk with Traci and his family first, and he was hungry too.

“Can I have a kiss now?”

Needing no more encouragement, Traci sat on the edge of the bed and leaned down to kiss her husband. Adam tried to wrap his arms around her but couldn’t. His muscles protested too much still being terribly sore from being pulled back and tied when his assailants had hog-tied him.

“Now Matthew wants to see you. As soon as you can reassure him, I think you need to tell us what happened.”

Opening the door, Traci called to Matthew to come in. He had never seen his father so badly injured, and it scared him. Adam signaled him to come over to the bed.

“You’re not going to hurt me by giving me a hug. I think we both need one.”

Sitting at Adam’s side, Matthew leaned in and gave a tentative hug to his father. Adam stroked his hair and held him in place with his other hand.

“I was afraid something bad happened to you and you would never come back. And you’re hurt. Papa, I don’t know what to say.”

“Just being here and saying what you did was powerful medicine to help me. Thank you. Now your grandpa and your uncle want to see me too. Do you think you could ask Hop Sing for a tray of food for me? He’ll know what to fix. When it’s ready, could you bring it up here for me? That would be a big help.”

Giving Matthew an important task was just what was necessary to get him out of his fright. He smiled at his father and headed out in a rush almost running into Ben who was entering the room. Hoss followed in behind.

“We sent someone for the doctor. Now who is this man who brought you home, and what happened to you?”

“His name is Kid. Where is he now?”

“He’s at the dining table. Hop Sing prepared a plate for him. He seemed very hungry.”

“I bet he is. All we had today was jerky and water. I think we should offer him a job. He did save my life.”

“Hoss already mentioned the possibility of a job to him, and he seemed agreeable. Now, what happened that you needed saving?”

“I left Sacramento two days early. I had all the measurements and topography sketches I needed to do the commissions for the buildings. On the eastern slope, three men stopped me. They demanded money, and I had very little. That made them mad, and they pounded on me. They seemed to enjoy it, and then they left me hogtied. I couldn’t do anything and at some point I passed out. When I woke up, I was in Kid’s camp. He had rigged a lean-to for me, and he helped me. Without him, I’m not sure what would have happened.” Adam had intended to say he would have been dead, but one look at Traci’s face after what he had already said, and he couldn’t do that to her.

“Well, Hoss already sent one of the hands for the doctor. We’ll get this Kid in the bunkhouse for tonight at least, and if Candy has some work for him, we’ll hire him. Hoss and I were talking about sending someone to look for you when he rode in with you.”

“I’m heading home now. I’ll swing over to Joe’s place and let him know what happened. Real glad you made it back in one piece, older brother.”

Adam smiled and nodded. About that time, Matthew arrived with a tray. Obviously Hop Sing had anticipated his request. There were scrambled eggs with lots of bacon pieces mixed in and chopped tomatoes on the side. There was bowl of applesauce, and a cup of coffee. Hoss and Ben helped pack a few more pillows behind Adam so he could sit up to eat, and then the two men left. Matthew sat on a chair and watched. Traci handed the plate to Adam but his clumsy attempt to hold it let her know more than anything he had said how hurt he was. She took the plate back and began feeding him which Matthew thought was very funny.

“Papa, Mama is feeding you just like she feeds Hope. You’re being the baby.”

“Why don’t you go get Hope if she’s still awake. I would love to see my daughter before I fall asleep myself.”

Finished with the eggs and tomatoes, Adam was just starting to eat the applesauce when the babbling of his daughter drew his attention to the door. Matthew walked in carrying Hope and set her by the bed which surprised Adam. Hope grabbed hold of the covers and stood by the bed. She looked at her mother and smiled and then looked toward Adam when he called her name. Her smile vanished, and the trembling lip quickly turned into a crying squall. The bruises on Adam’s face, although quite bad, did not scare either Traci or Matthew, and they had not thought of how an eight-month-old toddler would see it. Traci quickly picked up Hope and soothed her telling her that Papa was hurt and she could sit on Mama’s lap and take another look at him. She did without crying but it was clear she didn’t want to get any closer to him.

Feeling bad for his father, Matthew sat on the other side of the bed and grasped his father’s hand. Realizing how hard this was on all of them, Adam said he was tired and would sleep until the doctor arrived. Later Doctor Martin was able to assure them that although Adam’s injuries were painful, none were serious. The most troubling was that he had had another head injury and had been unresponsive for over a day but the other injuries, lack of food, and no water could have created that scenario. So the doctor worried, but he found nothing in his examination that seemed to be a negative result of it nor did he find any other reason to be concerned. That night after the children were tucked in bed, Traci went to bed. She thought she wouldn’t fall asleep right away, but she wanted to be by Adam, and he was in bed. She snuggled up to him and relaxed as she heard his steady breathing and felt his warmth. She relaxed and sooner than she had expected, she was sound asleep.

The next morning, Traci awoke just after dawn feeling rested and more relaxed than she had been since Adam had left on his trip. She resolved that he would not travel alone again. She would insist that someone go with him. Adam opened his eyes as Traci slipped from the bed, refreshed herself, and dressed. She was about to leave the room when he called to her. He had enjoyed watching her do those normal things that she did every morning. It was comforting to be back in the routine of their daily lives, but at that moment he had a pressing concern and needed her help. Once he finished, she covered the chamber pot and helped him back into the bed. He was very stiff and sore, and Traci was dismayed to see the bruises all over his body which showed so well as the morning sunlight bathed the room.

“Do you think you’ll go back to sleep or should I bring you some breakfast?”

“I may sleep. I don’t know, but I’m not hungry yet. Perhaps just a cup of coffee when you have the time.”

A short time later the door opened, and Adam expected to see Traci with a cup of coffee, but instead Joe was there.

“Poor woman had to spend the whole night with you. Thought I’d give her a break.” Joe grinned at him as he set the coffee on the bedside table. “Need some help with those pillows?” Joe pushed a few more pillows behind Adam as he leaned forward. Once he was sitting comfortably, Joe handed him the coffee.

“I got most of the story from Hoss. Is there any more to tell?” Joe was asking a mostly rhetorical question and was surprised when Adam said yes.

“If you were going to rob someone between here and Sacramento, would you choose the eastern slope?”

Joe looked at Adam’s serious expression and thought about that until he guessed he knew what Adam was insinuating.

“You think they were following you. They could have robbed you anywhere so why wait until you’re a day’s ride from home?”

Nodding, Adam looked at Joe. “Unless you had orders to do it that way, and set it up so someone could find me and take me home to the everlasting gratitude of my family.”

“You are a suspicious man. Some might even call you paranoid.”

“Joe, think about it. Isn’t it all rather convenient and at the same time improbable that it happened the way it did. They didn’t just happen to cross paths with me out in the wildest part of the country I traveled through. And if they wanted something of value, why did they leave my horse? They left my saddle, rifle, and pistol too. Why hogtie me unless they wanted to be sure I would be exactly in that place? I was nearly unconscious when they left me. They should have assumed I would die out there one way or another.”

“You’re right when you bring all of that up. Something just doesn’t add up. What did Pa and Traci think?”

By Adam’s expression, Joe knew he had not confided in them. “Why didn’t you tell them?”

“Pa may figure it out on his own if he stops to think about it. Traci is too worried to be thinking about things like that, but give her time, and she may have her own doubts. But right now, I want just you to know.”

“Why? If you’re right, the man who brought you here is part of it.”

“Yes, but better to have your adversary where you can see him than running around hatching plots that could ensnare any one of us. You need to watch him, Joe. Try to figure out what he’s up to. I think I’ll be stuck here another day or two, but then there will be two of us watching him.”

“Well if we told Pa and Hoss, there’d be four of us watching him.”

“They would be so angry if I told them, they’d never be able to hide it. Nobody messes with the family and gets away with it as long as Hoss and Pa have their say. Pa would have Roy out here in an instant.”

“Why me then? Don’t you think I care about you?”

“Of course I know that. But you’re just as devious as I am and don’t even think to deny it. You could shake hands with the devil if you thought there was a good reason. So you’ll be able to pull off the friend act without a problem. He’ll never suspect you.”

“So what do I do first?”

“Make sure Candy hires him, and then see what kind of work he wants to do. I have a few ideas for telegrams I’d like you to send too. If there’s any excuse you can think of to send some men to work, ride, or hunt on the eastern slope, that would be good too.”

“You think those men could still be out there?” Even as he said it, Joe knew the answer, so he nodded.

Thus Adam and Joe began their detective work, as Kid began working on the Ponderosa not knowing he was under surveillance.

*****

Chapter 3

Nothing out of the ordinary happened for a few days as far as Joe could tell. Candy had hired Kid and sent him out to do some fence repairs. There was a lot of fencing that had come down in the northeast pastures and before any more cows wandered off in the direction of the flatlands, the fencing had to be repaired. Joe had found reasons to ride through that pasture and each time, he had found Kid working as directed. What he didn’t see was that when the day was done, Kid rode to another pasture and pushed fencing down and drove cattle through those openings. The losses were far greater than they had been, but despite the significant damage he was doing, no one noticed because that fence line had been ridden not long before and no damage had been found.

Once the roundup began, it was soon clear that fencing had been deliberately downed and a number of cattle were missing. At first, it was assumed that it was rustlers, but Hoss found tracks of only one horse near the fence line breaks and with the cattle tracks. Then it was clear that someone had driven those cattle through those breaks in the fence line on a number of occasions. Hoss and Candy headed out with hands to try to find the missing cattle but because they had strayed into the flatlands, it was likely that a number had already been eaten by the homesteaders in that region who always seemed to be short of food. Frustrated with the few cattle they were able to find, Hoss and Candy rode back to the ranch to deliver the bad news.

“Mr. Cartwright is going to be steamed over this.”

“Oh I think Pa is gonna blow a like a volcano over this. We have a loan coming due and we were counting on the sale of the cattle to cover it. Now we either have to sell some of our prime breeding stock or find another way to come up with the money.”

“Ouch! Well Adam’s been working on the timber and lumber operations. Is there a chance there could be enough money there to pay off the loan?”

“Only if he can convince somebody to advance us the payment on contract. Otherwise, the money will come in when the contracts are finished, and that will be too late.”

“Hey, I been meaning to ask you something too. With all of this, Joe asked me to take a few men and go hunt for some elk on the eastern slope. Said we haven’t had elk for quite a while.”

Hoss was perplexed. “Well that is odd. I wonder what’s up with him. He and Adam been talking a lot lately. Maybe Adam saw a lot of elk when he was there. Otherwise don’t make no sense to me neither.”

When Hoss and Candy gave the bad news to Ben, he did blow but less than they had expected. He explained that Adam had come down with a cold that would delay his recuperation. Ben didn’t want to wake him so had held his temper in check. He was very worried though. He had been going through their accounts, and they didn’t have the cash yet to pay the loans. Adam had begun the process of liquidating their silver mine investments, and there would be enough money when he concluded those transactions, but they needed cash or another loan to pay the one that was coming due. He was very worried and Hoss asked him the very question he had been dreading.

“Pa, can we make that loan due date now?”

“Hoss, I don’t see how. If you have any ideas, I would certainly like to hear them.”

Hanging his head, Hoss could only worry. Problems like this always seemed so insurmountable to him. He only had one idea.

“Pa, maybe we could generate some money from a number of different things. Joe could get money using some of his stallions for studs on other ranches. I could find a few prime bulls that we could sell. Selling a few of them shouldn’t hurt our overall production. Heck the bulls that we have left would probably be even happier. With that, some of the money from the silver mines, and the money due on lumber contracts, we could get closer to the amount, couldn’t we?”

Somewhat hopeful as he listened to Hoss’ ideas, Ben had to nod. They were still facing a substantial shortfall even if Hoss’ ideas were implemented, but Ben didn’t want to say that and discourage him for his ideas were sound.

“Hoss, you go ahead and do that if you can. And talk to Joe about his stallions. It’s a good start.”

Smiling in appreciation of what his father had said, Hoss could still see those worry lines and knew it wasn’t enough. He hoped Adam would be feeling better soon. He seemed to have good ideas about stuff like this a lot. Upstairs, Adam was coughing and felt miserable. Not only was he suffering from the beating and now the cold, he was suffering because of what Kid and whoever sent him might be doing. Traci came in the room with some tea to soothe his throat, and he decided it was time to let her know what he suspected. He respected her opinion and needed some help now. What he didn’t expect but should have was her anger.

“I can’t believe you would keep this from me. How can we protect you and protect our family if you don’t tell us what is going on. Damn, you had no right!”

“Traci, I told Joe. I thought you and Pa would see the problems with Kid’s story too in time. I only have suspicions. I have no proof of anything.”

“You know as well as I do that your logic is impeccable. Yes, I would have seen it too probably but not with worrying about you so much. Adam, you can’t do this. Too many secrets could ruin our marriage. Now you need to tell your father and Hoss too. Candy should probably know too so he can better watch the man.”

Not wanting to anger his wife any further and starting to accept that she was correct, Adam nodded. Traci went to the top of the stairs and saw Hoss and Ben in a deep discussion. Candy stood to the side listening and thinking. She didn’t want to interrupt but thought she had to get them to come listen to Adam’s story. She could see that Ben was already very worried, and it bothered her that she was going to make the situation worse possibly, but she thought they needed to work together on this. All three men made their way up the stairs and to bedroom shared by Adam and Traci. Adam was sipping tea when they entered. Adam asked Traci to tell the story, and he said he would fill in any details she might forget.

“So, you told Joe that the man who brought you here was possibly the man responsible for your injuries, but you didn’t trust us enough to tell us.”

“Pa, I’m sorry, but I wasn’t sure. Until I talked to Joe and he saw the same problems with Kid’s story as I did that I realized it wasn’t just my suspicious nature or my imagination. There really was a problem with how the whole thing played out.”

“And Joe wants me to hunt up on the eastern slope to maybe run into the three yahoos who beat you. You think they might still be up there?”

Adam nodded again. All three of the men were thinking they were going to have a conversation with Joe too about this.

“Pa, if I told you, you would have had Roy out here. If Kid gets scared off, there will just be someone else coming at us. You and Hoss would have stared daggers at him regardless and he would have known something had gone wrong with his plan. No, the real question is why and who’s behind it all.”

At that point, Ben hung his head down just a bit too. He realized in that moment that he had done exactly what Adam had done by keeping the news of the impending loan call a secret from him. He hadn’t wanted Adam to know how foolish he had been to put up the Ponderosa as collateral for a loan that was worth less than a tenth of what the Ponderosa was worth. But he had to do what he had told his son to do, and he admitted the whole thing.

“Son, we bought that section of land from the Circle T. It’s a full six miles by six miles. Thirty six square miles of prime timber. Well that sets up nicely for another lumber operation. But we didn’t have the cash so I needed a loan. I was anxious to get the land and worried that if the process took too long, we might miss that opportunity, so I put up the Ponderosa as collateral.”

Adam closed his eyes at that admission. It wasn’t often when his father made a business mistake but this was a doozy. Even Traci paled at his admission.

“What are you doing to raise the cash?”

“Well, we still have some cattle to sell, Hoss will pick some bulls to sell as breeding stock, and Joe can get stud fees for his stallions. We have some payments coming in soon from the lumber contracts you set up, and a few of the silver mine liquidations have already gone through.”

“How much more do you need?”

“About thirty thousand, and I can’t see how we can raise it without selling off most of the herd and the horses.”

Looking at Traci, Adam waited for her reaction. She nodded, and he turned to his father. “We’ll make up the difference.”

“Adam, how can you do that? Where in the world would you get that much cash?” Hoss and Candy were flabbergasted as well.

“Apparently you don’t realize how much I get paid for the work I do. Most of my commissions are up to the five thousand dollar range. A few have been more. Traci and I have invested most of that money over the years, but we keep a substantial amount liquid so that if an investment opportunity presents itself, we can cover it. I’ll need to contact our bank in San Francisco for the money. With that amount, I may have to be there to arrange things.”

“If you have to go there, you will not go alone.” Traci was adamant and everyone was surprised at her tone. She looked at Ben. “He has a family to protect, and he needs to be here for his children. Going that far alone with who knows how many plotting against us is just foolish.”

Ben nodded in acceptance of her stance, and Hoss and Candy agreed as well, but they knew it was Adam’s opinion that mattered most, and they retreated to let the two work that out. They couldn’t hear the words, but in between the coughing, there were a lot of loud conversation from that room. Knowing how Adam had always valued self-reliance, Hoss and Ben assumed it was going to be an epic battle. Then it was very quiet, and both of them had to grin. Adam and Traci had very loud arguments, but they always seemed to end the same way: very quietly in their bedroom. This time, they were already there so it was quite convenient.

Later that day, the four sons and their wives, Candy, and Ben held a strategy session. After explaining all of the story to everyone, plans were made. Jamie was going to take charge of talking with Roy to see if he could uncover anything. No one was likely going to notice if he went to town and happened to see Roy and have a conversation. Adam and Traci were going to San Francisco by stagecoach within the week. Matthew and Hope would stay with Hoss and Jillian. Hoss and Joe would carry out their respective money making ventures, and Ben would try to talk to the bank about an extension. To any observers, it would not appear as anything but an all out attempt by the Cartwrights to find a way to meet their loan obligations. They still didn’t know who would have hired Kid and the men who beat Adam, and they didn’t want to give away that they knew they were under attack.

Candy would take a couple of the men and head to the eastern slope ostensibly to hunt a bull elk but actually to scout around and see if they could find the three men who had beaten Adam. A few trusted hands would be told to watch Kid and report anything unusual to Hoss or to Candy when he was back. That was all they thought they could do at this point. It did feel good to be doing something, and if Adam could arrange the money transfer from San Francisco, then the worst of their fears would be gone.

When Kid learned that Adam and Kate were taking a trip to San Francisco and the children would be staying with one of their uncles, he was quite pleased. He had caused a lot of disruption already, and now if he needed to take more drastic action, it was just the head of the family and the old cook in the house. He didn’t expect any trouble from them.

*****

Chapter 4

The next day, Hoss sent a crew to fix the fences that were down and herd the cattle away from the breaks. He expected it would take two or three days to finish the job. Kid didn’t want to go.

“Hey, Boss, I been out there working quite a bit already. I thought maybe I could spend a few days working closer and maybe sleeping in my bed at night instead of a bedroll.”

“I’m real sorry, Kid, but you were up there and know where most of the breaks are. How about if I tell my Pa to give ya a day off with pay next week.”

“Oh a day off with pay would be great. Thanks.” Kid knew he had lost that argument as soon as Hoss started speaking. He might have pulled it off with the foreman, but Candy was gone to do some hunting for the ranch according to the other men in the bunkhouse. He wondered at that, but this was a large ranch and he was still unfamiliar with their usual way of doing things. As they rode to the fence line, Kid saw a line of wagons heading east. On asking, he found they were lumber wagons. It turned out they would only be a few miles from the lumber mill. Kid started to formulate another plan. He worked as hard as anyone on the fencing. Then when they were done for the day, he started to put his plan in operation.

“Hey, I’m real tired of beans for dinner. How about if I head up toward those trees and see if I can find something for dinner?”

The men all nodded. If he wanted to make the effort, they weren’t about to dissuade him. Kid rode away from camp with a self-satisfied smirk on his face. This was all so easy. He rode in a straight line toward the trees, but once in the cover of the trees, he headed toward where he assumed the lumber mill had to be and wasn’t disappointed.

Following the wagon ruts in the road, Kid came to a large mill next to a large mill pond. It was very quiet and it didn’t appear to be occupied. That was all the better for him. He rode up reconnoitering the area, and stopped at the mill. He grabbed some brush and some light pieces of wood and stacked them against the side of the mill. Kid had some oil soaked cloths in his saddlebags. He had originally intended to start a few forest fires when he had the chance, but this was even better. He wrapped the cloths around some sticks and created a makeshift fuse. He would light it, head to the trees to do some hunting, and probably be headed back to camp before the fire burned all the way to the pile of tinder and exploded into flames that would devour this old building.

Kid’s plan worked to perfection. He saw a deer in the woods, fired, and downed it. He gutted it, and slung it over his horse before riding back to camp. As he neared the camp, he saw all the other men riding rapidly toward the lumber mill. He turned in the saddle and was gratified to see a lot of smoke and a glow in the trees. He continued on to the camp and carved up the deer and began to roast it over the fire. By the time the men returned covered in soot and coughing, he had roast venison ready for them.

“Hey, where you boys been? I got some prime roast venison. Hey, you boys got all dirty. What happened?”

“The lumber mill burned. Wasn’t nothing we could do by the time we got there. Jack and Ned went to the timber camp to tell em what happened. They’ll be back here soon. Somebody’s gotta go to the ranch tomorrow and tell em. Old man Cartwright is gonna be furious. I don’t want to be the one to tell him. Might get fired on the spot.”

“He’s fire somebody just for telling him what happened?”

“Oh, yeah. When his temper is riled, you never know what he might do.”

Kid had wanted to tell him but now reconsidered. He needed to keep this job to do the things he wanted to do. “Hope nobody thinks I oughta be the one to tell him.”

“Nah, that’s the crew boss’ job.”

Kid relaxed, and grabbed some venison as did the other men. When Jack and Ned returned, they ate too, and then all turned in for the night. Kid slept well even if he had to sleep in a bed roll again. He was looking forward to the money he was earning and the hotel rooms it would pay for as well as some prime female companionship.

The next morning, Kid went to work to finish the fence repairs. Ned rode back to the house to let Ben Cartwright know about the fire. Ned knocked on the door of the main house and Traci answered the door. Ned was smiling and Traci couldn’t imagine why, but she asked him to come in to see Ben as he requested.

“Boss, we followed Kid and he set fire to the old mill. He covered his tracks well, but that old mill went up like a torch.”

“The old mill?”

“Yes, sir. We told him that the wagons were coming from the mill, and obviously he didn’t know Adam had a new one built. He wouldn’t have been able to get to the new mill anyway. Hoss alerted them to watch for Kid.”

Ben had started laughing as did Adam who had been sitting on the blue chair, but that make Adam grimace in pain, and Traci was by his side immediately.

“All right, let him think he really disrupted our lumber operations. At least we don’t have to worry about dismantling that old mill. Keep watching him, Ned. Great job. Thank you. Adam, are you all right?”

Adam nodded irritated at the attention. He had been doing a good job hiding his discomfort but had given away quite a bit with his reaction. Traci was holding his hand but looking at him and evaluating at the same time.

“You shouldn’t be going to San Francisco. That stage ride is going to be awful for you.”

“We can take our time, and stay in Placerville and then in Sacramento. I’ll be fine. It’s not for several days yet, and I’ll be doing even better by then.”

Sitting at his desk, Ben wanted to say Adam should not go but knew he had to go if the Ponderosa was to be saved.

“Adam, perhaps you could delay the trip. Surely another week wouldn’t be too much to wait.”

“Pa, if they figure out why I’m going, they’re going to try to stop me. The sooner I go, the better.”

Traci blanched at that idea. Adam knew she would be upset, but she had recently insisted he give her complete honesty so he felt he needed to say it. Traci had not considered the possibility that they would have to fear being attacked as they traveled. She had been only concerned that Adam was in pain and the trip could be very difficult for him. However knowing they could be waylaid suddenly seemed much more important, and she expressed her concern to Adam.

“I sent some telegrams to get some help. I expect they will try to interfere with any plans we have to raise money so we need to be ready for anything. If we leave as planned on Monday, two of the other passengers will be Pinkertons. They’ll make sure we get to our destination and then back again. The stage line will have an extra guard along too who will be a U.S. Marshal. Considering that we will be carrying thirty thousand dollars back with us, it seemed prudent to take some precautions.”

“Son, are you sure you want to carry the money? Is that wise?”

“Pa, anything else might not be accepted. Cash they have to accept. We’ll make the payment as soon as we reach town.”

“You’re expecting some kind of all out assault on us then?”

“Pa, I’m not expecting it, but I want to be ready. When I had to deal with this kind of corruption in Boston, we survived because we alerted the authorities and worked with them.”

“So, you have alerted the authorities? How did you do that? Son, you haven’t been able to leave the house.”

“I wrote the telegrams, and Joe had one of the hands take them to Carson City to send them. He waited for the replies and they all said simply ‘Yes’ so they agreed to my requests. We’ll stay in Sacramento and in Placerville on the way back. That way we can meet with our ‘guards’ who will have others doing surveillance. They’ll know if we’re being followed.”

“And you think it’s safe to take your wife with you?”

“Better than leaving her here where she could be taken hostage. All of the children and the other wives will be at Hoss’ house. His log home is like a fortress when the shutters are secured, and in that meadow, no one can approach without being seen at least a half mile away. Some of the hands will be there at all times, and Hoss, Jamie, and Joe will be there as much as they can and every night. Pa, think of it as a military operation. They’ve been on the offensive. We have to provide a defense especially when we start making our moves.”

“We don’t know that they would kill someone over this?”

“No, Pa, we don’t. But do you want to take that chance?”

As they finished talking, there was a light knock and Candy entered looking somber. He walked to where the three were talking.

“We found the three men, I think. All dead. Not much left of any of them after the critters got through with them, but each had a bullet hole in the skull. Someone probably shot them, and then made sure with a kill shot. Their horses were there still saddled. We unsaddled them and left them to run wild. I thought it would give away too much to bring them back here.”

The other three nodded. They did know now that whoever this was, they would kill. It was a sobering thought. Adam briefed Candy then on the other precautions he and his brothers had worked out. Candy liked the plan and asked what he could do. They all looked to Ben.

“I think Candy ought to move back here into the house until this is settled. Ned and Jack are doing a good job watching Kid. Maybe we ought to quietly let more of the men know that there could be some additional danger working for us for the next few weeks.”

Everyone nodded at that. This problem they were facing seemed to be escalating daily. They had to wonder at what would happen next, but more importantly they needed to know who was doing it and why. They had no information to help with that yet, but Joe was getting closer to finding something out and was unknowingly putting himself in mortal danger by asking the right questions.

On Monday, Joe was to take some horses to Carson City. He had made an appointment with a banker there who might have some significant information for him. He was also waiting for answers to a couple of telegrams he had sent little knowing that their foes had paid a man to work at the telegraph office to let them know what was going in and out of Virginia City. Joe had thought that Adam’s precaution of sending telegrams from Carson City was overdoing it and had sent his from Virginia City. Suddenly he was the focus of the conspirators especially when they found out what else had happened.

By Saturday, when Kid went to town with all the other men, he had a meeting to attend. Once everyone in the saloon was busy and had been drinking for at least an hour, Kid slipped away although Ned noticed and followed him. He was surprised to see Kid approach the new bank in town and then even more surprised when the door opened, and Kid slipped inside. He waited quite a while longer and Kid did not come out. He went back to the saloon wondering how any of this information could help.

Inside the bank, Kid was getting a dressing down he had not at all expected. He had thought there would be praise and more money, but he found out that he had burned an old mill that was no longer used

“Now they’ve been alerted to sabotage and will be more vigilant. How could you be so stupid. We also know that there are moving some horses to Carson City, and that young one has been sending telegrams asking questions that are hitting too close to home. The middle one is selling some bulls to a ranch near Reno. The oldest one is going to San Francisco to get money. None of those things can happen. It’s time to improve your work. You came highly recommended, but at this point, I cannot imagine why. It may be necessary now to remove one or two of them. The one with the horses should be first, and then find a way to stop the oldest one from getting that money from San Francisco.”

Kid was flabbergasted. They knew more of the workings of the Ponderosa than he did, and he was living there. He had to ask, and was even more surprised by the answer. They had not trusted him from the start to do this alone.

“Jack is a lot better source of information than you are. Gambling debts seem to be a better motivator, and we promised that he and his brother Ned will still have jobs on the Ponderosa when we take over. Now do your job so that can happen.”

Kid left the bank, and headed back to the saloon where he met up with several of the other hands who were heading to another saloon. He joined them as if he had not been gone for over an hour. All the time he was thinking of how he could accomplish the tasks that had been set for him.

*****

Chapter 5

On Sunday morning, Kid was very angry. He was snapping at everyone. Not only did he think he had been treated disrespectfully the night before by his employers, but Joe Cartwright had left a day early with the horses. Kid had intended to hamstring those horses that night, and now this was one more failed task to make his employers angry. He could still do something about those bulls in the lower corral waiting for Hoss Cartwright to deliver them to a buyer. He had some poisoned grain he was going to feed to them. They’d be sick or dead by Monday morning if he could get out there under cover of darkness and take care of that.

Kid also wanted to stop Adam Cartwright from going to San Francisco but knew that suspicion would fall on him if he quit right after those bulls sickened and died. He didn’t think Adam would be much of a problem. He was still hurting, and only his wife was traveling with him. He would give his notice and leave by the end of the week. He would tell the Cartwrights that he was lonesome for his family in New Mexico so they would think he was heading south but instead he would head west, watch in Placerville for the stage carrying the Cartwrights, and waylay the stage on one of those mountain roads. If they tried to get away, they would just go over the edge. He preferred if they would stop the stagecoach when accosted so that he could get the money or the draft, but either way they would be stopped and he would get paid.

Based on his instructions, Kid did need to get rid of Joe Cartwright. Originally he had thought he would do something about Ben Cartwright but now his youngest son was more of a problem, and his death would disrupt operations here as much as that of his father’s death would have. His employers thought that Joe was too curious and getting too close to finding out whom they were. Kid didn’t have a plan yet on how to accomplish that objective but was confident he would think of something by the end of the week. His general timetable was set and as the day progressed, his mood improved. That was noticed and the watchers had to wonder why.

After breakfast, Adam and his father were discussing the precautions that had been taken and if they were enough. Although they didn’t know who had employed Kid, they did know that he was dangerous, and that there might be others out there as yet undiscovered.

“Pa, I think you ought to send some men to be with Joe. I don’t feel comfortable with him out there alone.” At his father’s look, he knew he needed to add more. “I know, I know. He said he could handle six horses with no help, but that’s not the issue, is it. He’s got a meeting tomorrow with a banker. If they’ve been watching Joe, they’ll see that and realize he might be on to something if he is in fact correct that the bank here has something to do with it.”

“The real question though is how to send him some help without making him so angry that he does something foolish.”

“Couldn’t you send Candy or even Ned or Jack there on some other business? There must be some reason we could send someone to Carson City. Then they could just meet up as if it was coincidental. Joe will be suspicious of course but he won’t know until he gets back that we sent help.”

Lost in thought for just a short time, Ben had an idea but not the one Adam had been expecting at all. “If you will write up everything we know so far, and then indicate the things we suspect, I’ll deliver it to the governor. I can explain things to him while I’m there. He always wants my help in election years, so he’ll see me.”

“But that puts both of you out there.”

“Oh, so you don’t think I can help protect Joe?”

“Of course you can. But what if they want both of you gone. You would be making it easier for them.”

Traci emerged from the downstairs bedroom where she had been sitting and rocking Hope who was teething. “Take Candy with you. He’s smart, loyal, and good with a gun. It’s unlikely he’s a target, and he can watch your backs.”

Both men looked very seriously at Traci, and she wondered what they were thinking. Then Ben spoke.

“I’m sorry, but I sometimes forget what a smart woman Adam married. That is a wonderful idea. Joe will likely be so happy to see Candy that he won’t even be suspicious at first.”

“Do you think that Ned and Jack can handle things with Candy gone?”

“Hoss is still here. They can handle things. Are you and Traci taking the children to Hoss’ house today?”

“That was the plan. We’ll all be there at dinner tonight, and then when Traci and I leave, Hoss will be there. There will be a couple of the hands staying there as well until this is settled.” Adam didn’t want to say that he had been worried about the issue of kidnapping because he didn’t want Traci worrying too much about the children. The two of them needed to be alert as they traveled and worrying about the children would distract them. With all of the children at Hoss’ house, he didn’t think anyone would try anything against the children although that remained his greatest fear.

The arrangements were made, and Adam and Traci spent the day with their children. Matthew knew they were going, and asked Adam to take a ride with him. Hope was at the stage where she loved attention and it didn’t matter who was giving it to her. When she took her afternoon nap, Matthew and his parents took a ride. Adam could tell his son was worried and had to wonder how much of the current crisis he knew. They talked with him and discovered that he had discerned that there was a danger to his family but didn’t know its form. They told him there were men seeking probably to take over the Ponderosa. They told him to be alert while at Uncle Hoss’ house and let someone know immediately if he saw something out of the ordinary.

That afternoon, Matthew was in the stable saying his goodbyes to his colt. When he was about to leave the stable he saw Kid sneak away into the trees. Then he saw Jack following him. Now this was certainly out of the ordinary but if he ran to the house to tell the adults, they would never know where the two men had gone because they had left through the pine grove and there would be no tracks in those needles. Matthew had learned that much about tracking already so he followed Jack as he went through the pines. He stopped when Jack stopped and then looked to see what had Jack’s interest. He saw Kid emptying a grain sack into the pasture near where a group of bulls were.

Then Jack started back and Matthew hid. After he was sure that both men were well on their way, he came out of hiding and headed to the house. Once Matthew got inside, he could see his parents were very worried and very glad to see him at the same time.

Traci spoke first. “Where have you been? We were going to pack up to go to Hoss’ and we couldn’t find you a minute ago.”

So Matthew hung his head and explained what he had done. His parents and his grandfather were angry with him for going himself and not telling them instead. Adam ordered him to sit on a chair before Adam walked to the bunkhouse and asked Candy to come inside.

“What’s up? Ned and I were just setting up a work schedule for the week.”

Adam explained what Matthew had seen.

“Whoa, now that is a problem. I saw Kid leave the bunkhouse and quietly asked Jack to follow him to see if he was up to anything. Kid came back first. When Jack came back, he said Kid had just gone for a stroll.”

Everyone was struck speechless by that. The man who had the primary responsibility for watching Kid since he had arrived was apparently working with him. It was no wonder now why Kid had been somewhat successful in a couple of his endeavors. Jack saw but didn’t report on him. They had to wonder who he did report to though.

“I need to go get someone to go clean up that grain. It must be poisoned. What other reason could there be for doing that? But who do I get? Who do I trust now?”

“I’ll go with you. We can get Hop Sing to help too.” Adam and Candy left through the kitchen quickly, and with utensils and baskets Hop Sing provided, the three men cleaned up the grain before the bulls were able to get much of it. They would have to tell Hoss that one or more of them might get sick or even die though for they had no idea which ones had eaten some or how much. They had no idea what was in the grain either but assumed it had to be poison.

On their return to the house, Adam and Candy explained what they found. Then all of them discussed what to do next.

“How do we watch Kid without Jack knowing what we’re doing. Now we need to watch both of them.”

“Assign Kid to work with Jack. Then have one or two of the other men watch both of them.”

Again, the men looked at Traci. Adam smiled. “I don’t know why we don’t just put you in charge of the investigation. You have a way of getting directly to the issue. Thank you. We’ll do that as long as Candy thinks we can trust Ned?”

“I’ve worked with Ned a lot longer than Jack. Jack’s quite a bit younger and wilder. Ned is trustworthy, and I’d stake my life on that. If you don’t mind, I’d like to talk with him about this. He has a right to know that his brother is mixed up in this.”

“Have him bring that work schedule in here, and tell him where we can all observe his reaction.”

“Yes sir, Mr. Cartwright. I’ll be right back.”

Ned was shocked when he was told, and it was clear to everyone that he had no prior knowledge of his brother’s activities. Ned wanted to confront Jack immediately but that would alert Kid so Adam suggested another plan.

“You and Candy can ask Jack to help you move those bulls up here to the main corral. It’s empty and that will make it easier for Hoss to deliver them when he has to. You can talk to him down by the pasture if you feel you have to. We’ll have to trust you to come up with a plan.”

Candy had one more piece of information. “When I asked Ned to bring the work schedule in here, Kid gave me his notice. Said he’d be leaving at the end of the week to head home to New Mexico.”

“So whatever is happening here, will happen this week. Everyone needs to be as alert as possible. Time to see if Roy has come up with anything too.” Ben was more concerned as each of the developments unfolded. Traci had another concern.

“If he leaves at the end of the day Friday, that gives him time to intercept us in Placerville.”

Ben said the only thing they could do about that was to send someone from the ranch to Placerville before that with the instruction to watch for him.

“Our plans are getting more and more complex. There seem to be multiple threats to manage, and we’re still no closer to finding out who is behind all of this. I hope Joe finds out something tomorrow. When Candy and I get there, we’ll try to get some additional help. Now you two need to take your children over to Hoss’ house. We’ll manage here.”

*****

Chapter 6

Down at the pasture, Jack caved in completely when confronted by his brother Ned, and Candy.

“No one was supposed to get hurt. They told me they was gonna buy the Ponderosa from the bank and just needed information. I owed them a lot of money. I didn’t know they was gonna hurt Adam. He’s been a good boss, and that wasn’t right, but I was so deep in by then, I didn’t know what to do.”

Ned shook his head at his brother’s admission.

“Don’t ya think the Cartwrights woulda helped ya out? They been darn good to us and then you up and do this. Now what exactly you been doing and who ya been doing it with?”

“On Saturdays, when I go into town, a man meets me out behind the livery stable when I tells ya I gotta go take care of business at the necessary. I tell him what I’ve heard or seen going on at the ranch. Twice now, they showed up when I was working on the ranch and asked me questions too.”

“How did they find you on the ranch?”

“I worked with you and Candy on the work schedules or I’d assign myself to be where I told them I’d be. The only time I didn’t was when we went up to fix those fences and Kid burned the old mill. I told them all of that when they contacted me next. Ned, they said they’d break both my legs if I didn’t do this. I owed em so much and I had no way to pay. They said they’d keep the hands on after they bought the place.”

The wheedling tone irritated both Ned and Candy.

“Brother, you’re a fool. They killed three who worked for em already. We woulda been the next ones. We know too much already. Men like that don’t take no chances.”

Candy took charge. “Now this is what you’re gonna do now. You will tell your ‘bosses’ what we tell you to tell them. You do as you’re told by me or Ned. You’re gonna stick tight to Kid and if he does anything to threaten any of the Cartwrights, it’s gonna be your job to stop him. Ned’s gonna be following you two around. We need to know what Kid’s up to all the time and stop him before he does anything really bad.”

When the three men brought the bulls to the corral, Kid was watching. He was wondering at the timing of the move. Then when he saw Jack’s hangdog look, he thought he knew what had happened. They probably knew about him and they knew about Jack. Now it made sense to Kid why they were not more worried than they had been. He had not heard about any extra precautions being taken except at the lumber mill. He knew they had been keeping him away from hearing anything like that, and it was likely that some of these men had been keeping an eye on him. He wondered who had seen what he had done with the grain.

When all the men in the bunkhouse were asleep, Kid slipped away. It was difficult to find his way to the pasture in the dark, but he did it. When he got there, he lit a small taper using a small stick with a handkerchief tied to the end. He found that the grain had been cleaned up because if the bulls had eaten it, there would have been at least a few kernels still lying around, but the ground looked like it had been swept. As Kid made his way back to the bunkhouse, he was weighing his options: to come up with a subtle plan, make an all-out assault, or leave before he was arrested. By the time he slid back into his bunk, he still wasn’t sure which way he ought to go.

The next morning Kid had reached his decision. He was sent out with Jack to bring some cows and heifers to the western pasture from the northwest. After only a half hour, Kid rode into a grove of trees and dismounted. Jack stopped and asked what was wrong, and Kid told him that his horse had a stone in his hoof and asked for help. As Jack walked to the horse and leaned down to pick up the hoof and look, Kid drove a blade deep into his back. There was just a grunt and Jack fell. Kid went to get Jack’s horse and tied him to a tree. He had removed a threat to his employers and hoped they would be happy when he told them.

Then Kid mounted up and rode out as if he was trying to get away but only went far enough to be out of sight in the next grove of trees. He waited there until he saw a rider race to the grove where he had left Jack. Riding in close, he dismounted and quietly approached where he had stabbed Jack. Ned was leaning over his brother talking softly and heard Kid approach before the blade still stained with his brother’s blood could be used against him as well. Kid dove behind a tree as Ned fired in his direction and then ran to his horse. He had intended to kill both men without gunfire but knew now that getting away was his primary objective. He thought he could ride south as he originally stated to Candy. Too many things had gone wrong. His employers had been deprived of their spy, and he had failed in his tasks. The whole thing was falling apart as far as he could tell. He had changed his name before and could do it again. But the more he thought about it, the angrier he got. He would not be paid, and he was sure the Cartwrights would be laughing at him. He thought about heading toward Carson City to wreak some havoc. But that would delay and possibly prevent him from going to Placerville where the main objective could still be achieved.

At the grove, Ned was feverishly trying to stop the bleeding from his brother’s back. The gunshot had been heard at the main house, and soon other hands were there to help. Candy and Ben had left for Carson City earlier, and Adam and Traci were on their way west by stage. Ned realized he needed Hoss and sent one of the hands for him. With help, Ned got Jack back to the house and Hop Sing began helping him as one of the other hands had already gone for the doctor. Once the bleeding was stopped they waited for Doctor Martin who came out after an hour to say that Jack would survive as long as there was no serious infection.

But now Hoss realized they had a very big problem. There was no one to feed the information to the men at the bank who had pressured Jack to spy for them, and they had no idea where Kid was. They could not warn the other Cartwrights either. The only thing they could do was to send Jamie and another hand to Carson City. There would be strength in numbers there and hopefully get everyone home safely. A telegraph was sent to try to reach Adam and alert him to what had happened. Because Adam and Traci were traveling, it was going to be problematical to get the telegram to them.

Two days later, Ben, Joe, Candy, and Jamie arrived home. They had not had any trouble. As they gathered together with Hoss on Wednesday evening, everyone was happy that all were safe. Jamie had worked with Roy to find who owned the Circle T ranch and found the name was Maria Templeton, and that a Randolph Templeton presumed to be her husband or son was in charge of the ranch. They were the ones who had offered that section of prime timber for sale which had enticed Ben into a rash business decision. Joe had found out the officers of the bank holding the loan were Charles Augustus and Randolph Augustus and no one seemed to have any information on either of them. The two were unknown in banking circles according to the bankers who spoke with Joe, but had suddenly turned up with a banking operation in Virginia City. All of them hoped that once Adam brought the payment for the loan, that they might be able to ferret out more information because at this point the puzzle was still a bunch of pieces with no way to connect them.

In Placerville, Kid had just arrived and got a room overlooking the street and the stage depot. He already had the stage schedule so he just had to wait and watch each stage coming in from the west. Then he would move out to intercept it. He had contacted some others who would be interested in helping him for a share of the thirty thousand they expected to get. They would be ready to accompany Kid as soon as he alerted them that the couple carrying the money was in town. Kid assumed that Adam and his wife would be in a hurry and almost gave up when they weren’t there four days later, but on the way to San Francisco, Adam and Traci had spent a night in Placerville and then a full day in Sacramento. Adam had still been recovering from the beating he had taken and the trip exhausted him. On the way back, Adam and Traci traveled without the stop in Sacramento and would reach Placerville in nearly record time.

As the week had gone on and nothing happened in Virginia City nor on the Ponderosa, Ben began to worry more and the only conclusion he could draw was that attention of their foes had turned to Adam and the money he would use to pay off the loan. Adam had wired them the morning he picked up the money before getting on the riverboat that would take them to Sacramento. They had not heard from him since. All that they could do was hope that the precautions that Adam had taken would be enough. The cash payment for the bulls that were delivered to Reno, payments from timber and lumber contracts, and cash from the liquidation of silver mine investments were deposited and payments on the loan were made. The money Adam was bringing would pay the rest of the loan and free the Ponderosa from this current threat.

In the hotel in Placerville, Adam and Traci were exhausted. They had pushed very hard traveling and the strain was showing. They needed some time to recuperate but knew how essential their task was.

“Just one day shouldn’t make that much difference. We can’t do this if we’re so exhausted we can’t think straight and so nervous about every little thing that happens. A day to get a good meal or two and a little time to relax before the last push would be so nice.” Traci was undressing for bed. Her clothes were dusty, she was dusty, and there was little relief they could expect while traveling.

“You’re right. Maybe we could stay here and take the stage the day after. It would give us a chance not only to rest up, but I could send a telegram to the family. At this point, they’re probably worried because they haven’t heard from us. I’ll go let the others know we’re staying over a day here and tell the desk that we’ll be staying two nights instead of one. Then I’ll order a bath.”

“A bath would be glorious.” Seeing Adam’s expression at that statement, Traci just shook her head. “Why didn’t I know you would have another motive for staying here?”

Adam grabbed her in a hug and kiss. “Is there a better way to relax?”

Across the street, Kid was watching the hotel. He had his cohorts out watching and trying to find out the travel plans of Adam and Traci. He assumed they were leaving the next day because they had obviously been traveling very rapidly to this point and looked exhausted when he had seen them exit the stage. Two men walked with them to the hotel, and the stage guard joined them there later. Apparently they had enlisted some allies as well.

Later as Adam and Traci relaxed, bathed, and then enjoyed some pleasure in each other’s arms, Kid and his new associates were plotting. One of them had already purchased a ticket on the same stage for which Adam had been observed purchasing four tickets confirming Kid’s assumption that they had hired help along. Then Kid and the others set up a schedule for watching so that there would be no subterfuge. Kid was worried that Adam had set up an elaborate ruse, and he would not be fooled again. When the stage left, Kid would have one inside the stage with his targets, two waiting up ahead at the agreed upon location, and he and another would be following. He wasn’t too concerned for he believed he and his new friends had the tactical advantage, and they did.

*****

Chapter 7

As Adam and Traci awoke the next morning, it was raining which only reinforced their opinion that it was a good day to stay in one place. After all those days of dust and wind, rain and mud would have been depressing. Despite the limited opportunities in Placerville and the rough characters who wandered around town, Adam and Traci found a place to have lunch and then another spot for some shopping. The Pinkertons stayed in their room while they were gone to be sure no one broke in.

“Traci, I can feel the hairs on the back of my neck standing up every time we step out onto the street.”

“Adam, do you really believe in that?”

“Sometimes it has saved my life to pay attention to hunches and feelings that I have. And today I feel we’re being watched. If we are, we know who it is and how dangerous tomorrow will be. Once again, can I ask you to please stay here and let me take the money on the stage?”

“I would be worried sick sitting here and wondering about you.”

“Well I could say the same if you’re on the stage and I hear a gunshot.”

“You think it will come to that?”

“I wish I could see a way that it wouldn’t but I can’t. If we get that money to Virginia City, the loan will be paid off, and the ploy will have failed. Someone has worked very hard on this plan and they aren’t going to give up.”

“Adam, maybe we need another plan?”

“We do have another one if you’ll stay here.”

All that got from Traci was a frown. Adam walked up the stairs with Traci to take their purchases to the room. When they got there, the two Pinkertons left to take their room next door. Adam locked the door and looked at his wife.

“It’s at least two hours before the dinner I ordered is here.”

Slipping her arms around Adam’s waist, Traci hugged him and looked up waiting for the kiss she knew was coming. It was all the invitation that Adam needed. He kissed her and held her body close to his before dropping one arm behind her knees so he could pick her up and carry her to the bed.

“Ahh, very romantic, my sweet prince. You must be feeling a lot better if you can pick me up and carry me.”

“The reward is so worth the effort, sweetheart, so worth it.”

Later as Traci lay on her side next to Adam who reclined on his back with his arm around her, she touched the yellowish areas that were the remnants of the purple and blue bruises he had the week before. She touched all of the scars he had as well.

“I pray every day that you won’t ever have any more of these. But tomorrow could be a big problem and I’m scared. I’m scared for you and for me. I wish we could think of some other way to do this.”

“When dinner comes, we can talk about it more. Could we just be together now and enjoy this time. We haven’t had much of this lately and I just want to treasure it.”

Traci moved to kiss him passionately then and Adam responded pulling her to him for a long kiss.

“Keep doing that, sweetheart, and there won’t be any relaxing going on here.”

“We have all night to relax.”

The two grinned at each other and were still in bed when there was a knock on the door announcing dinner. Adam slipped on his pants quickly then, and Traci pulled the covers up and over her head. Once Adam had the dinner tray in the room, he put everything on the table before announcing dinner was ready. The rest of the evening was spent leisurely, and by the next morning both were well rested but apprehensive about what the day would bring.

Walking to the stage depot, Adam could tell that the two Pinkerton men were also anxious about the day. Knowing that this was the pivotal move in saving the Ponderosa, Adam had to continue on but he knew as did everyone working with them that the long feared attempt to stop him would likely happen on this day. There was an additional passenger on this part of the trek home. It was an average looking woman dressed for travel. She sat next to Traci who sat in the middle with Adam at her side. Across from them were the two Pinkerton men.

The weather was pleasant for a change, and the stops at way stations was only to change teams, and get a quick meal. As the end of the day neared, everyone was getting more edgy except for the female passenger. At the last stop, Traci conveyed a worry to Adam.

“I think that the woman next to me has a gun in her skirt pocket. I didn’t notice it on the stage but when I sat on the other side of her on the bench for dinner, it certainly felt like a pistol pushed up against my leg. I couldn’t be sure, but it makes me very nervous.”

“Traci, when the shooting starts, can you take care of her? That might be their ace in the hole. When we’re distracted, it might be her job to pull a gun on us from behind.”

“You’re sure there’s going to be shooting then?”

By Adam’s look, Traci knew the answer. If anything was going to happen, it would be in the next couple of hours. They climbed back aboard the stage for the last part of the journey for that day. They would arrive in Virginia City the next morning if all went well. The hope that all would go well ended less than an hour later.

As they came around a bend in the road, there was debris in the road causing them to stop the stage. As they did so, gunfire rang out from the rocky hillside, and the marshal started to return fire as he and the driver jumped down to take cover. One of the Pinkerton men climbed out on the side away from the gunfire to help, and Adam and the other agent began to fire from their side. Using her peripheral vision, Traci watched the female passenger who had been so taciturn, they didn’t even know her name.

“There has to be more to this. Two gunmen in the rocks aren’t going to get the money.”

Adam’s statement was reinforced when they heard gunmen riding toward them and firing. The marshal was hit and the other two men had to scurry for cover leaving the stage and its four occupants isolated. The two horsemen took cover too, and that’s when the female passenger went for her pistol. Traci grabbed her arms and the two struggled as Adam and the other agent continued to fire at their assailants. The woman had her hand on the pistol and raised it even from inside her skirt and tried to shoot Traci but shot the Pinkerton man in the foot instead. Adam was more forceful in dealing with the woman. He hit her with an uppercut slamming her head into the side of the stage knocking her out.

Traci retrieved the pistol the woman had in her skirt, opened the door, and pushed the woman out. When Kid saw that, he knew that part of the plan had failed. He decided to get right to the point.

“Stop firing. Stop firing. Now we got ourselves a real stand-off here. You can’t go cause we got ya pinned down. We have food and water. You don’t. When it gets dark soon, who knows who might get shot. I think we’ll all aim for the woman. Now what do you think about that Cartwright?”

“What do you want?” Adam was stalling just a bit. He had seen Traci go white with Kid’s statement.

“Just bring me the money, and we’ll be on our way. No one’s dead yet. You can keep it that way.”

“Adam, you can’t do that. He’ll just shoot you.”

“Traci, he’s right. They set us up, and I can’t risk you. With five of you giving cover, I should be all right.” That did little to reassure Traci but she had no better alternative to offer. “All right, Kid. But you walk out into the open too. I’ll step out and you step out, and then we’ll walk toward each other. My friends will be ready to cover me if necessary.”

“Now, Adam, why are you so suspicious? What have I ever done to you?” They heard Kid laugh. “All right, we’ll do it your way, but just remember, if you do anything foolish, my men will target your wife not you.”

“Traci, keep your head down. Sit on the floor if you have to.” Taking the saddlebags from under the seat, Adam climbed out of the stage and began walking toward where Kid emerged from cover. When he got within fifteen feet, Kid told him to throw the saddlebags to him. Kid opened one side and pulled out a stack and turned it over before smiling and stuffing it back inside with the other stacks. “Thanks. We certainly do appreciate this.” With that, Kid moved back to the rocks and his horse. He and the others rode off leaving the woman lying in the dirt.

The three healthy men cleared the debris from the road, and helped the two wounded men aboard the stage. Using the unconscious woman’s petticoats, Traci tore strips that were used to bind her hands and her feet before she was dumped inside the coach as well. “All right, now we need to hurry before they take a close look in those saddlebags.”

Everyone except Traci looked with surprise at Adam. “They’re stacks of paper with a twenty dollar bill on each side. They got away with about twelve hundred. The thirty thousand is in the false bottom of my valise. Let’s go.”

*****

Chapter 8

Adam and the others reached the last way station well after dark. The station manager had been concerned and was even more so when he saw them bring in two wounded men and a woman who was bound hand and foot. They explained what had happened, and then took defensive measures. There was the likelihood of another attack. The men took turns standing watch, but at least everyone got some rest, food, and water.

In the morning, the marshal was doing all right, and the Pinkerton with the wounded foot said he was fine but would have trouble walking. They decided to leave the marshal and the woman there for Roy to come get later, and the men took rifles to stand watch while the station manager and the driver hitched up a fresh team. Then all climbed aboard except for the healthy Pinkerton. He would ride ahead and make sure there were no more roadblocks. Traci had a rifle and pistol as well for although Adam was upset about it, they would need her if there was another battle.

Shortly after leaving the station, the Pinkerton man came riding back rapidly.

“They’re up ahead blocking the road. We can’t ride through them.” He tied his horse to the back of the stage, and stood behind it with his rifle at the ready. The driver climbed down to join him. Inside the coach the wounded Pinkerton asked Adam what he wanted to do. He looked at Traci and said nothing at first.

Soon the four gunmen rode into view. Looking at their posture in the saddle was enough to know how angry they were. There would be no more chances to trick them. Adam rubbed his forehead trying to think of what to do when he heard a familiar bird whistle. He looked up the hill to see Hoss signaling him to stay put. Adam turned to Traci and smiled.

“How can you smile at a time like this?”

“The rescue party has arrived. Hoss is up there so I assume he has enough help to get us out of this mess. He signaled for us to sit tight.”

They didn’t have to wait long. Soon they heard a familiar bellow.

“Kid, you’re caught between us. Now drop those guns and put your hands up.”

No one actually expected him to do that, but it was civilized to give him the chance. Kid knew he was facing the noose though so felt he had nothing to lose. He turned to fire at those behind him and a number of shots knocked him from his horse. The others dropped their weapons and raised their arms. Armed robbery would get them a prison sentence, but they hadn’t killed anyone so that’s all it would be. Men like this were used to accepting time locked up for what they had done.

Adam and the others exited the coach and approached Kid who was lying on the ground bleeding from several wounds.

“You got me, Cartwright. I was warned about you, but I thought I could still do the job. There’s just too many of you though. Too many.”

“Kid, who sent you? Who paid you to do this?” Adam knelt by Kid. He didn’t think anyone should die alone, and it was clear that Kid was dying.

“Yeah, I’ll tell ya. Would you send him to hell to join me? Hackett! It was Hackett.” Kid began to cough and groan with the pain, and then with a last shudder, he died.

Ben, Adam, and Hoss were left speechless. Traci had no idea who Hackett was but apparently the men did.

“Who’s Hackett?”

Adam answered. “Charles Augustus Hackett. He tried to grab the Ponderosa from us about ten years ago. He used brute force mainly and failed. Apparently that loss never sat well with him. This was another shot at it.”

“Joe found out the officers of the bank in Virginia City: Charles Augustus and Randolph Augustus. The owners of the Circle T who sold us that section were Maria Templeton and Randolph Templeton. The Randolph name looked like a coincidence but it looks more nefarious now.”

“Pa, I think you’re right. His wife was Maria. I think we know where to look now. Let’s get this money to town and make that payment. Then I think we need to get more information, and we can send our own special payment to Hackett.”

Ben, Hoss, and Traci nodded their heads at Adam’s statement. There would need to be a final resolution to this. Apparently Hackett had not taken his only takeover loss well as time passed. They would need to pay him back for this and make sure he would never try anything like it again.

“By the way, thank you for showing up when you did. How did you know we needed help?” Adam looked at Hoss and his father for an answer.

“Pa was worried about ya, but Joe was the one who said we oughta go. He and Jamie are staying with the wives and the children to make sure they’re safe. Amy and Sue were more upset than Jillian. She told me to get out here and help Traci.”

Thinking about the situation, Traci had another idea. “Why don’t we have Joe go in with Adam to take the money in and tell the bank to keep it quiet. They’ll see how they react when we pay back the loan. The rest of us can wait and watch to see who leaves to talk to whom, and if anyone rides out of town, we can follow.”

“Wait a minute. That may be a good overall idea, but I don’t like this ‘we’ you kept interjecting. I don’t want you in anybody’s gun-sights anymore.”

“Adam, I did just fine on this trip and you know it. How do you think I feel when you put yourself in danger? This is no different.”

Adam took Traci by the arm and pulled her aside for some privacy. Talking a hoarse whisper, he stated his position. “It is different. You aren’t skilled with a pistol, and we might need to use them. If anyone threatened you, I wouldn’t be able to resist them.”

Angry at first, Traci wisely held her response and thought about what he had said. Gradually she calmed down. He wasn’t showing a lack of respect for her nor treating her as the weaker sex. “You’re mostly worried about that second part, aren’t you?”

Unable to say it, Adam pulled her close and kissed the top of her head buried against his chest. They stood for a time like that as Traci suddenly realized how difficult it had been for Adam to have her with him on this trip. He must have been worried every step of the journey there and back. Then the shootout the day before and just less than an hour before had really made him anxious. Not wanting to make him suffer any more, she leaned back and looked up at him.

“All right. I know that this trip has been very hard on you. We’ll do it your way now.”

Pulling Traci into his embrace again, Adam kissed her passionately. He loved her more and more every day, and that she could read him made his life a bit less complex. His father and Hoss turned away to let them kiss without an audience. After a minute, Adam and Traci walked back to the group to ask what the others thought of Traci’s plan. All agreed it was a very good idea and better than anything else anyone could think of doing at that point.

So instead of Virginia City, Adam and Traci went to the Ponderosa with the money using the horses that Kid and his cohorts had used. The Pinkertons went with them for their job wasn’t completed until the money was safely in the bank.

Taking their spots on the coach were the three men who had accompanied Kid. Their hands were securely tied behind them and their ankles were tied to each other once they were on the coach. They started to complain bitterly until Hoss mentioned that he could arrange it so they didn’t even know they were on the coach. The closed fist and the look in his eyes made all three men shut up immediately. Kid’s body was wrapped in a bedroll and placed on top of the coach replacing the luggage that they would take directly home.

Once they reached Hoss’ house, there were a number of tearful reunions. Hope didn’t want to go to either her mother or father at first. She was mad at them for being gone so long until Matthew got long hugs and kisses from both of their parents, and then the toddler couldn’t hold out any longer. She raised her arms for her mother to take her. Adam kissed Hope’s cheek as Traci hugged her.

“I get it now, Adam. I really do get it. I’ll stay here with the children, but you better come home all in one piece, or I’ll make your life miserable.” Matthew had never heard his mother talk that way to his father and looked worried. “It’s all right, Matthew, I just want your father to be very careful.”

“Papa, you’re not leaving again, are you?”

“Just to check a few things out. I’ll be back tonight. We’ll go home then.”

As soon as Traci was inside with the children, Ben and his sons rode to town with the Pinkertons. They would set up to watch the bank before Adam and Joe went there with the money. Ben would stop in to alert Roy to what had happened although he probably had the gist of the story already from the stagecoach driver. Then they would follow anyone who left the bank to see where they went, and if necessary, follow them out of town. The Pinkertons were don with their job as soon as Adam walked into the bank, but Roy and his deputies were there to reinforce the group.

In the bank, Adam and Joe asked to see the president of the bank to pay off the loan. Once they were escorted to his office, both of them could see how nervous he was. Adam got right to the point.

“Mr. Augustus, we have the last payment on the loan from the Ponderosa.”

“Well, I believe Mr. Ben Cartwright has to be here to make the payment.”

Adam grabbed Joe’s arm before he could say anything. “Is there some unusual wording in the loan agreement? Usual bank practice is that it doesn’t matter who makes the payment on a loan as long as the money is good.”

“No, no, but if it’s a draft, we would need Mr. Cartwright here to guarantee it. In good faith, we cannot accept a draft without someone guaranteeing it to the bank.”

“Well then, you will be overjoyed to know that we have come to pay the loan with cash. We have thirty thousand dollars in twenty dollar bills.” Adam motioned to Joe who lifted the small valise he was carrying. He opened it and began stacking the money on the bank president’s desk.

“Now, we’ll just sit here while you count it and verify the amount. Then you can write us a receipt and a document stating that the loan has been paid in full.”

Randolph Augustus, or whoever he really was, was going to say something more, but Joe cut him off.

“No, that’s all right. We don’t mind waiting. We don’t mind at all. Just go ahead and count the money.”

Once the money was counted and the amount verified, there was a receipt for the amount paid that day, and then a document was drawn up stating the loan was satisfied. Adam asked for two other bank employees to witness both documents as signed. Once he had those papers, he and Joe left the bank, mounted up, and rode over to their lawyer’s office where Adam asked for the documents to be locked in his safe after he read them so he could be a witness to their existence and authenticity should anything happen to them. After thanking their lawyer, Adam and Joe mounted up to leave town but didn’t go far. They waited at the agreed upon rendezvous point, and didn’t have long to wait before they saw Hoss heading their way.

“Pa and Jamie are following that Randolph feller. He lit outta there as soon as he could just shortly after you did. Roy’s getting his deputies together, and I’ll wait for them as soon as I show you two where to head. Looked like he was going to the Circle T about as fast as he could ride, but that ain’t that fast.”

In a short time, Adam and Joe caught up to Ben and Jamie who were following Randolph. They had to slow down so they wouldn’t get too close. It wasn’t long before they stopped in a grove of trees on a hill to see Randolph ride into the Circle T and walk inside without knocking.

“Looks like he feels right at home there now don’t it?” Everyone had the same thought. They would wait though for Roy and his deputies to arrive. It likely wouldn’t be much longer.

Once Roy was there, they would ride down and confront whoever was in the house, but none of them had much doubt as to whom that would be.

*****

Chapter 9

When Roy and Hoss arrived with two deputies to meet Ben and his other sons, they made a formidable force. Roy deputized all of them to make sure there could be no question of the legality of their actions before they all rode down to the ranch with Roy in the lead.

“In the house, this is Sheriff Roy Coffee. Come out here, please.”

Inside the house, Charles and Randolph were surprised. They had no idea that their scheme had been discovered and couldn’t imagine how that could have happened. Assuming it had to be something else, Charles went to the door but drew the other conclusion when he saw all of the Cartwrights behind the sheriff. Charles was still going to try to run a bluff.

“Well, welcome to my humble abode. What can I do for you, Sheriff Coffee?”

“You, and that Randolph fella what went in there have to come with me. There are some questions that you need to answer.”

“You cannot mean that we are under arrest. We’ve done nothing wrong. Now why don’t you tell me what this is about, and I’m sure we can clear up any misunderstanding.”

“Well a man named Kid or Richard Sky attempted a robbery of Adam Cartwright, paid men to assault Adam, sabotaged work on the Ponderosa, burned a lumber mill, and killed three people.”

“And what could that possibly have to do with me?”

“He said you hired him to do those things.”

“Sheriff, I certainly would like to question this man and discover why he has slandered me so. Could it be that the Cartwrights paid him to lie about me?”

“Well, Kid is dead, but we have his dying man declaration witnessed by several people, and the people he was working with have stated that he told them all about you, what you looked like, and what you had hired him to do.”

Ben couldn’t stay quiet any longer. “You sold that timber land and tried to set me up so you could get the Ponderosa. You failed ten years ago and you failed again.” Adam finally got Ben to be quiet.

Roy continued. “You have used false names to purchase property, to sell property, and to charter a bank.”

“Charles Augustus is my name. I simply neglected to use my full name.”

“Then who is this Randolph Augustus who is also Randolph Templeton?” With a little prompting from Adam, Roy had one more question. “And who is Maria Templeton? We have assumed that she is your wife but that cannot be her name.”

Things were getting a bit complex for Charles and that last question was emotionally jarring to him. Adam and Joe noticed and mentioned it quietly to Ben and Roy. Clearly Charles Hackett was struggling with some memory that was very emotional for him. Randolph had joined him on the porch of the home and he looked very worried.

“It is possible that Randolph has broken some minor law, but he is an adult and responsible for his own actions. Maria sadly is no longer with us. She was lost to me last year.”

All of the men noted how he avoided saying Maria was dead, and they saw how upset Randolph had been to what Charles had said about him.

“Father, I did everything you asked. How could you throw me to the wolves like that?”

“Shut up, you fool. They don’t know anything. I can take care of you, but don’t say anything more.”

Now Roy was on a roll. “So he’s Randolph Hackett. That means he’s the one certain to face charges. Nevada State Prison is going to be a very unpleasant place for him to live for the next ten or twenty years.”

“No, I didn’t do anything. I just followed orders at the bank. He used my name without my knowledge for this ranch. He blames the Cartwrights for Maria’s death. Maria was his second wife. My mother was his first wife and he killed her in a rage. He did the same to Maria last year. He told me he did. You have to believe me.”

“Shut your damned mouth, you ungrateful cur. Your mother was nothing until I married her. You would have lived a life of poverty and filth except for me. I dragged Maria out of the gutter too, but none of you knew how to be grateful for everything I did for you.” Charles’ rage had gotten the better of him, and he didn’t realize what he was insinuating with his statements.

Roy turned to the others and asked them to carefully remember everything that was being said. Roy knew how effective it would be in court to have the word of the Cartwrights backed up by his deputies as well as the man’s son. “Randolph, perhaps you could cooperate in the investigation, and I could speak to the judge on your behalf.”

Randolph turned toward Roy and was about to answer him when Charles roared in anger and drew a double barrel pin fire .44 pocket pistol to shoot Randolph in the back, but Adam was faster. Charles clutched at his chest, and fell to the floor of the porch as the derringer clattered down the steps. Everyone froze in place for a moment not exactly sure how to react to what had just happened. Charles Augustus Hackett was dead. He would never threaten the Ponderosa and the Cartwrights again.

Sheriff Coffee took Randolph into custody, and after Charles’ body was rolled in a blanket and tied over a horse that was found in the stable, the men rode back to town. The whole thing had ended so quickly that it was shocking. Gradually Ben and his sons formulated questions to be asked once they reached town. With Roy’s questions and theirs, they finally got all of the answers that had seemed so elusive.

Living in San Francisco in a mansion, Charles Hackett had grown increasingly angry over the things he could no longer do because of his heart ailment. He had grown more bitter and obsessed about failures and the biggest failure he had ever had was not getting the Ponderosa. Maria had chided him about it, and in a rage, he had hit her. She had fallen and her head hit the fireplace hearth. It was a freak thing really but she died. Charles told the authorities that she had fallen while they were arguing.

Randolph was Charles son by his first wife who had died under similar suspicious circumstances. Charles had been good to Randolph in some ways by seeing to his education and providing him with the best in living accommodations and clothing, but he browbeat his son mercilessly. When Maria died, Charles blamed the Cartwrights. He said if he had been living on the Ponderosa, he would never have gotten so angry. So he set out to take over the Ponderosa setting Ben up with a risky loan and then intending to make it impossible for it to be repaid. Templeton was Maria’s maiden name so it was convenient to use that name for the owners of the ranch. Chartering the bank had been remarkably easy.

Kid had been a hire Charles made. Randolph had not known that the killer was working with them until at a meeting where they found out what he had already done. Randolph was in so deep at that point that he couldn’t see a way out. When he finished telling the story, there was plenty of evidence to lock him up for a very long time, but Ben looked at his sons and felt sorry for the man.

“Roy, perhaps you could suggest a short time for him to be locked up followed by a long parole. I don’t believe he would have broken the laws if he had been left to his own choices.”

Roy looked from Ben to his sons who all nodded at him. “Well ifn that’s what you want done, I’ll speak with the judge and the prosecutor. Do you want restitution?”

“Roy, we haven’t lost anything important. We have our family and we have the Ponderosa including a new section of timber. We don’t need anything more.”

As Roy led Randolph away to a cell, the Cartwrights left. Once on the Ponderosa, they all went to Hoss’ home first. With the threat gone, one by one, the families headed to their homes. Once Adam and Traci got their children to the main house with Ben, they spent a lot of time talking with them, reading to them, holding, hugging, and generally showing their love.

Ben saw the looks that Adam and Traci exchanged when they thought no one was looking. He smiled. He remembered being in love, and these two were deeply in love after ten years of marriage with many trials and tribulations. He expected them all to go to bed early and that did happen. Ben was surprised though when he went to bed. Matthew’s door was open and he was sleeping in his father’s arms. Ben was reminded of how Adam would have a young Little Joe in his bed with him when Joe was frightened and would run to Adam’s room for safety and security. Hope’s door was also open but she wasn’t in her room. Ben suspected if he opened the door to Adam and Traci’s bedroom, he would find Hope asleep in her mother’s arms. He walked to his bedroom with a smile on his face for the first time in a month. Life was good.

*****

Runaways

Chapter 1

The school year had started. Eric and Matthew were riding to school while the younger children rode in the wagon. On the way home, the two boys asked Hoss if they could take a detour and ride to the lake and then home.

“As long as you boys don’t go anywhere else. You both have chores to do. Deal?”

Both boys nodded vigorously.

“Thank you, Papa.”

“Thank you, Uncle Hoss.”

The trees were turning color already, and Hoss was predicting a long winter. Even Adam had purchased supplies for a number of winter projects because although reluctant to believe Hoss, he knew his younger brother had been right about this too often before. With the expectation that winter would be a long and harsh one confining them to their homes all too much, Hoss wanted the boys to be able to enjoy these nice days as much as possible. He watched them ride away toward the lake and was proud of both of them. They were becoming such responsible young men even at ages eight and ten. He felt that he and Adam had a right to be proud of their sons. Then he had to snap the reins and get moving again because the children in the back were clamoring to get home. It was a long day for them with an hour’s ride on each end tacked onto the school day.

Nearing the lake, Matthew and Eric slowed their mounts and let them cool down. The boys had every intention of jumping in that cool water for what could be the last swim of the season and wanted their horses ready to stand idle for at least a short time. As the boys neared the shore, they were watched by three pairs of eyes looking out from the bushes. Once they had stripped their clothing, they jumped in the lake for a swim which didn’t last long once the boys found out how cold the water was. As they climbed out, Eric and Matthew saw three boys trying to climb on their horses to ride away. Dressing rapidly, they yelled at the boys to stop but they didn’t. It was clear the would-be horse thieves knew very little about riding because they were unable to mount up and ride off. They also had not tightened the cinches and soon both saddles were hanging off the sides of the horses.

“Dang it, Z aren’t you supposed to know about horses? You was working on that ranch for a long time.”

“Well Lake, they sure as hell didn’t let somebody like me have a horse to ride. The closest I got to horses was mucking out the stalls.”

The three boys stood in defensive postures as Matthew and Eric approached warily. The three were all bigger than Matthew, and although they looked gaunt, they also looked tough. Eric would have been a match for any one of them, but against three would have been at a significant disadvantage. It didn’t matter to the two Cartwrights though for they would fight to keep their horses no matter that the odds were against them.

“We need these horses. You better help us or we’ll kick your asses.” The one called Z was apparently quite used to using bad language. What else he was capable of doing was still more of a worry to the two boys.

Matthew decided to take a rational approach. “Well let’s take a look at your premise. Why do you need our horses?”

“Why do you care?” Z wasn’t sure what to make of the calm approach of the two boys they had encountered. They were either very confident or blithely unaware of the danger they were in. The refined speech of the smaller one increased his evaluation that they had little to fear from these two.

“Well, ifn you really needed em, we could see what we could do about getting you some, but we need them to get home right now.” Eric stood shoulder to shoulder with Matthew. He had seen Matthew fight once and knew these boys had no idea that they were not in a superior position.

“Well I think we’ll just take these two and make it simple for ya.” Z was the overconfident one but didn’t know that.

Z had to assume the three of them could take the other two especially as one was clearly younger than any of them. He signaled the others and they rushed toward the two boys with two of them tackling Eric and Z taking on Matthew. Eric was able to throw Lake away and wrestle just with the one as yet unnamed boy. By the time Lake came back, Eric had reduced the third boy to a crying heap on the ground as Eric turned to face Lake’s rush which he easily sidestepped. Lake tried again with the same result. Eric maneuvered him around until the next bull rush got Lake falling headfirst into a tree where he sat stunned. Eric turned around at the applause he heard. Matthew was standing next to Z who was on the ground holding his hand to a bleeding nose and lip.

“Well done, cousin. I have never seen a bullfight, but I believe I have seen the next best thing. That was magnificent.”

“Sorry I didn’t get to see you fight. I figured it was going to be dang pretty to watch but I was kinda busy.”

“Not sure if it was pretty, but it was short. He never even covered up so two punches, and it was over. Now perhaps they would be agreeable to answering our question as to why they needed our horses.”

“I think you broke my nose!”

“Well, that would be two I’ve broken so far. Keep that in mind if you choose to engage me in a fight ever again. Now as you evidently are capable of speech, why do you need our horses?”

The unnamed boy stood and walked to where the three were standing. “We need em because if we don’t get em, they might catch us still. We gotta get further away or we’ll go back to that horrid place.”

“Joe, shut up. Don’t tell em anything else or they’ll have the law on us for sure.”

“What horrid place?” Eric was as curious as Matthew.

“We were all in reform school in California. They beat us for every little thing, and the three of us were going to be flogged except we escaped first.”

Shocked at that, Matthew asked the logical next question. “Why would they flog you? You’re only boys like us.”

“They were gonna flog us because we had gotten into the food stores and gave out a lot of food to the other boys there. They only feed us enough to keep us alive. Weaker boys are easier to control. I was only there a short time, but I could see what they had done to the boys there. Sometimes people would pay for us and get an indenture that we had to work for them for a year. It only cost them twenty dollars that the school got. Then the people you work for have to feed you and such so the school gets to keep the money the state pays them for room and board.”

“You boys look healthy enough.” Eric was skeptical.

“You might think so. How old do you think we are?”

“Well you look to be about my age.”

“Lake is seventeen and will be out of reform school next year. Won’t do him no good though cause his family is dead. Z is Isaiah and he’s fifteen and part black. I’m ten but I’ve only been in reform school for a year. My friends have been in since they were about five or six. They aren’t actually sure because nobody keeps track of birthdays that carefully in reform school. They have just accepted the age the school says they were when they got there.”

“What would a five-year-old do to end up in reform school?” Eric was shocked as Matthew stood by him evaluating what he was hearing. Joe seemed to be more calm and rational than the other two boys, and it was probably because he had spent far less time in reform school.

“Just by being without any other place to go is enough. If you’re part Indian or part black or even all black, there’s nowhere else to go. Lake and I have Indian mothers.”

“We can help you, but we can’t give you our horses. My name is Matthew and this is Eric. We’re cousins, and you’re on our family’s land. We’ll bring you food and other things.”

“Why would you do that?” Z was suspicious.

“Because my family believes in helping people in need. We’ll be back as soon as we can.” Matthew looked at Eric who nodded.

“We got chores to do, and then we’ll be expected at dinner. We’ll ask if we can camp out tonight.” Matthew nodded at Eric’s plan. “We’ll be able to take blankets and food with us that way. Now if you were to wait right here, we could find you. We can’t get you any horses, but we’ll figure out something tonight and tomorrow as we talk this through.”

The three runaways nodded because they had no other options even though they were still very suspicious. Z was still acting like a ruffian though and had one final threat to make. “We’ll be ready for you if this is a trick.”

*****

Chapter 2

As they rode home, Eric and Matthew made plans. They would do their chores, and then see if they could follow through on their plan. Matthew took care of his horse and his other chores in the stable and then went in the house. His father was busy with some paperwork and his mother was sewing as his sister Hope lay in a small cradle at her feet. It was a good time to ask his mother, and he was sure his father would hear and have an opinion.

“Mama, Eric and I were wondering on the way home if we could camp out tonight. There are so few nice nights left, that it would be wonderful to be able to sleep under the stars one more night.”

“Well I suppose we could still pitch a tent out in the garden if you wish. Is Eric coming over here later?”

“Well we were hoping we could camp down by the lake. Then in the morning, we could catch some fish for breakfast.”

“Oh no, there are two many dangers near the lake and that’s too far from home.” Matthew knew his father would likely object and he had, so he tried another tact that he had thought of while working in the stable.

“Could we use the old homestead then? It even has a place for our horses to be safe, and we could sleep without worry and so could you.”

That gave Adam pause. He remembered being Matthew’s age and being anxious to grow up. He had worked so much at that age though, he never got to have an adventure like Matthew was hoping to have. The old homestead is what they called the cabin that his father had built when they had first moved here. It still had a dirt floor and was small, but it was in reasonably good condition because occasionally one of the married hands had lived there. There was a ramshackle old stable there, but unless there was a storm, it was sound enough.

“Well, Traci, what do you think? I could take the boys there and make sure they were settled in, and then Hoss could ride over in the morning to be sure they were all right.”

Not wanting to give too much away, Matthew was grinning though at his father’s obvious acceptance of the idea. He turned toward his mother though and saw that she was anything but convinced. Adam walked over and whispered in her ear though, and then she nodded.

“Be sure to take extra blankets. It could get very cold tonight.”

Beaming with joy, Matthew gave his mother a kiss and then went to the kitchen to gather up food. He slipped a few cans of peaches in the sack when he thought Hop Sing wasn’t looking. Then he grabbed a sandwich from the meat and biscuits that Hop Sing had prepared for dinner. Adam told Hop Sing he would be late, but that he would appreciate a plate of biscuits and beef kept warm. Hop Sing grumbled but could never refuse the number one son. He smiled as he saw the father and son walk out to the stable.

When Adam and Matthew arrived at Hoss’ house, they walked in on a similar discussion to the one Matthew had had with his parents. Adam told Hoss and Jillian what he planned to do and asked Hoss if he thought he could check on them in the morning. Hoss and Jillian were agreeable to that plan, but when the boys went out to saddle up Eric’s horse, Adam whispered to Hoss who then whispered to his wife who nodded. Hoss’ two girls wanted to know what the secret was, but Jillian admonished them to be respectful of adult conversation.

Adam rode with the boys to the homestead. Made sure the lanterns worked and lit three of them. One he hung outside. Then he went to the stable with another and left it on the post outside after inspecting the stable to be sure no snakes or other critters had taken up residence. Adam had the boys haul in a stack of firewood and started a fire in the fireplace to be sure the chimney was clear.

“Now, you may have to shake the dust out of the mattresses and wipe down the table, chairs, and cabinet, but otherwise it looks clean enough in here. Keep that lantern outside, but you can bring the one from the stable inside once you have your horses inside. Now remember, even if it’s going to the necessary, you go together. I forgot, but I’ll check the necessary to be sure it’s in good condition too.”

Once that last task was completed, Adam mounted up and rode in the direction of home. Eric and Matthew grinned at each other, and headed out to the stable. Once they were sure Adam was gone, they mounted up and headed to the lake as dusk descended. They hurried because it would take a while to get back, but the lanterns burning outside would be good beacons to use. They would have to walk back because there was no way the two small horses could handle five of them, but it wasn’t a long walk.

At the lake, there was no sign of the three boys. Eric lit a match and called out for the boys to answer but only silence answered him.

“Well, maybe they left. We can just go back to the cabin then, and come back and check again in the morning.”

Turning to walk their horses back to the cabin for it would be too risky to try riding in the near darkness, they were suddenly confronted by the three boys.

“We had to be sure you weren’t bringing any others. Where’s the food and blankets you promised?” Z was still antagonistic and unwilling to trust the two boys.

Matthew had an answer for him. “Our parents wouldn’t let us camp out here. They said it was too dangerous.” The three boys snickered at that, but inwardly they remembered the growls and the howls that had scared them into climbing trees and shivering until dawn several times on their trek. “We did convince them to allow us the use of an old cabin on our property. My father got us settled in there to be sure we would be safe tonight. That is why it took us longer than expected to return to you.”

“Why do you talk so funny? I ain’t never heard anyone talk like that out here.” Joe was very curious.

“That’s cause my cousin grew up in Massachusetts. That’s in New England, you know.”

“Well then how did he learn to ride and fight like he done?”

“My father took me to his boxing club so I could learn to defend myself. I rode almost every day out there as soon as I learned to ride.”

“Did you really break another nose before you broke mine?”

So the five boys began the walk to the cabin as Matthew told his story, and then he and Eric answered more questions as the runaways came up with more and more to ask. The walk to the cabin seemed short with all the conversation. Once there, the boys stayed with Eric and Matthew as they settled their horses in the stable before all five went to the cabin taking the extra lantern with them. Inside, the runaway boys fell on the food like they hadn’t eaten in days. They had been able to catch a few small animals to eat, but none of them had had a full stomach for so long, it didn’t take long for them to feel stuffed.

“Ifn your family has so much money, how come this here cabin has a dirt floor like any homesteader out here?”

“My family wasn’t always wealthy. When my father and grandfather got here, they only were able to claim this small area of land and build a cabin that first year. Eric’s father was only a small boy then. Over the years, they worked very hard and invested in the land until they had built the Ponderosa.”

“What’s a Ponderosa?”

“That’s what my family calls our ranch. My Pa and Ma have a house not too far from here. Uncle Joe and his wife have another one, and our Uncle Jamie has a little cottage not too far away. Matthew’s parents live with Grandpa in the big house they built once they had more money.”

“Oh, and in our saddlebags, we brought some shirts. Eric brought two, and I brought one. We hope they fit the three of you. We also have extra socks. We couldn’t get any other clothes for you or our parents would have been overly suspicious.”

The three boys quickly shucked their filthy shirts and grabbed the clean ones. Matthew dropped a bar of soap on the table and told them that he and Eric would get some water from the well for them to clean up. Once they brought a bucket of water inside, the three boys did bathe their torsos, arms, faces, and hands. Matthew and Eric were shocked to see the scars on the backs of all three boys especially on Z and Lake but were too polite to say anything.

“Tomorrow morning we can all go swim in the lake a little. We can bring the soap along, and you can wash your hair too. Eric and I found the water a little cold earlier, but it’s not too bad if you stay in the shallows. We can wash your pants too, and you can use the blankets to cover up until your pants are dry.”

All three runaways felt better than they had in a very long time. Eric and Matthew threw bedrolls on the floor to sleep as the three boys shared the two cots with Z in one and Lake and Joe in the other.

“You know, it wasn’t that long a walk here, and you did keep your promise, but I had this funny feeling the whole way like somebody was watching us, and I still do. I guess we ain’t trusted nobody for so long, I just might be feeling a might nervous about all this.” Joe leaned back on the cot and smiled for the first time in over a year.

Up on the hill, Adam stood and mounted up. He had found out as much as he could by watching. He planned to get reinforcements and then come back to confront the five.

*****

Chapter 3

Arriving back at the Ponderosa, Adam told Traci and his father about the boys at the cabin. Then he went to the stable to hitch a team to the buckboard before heading over to Hoss’ house. Once there, he knocked on the door and got a worried Hoss.

“Did something happen with the boys?”

“Yes, but nothing to get too worried about. Our sons have three guests at the cabin. I’ve got the wagon. Throw on your jacket and grab a bedroll. I don’t think we’ll head home in the dark, but I don’t want the boys there without us either. Gabe came with me. He’ll stay here to make sure Jillian and the girls have someone if they need anything.”

Hoss went in their kitchen to get some food too, and Adam leaned against their front door smiling. How very much like Hoss to never let even the most serious events get in the way of his appetite. Jillian chuckled at his look.

“He’s right, you know. You may need more food before this is over especially if the boys have three guests. I don’t think they packed enough food for five and now it will be seven.”

Toting a large sack of food and supplies, Hoss took the two blankets Jillian had gotten for him and headed outside as Adam held the door.

“Adam, please remember that they’re boys, and they’re just having an adventure.”

“Jillian, I will, but I want them to be safe too. They need to know that they’re not old enough to handle everything they think they can.”

Nodding in agreement, Jillian went to give Hoss a kiss goodbye. Then Adam and Hoss headed out, and she could see them already talking. Those two worked so well together that it no longer surprised her to see them talking so much. At one time she had thought that Adam didn’t talk that much unless he was angry, but she had come to realize he talked a lot with people he trusted. Since he had moved back, he had seen more of her and Hoss because their sons were so close in age, and as had come to trust her more, they talked more and more. That made her feel even more a part of the family. She smiled and walked inside knowing the two fathers would work out a plan for dealing with this situation.

At the cabin, Adam and Hoss decided to wait until dawn to confront their sons. Adam had walked to the cabin and peeked in the window. With the light of the lantern the boys had left lit, he had seen that they all appeared to be sleeping. He walked back to Hoss, and they agreed to sleep in the wagon. Adam had anticipated that and brought two mattresses from the bunkhouse. After they put the two horses in the stable, they climbed into the wagon to sleep. They kept their jackets on of course, and snuggled under the blankets they had brought with them.

During the predawn hours, Lake and Joe got up to use the necessary. They saw a wagon they didn’t remember seeing when they had gotten there, but it was the loud snores that scared them. They didn’t know what it was, talked about it briefly, and then ran back inside to alert the others. The boys’ voices and all the commotion woke Adam who woke Hoss.

“Looks like we’ve been discovered. Let’s head on into the cabin and see what’s up.”

Hoss slowly awakened, grumbling, and climbed down from the wagon to follow Adam who was striding to the cabin. Adam knocked on the door and then opened it but was hit down low by Joe who had launched himself at the intruder. With a loud grunt, Adam dropped to the floor and rolled up in a fetal position holding his privates. Matthew dropped to his side just as Hoss filled the doorway. Joe tried to use the same maneuver on Hoss, but Hoss had been forewarned by seeing Adam in his pained state. Hoss put his hand to Joe’s head to stop his rush and then picked him up and tucked him under one arm.

Hoss couldn’t help it then and guffawed. “Well I hope you and Traci done had all the children ya wanted cause maybe you won’t be able to have any more now.”

Matthew looked up with a shocked expression. “Papa, Papa, are you going to be all right. Papa?”

With Matthew on one side and Hoss using one arm, the two of them were able to help Adam to a chair. “Oh, how I would like a bucket of ice to sit on right about now.” Adam had his voice back, but it was a pained voice. He groaned a few more times, and Joe had to ask.

“That’s your pa?”

“Yes, and Hoss is Eric’s pa. Why did you do that to him?”

“Well in the reform school, sometimes one of the men came for ya, and that stopped em. Ya might get a whipping instead but that was better.” Lake and Z nodded but had been silenced by the last few minutes and not at all sure what to do or say. They thought they were probably in a lot of trouble and didn’t want to make it worse.

“Now you boys want to start telling us the whole story? Eric and Matthew, you lied to us and that has to be explained right now.”

Trying to sidestep that one, Eric was first to talk. “Pa, we didn’t lie, we just didn’t tell you about the three boys we found at the lake. We came to the cabin just like we said.”

Hoss looked at Adam to answer. Adam had regained his composure, but the lines around his eyes and the frown indicated that he was still in some discomfort.

“You two know that lying by omission is still lying. You didn’t tell the whole truth and that is very wrong. You tried to obfuscate and that is not acceptable.”

“What’d he say?” Lake and Z echoed each other on that one.

Matthew tried to help. “To make opaque. Confuse and cover up. Fool em.” He got nods from all including Hoss on the last try.

“Your pa talks like you, Matthew. Why don’t you two just talk English like the rest of us instead a using them foreign words?” Lake was getting self-righteous and hoping too to get the conversation away from them and focused on someone else.

Adam wasn’t fooled. “Now you’re trying to do it too. Matthew, tell us the whole story right now. I am not happy that you lied, and this delay is making it worse. Tell us everything right now.”

There was no mistaking that tone of voice. Matthew dropped his head and started to talk. “We lied because we promised to keep these boys a secret. We had to break a promise or tell a lie. If we broke the promise, then we lied to them first, but you’re my Pa and I hated lying to you at all, but I didn’t know how else to do it.”

“That’s all right. I do understand that, but we’ll have to have a talk about ethics and doing the right thing even if you do break a promise. That’s later. For now, who are these boys and why are they with you? And does he have a broken nose?”

Matthew turned red on that one and so did Z who was embarrassed that someone so young had beaten him in a fight.

“Pa, they attacked us. They wanted our horses, and we were defending ourselves. We had no other choice. Lake and Joe jumped Eric, and Z came after me. He’s quite a bit bigger than me, Papa, and I had to hit him to make him stop.”

Hoss was even more interested then. “Eric, what did you do?”

“Well, Pa, I did what you taught me. I shoved the biggest one away, and wrestled the other littler one until he quit. Didn’t take long. When Lake rushed me, I sidestepped him a couple of times until he ran into a tree.” Lake rubbed the top of his head where he still had a good size goose egg swelling from that one. “They didn’t want to fight no more after that.”

“All right, then, who cooked up the scheme about the cabin?”

“Papa, you did. We asked to camp by the lake and you said to come here instead. So we went to get them and walked back here to spend the night. They were quite hungry and ate a lot of the food we brought.” Adam raised an eyebrow and Matthew continued. “We brought soap so they could clean up, and clean socks and shirts. You said it is our duty as Cartwrights to help those in need, and we thought we were fulfilling that expectation.”

Looking at Hoss who was nodding, Adam thought they had gotten enough from Matthew and Eric. “Now, the three of you can tell us your story.”

The three boys remained silent.

“This is not a request. It is a demand.”

There was still no explanation.

“You can tell us, and perhaps we will help you. Or we can take you to the sheriff, and he’ll send you back to where you belong.”

The three boys started talking then. Adam and Hoss had a few questions along the way and those were answered. All of them were amazed that with no resources, these three boys had crossed the mountains on their own. Adam and Hoss were well aware of the many dangers out there and how these boys must have been terrified at times. They were impressed with their ingenuity and their strength of character. Adam had one last question.

“What were you going to do once you got here?”

“Well, on one of the ranches in California, Lake and me heard people talking about how badly some of the ranches and such out here needed hard workers cause so many went on gold and silver rushes. Well, we know how to work hard, and we figured to get jobs.”

“What about Joe? He’s too young to sign on as a ranch hand.”

“We figured to take care of him until he was old enough to take care of himself. We made a deal. We keep our word.” Lake nodded at Z’s statement.

Looking at Hoss for confirmation, Adam told them what they would do. “We’ll take you over to the house. We’ll get you cleaned up and properly dressed.”

“We are cleaned up!”

Raising an eyebrow at Joe’s outburst, Adam calmly continued. “We will check out your story, and if you told us the truth, we’ll help you. You can stay with us until everything is settled. Then we’ll see.”

“We ain’t ever going back to that reform school!” All three boys nodded at that.

“We’re a long way from talking about that. For now, let’s fix some breakfast. I can hear my brother’s stomach growling already.”

Hoss went to get the sack of supplies from the wagon. The seven of them cooked up a breakfast, ate, and talked the entire time. When breakfast was done, they packed up all the supplies and the blankets and piled them in the back of the wagon. Once Eric and Matthew were saddled up, and the horse were hitched to the wagon, they headed out. Adam dropped Hoss off at his house with Eric, and then continued to the main house with his son and the three boys. Once there, they had to explain everything to Ben and Traci.

All of the adults knew this was a big responsibility, but the first order was getting the boys cleaned up and in decent clothing. There were enough old clothes in storage that they were able to dress them all well enough, but there were no boots or shoes that fit. Traci did some tracings and Adam left with those to buy some proper footwear in town. Ben brought clean clothing and towels to the washroom for the boys and had been shocked to see their backs. Lake and Z carried enough scars that they would rival any slave who had been whipped in the South, but these boys were still so young. Joe only had a few lash marks, but he had been in the reform school only a short time. The clothing from the reform school was burned because it was in such poor condition. By dinner on Saturday, no one could tell how dirty and ragged the three had looked just the day before.

Because the three boys were not feeling complete trust this new environment and new friends, a cot was moved into the downstairs guest bedroom so they could sleep in the same room. That night as the three attempted to leave, a man stood and told them to get back in the house. Adam and Ben had anticipated that there would be a breakout attempt or two and had assigned men to take turns watching all night long. They would have to do that until the situation with the boys was resolved.

The next morning, Adam and Traci decided to stay home from church services to be with the boys. Matthew was sent to church with his grandfather and told not to say anything about their guests. Ben would tell Joe and Roy who were invited to dinner that night. They would have the boys tell their story one more time. By the end of that dinner, Joe was in agreement that they should help the boys, and Roy said he would start making some discreet enquiries. When the sheriff left, and they were still free, the three runaways relaxed a little thinking that perhaps they had found some people who would help.

The most interesting and entertaining conversation was when Joe asked Joe about his name. “Have you always been called Joe cause it could get a little confusing around here?”

“Yes, my father said that Joe was a strong name and I should always be proud of it. He didn’t like his name. He said his parents gave him a girl’s name.”

“What was his name?”

“Francis.”

Hoss laughed so hard he almost fell off his chair, and Adam was sitting next to him and dropped his head on Hoss’ shoulder laughing more than he had in a long time. Their brother Joe’s face turned red but the young Joe was mystified as to what was so funny. The other family members were chuckling too even the children who were seated around a table in the great room.

Matthew explained. ” My Uncle Joe’s given name is Joseph Francis.”

The rest of the conversation was that calling Joe ‘LJ’ as a nickname would help if anyone made enquiries about a Joe traveling with two other boys.

“Why LJ?”

“It stands for Little Joe. You’re the little Joe now, so we can call you that to keep the two of you straight when we talk.”

The three runaways weren’t as sure on Monday morning that these Cartwrights had their best interests in mind when Adam told LJ he was going to school, and Ben told Lake and Z they had chores assigned.

“Why do we have to work? This is going to be just like those indentures.” Lake stood behind Z in support.

“You will work because everyone here works. You will be paid thirty dollars a month just like any other beginning hand. If your work improves and you can do more, you will be paid forty dollars a month like a regular hand. Now are there any other questions?”

Lake and Z were so surprised by that and had nothing to say, but they did smile.

LJ looked at Ben and raised his hand timidly. “Do I get paid to work?”

“No, my boy, we don’t hire until age fifteen or sixteen at the earliest. You’re still school age. Adam will take you to school with Matthew. You will be introduced as a visitor to our ranch and nothing more. You have been to school before, haven’t you?”

“I did go until my pa died a little over a year ago. I didn’t get no schooling at the reform school.”

Traci was aghast. “A reform school that does no schooling. What did you do there then?”

“We worked or we sat in our rooms. That was about it.”

Ben and Adam may not have been sure what was going to happen, but Traci was sure that these boys were never going back to California. Adam saw the look in her eye and he knew exactly what she was thinking. He started to think of what the boys could do here in Nevada because he knew he would have to make that come true not just for the boys but for his wife.

*****

Chapter 4

As Adam rode with Matthew and LJ to school, he told Matthew that the two of them would have a talk that evening after he finished his chores. Matthew could only answer “Yes, sir.” and he was worried all day. LJ decided school wasn’t so bad. He was behind in every subject, but the teacher was nice and many of the other students promised to help him catch up. During lunch recess, he spent time with Matthew, Eric, and their friends. It felt so good to be with normal people who would go home to their families at night and not get locked up in a room. He realized that despite their complaints about a variety of things, these boys were happy. He looked forward to being happy again. He hadn’t had that feeling for well over a year ever since his father had first become ill. He shook off the painful memories and joined in a game of tag with the others before going back in for the afternoon.

As school ended, the teacher had them all clean up the schoolroom and wash the board. Everyone pitched in and worked together quickly making the place ready for teaching and learning the next day. LJ, Matthew, and Eric carried in firewood and that was the last thing that had to be done. Then they ran to the horses that were grazing to the side of the school, tightened up the cinches, and mounted up to ride home. Soon after leaving the school, they passed Gabe and the wagon carrying the younger children. They rode first toward Hoss’ house where they bid goodbye to Eric and then rode to the main house. In the stable, they rubbed the horses down after removing their saddles, fed them, and gave them water. They mucked out the stalls and threw down fresh straw. Finished with their chores, they headed to the house. As they walked closer, it seemed that Matthew was walking slower.

“Matthew, can I ask ya something?”

“Sure, anything, anything at all.” Matthew was looking for any reason not to go in the house at this point.

“Why were the guys at school so nice to me? I ain’t never been welcomed that way before by kids I didn’t know.”

“Well, they gave me a hard time and I ended up breaking a guy’s nose. They learned you must be careful in making assumptions about people with whom you are unfamiliar.”

“Ya really did break somebody’s nose before you broke Z’s?”

“Yes, but I got in a lot of trouble with my father for that.”

“Are ya worried that you’re in a lot of trouble for helping us, and your pa’s gonna give ya another tanning?”

“I’m not worried about a tanning. I would actually prefer that. I’ve never been tanned. Grandfather thinks my parents are too easy on me when I need to be punished. But my parents use other methods. My Papa can make me feel so rotten about what I’ve done that I wish he would tan me because that would be a lot easier. It would just be some pain and then it would be over. That disappointed look in his eyes when I’ve done something I shouldn’t have, now that hurts for a long time.”

“Wow, you ain’t never been tanned. You sure turned out good for never having a tanning. Can you tell me why you talk so fine if ya live on a ranch and your pa grew up here?”

“My father was born in New England and went back there for college. He’s an architect and an engineer. He has traveled a lot, and read more books than there are in the library in town.”

“What the heck is an architect?”

“They design buildings. Papa designed this house before he was even a trained architect. He says now that he would have done a number of things quite differently if he had known more. I spent nearly eight years in New England because I was born there too. We only moved back here a year ago. I went to school and had lots of books to read.”

The two boys went inside then, and Hop Sing told them to sit at the table for he had a snack for them. Adam told Matthew he was to meet him upstairs as soon as he finished his snack. Hop Sing sent LJ to bring snacks to Z and Lake who were working on the breaking corral fence. Matthew trudged up the stairs to face his father. Adam was waiting in his old bedroom that he now used as an office. Matthew walked in slowly unsure of his reception. Adam frowned and asked him to sit on a chair. Adam pulled one over until his knee was touching Matthew’s as he spoke to him.

“I understand why you did what you did. I even know why you lied by omission. What I don’t understand is why you didn’t trust us enough to ask for our help. You’re only eight.” Matthew wanted to say something but Adam held up his hand. “I know, you’re almost nine. But you are too young to take on this kind of responsibility. What were you planning to do after Friday night?”

“Well, we thought they could just stay there and we’d bring food for them. There’s a lot of firewood there, and the cabin doesn’t leak or anything so they could stay there.”

“What about when winter came and no one could get there with food, and they would have run out of firewood quickly. That old cabin isn’t used in the winter anymore except in an emergency because it is a bit drafty, and the stable is about to fall down in a big storm.”

“We didn’t think about those things.”

“I know. You are a very smart boy, but you are still a boy, and you don’t have the experience to handle a problem as complicated as this one is. When you face a big problem like this which requires a complex solution, you need to come to us for help. You also risked your safety and the safety of your horse by going to the lake when it was getting dark. It wasn’t safe to be riding then especially as you are not familiar enough with those areas.”

“We walked back.”

“Only because five of you wouldn’t fit on two horses?”

Matthew dropped his head in defeat. His father was correct on all counts. He had made a lot of mistakes in a very short time.

“Did things work out a lot better once Hoss and I got there?”

Matthew had the hint of a smile before he answered with a nod.

“I know; I know. It was better except for that head butt I got. Now you need to be reminded to be responsible enough to ask for help when you need it. Hop Sing needs the chicken coop cleaned out in preparation for winter.” Matthew wanted to groan at that. He had been required to help with that job shortly after they had arrived on the Ponderosa and hated it. He disliked everything about it: the smell, the chickens, and the piles and piles of their droppings. “You will go downstairs now and tell Hop Sing that you are volunteering to clean the chicken coop for him. On Saturday, you will clean that chicken coop until Hop Sing is satisfied that you have done a good job.”

“But Papa, Saturday is when we’re going to celebrate my birthday. The whole family will be here.”

“Yes, so I suggest you get up bright and early Saturday morning so you can have that job done and get a bath before our guests get here in the afternoon.” Looking at his father, Matthew knew there was no argument that he could make that would make a difference. He agreed.

“Pa, are you ever going to give me a tanning instead of these talks and then the consequences I have to face?”

“No, son, this seems to be working just fine for us. Now one last thing: go apologize to your mother for worrying her.”

“Yes, Papa.” Matthew stood to leave and then turned back. “I’m sorry, Papa, for not trusting you to help us.”

Adam smiled, nodded, and turned back to the drawings on the table. Matthew stood a bit longer but as he turned to leave he heard his father call his name. Adam stood and walked to Matthew and wrapped him in a hug. Matthew hugged back as hard as he could, and a few tears welled up in his eyes.

“Papa, I hate disappointing you.”

“Son, we learn by the mistakes we make. I have made a lot of mistakes in my life. The key is to learn from them and not do the same thing again.” Seeing the look Matthew was giving him, Adam had one last thing to say on that subject. “And no, I am not going to tell you about all of those mistakes. I’m sure Hoss and Joe have told you enough of those already.”

Matthew grinned and nodded before leaving to go find his mother. When Matthew got downstairs, he answered the door when someone knocked and found it was Gabe who wanted to speak to Ben or Adam. Matthew didn’t know where his grandfather was so he told Gabe that Adam was upstairs in his office. Gabe headed up there to talk with Adam. Gabe had one thing on his mind and it was the welfare of the two boys who had been working with him that day.

“Adam, I was wondering if the two boys are gonna be staying in the bunkhouse. They been working just fine today, and I think the men will treat em more like regular hands ifn the two of them was to stay with us in the bunkhouse.”

“Well, they’ve only been here three days, and we thought they might like to stay together. Do you think they’ll be all right staying with the hands? Those boys have had some rough experiences with men, and I think you know what I mean.” Gabe had spent time in prison as a young man and come to work on the Ponderosa shortly after that. Adam was in college when Gabe had started working for his father, and the two of them had butted heads when Adam returned. Now they had respect for each other, and talked honestly with each other so Adam didn’t think he had to hide anything from him.

“Well, boss, I never did have any family of my own. It’s why I enjoy helping out picking up the younguns from school and such. These two boys make me feel like a father. I’d like the chance to work with em and make em good men. Nobody’s gonna mess with them as long as I’m there. You know that some of the others are gonna help these boys too.”

“All right, then. Why don’t you ask them if they want to move into the bunkhouse with the men. We’re paying them the same as a beginning hand so it would be reasonable, but I don’t want to make then think we’re not being respectful of them, so ask them.”

Lake and Z were thrilled with the chance to move into the bunkhouse and be treated like men. They didn’t have much to move. They had the extra clothing the Cartwrights had given them, and each had a small sack containing mostly the mementoes of their earlier lives. When dinner was served, there were only five places at the table. LJ looked at the table and had a worried look.

“LJ, Lake and Z have decided to move into the bunkhouse with the other hands. Now you have a choice to make too. You can stay in the guest room here by yourself, you can move into the guest room that is next to Matthew’s room, or you could move into the bunkhouse too. I suggest you don’t choose that last one though because there’s a lot of, to be polite, noise and smells that tend to build up in there at night.”

LJ and Matthew snickered and then laughed. But LJ did have an answer when he stopped laughing. “I’d like to stay right where I am if you don’t mind. I like that room, and I’m real tired of moving.”

After the boys were in bed for the night and Hope was sleeping soundly, Adam and Traci had a talk as they snuggled together in their bed.

“Adam, LJ is starting to feel like a part of the family. What are we going to do?”

“I know. I’ve been feeling the same way, but he’s older than Matthew. Matthew is the oldest and I would hate to take that away from him by bringing LJ into the family, but I would hate to see LJ go anywhere else either.”

“Maybe one of your brothers would be willing to take him into their family?”

“I don’t know. We could talk about that eventually, but we’re jumping ahead here. We don’t even know if we can keep them here. We haven’t heard back from that school yet.”

“Yes, but I wanted you to know how I felt. That boy just grows in your heart. He is so sweet.”

“Yes, he is, and tomorrow, I think I’ll go into town, send some telegrams, and see what our lawyer has to say about all of this.”

“Have you noticed how he keeps that little sack of his with him at all times? I even saw him put it in his pocket as he went to school.”

“Well, those boys don’t have much so I would think that they treasure the few things they do own.”

Kissing led to loving, and then Adam and Traci fell asleep secure in their love for each other, and determined to find a way to make a better life for LJ.

*****

Chapter 5

At the reform school, there was anger and recrimination.

“I thought you said they wouldn’t survive crossing those mountains without food, horses, and blankets. Well, you were wrong. I just got an inquiry from the sheriff of Virginia City about three boys that might have run away from here. Now what are we going to do? If those boys start talking, we stand to lose a lot of money and could face prison or even the gallows.”

“Sir, the only way I see it, is somebody has to go over there and make sure those boys never do talk to anyone.”

“All, right, Timmons, your neck is on the line same as mine. Just make sure you do it right this time. We’ve never had a successful runaway from here even if the records show that we do. There’s a lot of bones down that cliff behind the school that no one should ever find. But if someone talks, the state might send investigators.”

“It’s that young one that knows the most. Damn brat is too smart for his own good sneaking around and reading things he had no business reading. Tearing pages out of our secret records too. The older two aren’t as much of a problem.”

“There’s no proof of anything. Who would believe those two ruffians anyway even if he told them things. Both lost their last indentures for fighting and stealing. No, the more I think about it, the more it’s that Joe that needs to be silenced. We should be good once that’s done. Even if they get those pages he stole, they won’t know who the people are or even what those entries mean.”

“When do you want me to go?”

“Set the guards’ schedule for the week, and then take a week of vacation. That shouldn’t arouse any suspicion. Tell people you’re visiting your relatives in San Francisco. Then head over there to Virginia City and shut that damn whelp up. I’ll think about what I need to tell that sheriff so those boys stay put.”

“Why don’t you say they can stay where they are, and you just need the name and location so you can send the proper paperwork for them to sign taking custody of the boys?”

“Even though you did make that one mistake, Timmons, you do have some very good ideas, very good indeed.”

The headmaster sent those telegrams, and when Adam arrived in town that day to speak with the family lawyer and send a few telegrams of his own, Roy called to him as he was walking.

“Good morning, Roy. You look like you’re very happy about something.”

“Well, now, I am. I got a telegram this morning asking for your name and such so that reform school can send the proper paperwork and such for you to sign taking custody of those boys.”

“That is great news.” Adam paused though and that sense of foreboding he got sometimes rose up full strength. “They didn’t want to know anything about me or where the boys are staying? Whether it’s a good placement for them?”

That made Roy stop and think as well. He and Adam worked well together. What one didn’t notice, the other often did. “You’re right. That is a might peculiar. You would think they would have asked at least what I thought or ask for a reference or something. I didn’t even mention you by name so they couldn’t have known the boys were on the Ponderosa. Odd, very odd.”

“Could you respond just with the lawyer’s name and location? Then we could see what their next move will be. I plan to send a few enquiries of my own today. I want to know more about what is going on at that school. I’ve seen the lash marks on those boys, and Pa has seen them too. That’s a brutal thing to do to boys. That indenture system of theirs sounds like a money making scheme too, and I have to wonder if the state knows about it.”

“That’s a good plan. I’ll do just that. Now, how are the boys getting on over to your place there?”

“Lake and Z have fit right in with the hands. They’re doing basic repair work for now. Soon, Gabe plans to teach them to ride. Then we’ll see. If they have the talent for it, and want to stay, we’ll keep them on. Otherwise, we’ll see what they want to do. At least they’ll have some wages in their pocket even if they do decide to move on. Z’s nose is healing up fine too although he does have a couple of black eyes too.”

“How about the young one?”

“LJ doesn’t talk much yet, but he does seem happy. He fit right in at school, and he and Matthew are getting to be good friends.”

“You thinking on taking him in to your family?”

“It’s a possibility.” At Roy’s frown, Adam had to explain. “Matthew is the oldest in my family, but LJ is older than him. If we bring in LJ, then Matthew loses that spot. I’m not sure how he would feel about that. We have put him through so much in the past year, I don’t want to add more turmoil to his life if I can help it.”

“They’re both pretty smart boys. I could tell that right off with that LJ. He’s a clever one. Just the fact that he was with them older boys should tell ya something right there.”

“I would very much like to know what is going on at that reform school, and I think that there will be some people in California who will want to know as well. I’m sending a few telegrams to them, and I hope they look into it. There’s also an orphanage director whom I know and I’ve been surprised to hear how many of the boys at that school are orphans. Makes me wonder if they actually did something to get sent there of did it have something to do with their race. All three of these boys are part white. Lake and LJ are part Indian and Z is part black.”

“Well I never would have guessed that. Course there’s a lot of mixed bloods out here with the lack of women for so many years. Lots of men took Indian wives. Course we got a lot of Mexicans still living here too. No one’s going to know unless the boys tell em. Well now I got a lot of work to do. I get that telegram off for ya first thing though.”

After thanking Roy, Adam completed his errands and then rode him. On the ride, he thought about everything he had learned. He knew Traci would be happy that they could get custody of the boys so easily, but he continued to wonder why it had been so very easy. He had no answers but hoped to speak with LJ to see if he would talk about the reform school when he returned home later.

Because Gabe was working with Lake and Z, Joe was taking a turn picking up the children from school. Matthew’s horse had lost a shoe on the way to school that day, so he had to ride in the wagon for the return trip. Eric and LJ decided to ride in the wagon too then which gave Joe an audience and he loved an audience. He entertained them with all sorts of stories of growing up on the Ponderosa. By the time they reached Hoss’ house, the children didn’t want the ride to end, but Joe promised to tell them more stories each of the following days that week.

Joe continued on to the main house to drop off Matthew and LJ. He really liked this boy and wished he could have a son like that. He loved his daughter immensely but really missed having a son. Joe was a little choked up when LJ gave him a hug before he jumped down from the wagon following Matthew’s example. Joe snapped the reins and headed home with his daughter.

When Matthew and LJ were in the stable taking care of their horses, Adam rode in. They told him about the horse needing a shoe, and he said he would take care of it.

“LJ, why don’t you help me put a shoe on your horse.” It was clear it wasn’t a question. LJ had not done anything wrong that he could think of but was worried at the serious look on Adam’s face. Matthew whispered a quiet reassurance that his father looked like that often when he was thinking deeply about something.

“You would know if he was angry. Believe me, we would both know.”

First showing LJ which tools they needed and choosing the shoe he thought would fit, Adam walked the horse outside so he could see better and had LJ tie the animal to the corral fence. Then as he worked, he casually asked questions about school until he got to the question he wanted most to ask.

“LJ, I get the feeling that you’re holding something back from us about what happened at that reform school. You’ve told us what happened there, but not why you were so scared you talked the other two into running away.”

LJ’s mouth hung open at that, and he wondered how Adam could possibly know that. Adam had not known it but did suspect that LJ was the leader of the three. LJ’s reaction was all he needed to confirm his theory.

“Now I think by now you know you can trust us, so what’s the story you haven’t told us yet? I’m asking because if we’re going to help you, it would help for us to know the whole story.”

LJ stood silently for a time as his thoughts warred in his mind. Finally he looked Adam in the eye and nodded.

“I overheard the headmaster talking with one of the guards. Because I could read and write, I was the one they made do a count of supplies. I was in the supply room and I heard them. They were talking about getting rid of a boy they thought was a troublemaker. He had been whipped and such, but he still refused to do the things they said he had to do. The next day they announced that he had run away. But I saw him. That night they’d come and got him and told him to be real quiet. I went to the window after they left, and then I saw them walking with him toward the cliff that’s near the back of the property. A few minutes later they walked back without him. There’s no way to run away back there cause we even got to go back there without a guard sometimes. That’s when I knew that runaways were really boys they killed.”

“Were you afraid they would do that to you?”

“No, but I heard them talking about Lake and Z and how much trouble they were. I figured they were next so I came up with a plan to get out of there. I stole supplies from the storeroom and gave them to the other boys. I had Lake and Z help me, but then when the guards came in to take the extra food away, I told them we were caught and had to run away cause they were gonna be so mad at us. In all the confusion, it wasn’t that hard to get away. I told Lake and Z that we had to go east because they expected us to go west, and it would gain us some time to get further away.”

“I know I stole stuff and I lied, and you can punish me for that, but I won’t change my mind. I think I had to do it.”

“I would like to write down your story. Maybe the government in California could do something with that information. I wish there was someone else who could tell about what was happening there. I think they may be skeptical of a ten-year-old boy’s account.”

“I have some proof. I took some pages out of a secret book I found hidden in the storeroom. People are identified only by letters, but it isn’t that hard to figure out. T has to be for Mr. Timmons, and F has to be for the headmaster, Mr. Franks. I bet if you knew the names of all the people there, you could figure it out.”

“Where are these pages?”

Taking his small sack of belongings from his pocket, LJ pilled out a folded set of papers. There was some water damage on the outside, but once unfolded, the interior was dry and legible and showed how the indenture system brought in a lot of money fraudulently. There was also a list of runaways and how long they waited before informing the state collecting money for their room and board sometimes a year or more after they were no longer there. Adam was shocked by the extent of the corruption but shouldn’t have been.

“May I take this to Sheriff Coffee? He can have copies made and sent to the proper authorities in California.”

“If you think that’s the best thing to do, yes.”

Adam felt so good that LJ was showing trust in him already, and he wanted to be honest with him. “You may have to testify at some point. They will want you to tell what you saw and what you know about these records. Without your testimony, people at the reform school could claim that these are papers that were faked records to get them in trouble. Do you think you could do that?”

“If you’ll go with me. I’d be pretty scared to do it by myself.”

“Certainly I can do that. I would want to do that. Now, may I tell Traci and my father about this?”

Nodding his head, LJ was relieved not to be carrying this knowledge all by himself. He had not known what to do with the information he had, but it seemed Adam did. Now he could relax a little. He smiled, and Adam threw an arm around him, and they walked to the house.

That evening at dinner, Adam announced that there would be papers coming that would give him custody of the three boys. He and Traci had discussed it and decided that announcing it as something to celebrate would be the best way to handle it. LJ was thrilled and wanted to run to tell the other boys immediately, but Traci insisted he have his dinner first. As soon as he was finished, she smiled at him and nodded. His enthusiasm was heartwarming. Matthew however seemed a bit subdued which made his parents concerned about how he was taking this news.

“Matthew, does that bother you somehow?”

“Papa, when Sheriff Coffee takes someone into custody, that means they did something wrong, doesn’t it?”

At Adam’s nod, Matthew continued. “So you have custody. Does that mean that LJ did something wrong, and he’ll leave after he serves his time?”

“No, son, in this case, it’s because none of them are adults. We as parents have custody of you just because you are so young. It will be the same with the boys until they’re old enough to be responsible for themselves.”

At that point, LJ came back with the other two boys who wanted to know if he had told them correctly. Adam assured them that he had, and offered to have the boys sit and have some dessert with them to celebrate. Hop Sing had been alerted earlier that there was news to celebrate. Later when all the boys and Hope were all in their bedrooms, Adam and Traci talked quietly with Ben at his desk. He was as concerned as they were that this was all too easy. Adam also showed them the papers LJ had given him and what LJ had told him.

“Adam, that boy could be in real danger if those people know what he did or even suspect it. Greed has corrupted them, and if LJ is correct, they have murdered before.”

“I know. Traci and I were talking. I’ll ride to school with the boys every day and be there at the end of the school day to ride home with them. I hope that doesn’t interfere too much with ranch work and such, but I have to keep the boys safe. I’ll let Hoss and Joe know what’s going on too.”

“Son, tell Gabe everything too. He’s really taken Z and Lake under his wing, and he’s the logical one to look out for them. Although, I must say they’ll be safer than LJ. They’re working around the ranch yard so it would be difficult for someone to get to them. LJ though is an hour away every day. Have you thought about just keeping him here until this settles?”

“That might be best.” Looking at Traci, Adam got a smile. She liked that idea better too. It was so much better than her worrying about all three of them every day. “I’ll ride in with the boys tomorrow to talk with the teacher. I’ll explain and get work for them to do so they can stay home until this is settled.”

*****

Chapter 6

The next morning, Gabe decided it would be best to teach the boys how to use the forge. They could stay close to the shelter of the buildings that way for the next week as they learned how to work the metal and create the types of things needed on the ranch. There would be time too to teach them how to saddle a horse and begin their riding lessons.

Saddling up their horses for a quick visit to school, Adam and the two young boys headed toward Virginia City. When they got to the school, Adam went inside with the boys to explain that LJ might be in some danger, and that both LJ and Matthew would be studying at home. The teacher wrote a list of work out as the boys collected the appropriate books to take with them. Then thanking the teacher for all she had done, they left. As they mounted up though, Adam had that funny feeling he got when he thought someone was watching him. Joe drove the wagon in with the other children and Eric riding along behind just as they were about to leave. Adam told Joe they could all ride back together. He waited for Joe to say goodbye to Paulene, and then the four of them turned to ride home.

Nearing the Ponderosa, the road passed through a narrow valley and then across a bridge. This was the bridge that was often threatened when there was a downpour or a fast spring thaw. Adam rode first with the two boys directly behind him, and Joe in the wagon behind them. Suddenly Adam saw a flash on metal on the hill just beyond the bridge.

“Ride, ride, that way.”

Adam yelled as he pointed to the nearest cover of boulders and trees. As Adam wheeled his horse about, shot rang out, and they heard Adam grunt in pain. Matthew wanted to slow down to help but by then Joe had the team turned and the wagon headed back and yelled for Matthew to keep going.

“He’s still on his horse. Get behind those rocks. Don’t worry about your horses.”

The two boys scrambled to the rocks as Joe jumped down from the wagon grabbing a rifle from under the seat. Adam got there soon after and slumped to the ground with his back against a boulder.

“How bad is it?”

“Flesh wound.”

Joe looked Adam all over from boots to shoulders and couldn’t see anything. Adam just pointed at the assailant up ahead.

“I don’t know if it’s one or more. I only saw one metal flash, and there was only one shot. I’ll stay here with the boys if you want to work your way up the hill to see up ahead. And be careful! I won’t be able to get up there to help you if you need it.”

Still mystified as to where Adam was hit, Joe had to ask and then he laughed before he could help it earning nasty looks from the two boys.

“He shot you in the ass?”

“Yes, and it hurts like hell. Now would you do as I asked, please? Ah, Joe, before you go: do you happen to have a clean handkerchief in your pocket?”

A short time later, Joe climbed down. Adam was laying on his side after stuffing two handkerchiefs down his pants against the wound. Joe could see that he was in pain and looking a little pale as well.

“Saw one man riding away. Too far for me to take a shot, and I don’t think I could recognize him either. He was a big man, though, built a lot like Hoss but not as tall based on how he sat that saddle.”

“Timmons!” LJ’s eyes were glazed in fear. The dreaded head guard at the reform school had found him and shot Adam. He wondered if his nightmare was ever going to have an end.

“LJ, now don’t worry too much. We’ll get home, and then I’ll get Hoss to track and with some of the men, we’ll catch this guy. Nobody shoots my brother in the ass and gets to walk away.”

That got a shake of the head from Adam, and a slight smile from each of the two boys. If they didn’t see how painful it was, they would have thought it very funny. Matthew was already thinking about how to tell Eric this story. Joe offered his arm to Adam who stood with his help and limped down to the wagon. The boys rounded up the three horses and tied them to the back of the wagon as Joe instructed. Then Matthew climbed in the back with Adam, and LJ rode on the seat with Joe. As they neared the Ponderosa main house, Joe handed the reins to LJ and let him guide the team home. In the yard he told him to pull up on the reins to stop the team.

Not expecting to hear a wagon or Joe’s voice, Ben and Traci came outside quickly. Traci was carrying Hope and gasped when she realized Adam was laying in the back of the wagon. She could see the dried blood on his hands.

Careful not to frighten Hope, she had to ask. “Adam, what happened? Where are you hurt?”

“Papa got shot in the ass.”

Ben and Traci were surprised by the injury and the language. “Matthew, we have told you that is not appropriate language.”

“But that’s how Uncle Joe said it.”

Traci shook her head, handed Hope to Ben, and climbed into the wagon. “How is it, really?”

“Hurts like h.., a lot. I’ve had a lot worse though. Just going to be a problem sitting anywhere for a while.”

Examining the entrance and exit points in his pants, Traci could see how shallow the wound must have been. Relieved somewhat, she offered her help to get Adam to slide on his side to the rear of the wagon where Joe had removed the back panel. Once Adam was on his feet, he leaned on Traci and Joe to walk to the house. Inside, they helped him upstairs. Hop Sing had greeted them when they entered the house and was soon following them up the stairs with the appropriate materials.

Joe came downstairs immediately and told Ben what he wanted to do. Ben agreed wholeheartedly with the plan. He told the two boys to stay inside, and then he went to get Gabe and the other two boys. They would all stay indoors for the day. Gabe asked if he could stay inside the stable with the boys and teach them about saddling. Ben asked if they could help him take the younger boys’ horses inside and unsaddle them first. Ben thought that was a good idea overall, and they pulled the stable doors shut as he walked back to the house taking the boys’ satchels with him.

Inside, both boys were sitting silently in front of the fireplace. Ben threw a few more logs on the fire and handed the satchels to the boys. “Now would you like to tell me the whole story? Say anything you want. Just get it all out.”

The stories came tumbling out in mind jarring disorder, but eventually Ben had heard enough to have the entire scenario clear in his mind. The two boys were more relaxed too having been able to explain which had been cathartic for them.

“Now you boys sit there and start doing some of the reading the teacher assigned. You can go visit Adam as soon as Hop Sing and Traci are done with him.”

The boys didn’t have to wait long. Hop Sing brought down soiled cloths and water soon after. He told them that Traci was finishing bandaging and they could go up in a few minutes so they walked up the stairs and waited outside the room. Traci called them in and they found Adam lying on his side in bed with the covers pulled up to his chest. Matthew was a little disappointed because he actually would have liked to see how they bandaged such a wound, but Adam wasn’t so happy to have him ask that question. LJ wanted to know how he would ride a horse and he snapped at him too. Traci suggested they ought to let Adam rest a little. Out in the hallway, she had some advice.

“Boys, your father has never been a good patient. He hates being tied to a bed like this, and he takes it out on everyone else. It would be best when you visit him not to bring up anything related to his injury or being stuck in that bed. Anything you can do to keep him busy these next few days will be helpful as well. He can lie down, and he can stand. Walking will be difficult, and sitting will not be possible.”

The next time the boys visited, Matthew and LJ brought questions about their schoolwork. Adam was much more agreeable helping them with those things. Then Traci brought Hope up to the room, and she sat on the bed as Adam told her stories and made faces with her. By then it was nearly dinnertime, and everyone started to wonder about Hoss and Joe. Had they caught up to the gunman or not was the key question, and of course they wondered who the man had been. Hop Sing had just prepared a tray for Adam when everyone heard horses in the yard. Ben and Traci both grabbed pistols but put them aside as they heard Hoss’ hail the house before entering. Hoss saw them near the pistols and guessed correctly that they had been cautious.

“Good idea. We didn’t find him. He rode hard and fast to get away, and once he was on the road toward Placerville, there was no chance to get him. How’s Adam?”

“Son, he’s doing fine. The bullet was an in and out and it’s a flesh wound.”

“Boy howdy, I gotta go see him. Traci, is that dinner tray for him? Let me take it up there, please?”

In just a short while, they heard a yell and a crash. Then Hoss appeared at the top of the stairs with a big grin before descending.

“He sure does get crabby when he gets hurt. You’d think he would have been grateful I asked to see his wound to make sure it was all right. Instead he pitched an empty cup at me. Pa, there’s one less cup in that set now. You might think about only sending up the plain white cups for Adam.” Hoss snickered and Ben scowled. Soon the two boys were laughing out loud though, and Ben and Traci had to smile as well. Joe walked in then after talking with Gabe. When he asked if he could go up and see Adam, everyone laughed.

“What’s so funny about that?”

“Joe, I was just up there. He shur don’t like to be asked about where he got shot. When you walk in the room, be careful of that china cup that’s smashed all over the floor there.”

Joe grinned too, and within minutes, there was another roar and another loud thump. Joe came down and said something very similar to what Hoss had said except this time he threw a book. It was teasing, but it made them know that their older brother truly was all right.

“All right. That’s enough torturing of my husband. We have to live in the house with him for the next few days.”

“Well you can always remind him how much better that is now that Joe and me don’t live in the house no more.”

Shaking his head, Ben just asked if they wanted to stay for dinner. Of course they did, so there were plenty of people to eat Hop Sing’s cooking and make him happy.

Later when everyone was in bed, Traci came back into the room with Adam. She asked him to slide over, and he asked why.

“Well would you like to snuggle or have your back to me?”

For the first time since that morning, Adam grinned and slid ever so slowly back toward the other side of the bed. Traci slid in and was immediately engulfed in a hug and long kiss.

“You must be feeling a bit better.”

“Anytime you’re here next to me, I feel better. Now how are we going to handle this issue with the boys? What plans are being made to keep them safe?”

“Other than keeping them inside, we haven’t come up with anything. Your father suggested that if you could make it down the stairs tomorrow, we could all discuss what to do next. I really hope that there’s an investigation in California. Putting some pressure on them there, could limit their chances to do something here.”

“So everyone is assuming it was someone from the school?”

“From Joe’s description, LJ thinks it’s a man named Timmons.”

“We need to bring Roy in on the discussion and let him know about Timmons. He can put out a wanted poster on him, and then we can ask the people in California to take him into custody for questioning.”

“Roy can do that?”

“Yes, as long as it just says he’s wanted for questioning, suspected of a crime like attempted murder, and there’s no bounty, it works fine.”

“Attempted murder?”

“Traci, if I didn’t wheel Jupiter around and rise up in the saddle to warn the boys to hide, where would that bullet have gone? I’m pretty sure he wasn’t aiming for my ass.”

Traci shivered when she thought about that. Adam felt her trembling and pulled her in closer to him and kissed her again.

“It didn’t happen, so you can let that thought go. Now, show me some tender, loving care. After all, I got shot today.”

Shaking her head then, Traci kissed Adam and held him close. They fell asleep as they did most nights, wrapped in each other’s arms.

*****

Chapter 7

The next morning, Adam was able to make his way downstairs although very slowly. He stood at the table and ate breakfast before going to the settee to lie on his side and read. By about nine, Sheriff Roy Coffee was there as were Hoss and Joe. Traci called Gabe and the boys in to join them as they began working on a strategy. Roy had some information already from California.

“Now you gotta know that in California, those indentures was legal. The state wouldn’t have done nothing about that. But, they don’t like that they was getting billed for boys who wasn’t even at that school. What got them most interested in investigating though was the idea that boys were being murdered there. Now they’ve had suspicious families asking questions for years about why runaway boys never contacted their families. Most of the boys there was mixed race so you know how that goes.”

Trying to spare the boys’ feelings, Roy didn’t want to be too direct but Lake and Z nodded. They had already heard the names and had been treated as second class people because of their mothers’ races. LJ however had not, and wondered at what the sheriff was mentioning. LJ had been treated fine in the miners’ camp when he lived with his father. He knew his mother was Indian but she had died when he was very young. He had no knowledge of her culture or even what tribe she was. He had no idea he would be treated differently if people knew he was part Indian. The others saw his confusion and knew there would have to be a painful discussion with him in the future.

Meanwhile, Joe had a question. “Did they find anything yet?”

“Yessir, they did. They found the remains of at least one boy, and many bones lying scattered at the bottom of that cliff. Apparently they lowered an agent on a rope as soon as they could get there. Now they need LJ’s statement so that they can press charges. LJ, who exactly did you see walking out with that last boy that was killed?”

“Mr. Timmons was there, and Mr. Byrnes, and another guard but I don’t know his name. He had red hair though, and he was the only one of them who had red hair.”

“All right, now, they want LJ in California to make a statement as soon as possible. There are state temporary officers at that school, and they have arrested all the men who worked there except for four, but they can’t hold them for very long on hearsay and some bones. Some of em might just be witnesses to what the others did. LJ is the key to this case. We’ll bring that paper that he had so he can explain that to them as well.”

“Who got away before they could get them?” Adam thought he knew part of that answer already.

“Well I only know that they said the headmaster was one they was looking for. Probably hightailed it out of California. They won’t be tracked down unless there are murder charges. Nobody is going to spend the money to go after them for fraud. Most politicians don’t want people looking too closely into a thing like that anyway. But for murder, there’ll be wanted posters and such. They won’t be safe.”

Traci was incensed. “After what they tried yesterday and what you know, you want us to send LJ to California? That’s just insane.”

Adam stood then, pulled Traci up with him, and wrapped an arm around here. “Traci, we knew this was going to happen. We knew he would have to testify.”

Roy finally had his opportunity. “Well, I always know I can count on Adam to get to the bottom of things. He just grabs hold of things by the seat of his pants.”

That earned him a glower from Adam, but a chorus of laughs from almost everyone else. Adam could feel Traci shaking a little even though he couldn’t hear her laughing. He pulled away to see her face and knew.

“Well, apparently everyone thinks it’s funny that I got shot. Why getting shot in the ass is so funny, I don’t know.” Still in pain, Adam hadn’t accepted that there was any significant humor in his situation. However he did know that the whole group needed to lighten up, and that his scowl was expected so he played along.

Roy’s barb had lightened the mood as he intended. The group got back into the strategy planning mode. Adam couldn’t accompany LJ as they had first expected, but Joe quickly volunteered to go with the boy on the stage. Gabe volunteered to ride shotgun on the stage. The group made plans for two more to get on the stage at the first way station, and Hoss would lead a group of men who would scout out possible ambush spots along the road to try to surprise anyone planning to intercept the stage. The plan was a good one, but Adam felt as helpless as his son, Traci, and the two other boys who would have to remain here to worry until the whole episode was finished.

The rest of the day was spent in preparation. Hoss and his group would head out first in the morning. Then, Ben and Gabe would escort Joe and LJ into town with Hoss’ group watching out for them from the hills along the way. Once in town, Roy and his deputies would help safeguard LJ until the stage pulled out. At the first way station, two more Ponderosa men who had ridden out in Hoss’ group would get aboard the stage for the run through the mountains. Once in California, they could expect help from officials there. In Placerville, LJ would be interviewed and give a sworn statement in front of a California judge. Then they would stay in a hotel, and the next morning, they would reverse the procedure hopefully arriving home the day after. It would be four tension packed days however.

As the men were leaving, Traci told Adam he should go upstairs so she could change his bandage after washing the wound again to prevent infection. He walked slowly to the stairs and then put one foot on the first step and then the other. Laboriously like that he climbed the stairs. He paused at the landing, and his brothers decided it was a good time to say goodbye.

“Hey, older brother, Joe and me are real sorry we made you the butt of some of the jokes.”

Snickering, Joe had to add more. “You’ll laugh too when you get a chance to sit and think about it.” Laughing then, Joe followed Hoss out of the house but not before he laid a reassuring hand on LJ’s shoulder.

“Everything’s going to be all right. I could never let anything happen to you. We share a name, and I feel like you’re part of the family already. Trust me if you can, LJ, because I will do everything I can to help you.”

Meanwhile, shaking his head at his brothers’ last barbs, Adam turned to finish the climb. Matthew asked if he could help, and at first, Adam was going to decline but seeing the hopeful look in his son’s eyes, he put his arm around his shoulders and leaned on him a little. By the time he got to the top of the stairs, he was glad that he had had Matthew’s help. Matthew had one request though.

“Papa, could I see how Mama bandaged your bottom?”

“Only if you want to help her clean up the wound and bandage it.”

Matthew nodded enthusiastically. Adam shook his head fully expecting his son to be thoroughly grossed out by the wound and what had to be done to clean it up. Instead, Matthew was a big help to Traci, and stayed for the whole procedure. Afterwards, he sat on the bed and held his father’s hand as Traci cleaned up the soiled bandages and cloths they had used.

“Papa, does it hurt very bad?”

Through gritted teeth, Adam responded. “I’ve had worse, but the hardest part is everything I do except lie on my side puts pressure on that wound. So it hurts almost all the time. That’s tiresome.”

“Matthew, could you go downstairs now. I would like your Papa to get some sleep now.”

After Matthew left, Traci had some bad news. “There was a bit of an infection in there. Maybe we didn’t get all the debris out of the wounds the first time. Later, I’m going to ask Hop Sing help me wash the whole thing again. It’s going to hurt a lot. For now, I think you should just rest. We’ll be back up here as soon as Hop Sing is ready to help.”

“Where’s LJ?”

“Gabe has all three boys in the bunkhouse. They’ll stay inside today.”

“I’ll just stay up here then until you and Hop Sing have time. I’m tired anyway.”

As Hop Sing and Traci went up the stairs later to take care of Adam’s wound, Matthew again asked to help. Coming in from the bunkhouse, LJ, who was as curious as ever especially after what Matthew had told him, volunteered to help too. Hop Sing frowned at the requests, but Traci said they could help. Once in the room, Traci removed the bandage and Hop Sing saw the telltale leakage indicating some infection. It looked superficial to him which was a great relief. He had to prod at the wounds to open them more causing more drainage. Using a carbolic acid solution, they washed the wounds out several times. When they appeared clean, Hop Sing applied some healing salve at both spots before he and Traci packed bandages over the open wounds. Matthew had handed them what they needed as they had proceeded, and pulled away the soiled materials. Finally he pulled the towel away that had caught the drainage. LJ was sitting on a chair looking very pale. Adam had stopped groaning so that everyone could now hear the slight whimpers coming from LJ.

“LJ, do you feel well enough to go sit in the hall? Just sit on the floor, and I’ll be there soon.” Traci’s first duty was to Adam, but as soon as she could, she would help LJ. She pulled a sheet and a blanket up over Adam so he could rest. Matthew seemed as calm and collected as he had earlier, so Traci had him sit with his father, and she went to LJ.”

“Mrs. Cartwright, that was so awful. It looked awful and it smelled really awful. And then Mr. Cartwright was groaning something terrible, and I just felt sick. But the rest of you was acting just so, well, so normal, I guess. How can you do that?”

“LJ, most people can’t handle that type of thing. I was very surprised that Matthew was able to help like that. Some people are just natural healers, I suppose, like Hoss is too.”

“So, that’s what being a doctor is like? All the blood and the smells and other stuff?”

Wrapping her arms around LJ, Traci agreed with him. Matthew came out then and said Adam wanted to talk with Traci. Matthew and LJ went downstairs then to tell Ben how Adam was doing. Ben headed up the stairs to see his son. When he got to the door, he saw Traci sitting by Adam’s side and holding his hand as she used her other hand to caress his face. It was a moment of tender love that brought tears to Ben’s eyes. He knew how much these two loved each other, but to see that love was a gift. He stood and watched for just a moment and then returned downstairs.

Feeling tired after so much activity, emotional stress, and physical pain, Adam took his dinner in his room with his wife and son. Gabe and the boys were invited to have dinner with Ben. Soon after, everyone decided to go to bed for it had been an exhausting day for everyone, and the next four days were going to be even more difficult for Gabe and LJ. It would be hard on everyone who had to wait and wonder as well.

Having trouble sleeping, Ben went downstairs after a couple of hours of restlessly tossing in his bed. As he walked to the kitchen intending to make some hot chocolate, he heard noises from the guest room. He knocked and the noise stopped. Then he heard a soft reply to come in. As he entered with the lamp, he could tell that LJ had been crying so he invited him into the kitchen to help him make some hot chocolate. After Ben got the milk, Hop Sing was there awakened by the noise the two had made, so the cook took over. Ben invited LJ to sit at the fireplace with him. Ben sat on the settee and LJ sat right next to him. Ben wrapped his arm around LJ’s shoulder and pulled him in for a hug. They sat that way even after they had their hot chocolate served by Hop Sing. When they finished, Ben asked LJ if he wanted to talk.

“No, Mr. Cartwright, but it sure would be nice if you would sit with me here for a while.”

Less than a half hour later, Ben felt LJ relax and could hear his soft breathing. He carefully lifted the boy and carried him to his bed pulling the covers up to his chin. LJ relaxed into a restful sleep. Ben grabbed another blanket and sat in the rocker. It had been a long time since he had done that for his sons, but he knew when a boy needed the reassurance of having a protector near by, and it would be worth the aches and stiff joints he would have in the morning.

*****

Chapter 8

Very early that next morning, when Ben heard Hop Sing in the kitchen, he woke LJ before he went back upstairs to his room to dress. Everyone was up and having breakfast before the sun rose. When they heard horses in the yard, they knew that Hoss and Joe had arrived. There was a man standing guard so if it had been anyone else, they would have known.

As Hoss and Joe came in, Adam was making his way slowly down the steps. Seeing how drawn and haggard he looked, both felt a little guilty for teasing him so much the day before. It was clear that he was still in pain, and that it was exhausting him. Traci had a pillow on a chair and asked Adam if he would like to try sitting at the table. He did and gingerly lowered himself to sit on the pillow. It was somewhat uncomfortable but tolerable especially to a man who hated to have anyone have to make special provisions for him. He would rather not have had the pillow but doubted he could sit without it, so he tolerated that as well. Both Hoss and Joe were aware he wouldn’t appreciate an apology nor any sympathy for being wounded as he didn’t like special attention being paid to him either. So they did what they thought he would like and avoided any comments relating to him being shot.

As soon as everyone was packed up, Ben, Gabe, and Joe got ready to head out with LJ for town. LJ came to stand next to Adam before he left and Adam wrapped an arm around him and told him to take good care of Joe.

“I thought he was supposed to take care of me?”

“He is, but he’s my little brother, and I wouldn’t want him to get into any trouble. He has a way of attracting trouble, so will you promise to stick to his side like honey to a bee?”

LJ nodded vigorously as everyone else smiled. With just a few words, Adam had managed to take LJ’s mind off what was frightening him and focus him on something else. Ben put his hand on LJ’s shoulder then and told him it was time to go. Traci had tears in her eyes watching LJ leave. He was just a boy and was being so brave. She turned and buried her head on Adam’s shoulder after the front door closed. Matthew walked to his mother’s side and hugged her.

“Uncle Joe will take good care of LJ, Mama, you’ll see.”

“I know he will, Matthew, but I’ll worry just the same until everyone is back home safe and sound.”

“Is this LJ’s home now?”

“Maybe. How would you feel about that?”

“I like him a lot. It would be fine with me. We could do a lot of stuff together and with Eric too.”

“Well, your Papa is going to have custody of all three boys, so all three may be living on the ranch but LJ will continue to live in the house here unless he wants to live somewhere else.”

Matthew nodded his head and then headed into the kitchen to see if there was something Hop Sing wanted him to do. His parents watched him go amazed once again at how well he was adjusting to change.

For the others, the ride to Virginia City was quiet. They waited inside the stage depot and rushed LJ to the stage when it got there. Gabe climbed up to ride shotgun, and Joe climbed in with LJ. There were no other passengers as Roy had commandeered the stage and Ben would pay any costs involved. Once they reached the first way station, two more Ponderosa hands climbed aboard. Both were as well armed as Joe and Gabe, and had a message to deliver.

“We just talked to Hoss, and he said everything looks clear so far. They’ll keep shadowing us though and keeping an eye out.”

Everything proceeded smoothly at each way station and along the road. Joe kept LJ entertained with stories about his exploits as a youngster and all the tricks he had played on his brothers. Once the other two men were on board, they added stories too. By the end of the day, LJ had gotten quite a bit of history of the Cartwright brothers. Once the day was done and it was time to sleep though, his mind returned to the purpose of this journey. He became nervous then and wondered how he would be able to sleep.

“Thinking about tomorrow?”

“Mr. Joe, how can anybody sleep like this? I mean there could be men out there with guns trying to kill us like when they shot Mr. Adam.”

“Yes, but now we know they’re out there so we have made plans to protect you. Hoss and some men are out there watching out for us, and there are four men here whose job it is to protect you. Do you want to sleep next to me tonight? I’ll make sure nothing happens to you. I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to you.”

“Yes, Mr. Joe, I would like that a lot, I really would. Mr. Ben stayed in my room last night, and it made me feel a lot better when I woke up and saw he was there.”

Smiling, Joe thought about his father and how often he had probably sat in young boys’ rooms reassuring them as they three brothers had grown up, and now had done the same for LJ. He rolled out his bedroll in the small bedroom. There was a bed for the boy to sleep in. There was another set of cots in the second bedroom but he left those for the other three men to use. One of them would be on the floor as well. He laid his rifle and pistol on the floor next to him after making sure the window was covered completely by the curtains. Then he laid down to sleep and urged LJ to do the same.

The next day proceeded much as the first had which made Joe and Hoss nervous. They had fully expected trouble by now, and worried about what their foes could be planning. When they made it through the mountains and started down toward Placerville, everyone grew more tense. They rolled into the last waystation on their journey, and all the men looked down the road. There had been so many likely spots for an ambush, but none had come. They wondered what was in store for them in the last few hours of this day. All the men walked with LJ to the small waystation to get something to drink and a light meal. As they entered, they heard the click of revolvers. Joe jumped backward grabbing LJ and ran to the corner of the building and then out into the brush.

Once Joe got LJ far enough from the building to feel safe, he fired three shots. LJ looked at him, scared, but also curious.

“Hoss will know we’re in trouble. That’s the Ponderosa signal for needing help.”

Moving at an angle to their original flight path, Joe worked the two of them further into the trees. They heard yells from the waystation but ignored them. When they heard horses, Joe peeked out from their hiding place to see Hoss staring at him.

“How did you know we were here?”

“Joe, I can track a coyote through pine needles. Not too hard to track two elephants bulling through the brush. Now what happened back there, and where are the other men?”

“They were in the way station. I have no idea what happened to the stationmaster, but I assume they’ve got our men as prisoners.”

“So, they’ll probably want to make a trade.” Hoss sat and thought for just a moment. “Take my horse and get LJ to Placerville. We’ll handle things here. If they’re all barricaded in the waystation, they can’t do anything to ya. Send help cause I doubt these jaspers are gonna give up very easy.”

“But Gabe is in there?” LJ was worried for the man who had been so nice to the boys.

“Gabe is darn good at taking care of things. He probably understands these men better than they understand themselves. You staying here ain’t gonna help Gabe, but you being gone might. Without you to bargain for, what are they gonna do?”

Hoss’ rationale was sound, and after LJ thought for a moment, he nodded his head. He would go with Joe and do as he said he would. Joe put a hand on his shoulder, and LJ felt better. It felt like he had a family. He wished that would happen, but didn’t think a family as wealthy and powerful as the Cartwrights would welcome a reform school runaway like him. However Mr. Adam had custody so at least for now, he had a place to stay and call home even if he didn’t have a family. He and Joe rode for two hours reaching the courthouse in Placerville just a little later than they had been expected. With stage lines running late most of the time, no one was surprised at that, but when Joe explained what was going on at the waystation, the sheriff and the marshal left briefly to send help.

When the marshal and sheriff returned, LJ faced an intimidating sight. There was the sheriff of Placerville, a U.S. Marshal, a circuit court judge, the governor’s assistant, and two lawyers from the state justice department. They all sat down at a long table in the conference room of the building, and invited Joe and LJ to sit on the other side of the table.

“We thought Adam Cartwright was to be here with Joe.”

“My brother was shot. It’s not a serious wound but enough to prevent him from traveling. I’m his brother, Joe Cartwright, and he sent me in his place to protect LJ.”

“LJ?”

“For Little Joe because I’m Joe too so we did that to prevent confusion.”

“Now, Joe Meeker, it seems you have a story to tell us. We have a clerk here who will write down everything you say. We may ask some questions as you go, but don’t worry because it’s not about you. We just need to make sure everything is clear so we can take this men to trial for murder. Nothing you say will be held against you in any way. When you finish here today, Mr. Cartwright will be expected to return you to the custody of Mr. Adam Cartwright. All right?”

Nodding, LJ began telling his story. Joe kept a hand on his arm or on his shoulder for the entire hour it took him to explain what he had done and seen. He finally pulled out the pages from the secret account books and handed those across the table. Adam had told him to give them to these men and tell them where he had found them. He did that, but they seemed not to be that interested in those pages as he had thought they would be. Adam had warned him they might not, but he was still surprised. If he got caught stealing, he would be in a lot of trouble, but these men seemed not to be bothered much by that. They did seem happy that LJ could confirm the identity of the men who had talked about killing that last boy, and that he could identify the three who had escorted that boy to his death. They would have four men to bring to justice and use their executions as proof of what good leaders they were. The next election was already assured for a number of politicians who planned to use this case to promote themselves.

Once LJ was finished testifying, the clerk produced a copy of his statement. He signed it and Joe attested his identity and signature. Then they were done. After thank yous from all the parties there, LJ left with Joe to go to their hotel room. They only had Hoss’ saddlebags so they had no extra clothing or anything else. They checked into the room and waited for dinner to be served. After dinner, they sat and talked with LJ preferring to talk about the Ponderosa, and Joe willing to talk about that especially the horses. LJ got quite an education over those few hours. As the hour was late, Joe suggested LJ ought to sack out on one of the beds when they heard a lot of bootsteps in the hallway. Joe grabbed his pistol, but relaxed when he heard his brother’s voice. He opened the door to find Hoss, Gabe, and the other two men from the stage in the hallway grinning from ear to ear.

“Well, now, I hope you ordered some dinner for us. We been working hard and then riding hard.”

Lifting a dome from one of the plates, Joe grinned at Hoss whose eyes got very big looking at the stack of sandwiches Joe had ordered hoping that his brother would be there that night. Hoss and the men fell on those sandwiches like winter starved wolves from the mountains who found a downed elk. Within minutes, the sandwiches were gone. Then Hoss told the story of what happened.

“We heard a ruckus and gunshots in that waystation, and busted in that door. Wasn’t much left to do though. Gabe had gotten hold of Timmons’ gun and shot him, and these other two boys took down the other two guards. We found Byrnes hiding under a bed. He had wet hisself. We washed him down with water from the well, and tied him up. Brought all three of those jaspers here. The sheriff locked em in the jail. Brought your stuff from the stage too.”

Joe handed Hoss his saddlebags, and the other men headed to their rooms. Hoss closed the door and asked how things had gone with the testimony.

“You would have been real proud of LJ here. It was pretty scary for him though but he stayed strong and told them everything. He was as honest as anyone could be. I’m could hardly hold myself back from slapping him on the back as he told everything he had heard and seen. He’s one smart, brave boy. He’s more of a man than a lot of men I know. I’m proud to know him.”

Smiling at Joe’s obvious affection for LJ, Hoss offered LJ his congratulations as well.

LJ was embarrassed by all the praise, but stood a bit taller too as these two men he admired so much showered him with kind words. LJ asked if they thought Mr. Adam would be proud of him too, and Hoss noticed how Joe’s face fell a little with that question. Hoss assured LJ that Adam would be as proud of him as they were. He hoped too that Joe would be honest with Adam about how he felt about LJ. He wished them both a good night then and headed for his room. Hoss had left a message to be sent to the Ponderosa as soon as the telegraph office opened in the morning, so he planned to sleep in and then eat a big breakfast before heading home.

The next morning on the Ponderosa, Ben and Adam were savoring cups of coffee when they heard a rider come in. Adam stood so slowly that Ben was at the door before he could even turn in that direction. It was Danny from the telegraph office with an telegram marked urgent. Ben tore it open and then grinned as he read it to Adam. “LJ testimony done. Bad guys caught. All safe.” Ben dug out a dollar for Danny and thanked him for bringing the message. Adam walked slowly to go upstairs and tell Traci who was busy with Hope, as Ben went to tell Matthew who was cleaning out the chicken coop. Last Ben headed to the bunkhouse to tell Lake and Z that they were safe, and could resume normal activities.

Matthew had asked if his birthday celebration could be delayed until everyone was safe at home, and now they knew when that would be. Ben told Hop Sing to have a big cake ready for Sunday night as they expected Joe and LJ to be home by then. Hoss and the others would come overland so they would most likely be home even sooner.

*****

Chapter 9

With his birthday celebration in full swing, Matthew had been surprised that the party seemed to be as much about LJ as it was about him. He got a hint of what it would be like to have LJ in his family. He began thinking about the pluses and minuses of such a change in his life. Adam saw his son looking pensive at his party and asked him to join him outside on the porch. It took a while for Adam to make his way there for he was still walking slowly because anything else hurt. Once outside, he asked Matthew what he thought about LJ joining their family.

“I would hate to lose him. I really like him, but it seems like I would lose my spot in the family. LJ is the older one, and he would be the one in charge if you were gone. I like being the one in charge when you’re gone. I want to be Hope’s big brother and teach her stuff. If LJ is here, that wouldn’t be the same. I want him to be happy though. Oh Papa, I don’t know what to think.”

“This isn’t a situation that one can necessarily think through. Your feelings are just as important. No decision has been made, but I would hate to lose him too.”

Seeing her husband and son walk outside, Traci had a fairly good idea what the conversation might be so she had followed them but waited to see how things proceeded. Now she felt she needed to say something.

“Perhaps we need to ask LJ? And maybe the rest of the family has ideas too.”

Looking at Traci, Adam knew she had the same thought as he did. He walked inside and asked LJ and Joe to join them outside. Matthew giggled a little and whispered to his mother so his father with his superior hearing wouldn’t hear.

“It would have been a lot faster if one of us had gone to get Joe and LJ. Papa is still walking very slowly.” Traci smiled.

Once Joe and LJ were out on the porch, Adam told them they had been discussing where LJ would live on the Ponderosa and thought perhaps the two of them had some ideas of how that should go. Joe was very surprised. He knew then that Adam and Traci must know what he wanted, and he hadn’t been aware that he had been so obvious about it. Adam looked at Joe and smirked.

“I’ve been able to read you like an open book ever since you were a boy. Your feelings are always so open.”

“Traci too?”

“Oh heck, Joe, almost everyone can. Now do you have something to say here?”

“Well you know how I feel, but I think we need to know how LJ feels.”

LJ was as confused as he could be. They all seemed to know what they were talking about but he didn’t. “What I feel about what?”

Adam was direct. “Joe and I would both open our homes to you, LJ. What we want to know is, where would you like to live?”

LJ thought carefully about how to say what was in his mind. Finally he decided to just tell the truth and see what happened. “Well, Mr. Adam saved me and treated me real good, and I love him already, but Mr. Adam and Matthew got each other, and Mr. Hoss and Eric got each other, but Joe and me, we don’t have another guy who’s special to us, so I was thinking maybe Mr. Joe and I could be, you know, there for each other. Mr. Joe was by my side the whole time we was gone, and I liked knowing that he would protect me. He talked to me and told me all about the Ponderosa and the horses. So I’d like to be with Mr. Joe’s family and I know I would like it, but I don’t want to hurt Mr. Adam none, cause I love him too and being with his family would be great too.”

Bending slowly because of the soreness in his backside yet, Adam put his arm around LJ and looked at him directly and quietly asked him a question. “Would you love me any less as your Uncle Adam?”

With tears in his eyes, LJ hugged Adam and then holding him as tightly as he could. “No sir, no sir, I wouldn’t. I will love you no matter what.”

Not knowing what Adam had said nor what LJ had responded, Joe waited to hear but he was worried at that big hug LJ was giving Adam. Adam stood as soon as LJ released him, and keeping a hand on LJ’s shoulder, he turned to Joe. “Would you take LJ as your son, Joe?”

Joe opened his arms and got a great hug from LJ. Traci had gone to get Amy and Paulene who arrived just in time to hear Adam’s question. Paulene squealed in delight and both she and Amy rushed to join in the hugging. Amy and Joe had talked of this possibility already and hoped it could come true so they were delighted and almost speechless. Their daughter had been even more enthusiastic than they were for she wanted a sibling very much and an older brother was perfect in her mind. Other family members came outside then wondering what was going on out on the porch. Once Ben got there, Joe made the announcement.

“Pa, Amy and I are going to adopt LJ. Welcome your newest grandson.”

Adam leaned down to speak with his son. “Matthew would you mind sharing your birthday party so we can celebrate LJ joining the family?”

“Oh yes, Papa. This is so nice. I get to keep LJ as a friend and we can do stuff together, and I get to be the oldest son for you and Mama and Hope’s big brother too. Paulene gets to have an older brother now too so it’s just about perfect. What about Lake and Z though?”

“That old cabin that you first hid the boys in? Well Gabe decided to ask Ann Marie to marry him, and he’s going to live there. He wants to adopt the two boys even though they’re almost grown. He says at his age, they would be that old if he had married when he was younger. Ann Marie might be too old to have any more children so she’s happy to have sons too. I told Z and Lake as soon as Gabe got back from town and told me what he wanted to do. That’s why Gabe didn’t ride home with you. We’ll give Gabe some time to fix up the cabin and the stable. With those two helping him, it shouldn’t take long. I’ll design an addition of one bedroom to the cabin and we’ll put some dividing walls inside to make a bedroom, kitchen, and parlor.”

LJ had been listening too. “So that’s why those two were grinning at me all night. I thought they looked awful happy just to know I got back safe. So will you have custody of us any more?”

“Only until we can get the judge to approve the adoptions. I can’t see how he would have any objections. I’ll head into town to talk to our lawyer after I get everyone to school.”

“You’re driving the buckboard?” Matthew was grinning again and looked a lot more like his father when he had that mischievous grin.

“No, I’m taking the big carriage. The seats are padded and the springs are better.”

Matthew looked up at his father and grinned even more.

“And no wisecracks out of you about why either.”

The men were congratulating Joe, and Ben had gone inside to get cigars for everyone. He had not expected quite this scenario but it made a lot of sense to him as he thought about it. The ladies went inside together laughing and telling Amy all about raising a son. The youngsters went back inside too assuming that there could be another helping of cake to celebrate the news. Adam had a cigar in his hand as Traci passed by him.

Traci walked out and dropped a pillow into a chair and then walked back inside with only one comment. “Don’t smoke that if you think you’re well enough.”

“Well enough for what?” At Traci’s smile, Adam dropped the cigar in his pocket and grinned back at her. Adam walked near Hoss, took the cigar out of his pocket, and dropped it in his pocket then.

“Well, thank ya, older brother. Not in the mood?”

“Not for a cigar.” Adam sat in the chair and leaned back with a smile.

“Son, you are a very lucky man.”

“Yes, Pa, I am, a very lucky man indeed.”

*****

A Boy and His Horse

Chapter 1

Dusk had darkened the land and there were only shadows and indistinct shapes as Adam rode looking for his son. Traci was at the house worried about him and worry like this was the worst thing for her in her condition. Matthew had gone out earlier for a walk. That had been hours ago just after dinner. They had only been on the Ponderosa for a few weeks and Adam worried that his son had gotten lost and wandered further from home. Hoss and Joe were out looking as well, and some of the hands had saddled up to help search when the brothers did not return in the first half hour. Ben stood with Traci on the porch trying to reassure her that he was sure they would find Matthew but in his heart, he wasn’t sure. There were so many dangers especially in the dark and for a boy who had spent his life in the city.

As Adam rode, he thought he heard singing. It sounded like his son but it stopped and started so often, he was having a difficult time getting a fix on the origin. He must have been getting closer because he was hearing it more and more clearly as he rode. He strained to see in the darkness and called out his son’s name. Finally there was an answer but fairly soft spoken which made Adam worry even more. Finally he rode close enough to hear his son’s voice.

“Papa, over here. Over here.”

Even as Adam heard him, he heard the sob in the voice and it scared him immensely. He had lost a son, and the thought that any harm had come to this son made his heart beat so hard it hurt. As he rode up though, he saw the shape of a horse next to his son.

“Papa, not too close. He’s really scared.”

Dismounting and ground tying Sport, Adam rushed forward. His son was stroking the neck of a large black horse that was tangled in barbed wire.

“Papa, I wanted to come home, but whenever I walk away, he jumps around and hurts himself even more. He is only still like this when I’m near him. Oh, Papa, you have to help him. He’s really hurt.”

Tears were flowing as Matthew explained the problem to his father.

“Matthew, your mother and I were worried sick about you.”

“I know. I knew you would be. I got a little lost and when I figured out the direction to walk because I could see the smoke from the house, I found this horse. I didn’t know what to do. If I left him, he could hurt himself even more, and if I didn’t leave him, you and Mama would be upset.”

Wrapping an arm around his son, Adam began to stroke the horse as well and it calmed under their soft touches. Matthew was cold, and Adam took his coat and wrapped it around his son. Then Adam told Matthew to gather some kindling and wood if he could from a tree not far from where they were. Once he got back, Adam used the material and his handkerchief to make a crude torch. He lit it and told Matthew to find more wood.

Using the torch, Adam went back to take a good look at the horse. It shied from the flame of the torch so Adam did what Matthew had done and sang soft sweet lullabies to it. The animal calmed and Adam did a thorough examination. The horse had many sores including a number on its legs that must have occurred over the last week because some had slightly healed, others were fresh, and a few looked infected. There were bleeding gashes from the barbed wire. As far as he could tell, there were no broken bones. Once Matthew brought more wood, Adam made a small campfire. Any of the searchers who saw it would come right to them.

Candy and one of the hands were the first ones there. Adam asked if one of them could take Matthew back to the house and then bring a wire cutter out to them. Matthew wanted to object but knew he shouldn’t. Adam helped him mount up on Sport and handed the reins to Candy. Sport could be difficult to ride and in the dark, far too difficult for his son to manage. Soon after, Hoss and Joe rode up, and Adam explained the situation.

“Hoss, could you take a look at this horse and tell me what you think.”

“I think you want me to tell you that we can save this animal.”

“Yes, I do. But I do want you to tell me the truth. You, more than anyone, will know if the pain to this animal would be worth it. He’s hurt badly but I don’t see anything that looks like a broken bone. His legs look sturdy.”

The horse shied from Hoss so Adam moved up to stroke its neck and sing to it. It calmed enough that Hoss was even able to check each leg as he worked his way around the horse.

“Well?”

“I think there’s a good chance this horse can be saved. If we can keep it upright and clean out the infections on its legs, it’ll make it.”

“And if we can’t?”

“You know as well as I do that infections in the legs are the hardest to deal with on a horse. If we can’t get those cleaned up, it will move into the bones and joints. Then there’ll only be one choice. Do you want to put Matthew through that? He could get his hopes up and then have them smashed down again.”

“He already risked his life for this horse. If you think we can do it, then let’s try.”

Candy returned with wire cutters, Adam’s jacket, and Sport.

“How’s Traci handling it?”

“All right, I think. There were a lot of tears, but your Pa and Jillian are there helping.”

Using the wire cutters and with men holding lanterns, Adam and Hoss were able to cut the horse free. Adam had to keep singing to it and frequently stroking its neck to keep it calm. Finally all the strands were pulled away and the horse was free. Adam had slipped a halter on it when he was cutting wire away from its front legs, and he used it then to walk it slowly away from where it had been trapped. When he tried to mount up on Sport to lead the horse home though, it became very agitated, and he had to dismount and soothe it again.

“Older brother, I think you’re gonna have to walk that animal home, and I remember how much you loved walking.” Hoss laughed and Adam scowled at him. That set both Joe and Hoss into giggles. It had been a long time since they had seen that scowl. It didn’t scare them any more. Well at least in this situation it didn’t scare them. Adam muttered to the horse and began walking home leading both the injured horse and Sport.

Once Adam reached the stable an hour later, Hoss already had a space cleared for the horse and all the things they would need to tend to him. From the house, they heard a boy’s cheer. Matthew had asked his grandfather what would be done with the horse, and Ben had explained that if the horse couldn’t be saved, they would have to end its misery, but that he was sure Hoss and Adam would do their best if the horse could be saved. Matthew was a very intelligent boy so he knew what his grandfather meant with those words. When he saw the horse walk into the yard with his father, he was overjoyed and wanted to go help. Traci told him it was no place for a boy to be, and Ben backed her up on that one. He had heard Matthew’s description of the injuries and knew his sons would have some gruesome work ahead of them cleaning out infected wounds and stitching up cuts.

Hours later, long after Matthew had been sent to bed, Adam walked into the house. He waved Traci off and said he needed to clean up before he touched anyone or anything asking her to bring clean clothing to the washroom for him. Traci delivered the clothing and sat in the washroom with him as he cleaned up and told her what he knew.

“We know now why he was so frightened and why being close helped him calm down. He’s nearly blind in one eye from an infection. Looks like the eye was scratched or poked somehow and now its filmy with infection. Hoss thinks we can save the eye but the eyesight is probably already affected. Otherwise, most of the wounds thankfully were superficial. We did have to stitch a few, and the infected ones on his legs are going to need to be cleaned out and redressed often. Hoss is confident we can take care of those too.”

“Don’t be too confident when you tell our son though. I don’t want his hopes to be raised too much in case you can’t take care of those infections.”

“I won’t. I am hopeful though. Do you think he’s still awake?”

“Would you have been at that age in a similar circumstance?”

Smiling Adam leaned down to kiss her before making his way upstairs to tell Matthew he was hopeful but that the next few days would be critical.

*****

Chapter 2

The next morning, Matthew wanted to run to the stable immediately upon arising and dressing, but his parents had expected that and Traci intercepted him.

“You will have breakfast with the family first before you can go to the stable. You will have to have Hoss’ or your father’s permission first too. They’ll tell us how the horse is doing.”

Reluctantly, Matthew trudged to the dining table to await the rest of the family.

“Would you like some hot chocolate as you wait?” Ben liked his grandson. Sitting at the table savoring some coffee as he waited for the others, he realized how like his father Matthew was as he sat there silently. “We could talk and the time would pass faster. How did you learn to ride? Candy said you sat Sport like you knew what you were doing. If I had known that, I would have offered a horse for you to ride here.”

“Papa and Mama went riding every weekend. They took me with them. Then when I learned to ride better, I was able to go to the stable every day after school and ride. I couldn’t go far by myself so the stablemaster taught me more about riding. Papa said my long legs let me ride a bigger horse so I needed to be a better rider.”

That was the most that Ben had learned about his grandson’s life in New England. Now he was intrigued. “What other things did you learn?”

“Oh, the most fun was Papa teaching me to swim. Mama doesn’t know it, but we took off all of our clothing and swam in the ocean. It was a lot of fun. I got scared once when there was a shark there. We didn’t swim in the ocean much after that. Papa found a pond not far from our house and we swam there after that usually.”

“What about other children? Did you have some you played with?” As he asked the questions, Ben wanted to kick himself. He had reminded his grandson now about everything he had lost. Adam had told him that Matthew was having trouble accepting that they would never return to their home in Nantucket for he had loved it there. Matthew didn’t know his family in Nevada, had no friends here, and had not learned much yet about the area either as Adam and Traci wanted to spend as much time as possible with family. They were planning to take a trip to Arizona soon too so that Matthew could meet the rest of his extended family.

“I miss my friends. Papa says I’ll make new ones here, but even my cousins call me names. I’m not sure if I’ll have friends here.”

Ben was shocked to find that Matthew had been called names. “What do they call you?”

“Oh, nothing too terrible. They just think I can’t do anything because I lived in New England. They think I can’t ride or anything like that. Now that I got lost when I was out walking, they will tease me about that too.”

“What do you say when they say things to you?”

“I don’t say anything. I turn and walk away. That’s what Papa said to do when people call me names. He said it isn’t worth a fight.”

Even though Matthew said the words with little emotion, Ben could see how he tensed up on the chair and held himself rigidly. There was a lot of anger building in this boy, and Ben worried about what would happen. He decided he needed to talk to Adam. Matthew had more to say though.

“Papa says it is only right to fight to defend yourself or someone else. I know how to fight. Papa took me to his boxing club.”

That surprised Ben a great deal. In fact, he was shocked for he thought that meant it was gambling on boxing that happened at such a club. Instead Matthew clarified it.

“Papa said that we could be too soft for a fight unless we were prepared so we both boxed in the morning very early. We had to run first to warm up. Papa likes running but I don’t. Papa runs here sometimes early in the morning but he said I didn’t have to until we get a place and put in a heavy bag.”

“What’s a heavy bag?”

“It’s a leather bag you hang from the ceiling and then you punch it.”

“Oh, I hear my son is informing you of how we worked out to stay in shape. We’ll have to start doing something like that here too.”

“You don’t think ranch work will be enough?”

Adam hesitated to speak as he sat and poured a cup of coffee. “Pa, I wasn’t planning to work on the ranch. We’ll live here, but I’ve been making a living as an architect and would like to continue that. I have enough of a professional reputation now that I can get commissions no matter where I live.”

As his father looked so disappointed, Adam amended his statement. “I’ll help out when you need me, but the ranch has been doing fine with Hoss and Joe. I don’t want to interfere with that.”

“The cattle and horse businesses, yes. But our mining and timber operations have been waning. I would like to see some improvement there. Perhaps you could look over our operations and make some recommendations?”

“Of course. I can do that. I have to tell you though that I liquidated all my silver mine investments. With the price of silver where it is, most mines are barely making any profit at all, and soon many will likely shut down.”

Before the conversation on that went any further, Hoss walked in with news on the horse.

“Well, Matthew, that horse of yours is showing some improvement. He’s eating and drinking. The swelling on the legs has gone down a lot. Now don’t get your hopes up too much. We still have those infections to deal with, but it is looking better than last night.”

“Can I go see him?”

“After breakfast. Your papa and I will change the dressings one more time, and then you can see him. Bring him an apple or two. He’s darn skinny. Probably hasn’t been eating well for at least a week.”

Adam had a question though about what had led to all of this trouble for the horse. “Why was there a tangle of barbed wire lying there where any horse or cow could tangle with it?”

Hoss looked down at his plate and Ben took a deep breath. “Candy, is handling it, son. We had men working in fence lines and they were supposed to bring all scraps and tangles of wire back here to the forge. Apparently some men thought it would be too difficult to haul it back so threw it in a gully with brush thinking it was out of the way. Other men were sent later to clear that gully of brush, and they tossed the barbed wire aside and forgot about it. There may be one or two less hands on this ranch by the end of the day.”

Nodding his head, Adam finished his breakfast. Then he and Hoss went out to see to the horse. True to his word, Hoss walked in to tell Matthew that he could go see his horse less than an hour later. It was funny but they were all talking about him as Matthew’s horse. Adam was concerned though as he looked at the horse in daylight. It obviously was well bred and appeared to be well trained too. This was no horse that had wandered away from a ranch or a trail drive. He knew he would have to put a notice in the paper about finding this stallion, and he feared the owner would likely be anxious to get him back. However now the stallion would be scarred and likely have poor vision in one eye so perhaps the owner would be willing to sell him. Adam hoped that would be the case for he could tell his son was already emotionally attached to the animal as anyone would expect after it was his effort that had led to the animal being rescued. His hope that Matthew would not name him and become even more attached lasted only minutes.

“Papa, I want to call him Phoenix. It’s an Arizona name so Mama will like it, and he kinda did rise again from the ashes, didn’t he?”

“Yes, son, he did. But Matthew, he belongs to someone already. This is no wild horse or stray. I have to put a notice in the paper that we found him. The owner may show up to claim him.”

“Papa, I thought you said people out here branded their horses. This horse doesn’t have a brand.”

“I know but if he’s a show horse, they would not have branded him. He could be quite a valuable animal.”

As Matthew fed the horse a second apple, his shoulders slumped. At that moment, Adam decided he needed to buy his son a horse. If he couldn’t get this one, then he needed to find another, and as soon as he could. He would talk to Joe about the horses to see if there was one on the ranch that would be appropriate for his son. Adam remembered his first horse and how he had loved that animal. When Joe had ridden him without permission and that horse had been hurt, Adam had been livid with anger at his brother. But he had taken his rifle and ended the life of his beloved mount. When he came back from college, his father had let him choose another horse, and he had chosen Sport who was getting old now and was suitable only for light casual riding. Soon Adam knew he would lose him too, and he knew too that his son might suffer that kind of loss even sooner if an owner showed up to claim Phoenix.

*****

Chapter 3

Working every day with Phoenix, Adam and Hoss managed to get all the wounds to heal including those that had been infected. After a week, the horse was restless and wanted out of the stable. Adam led him to the corral, and they got a good look at him for the first time. His black coat had red highlights in the sun. He seemed to glow. He held himself very proudly and stood tall and muscular but with great balance holding his head almost as if he was in a pose. Looking him over for some time with the rest of the family, Adam went to the stable and found the lightest saddle he could find in the tack room. He brought that and a thin blanket with him to the corral.

“Adam, you shur ya want to do that? We don’t know much at all about that horse, and at your age, you could be hurt bad if he decides to buck ya off.”

“Hoss, he isn’t going to buck me off. Have a little confidence, would you please.”

“Adam, are you sure? Hoss knows a lot about horses too.”

“Traci, I’m sure. Now if everyone will just be quiet, I’m going to saddle this horse and see what he can do.”

Once Adam had Phoenix saddled, he mounted up and the horse stood absolutely still as Adam sat straight in the saddle and did nothing.

“Hey, older brother, ya done forgot how to ride out there in the east, didn’t ya?”

“Ya, Hoss, he’s waiting for the horse to tell him what to do.” Joe thought it was funny and didn’t realize Adam was testing the horse.

Then with a slight tug of the reins, the horse did a wide turn and began walking almost in a prancing gait around the corral. Adam pulled the reins and the horse did a tight turn. He pressed his knee to one side and the horse sidestepped to the opposite side, and then pressed his knee on the other side and the horse sidestepped the opposite way. Then a slight tug and the horse began that prancing walk again. By this time, there was a crowd gathering around the corral, and the horse seemed to enjoy that as he seemed to pick up his head and hold it even more than he had. No one could even see the moves that Adam was doing to command the horse. It looked like the horse was going through a routine.

Phoenix was a powerful horse, but showed how supple he was too with the moves he made. Wondering a little and trying to remember what he had learned so many years before, Adam got the horse to bow to the crowd and then move around the corral turning on point several times. Next, Adam remembered how to ask for piaffe, and the horse trotted so slowly that the he almost appeared to be trotting in place. It was amazing as the opposing front and rear hooves left the ground at the same time. Then as the grand finale, Adam had him rear up on his hind legs. Traci gasped, but when Adam did it a second and third time, she realized he was commanding the horse to do it and that made her a little angry at him for frightening her. Finally, Adam walked the horse to the fence and dismounted.

“And that, family and friends, is le dressage. I did some riding like that when I was in college and had a friend whose family had horses trained to do that.”

“That was some fancy riding, Adam. Not much good on a ranch, but that was doggone purty to watch.”

“Yes, Hoss, and that means that this horse is far more valuable than we first thought. Someone spent a lot of money training him, but the training was brutal. That’s why there are a number of small whip marks and spur marks that we saw when we examined him up close. Those wouldn’t be visible though if people were watching him perform. They would be far enough away so that dark coat would hide them.”

“All scarred up by the barbed wire now, he ain’t so much to look at, but boy howdy, he sure can do some tricks.” Hoss was impressed seeing great animals, and there was no specimen of horse that he had ever seen that could match this one.

“Papa, we can’t let him go back to the man who did that to him then, can we? We need to keep him here where he’s safe.”

“Matthew, we’ll just have to wait and see. I’ll offer to buy him if someone comes to claim him, but we don’t own him so we can’t make those decisions for him.”

Over the next few days, Adam instructed Matthew in the art of dressage. It was fairly easy to do as Phoenix was so well trained and dressage commands are not supposed to be visible to the audience so Matthew’s light touch was perfect. He was much too young to ride the horse without supervision though so Adam was called to the corral several times each day to supervise his son’s riding. As Matthew’s cousins watched him ride with confidence, their opinion of him changed too. He was far more adept at riding than any of them were despite his city clothing and refined speech which had led them to believe he had no such skills.

Everything improved quite a bit more for Matthew when Adam took him to town so the two of them could purchase more appropriate clothing. Adam and Traci were planning to go visit her family, and their eastern style clothing would stand out even more as they traveled south to Arizona.

That trip to Arizona had Adam concerned, and as he stood on the porch one evening talking with his father about the silver mine investments the Ponderosa had, Ben just asked.

“How far along is she?”

Looking at his father in surprise, Adam finally just smiled. “About three months. How did you know?”

“Oh, Traci is a strong woman, and you always treated her that way except when she was with child the first time, and of course when you lost AC. You have been so gentle with her, and she looks so happy but tired. It was the only conclusion I could draw.”

“I am worried. At her age, many women have problems. I just don’t know if a trip to Arizona is the right thing to do right now, but I know how she has missed her family.”

“We still have the carriage her parents gave you. That would be far more comfortable than a stagecoach. But I do think it would be wise to take a couple of men with you. There are still often Apache raids there, and a couple of extra guns couldn’t hurt.”

“I don’t know who I could get. After eight years, I’m not familiar with a lot of the people around here.”

“Well, you’re looking at one man who could go. I think that we could find at least one of the hands who wouldn’t mind a trip to Arizona.”

“You’re not too busy here?”

“After the party on Sunday, there’s nothing I have to do here. As you have seen, Hoss and Joe can handle things.”

“Thank you, Pa. Traci will be pleased.”

So after the big family party on Sunday, Adam and the others began packing for a trip. Adam sent telegrams to Arizona letting them know they were on their way. The party had been a good time for Adam and Traci to start getting to know Jamie and his wife as well as Joe’s wife whom they had not met until they got back to Nevada although they had exchanged letters. The children had a wonderful time, and Traci shared her news with her sisters-in-law so there was even more to celebrate. Then on that Monday, they headed south for Arizona where they met Darren’s wife and their twins. Of course there was another big party before they began to make the return trip two weeks later. By the time they returned, Traci was exhausted and Adam helped her to the bedroom they were using and made sure she was asleep. From the look on his brothers’ faces when they arrived home, Adam knew something bad had happened. Then when Hoss gave instructions to Matthew to unpack and change before going to the stable, he had a very good idea of what that was.

“So, Hoss, Phoenix is gone?”

“Yeah, we got a telegram shortly after you left. The owner got here at the end of last week and claimed him. He had all the right papers. He’s a disagreeable man, but he treated the horse decently. He was upset at how he looks now but said he would still be very valuable for stud service.”

“Did you make an offer to buy?”

“Yes, and he said there is no price cause he’s not for sale. He said anyone looking at him could see he couldn’t be replaced. Sorry, brother, but I think he’s gone for good. Joe did get some use out of him though.”

“Use?”

“Oh yeah, I put him with a bunch of our brood mares for over a week. As soon as I knew the owner was coming to get him, and he was more than happy to help out. We should have some handsome foals from him. Don’t you worry. We’ll make sure the best one goes to Matthew.”

“Yeah, that’s going to be a tough talk I have to have with him though.”

“Well, you better get ready then. Here he comes.” Hoss turned and motioned with his head to Joe, and they walked to the porch as Matthew walked to his father. Hardly bothering to acknowledge his uncles, Matthew looked worried and stopped next to his father who was looking into the open corral.

“Matthew, Phoenix is gone. His owner came for him, and he won’t sell him.”

Standing rigidly still, Matthew said nothing. He turned and walked toward the stable. Adam took a deep breath and followed him. He knew how much his son was like him, and to some extent, like Hoss too. He would hold it all in if he could. Adam just wanted to be near him if he was needed. Inside the stable, Matthew sat on a bale of hay, and Adam sat beside him. They sat in silence for a long time before Matthew spoke.

“I really loved that horse, Papa. Isn’t there anything you can do?”

“Other than finding a horse just as beautiful and smart as he is to trade for him, no. And Matthew, we may have quite a bit of money, but I don’t have enough to find a horse to trade for Phoenix. He’s gone. He won’t be abused any more because he isn’t show horse material any more. He’ll spend his days running in the fields with mares and hopefully siring a lot of foals.”

“Can we at least get one of his foals?”

Holding back a smile, Adam had at least some good news for his son. “Your Uncle Joe may have taken care of that for us. He had Phoenix with a bunch of our brood mares so we should have foals in about eleven months. No promises but next summer you could be training your own colt or filly.”

“Thank you, Papa. I know you told me we could lose him, but now we at least have part of him here yet.”

Smiling then, Matthew ran from the stable to the porch and threw himself into his uncle’s arms. “Uncle Joe, you’re the best. Thank you.”

“Hey now, little man. I thought you told me that I was the best?”

“Oh, Uncle Hoss, you are the best too.” And Matthew moved from Joe to hug Hoss. Matthew may have been like Adam in many ways, but being raised by two loving parents had made him much more able to express his love for his family. Adam joined them on the porch then, and he and Matthew told them all about the trip to Arizona.

*****

Chapter 4

By the following Sunday, Traci was feeling better and rested so Adam decided it was time for them to take a trip to the lake after church services. He asked Hop Sing for a picnic basket, and on the way to the lake, he stopped the carriage so that all three of them could pick some flowers. Adam had packed his sketch book in the carriage as well. They were going to take Matthew to see AC’s grave for the first time. Matthew had seen the small portrait they had and the one with his mother holding AC as a baby but that picture was somewhat blurred. Once at the gravesite, the family prayed together and placed flowers on the grave as well as on Marie’s grave. Then Adam once again told Matthew the story of his three mothers. Once they had done all of that, they went closer to the lake to have a picnic. There, Adam and Traci decided it was time to share their news with their son.

“Matthew, we have something important to tell you. We know you have had to accept a lot of changes in the past few months, but there’s another one on the way.”

“Is Mama going to have a baby?”

Shocked into silence, Adam and Traci stared at their son.

“It wasn’t that hard to figure out. Jillian touches Mama’s belly and smiles at her, and you do too sometimes when you think I’m not looking. Then grandmother did it too when we were in Arizona, and grandfather smiled. It had to be that.”

“Son, sometimes I think you’re almost eight and going on forty. Where did you get so smart?”

“I guess I learned it from you and Mama. Can we go swim in the lake?”

Beaming with a bit of pride over his son’s statement, Adam didn’t want to disappoint him but had to. “We don’t have anything to swim in. So it will have to be another time.”

“Why don’t you swim like you did in the pond at home?” Traci smiled.

Both Adam and Matthew stood in shock with their mouths hanging open just a bit.

“Eliza told me. She went to give you a message once and saw you. She told me so I went to see for myself. It was a vision I will never forget.” By then Traci was grinning, and Adam grinned back. Matthew assumed she wasn’t angry but didn’t quite understand what she meant and why she was grinning, but his father was grinning back so it must have been all right.

“Maybe, we can give you another vision then from right here in Nevada.” Adam began to remove his clothing and walked to the lake. Matthew wasn’t so sure he wanted to undress in front of his mother but she sat down and started looking at the sketchbook so he stepped behind a bush and stripped down. Then when his father asked if he was ready, he ran toward the lake and jumped in splashing water all over his father. Adam laughed. That had been a routine ever since the two of them had gone swimming in the ocean. After about an hour, they came out of the water and sat on the rocks in the sun near the shore. Matthew sat where his mother could not see him, and she smiled at his modesty. He was growing up. Adam, on the other hand, sat where she could see him quite well. He rubbed his hands over himself to speed the drying, and her heart speeded up. When he stood to pull on his pants, she started breathing rapidly. At that moment, she decided she would let them have their privacy in the future when they wanted to swim. But she planned to let Adam know how much she enjoyed the view later when they were alone.

As they packed up to leave, Traci asked Adam where they were going to live.

“I thought you wanted us to build a house here near the lake?”

“Adam, I did. But Hoss and Jillian have their own place, and Joe and Amy built a place for themselves too. Jamie and Sue are living in the cottage that Joe fixed up years ago. I think your father would like us to live with him, and honestly, I think I would be more comfortable there too at least for a few years.”

“Well, Matthew, what do you think?”

“I would love to live in Grandpa’s house. I like it there a lot.”

“Well, I guess I’ll ask Pa and see what he thinks about it. With the baby on the way, I don’t know how he’ll feel about it. At his age, he may not want to deal with a baby crying.”

“Your father isn’t that old. Yes, you should ask him though so we can make plans.”

“We have to consider Hop Sing too. He’s Pa’s age, and he’ll need some help to take care of the house with us living there too.”

“Oh, Adam, I can help. There are a lot of things that I can do so he won’t have to.”

Wrapping his arms around Traci, Adam smiled. He had secretly hoped she might feel this way, and to have her bring up the subject and speak so strongly in favor of it made his love her even more. Every day, he found his love for his wife and son grew stronger. As that happened, he was able to relax and enjoy life so much more. To have this woman who adored him wake at his side each morning felt like a dream. To have a loving son who was also smart and well behaved was just as important, and Adam thanked God as often as he could for those blessings in his life. He was smiling as he packed up the blanket, picnic basket, and sketchbook. He helped Matthew climb into the back of the carriage, and then helped Traci into the front. Once on the seat, he snapped the reins and headed home. Traci slipped her arm through his and leaned on his shoulder.

At dinner that night, Ben was entertained by all the talk the three of them had about their day together. As Hop Sing set dessert on the table, Adam asked him to stay in the dining room for he had a question to ask. Ben was concerned at that point but waited.

“Pa, I know it will be asking a lot of you, and putting a burden on Hop Sing too, but Traci and I would like to continue living here in the house with you. I know there’s a baby on the way and that could affect your decision. Whatever you say will be fine with us.”

Ben remained silent but his heart was swelling. When Adam finally stopped talking, Ben stood and moved to Adam’s side placing a hand on his shoulder. “It’s a dream come true. I wanted at least one of my sons to live here, and I was thinking it was never going to happen. Oh, Adam, thank you.” Tears ran down Ben’s cheeks then and Adam stood and awkwardly put an arm around his father. This was not anything he had expected, and he didn’t know how to respond. Traci laid it out for him.

“Give your father a hug!”

So he did, and then Traci and Matthew made it a group hug. Adam looked to Hop Sing who was smiling. “Hop Sing, is that all right with you?”

“Missy Traci all time big help to Hop Sing. Matthew hard worker too and help Hop Sing. Good for family. All time happy now. Now eat dessert. Hop Sing work hard on cake.” Hop Sing returned to the kitchen with a smile and a bounce in his step he had not had for some time.

As Traci lay in Adam’s embrace later in bed, she watched him as he gazed at her. He liked looking at her which always made her feel so good. After all these years, she was the only woman he looked at that way. Attractive women did get a look from him because he was a man, but Traci had noted how he looked at them like they were works of art: appreciative but not loving. He looked at her with a look that said he would do anything for her and give her anything she asked as long as she stayed by his side. That was how her mother had described how he looked at her when they visited in Arizona. As she had observed her husband since then, she had to agree that her mother had nailed it. He looked at her with love and longing.

“I wonder what Marie is thinking now.”

Adam pushed himself up on one elbow to look down at her. “What do you mean?”

“When I was fifteen and you were sixteen, wasn’t this exactly what she was worried about?”

Grinning, Adam leaned down to kiss Traci. “I think she would be ecstatic about how it all worked out.” Adam laid down again and wrapped his arm around Traci as she turned her back to him and snuggled back to spoon with him. It was her preferred way of sleeping and with her pregnancy, it was the most comfortable too. As her tummy grew, it would be the only way she could sleep. As she felt Adam’s breathing slow, she closed her eyes and the two of them fell asleep as they had for much of the nearly ten years they had been married.

*****

Chapter 5

By mid September, Adam and Traci had settled into a routine at the ranch. Adam was doing quite a bit of work with the timber and lumber operations. In addition to designing a new lumber mill, he was working with some builders in the area to produce lumber for their projects. He had convinced them that by ordering according to a drawn plan, they could eliminate a lot of waste and increase their profits. It only had to work for one before the others clamored for his services as a designer. By charging only a small amount for the plans, he was able to increase the Ponderosa lumber operations significantly.

At the house, Traci had taken over most of the garden work as well as much of the laundry for Hop Sing allowing him to concentrate on the work in the kitchen. Meals were even more delectable than they had been before, so everyone came out a winner on that one. Matthew was helping Traci every day but would soon start school in the fall session. Both Adam and Traci were concerned about the quality of education he would receive but also knew they were capable of filling in any gaps. With all the books they had brought with them, Matthew had more books to access than most people ever saw even in a library in a small town.

With Joe’s help, Adam, Traci, and Matthew had new horses too. Adam’s was a big sorrel who looked much like Sport and Adam called him Jupiter. Traci’s beautiful horse had a reddish coat with a blonde mane and she called her horse Mars. So it was natural when Matthew was assigned a small, fast pony to ride, he called him Mercury. Adam rode with Matthew on his first day of school to be sure he knew the way although he really wanted more to be there for his son’s first day of school in Virginia City. He had missed his first day of school in Nantucket due to work and Traci has escorted him that day. Hoss arrived soon after they did with his three children and Joe’s in a wagon. Hoss’ oldest could have ridden in by himself, but the other three were Matthew’s age or younger, and their mothers especially did not want them riding in without an adult.

“Ya gonna ride in with him every day?”

“No, but today I wanted to be here. He can ride to your house and ride in with you on the other days if that’s all right.”

“Course it is. Ya want him in the wagon with the rest?”

“No, Matthew is a good rider. He can ride in.”

Once all the children ran to the school house and were mingling together, Hoss turned to Adam.

“Damn, that’s gonna make some trouble for me I think.”

At Adam’s quizzical look, Hoss had to explain.

“I wanted Eric to be able to ride too, but Jillian thinks that wouldn’t be fair to the other children.”

Adam sat thoughtfully for just a moment.

“Why don’t we say that eight is the cut-off for riding. When each one gets to that age, we’ll let them start riding to school but with the wagon. That way they’re supervised but given a bit more responsibility too.”

“Oh yeah, that sounds good. Eric is almost ten and he gets really ornery about being treated like the younguns. Even better, that means in about three years, they’ll all be riding, and no one will have to drive the wagon in twice every day. That is until your new one gets to be school age.” Hoss was grinning at that. He thought it funny that the oldest brother was going to have the youngest child in the family.

“Well maybe you and Joe will have another one too.”

“For me, I hope not. I love my children dearly but sometimes I would just like to have Jillian to myself for a bit. Three is enough. I think Joe and Amy would like more but can’t seem to make it happen.”

“I’ll ask Traci. Maybe we could have them stay at the house for a weekend. I think Pa would like it, and we could get to know them better. Matthew likes Eric and looks up to him, but the girls tease him a lot and I know that makes him mad. If they were together for a weekend, maybe they would learn to like each other a bit more.”

“Oh, wise older brother, I’m going to tell it to Jillian just like that too. How could she turn that down.”

“Well, Pa has to agree too.”

Hoss laughed like that wasn’t even an issue, and Adam had to smile because he knew that too. Their Pa would adore having his grandchildren there for a weekend.

“Now, I didn’t know Matthew got mad with the teasing. He never showed it.” Of course Hoss remembered how Adam was when he was younger and even now to some extent. You had to know him to see the signs of anger in him. He could hold himself so much in control sometimes that people didn’t realize the temper building inside him.

“Watch his eyes. When he starts to squint, it’s not because of poor eyesight. He’s just concentrating on not blowing up.”

Suddenly Hoss had a revelation. “So when you told him that Phoenix was gone, he wasn’t squinting back any tears. He was mad.”

“Oh yeah, but at least what Joe did allowed him to cool down about it. He’s still upset about it, and has bad dreams about what has happened to Phoenix, but slowly it’s getting better.”

“Good, cause I remember when you used to hold it in. Boy howdy, we knew somebody was gonna get it when you finally blew. Seems to me it was Joe sometimes, or even somebody in town who crossed you or one of us.”

“I try not to do that any more. Matthew hasn’t learned yet.”

“How’s it working for you?”

Adam just smiled, and wheeled his horse to ride into town for some meetings he had scheduled. Hoss turned the wagon to head home. Late in the day, Adam rode back to the school intending to ride home with Matthew. What he found was a shock to him though. Hoss was waiting with the wagon and had his children and Joe’s already loaded up and ready to go.

“He’s inside. He got in a bit of trouble today. Eric said it wasn’t his fault, but the teacher sees it another way entirely. We’ll wait a bit.”

Worried, angry, and confused, Adam walked to the schoolhouse and inside where he found two angry parents, a child holding a large wad of cloth to his nose, and a disheveled Matthew.

“Adam Cartwright, your ruffian son beat up our son. I shouldn’t be surprised considering.”

“Rayne, your son is at least four years older than Matthew, and a head taller. How could he have ‘beaten’ him as you claim?”

“Well I’m sure you have taught him to be just like you. It’s not surprising that he would do this.”

The teacher had to step in at this point. “There was no beating. Matthew hit George only once based on what the other children said and what Matthew admitted to doing. Now hitting is not the way to handle a problem and Matthew needs to be disciplined, but Mr. and Mrs. Tork, your son instigated the altercation by pushing him and then swinging a fist at him so George needs to be disciplined as well. I would like to hand the discipline over to the parents here if you think that you are willing to handle your own sons.”

“Michael and I will take care of our son. Who’s going to pay for his visit to the doctor?”

“I’ll take care of the charges from the doctor.”

“That’s not necessary, Adam. I will accept the responsibility for my son. Rayne, I think it’s time we take our son and go home.”

Michael took his wife by the arm, and pointed at the door for her and George to walk ahead of him. Once they were gone, the teacher turned to Adam.

“George was picking on some girls. Matthew told him that he was a bully, and told him to stop. George pushed him and then took a swing at him. That’s when Matthew hit him and broke his nose. That’s the story I got from the other children and from Matthew. Now George has another version of the story where he did nothing wrong so I expect there may still be some problems from Mrs. Tork. I can see she holds a great deal of animosity toward you.”

“Yes, we have some unpleasant history. It was a long time ago, and I had hoped she might have forgiven me by now especially because she is married and has a child, but apparently that is not the case.”

“I trust I can expect you will handle the issue with Matthew. However much he was provoked, we cannot have him using his fists to solve problems.”

“We will take care of it. Thank you.”

“On another note, Matthew seems well ahead of the students his age. Will you object if I put him with the older children for lessons?”

“Not at all. I’m happy to see that you are willing to adjust for his benefit. Thank you. Matthew will be back tomorrow with an appropriate apology.”

With goodbyes to the teacher, Adam and Matthew left. Adam waved to Hoss who snapped the reins to start toward home. Matthew was going to talk but his angry tone had Adam immediately upset.

“You will watch your tone of voice. We will talk when we get home. You may use the time until we get home to think about how you could have acted better, and how you will apologize to the teacher and to George for what you did.” Seeing the look on Matthew’s face in response to those words, Adam held up a hand to let him know any further words at this point were only going to make things worse. The ride home was quiet.

*****

Chapter 6

In the stable at home, Adam and Matthew unsaddled and groomed their horses without talking. Once the horses had feed and water, they walked to the house. As they entered, Traci greeted them with a smile that quickly vanished as she saw the looks on their faces. Adam told Matthew to go to the washroom to clean up, and then he walked to the blue chair and sat silently.

“Well, you need to tell me what happened. You look like someone died, but I know you would have told me that right away. So what is it?”

“Traci, our son broke another boy’s nose today.” Adam let that shock sink in before he added more. He was provoked and the boy took a swing at him, but he retaliated without trying to do anything else. The boy was picking on Dorothy and RoseMary, and Matthew stepped up to defend them against a boy who has to be at least four years older and a head taller.”

“He didn’t give me any other choice. He tried to hit me. What was I supposed to do? Let him?”

“You will change your tone of voice immediately.”

Matthew halted and stood defiantly looking at his father but unwilling to say any more and get in trouble for it. Traci didn’t know what to think. He had taken on a boy larger than him and broken his nose.

“Adam, perhaps we should talk before we talk with Matthew.”

With his temper rising, Adam knew that was the right thing to do, but at the same time, he was having a hard time getting control of his own emotions. There was silence for a while until Traci told Matthew to go to his room. Then Traci took Adam by the arm and tugged him to follow her outside. Ben got up from his desk and walked into the kitchen. He wanted to help but knew he could only do so if asked. He would enjoy a cup of coffee in the kitchen and wait.

“So what do you think made him so angry?”

“What?”

“Adam, our son had to be very angry to do what he did. To have him go after someone picking on the very girls who tease him unmercifully doesn’t make sense. He had to be looking for a fight, and the opportunity presented itself.”

Sitting on the bench on the porch, Adam rubbed the bridge of his nose. Traci recognized that sign. He was thinking and he was frustrated at the same time. She waited for him to think it through. She had some ideas but thought she needed to let Adam cool down as well.

“You think he’s mad at me about Phoenix, don’t you?”

“Of course he is. He wanted that horse so much and he loved him. He wanted to keep that horse as his very own. He trusted you to make it happen, but you couldn’t. He’s mad that he’s found out you can’t do everything. He’s growing up and learning that his hero has flaws and weaknesses just like anyone.”

“I know. And we pulled him away from the people and places he knew and dragged him out here where even his cousins pick on him for how he talks and acts. But, Traci, we can’t let him hit people because he’s mad. He had alternatives and he chose not to use them.”

“I know that too. Adam, we can’t just punish him though. It will likely just make him angrier.”

“Traci, we have to discipline him. He can’t do things like this because he’s angry. He needs to apologize to George and to the teacher for what he’s done, and promise that he won’t do that again.”

With her arms crossed in front of her, Traci just stared at him. Adam took a deep breath and blew it out. “So what do you want to do?”

“I want you to talk with him. I want you to get him to admit he’s angry with you and probably with me. I want him to tell you what has upset him and why. Then the two of you have to find a way for him to work off that anger and come to terms with the things that have happened. You ought to know how. He’s just like you in that regard. He holds it in and lets it eat him up inside.”

“I’m doing better with that.”

“Yes you are, but only because I won’t let you get away with keeping things from me. That didn’t work very well for us, did it? And it doesn’t work for Matthew either, but right now, he has no one to talk with. He hasn’t made a close friend here yet. The closest is Eric, but I don’t think he trusts him enough yet to confide in him.”

Nodding, Adam stood and walked into the house. Traci followed him in to see him head up the stairs. She walked to the kitchen to see if she could get a cup of tea to calm herself. She knew that she had to be careful. The doctor had told her to avoid stress and not to work too hard. Hop Sing had been brewing tea for her and it helped. She really needed a cup at that point.

Upstairs, Adam knocked on Matthew’s door and waited for him to answer. When he heard a ‘Come in’, he entered to find his son at the window staring outside. Adam walked and sat on the bed calling Matthew to come to him. Once Matthew was standing in front of him, Adam began what he knew would be a difficult conversation for both of them.

“You were very mad at George today, weren’t you?”

“Yes, he was being mean and picking on my cousins. You said we can fight to defend ourselves and others. That’s all I was doing.”

“Did you have to hit him, or could you have backed away and let him have a chance to back off or even let the teacher handle it?”

Knowing his father was correct, Matthew had nothing to say.

“I think you were mad and wanted to hit someone, but I think the one you are really the most mad at is me. You’re upset with me for things I’ve done.”

Matthew stared at his father’s face. “You said you would protect Phoenix, but you let him go back to that awful man.”

“Yes, but Phoenix is no longer a show horse. I knew he would not be abused any longer. I did leave a lot of money with Hoss when I left so he could buy the horse if the owner came to claim him, but the owner was not interested in selling. There was nothing else I could do. Sometimes we have to accept a situation as being the best that we can do even if it isn’t what we wanted.”

As Matthew continued to look at him and not say anything, Adam felt he had to continue.

“You’re upset yet that we moved back here, aren’t you? Don’t you like living here?”

“Oh, Papa, I like living here with Grandpa, but I don’t have any friends here, and unless you do something with me, I’m alone. You never asked me if I wanted to live in Nevada. You and Mama just made me leave our home and come here.”

“Matthew, wherever the three of us are, that’s home. We’re sorry we never made it clear to you why we moved here, but it just wasn’t any safer in New England, and we both missed our families. We haven’t been here that long and you only spent one day at school so far. Can you give it a chance? You’ll make friends here.”

“You missed your family? But you’re a man.”

“You never get over loving your family and missing them when they’re not there.”

“Do you still love AC then?”

“Yes, I think of him every day.”

“Dorothy said you just had me to replace AC.”

Anger began to boil in Adam with that comment. He would talk with Hoss about his daughters and their comments. “We had you because we wanted another child. We didn’t know your mother was expecting you until after AC’s death, but we loved you for you from the moment we knew.”

“Do you already love the baby Mama is going to have?”

“Yes, I do. We will love that child as much as we love you.” With a sudden insight, Adam continued. “But we will have to have more love because we have given so much love to you and that will never change, so we’ll have to grow in our love so we have enough for another child.”

“You can love both of us just the same?”

“Of course. If you can love two parents, can’t we love two children?”

Throwing his arms around Adam’s neck, Matthew buried his head on Adam’s shoulder. Adam felt him sobbing and just held him firmly and reassured him again and again how much he was loved. Once the tears stopped, he pulled his son into his lap.

“I have to do this. It won’t be much longer before I won’t be able to do this any more. Now, about your punishment: you will write an apology to your teacher tonight. Tomorrow, you will apologize to George for hitting him. And for the next two weeks, you will do no riding. You will go to school in the wagon with the other children. I will take you to Uncle Hoss’ in the morning and he will get you home at the end of the day.”

“I’m so sorry, Papa. I won’t do anything like that again.”

“I hope not. If there’s a next time, the punishment will be much more unpleasant and painful for you. Now, let’s go down to dinner. I’m sure everyone has been waiting for us.” As he took his father’s hand with his hand, Matthew had to smile. His father did have a way of making things better. And despite threats to do so, his father had never spanked him. There were a few times when he had been in tears from his father’s comments to him that he wished he could be spanked like some of his friends were by their fathers. He thought a spanking could never be as painful as that disappointed look his father had and the tears his mother had when he willfully misbehaved. Usually he resolved never to repeat the behavior that made his parents suffer so much.

Later, after everyone was in bed, Adam lay next to Tracy massaging her back which was already strained because of the extra weight from the pregnancy. He told her about his conversation with Matthew and all of the reasons their son had been so angry. She agreed with him on how he had handled it, but was also angry at the comments Hoss’ girls had been making to their son. Adam said he would talk with Hoss.

“Now, would you explain why Mrs. Tork dislikes you so much?”

With a deep sigh first and then rubbing his forehead, Adam told Traci of how he had spent time with Rayne but had fallen for the charms of another woman while he was still seeing Rayne. He explained that she had rejected him despite his admission and his heartfelt apology. Somehow though, she was still angry at him all these years later and there really wasn’t anything he could do about that.

“Something always seemed to go wrong in any relationship I had. Seems the fates were making me wait until you came back into my life.” Adam smiled and pulled his wife to him, and she pressed herself to him as they kissed and then reaffirmed their love and desire for each other before falling into sleep still in each other’s arms.

*****

Chapter 7

After breakfast the next morning, as Adam rode with Matthew to Hoss’ house, Traci and Ben talked about what had happened. He was as dismayed as Traci had been at how Hoss’ girls had been acting toward Matthew. Traci told Ben that Adam was planning to speak to Hoss about it.

“Well, I’m sure that after Adam talks with Hoss, those girls of his won’t be sitting comfortably for a few days.”

Sitting quietly for a few minutes, Traci finally had to ask. “Is that how you expect your sons to discipline their children?”

“Well I wouldn’t think that is the only thing they would do but it certainly worked for my boys.”

Quietly thinking about what Ben had said, Traci wondered if it was her place to discuss this. Ben noticed her pensive look.

“Do you disagree with tanning a boy to get him to follow proper rules of behavior?”

Put on the spot by that, Traci had to answer. “I disagree very much with that. For behavior that is dangerous, there may be no other solution that works as rapidly to make a child stop that behavior. However, to teach a child not to hit someone by hitting them seems illogical to me.”

“I never hit my sons. I did spank them or tan them when they needed it, but I never hit them.”

That last statement made Traci angry, and she said things she would never have said if she hadn’t suddenly become so upset. “I have never understood how a man can pull his belt and lay that strap across his son and not think of it as hitting. What would you do if you saw a man use a leather strap to beat a horse or a dog? You’d stop him if you could, and yet you thought it was all right to do it to a boy?”

Getting angry himself, Ben couldn’t believe Traci was speaking to him this way. When Traci got up to flee to a less stressful environment, Ben was glad for he had been afraid he might say something in anger toward her that would just make things worse, and he did want Adam and Traci to continue to live in the house with him. Later as Ben heard Adam arrive back home, he decided to go speak with him and let him know of his conversation with Traci. Traci was in the garden and saw Ben walk to the stable. At that point, she had a fairly good idea of what the discussion would be about, but didn’t want to be part of it. She walked to the garden bench and sat even though she was worried about what Ben and Adam would discuss.

“Pa, you look worried. What’s wrong?”

“Well, Traci and I had a disagreement. She is apparently completely against spanking or tanning. I thought you could talk to her about it and explain that it is sometimes necessary.”

Taking a deep breath, Adam took some time before answering. He had not wanted to have this conversation with his father, but also realized it was probably inevitable if they lived in the same house. “Pa, I will not be having that conversation with Traci because we agree on that point.”

Surprised and then wondering why Adam felt that way, Ben had to ask. “Don’t you think it worked with you and your brothers?”

“No, Pa, it didn’t, at least not with me. You tanned me a number of times. All it made me do was want to hide things better so you wouldn’t hit me again. It was humiliating too and made me angry more than anything.”

“But you would apologize afterwards and do what I told you.”

“But Pa, none of those apologies were truly sincere. They were made so you wouldn’t get angry again. I did what I was told to do to avoid your anger. I learned to apologize sincerely when I realized I had hurt someone by my actions and wanted to make it right again. To see your disappointment or the tears of my brothers did more to change my behavior than anything else.”

“So you didn’t spank Matthew for what he did.”

“I didn’t want to humiliate him or make him angry. I wanted him to understand what he had done and why it was wrong. I hope that the conversation we had did that. If not, we may have to have another talk about it, but he asked for my help last night in composing an apology to his teacher, and this morning, he will apologize to George although I am not sure his apology will be accepted. We talked about how he was to handle himself if George was unwilling to forgive.”

“You and Traci have some very liberal ideas.”

“Pa, don’t you think Matthew is a well behaved boy?”

“Yes, of course he is. He is one of the most well behaved boys I have ever known.”

“Well then can you at least accept that Traci and I are using the best method of discipline for him even if you don’t agree with it?”

“You’re his parents so of course you should do what you think is best. I’ll adjust. I’ll be sure to let Traci know that there are no hard feelings because we disagree. I love that woman like a daughter, and I wouldn’t want anything to come between us.”

“Good. The doctor doesn’t want her stressed or working too hard. He’s concerned about her being with child at her age. So am I.”

“Son, you’ve had so much tragedy in your life. I will pray every day that this works out. I have this feeling that it will.”

After the conversation with his father, Adam went looking for Traci and found her in the garden sitting on the bench. He sat down beside her and put his arm around her shoulders. She immediately leaned into him and cried a few tears. Adam caressed her back and waited for her to relax.

“It’s all right. Pa and I talked. He wants you to know that even though you disagree, he loves you, and has agreed to disagree with us. It will be all right.”

Traci smiled up at Adam, and as usual, he couldn’t stop himself. He leaned down and kissed her and pulled her into his arms. She reciprocated. They loved each other so much and wouldn’t let anything come between them again.

For the next few months, life for Adam and his family improved immeasurably. At school, the girls looked at Matthew as a hero and often shared treats with him or asked him to have lunch with them. The boys, who still wondered a bit at Matthew’s insistence on wearing clean clothing and using good manners, gave him a grudging respect though for taking on a boy so much larger than him and winning. They had a lot of questions for him on how he had learned to do what he did. As Ben observed the interplay between Matthew and his parents, he had to admit that although unconventional in his mind, the parenting methods that Adam and Traci used with Matthew certainly were working well.

By Thanksgiving, Doctor Martin was able to give Adam and Traci good news too. Her pregnancy was progressing normally and the worry he had initially was gone as Traci felt better and stronger as her pregnancy progressed. He continued to insist that she avoid stress and too much physical labor but otherwise insisted that there was nothing out of the ordinary for them to worry about.

Once the snow started to fall, Matthew and Eric no longer rode their horses to school for it was too dangerous and too hard on the horses to stand outside all day. One of the fathers drove a wagon or the sleigh with all the children bundled up in back to school on days when the weather was cooperative.

When Christmas arrived, it was the most joyous in years with the entire family present. There was a lot of fun watching so many children opening gifts by the tree. The whole family sang carols with Adam playing guitar. Winter wasn’t going to feel so long with family gatherings like that to keep everyone in better spirits. Eric and Matthew were becoming close friends too and began to play games together, and talk very often. The two of them were the major instigators of snowball fights, and excursions to use their new toboggan. Most of the family would usually come back covered in snow and laughing from these escapades.

For the Christmas holiday as well as the days when the family had fun together outside, however, Traci was sitting in a chair with her feet elevated. She was getting close to the expected arrival of the baby, and her legs and back ached a lot. Adam, Jillian, and Hop Sing all did what they could to alleviate her discomfort, but she knew as well as they did that the only true relief would come with the delivery of the child.

Traci began to hope this child would come at least a bit early, and she got her wish. By the end of January, Ben was being awakened almost each night by the cries of his hungry granddaughter. He couldn’t have been happier with the situation. Within minutes, her cries would end and he knew her parents were taking care of her needs. He remembered fondly that first night when the baby arrived, and how relieved and proud Adam had been.

Adam had worried so much the last month that his wife was carrying their child. His greatest fear was losing Traci, but he could not say that to anyone. He had this feeling that if he ever said it, it might come true, so he held that thought in his mind and tried to keep it buried. On the night that Traci began her labor, he never slept. He paced, he checked on her progress, and he brought coffee to his father who waited with him, but didn’t close his eyes for a moment.

Ben was sure that Adam had prayed with more sincerity that night than he probably ever had in his life. But the cry of the child sent Adam running up the stairs where he found his wife holding their newborn. Once the baby was cleaned up and Adam had been assured by Traci that both of them were fine, Adam had walked down the stairs with Hope to show his father and Matthew who had awakened early. Ben had a picture in his mind of how Matthew had sat in a chair and let Adam put his little daughter in his son’s arms, and how Matthew had pledged to protect his little sister from every danger and teach her everything he knew. It reminded Ben so much of Adam when Hoss had been born. It was one of the best winters that Ben and Adam could remember, but they still looked forward to spring.

*****

Chapter 8

As the thaw melted the snows of winter, rivers and streams swelled dangerously, and once again, the Cartwright children were kept away from school by nature. There was a lot to do, and the parents were very capable of providing instruction and learning activities when school was unavailable. Both Eric and Matthew loved animals and looked forward to the foals that spring would bring. Matthew was especially excited for some of the mares would foal the offspring of Phoenix. He hoped at least one would look like his sire because Joe had promised him that he could have that one as his own if it happened.

Each day when they could, Matthew and Eric would be by the pasture where Joe had the mares who would foal that spring and early summer. One of those days, Matthew and Eric found one of the mares lying on her side and heaving in obvious distress. Eric knelt by the mare’s side and stroked her neck and cheek trying to calm her.

“What’s wrong with her, Eric? We never saw any of the other mares like this?”

“Matthew, run to the house and tell them. This horse is going to foal and it’s not working right.”

So Matthew ran as fast as he could and was breathless when he reached the house. He couldn’t speak clearly at first and Ben and Traci were very worried that something had happened to Eric.

“No, not Eric, the horse. One of the mares is lying down and looks really sick. Eric said she is going to foal and that something’s wrong.”

“All right. Matthew, can you go to the breaking corrals and let your Uncle Joe know? Traci and I will go down to the pasture as soon as I can let Hop Sing know that he is to watch over Hope.”

Rushing to the pasture, neither Ben nor Traci thought to tell Matthew to go to the house after he contacted Joe. So when Joe arrived in the pasture, Matthew was with him. Eric had seen this type of thing before having grown up on the Ponderosa, but Matthew had only seen horses already trained to ride. This was his first experience with foaling and it was traumatic for him. The mare didn’t make it, and the foal was weak. They had to tell him that even with bottle feeding and round the clock care, the foal might not make it. That night Traci and Adam were in the stable late when Matthew came out to see the foal.

“Papa, can I feed him?”

“He’s very weak, so I’ll help you. You have to give him a little like this, and then pull the bottle away, and then tip his head up a little and rub his neck so he’ll swallow. Then you let him take the bottle again. It takes a long time to feed him.”

But Matthew was diligent, and managed to get the full bottle into the colt before t colt was too exhausted to take any more. Traci went to get another warmed blanket for him, and Adam rubbed the colt’s sides and legs to stimulate him. Matthew watched what his father was doing and then started to do the same on the colt’s other side. When Traci returned with the blanket, they wrapped it tightly around the colt. Ben arrived to see how they were doing.

“Adam, I can help for a while. You and Traci have been out here most of the evening.”

“Thanks, Pa. Traci needs to feed Hope, and I could use some dinner. Matthew, come on in. It’s going to be bedtime for you soon.”

“Papa, can I stay with the colt? I’ll help Grandpa, and I can lay down on the extra blanket if I get tired.”

Adam looked undecided, but Ben made it easy. “He can help me, and I’ll see to it that he sleeps too. He’s a lot like you and Hoss are when there’s an animal that needs care. Traci’s that way too. We can’t deny him his heritage, now can we?”

Nodding, Adam asked his father to come wake him in a few hours. Then Adam took Traci by the arm and walked to the house. He knew that this could be a very difficult night for his son. After midnight, Ben knocked softly on Adam’s door. After just a short time, Adam appeared at the door with his clothing in hand. He would dress in the hall so he wouldn’t disturb his wife and daughter. Ben handed him the lamp he was carrying.

“Matthew slept too, in the stable. He’s awake now. I got him a bottle of milk, and he’s feeding the colt. Adam, that colt might just make it. He seems like he might be just a bit better. I hung a blanket in front of the fireplace and it should be warm when you go downstairs.”

Surprised that his father had let Matthew sleep in the stable, Adam nodded as he pulled his shirt and pants on but carried his boots with him as he walked down the stairs. When he got to the stable, he stood in the door for a moment with the warm blanket. His son was concentrating so hard on feeding the colt, he wasn’t even aware his father was there. His face was in a frown as he fed the colt using the method his father had taught him. Adam watched and thought the colt did seem a bit better. It appeared that he was sucking and swallowing better. He said his son’s name softly so as not to startle him, and then walked in to drape the warm blanket over the colt.

Early the next morning just after dawn, Hoss and Eric walked into the stable to see Adam feeding the colt and Matthew asleep in a pile of blankets.

“Adam, you need to get some sleep. You been up all night like this?”

“Pa helped for a while so I could sleep for a few hours, but you’re right. I could use some sleep.”

“Go on to the house then. Eric and me will take over here. That colt looks some better I think. He been taking the bottle?”

“Yes. Matthew has had the best luck with feeding him. I didn’t want to wake him so I was feeding him this one. We’ve been feeding him about every two hours, and throwing a warm blanket over him about that often too.”

“Rubbing him down?”

Nodding, Adam stood by his son reluctant to wake him. Hoss put his hand on Adam’s shoulder.

“Just let him be. I’ll watch over him.”

“Thank you. Joe said he’d be over here this morning too. He didn’t want to leave Amy and Pauline alone at night.”

Hoss took the bottle from Adam’s hand then and shoved him gently toward the door. Hoss handed Eric the bottle and he watched as his son fed the rest to the colt. By the time Adam awoke it was nearly noon. He had entered his bedroom to find Traci nursing Hope. Normally he would have watched for he found nothing more heart warming and soul satisfying than watching his loving wife feed their daughter, but he had undressed and slipped into bed closing his eyes after just a minute. After shaving, he headed downstairs and found everyone except Matthew at the dining table.

“Is Matthew sleeping?”

“Nah, he slept until Joe got here. Then he woke up and helped us with the colt. He won’t leave that colt’s side except to use the necessary. Ya got yourself another horse lover, older brother.”

“Yeah, older brother, he is as intense as you, but as gentle with that colt as Hoss is with every critter under the sun.”

Eric had gobbled down his lunch and asked to be excused. Ben smiled as Hoss allowed his son to go back to the stable to help Matthew with the colt, but Traci halted him giving him a plate of food for her son.

“Hoss and Adam, those two remind me of you two when you were young. Except for the switch in who’s the oldest, they are so different and yet so close. They’re almost like brothers.”

“That’s good. I like having Matthew here. Eric was kinda lonely sometimes with only the girls around. It’s real nice having another boy here.”

“And I like that they’re getting along better too. I know Matthew had some trouble with the girls at first but that seems to have resolved itself.”

“Oh yeah, I had a talk with those two. They like to gossip and listen in on adult conversations and then spread around what they hear whether they understand it or not. When Matthew put that George in his place, that helped too. For one, that George had been picking on them a lot. I told the girls they shoulda told me what was going on and I also talked to Eric about that. He wasn’t getting picked on but his sisters were so he shoulda said something too.”

“I remember being that age and wanting to take care of things myself.”

“Yes, and I remember having similar conversations with all three of you boys.”

Joe turned his head to look at Adam who returned the look. They were men for a long time now and Pa persisted in referring to them as boys. Well they apparently would have to accept it for he wasn’t going to change now. Hoss had never seemed to mind it though so he kept talking, and the conversation got back to the colt. All of the adults went to the stable after lunch to see how the colt was doing and were surprised to hear the boys laughing. Once they were in the stable they could see why. Matthew was wet all over his front.

“Pa, it was so funny. The colt was drinking and then he sneezed or something and all that milk sprayed all over Matt. I started laughing so hard I almost fell down.”

With a smile on his face yet, Matthew stepped back to the colt who raised his head for another drink apparently wondering why his lunch had been delayed. Noticing how alert the colt seemed, Hoss had to say something.

“It’s too early to be sure, but it looks like that colt is gonna make it. Darn little thing sure is beating the odds.”

Hearing Hoss, both boys looked at the adults and grinned. Life out here was hard, but successes like this one made it all so much better. Even though this colt would make it, Matthew now knew that a number of them would not. He thanked God in his prayers at night though that this one he had nursed first had survived.

Two weeks later, Adam rode into the yard and saw Traci carrying Hope and walking in the pasture with Matthew who was leading the colt. Adam dismounted and leaned on the corral fence watching them. Ben walked outside when he heard Adam return and came up to him at the corral fence.

“It’s a beautiful sight, isn’t it?”

“Pa, it is the most beautiful sight in the world.”

“Did you make a decision about that job offer from San Francisco?”

Adam nodded and Ben nervously waited for his response. “I turned them down. But they are persistent. They will send commissions here for houses, and I’ll send drawings to them. Occasionally I’ll have to go to San Francisco or other cities to survey lots before I work on designs, but it won’t be that often.”

“So you’re staying here.”

“Of course. I couldn’t give this up now.”

Having seen Adam return, Traci walked back to the fence. She kissed Adam and handed Hope to him who smiled and cooed when she saw her father. They stood and watched Matthew release the lead rope so that the colt could run. In the sun, the colt’s white coat looked almost silver. When Matthew thought he had run enough, he whistled, and the colt returned to him. Matthew rubbed his forehead and then his neck and the colt walked beside him without the lead as they returned to the stable.

“Matthew asked Joe today if he could keep this colt.”

Adam was surprised. “I thought he wanted one of Phoenix’s foals?”

“That’s almost exactly what Joe said. But Matthew said the colt needs him, and everyone will want one of Phoenix’s foals, but he’s the only one who wants this colt.”

Ben liked the situation. “Yes, Eric has been practically begging Joe for one of those foals when they come. This will make it easier for Joe to have only one of the boys to please. Hoss has been worried that there might only be one colt, and then Eric would have been so disappointed.”

“What did Joe say?”

Traci looked at her husband and shook her head. “Well what do you think he would say to that? Of course he said yes. Matthew named the colt today.”

“What did he call him?”

Pausing just a moment, Traci grinned as she told them. “He’s named him Benji!”

Trying to hold back, Adam couldn’t and started laughing, and Traci joined in. Ben tried to maintain a serious demeanor, but he couldn’t either and joined them in the merriment. Matthew walked out of the stable and wondered what was so funny, but he was smiling. Benji was his, and he would be riding him within a year. He couldn’t wait to tell Eric he had his own horse now.

*****

Frogs and Other Stuff

Chapter 1

Traci walked down the stairs and nearly collapsed into the chair. Ben looked over from his desk and understood her weariness. He had spent many days over the years tending to his sons when they were ill and knew it took a big physical as well as emotional toll.

“Is he any better?”

“Perhaps a little. He’s not well enough to complain though so he’s still pretty miserable. The fever hasn’t gotten any higher but he still can barely whisper. When he does manage to say something, he croaks so badly and then he coughs.”

“Amy told Hoss when he picked up the children for school that Joe’s fever broke yesterday. He’s out of bed now, but still coughing and just like Adam, his voice is very hoarse. He did say that he would be able to take the children to school and pick them up starting tomorrow.”

“I’m relieved that none of the children have gotten it. They must have caught it, whatever it is, when they were in Carson City for that horse auction. They got home and were already becoming very sick.”

“Well let’s keep praying that they recover well and the children stay healthy and their mothers too. And I hope Hoss stays healthy. He’s had a lot of extra work with his brothers being ill. I’m heading to the timber camps to see about getting more trees marked. I’m so glad Adam plans ahead. He had the map already set to go so I just have to get some men to work with me. I’ll be home by Friday at the latest.”

Traci liked hearing that for it gave her and Hop Sing all the time they would need to prepare for the birthday celebration. On Saturday the whole family planned to be there to celebrate except she wasn’t sure if Adam would be ready to participate.

It was a very warm week, and that made recovering from a fever all the more difficult. It also meant the children wanted to go to the lake to swim. Hoss told them he was sorry but there just wasn’t anyone who could supervise them. He had to work, Adam was sick and Traci had to stay there to care for him and Hope, and Amy was still helping Joe.

“LJ, Matthew, and Eric could do it.”

“No, they can go swimming with each other, but they’re not ready to be given the responsibility of watching over the younger children yet.”

The three girls were upset by that. It seemed the boys got to do all sorts of fun things and they weren’t allowed to have fun it seemed. Paulene, Dorothy, and RoseMary started scheming. Hoss ignored all the whispering from the back of the wagon. It seemed to him that girls and women did a lot of whispering. He was used to ignoring it.

“Papa, can Paulene play at our house for a while?”

“No, today I need to get her home. I have some other work I need to get done. Tomorrow your Uncle Joe will be driving, and I’m sure he won’t have a problem with it so just ask him.”

Only slightly disappointed, the girls realized that they had one more day to make preparations. So they whispered more about what they planned to do. The next day, Joe picked up the girls to take them to school. Matthew and LJ had ridden with him and now, with Eric, would ride to school together. Eric had not heard Joe or Adam try to talk recently and wondered at Joe’s voice.

“Uncle Joe, what happened to your voice?”

“I just got a frog in my throat. You should hear your Uncle Adam. He must have a couple of frogs in his. He sounds a whole lot worse than I do.”

The three boys laughed and rode off to school. The three girls stared at Joe wondering at that statement.

“Uncle Joe, you don’t really have a frog in your throat, do you?”

“I most definitely have a frog in my throat. It’s probably the worst one I’ve ever had.”

“You’ve had a frog in your throat before?”

Joe turned back to look at the girls and was amused at their horrified looks. He knew then that they thought he had a real frog in his throat so he played it up by making some frog noises before he nodded yes. The girls cringed and Joe smiled all the way to school.

All day they thought about it and couldn’t make sense out of what he said, but they forgot all about it when they started talking about their plans to go swimming after school that day. As expected, Joe gave his daughter permission to play at her cousins’ home, and he left her there. The girls told Jillian they were going to pick flowers in the meadow and watch for deer who liked to munch on the rich grass there. Jillian told them to stick together and be home in two hours. The three girls walked slowly together until they were out of sight and then ran to the lake. They were winded when they got there, but quickly stripped off their dresses, shoes, and stockings as well as their extra underclothing before wading into the water. Each of the girls had dressed in an extra petticoat and drawers. They planned to leave the wet ones to dry on the bushes and come back the next day to do the same thing.

The next day, they did the same thing. However, their planning had not included what to do about their wet clothing on the second day. It was Friday so they would have to work something else out. They decided to bring the clothing to the grove near Hoss’ house and hang them there so Dorothy and RoseMary could retrieve them the next day when the clothes were dry. Pleased with their solution, they happily skipped home.

Everything would have worked out well for them too except Hoss was so hot and dirty at the end of his day that he decided to ride to the lake for a cooling, cleansing swim. He stripped down and swam and relaxed until he felt much better. He was looking forward to his brothers being healthy again to relieve him of some of this workload. He dressed and wished he had brought clean clothing with him.

On his ride back to his home, Hoss found three sets of wet girls’ underclothing hanging on bushes not too far from his house and directly in a line between his house and the lake. Remembering the girls’ request only a few days before, he knew exactly what they had done. Jillian was furious to know that her daughters had lied and engaged in dangerous activity that had been expressly told to them was completely prohibited. They had risked their lives. However the next day was planned to be a celebration of Ben’s birthday at the main house so Hoss and Jillian decided to wait one day before confronting the girls about their misbehavior. On Saturday, Hoss planned to tell Joe what they had discovered and see what he and Amy wanted to do.

*****

Chapter 2

Saturday was another beautiful if very warm day. The whole family was at the Ponderosa to celebrate Ben’s birthday. He had arrived home the day before to find streamers and paper lanterns adorning the house and yard. Although he told Traci and Hop Sing they shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble for he knew how busy they were, they could tell how pleased he was. When he found that the whole family would be there the next day, he was even happier.

The only one missing was Adam who stayed in bed because even though his fever had finally broken the night before, he didn’t want to risk infecting anyone else especially with all the children around. He was tired too and could sleep when he wished although all the noise from the children would likely make that difficult. His brothers came up to visit with him, and that’s when Hoss told Joe about the girls and the risk they had taken. Joe was very angry, but Hoss admonished him to keep his temper under control so their father could enjoy his celebration.

“You tell Amy tonight. We can talk tomorrow after church about the proper punishment for the children. I think we should try to do the same thing so the girls know we’re working together on this.”

Joe nodded, but Adam suggested another method.

“I think you can start punishing them today without risking any trouble at Pa’s celebration.” And then Adam told them what he thought they could do.

Joe liked the idea immediately. “Just give me a few minutes out back, and I can be ready.”

Hoss wasn’t as sure. “Are you sure this will work and make the girls worry about what they did?”

“Hoss, we can tell them these stories Adam has told us, and you know everyone will laugh. Pa even has that story about Captain Stoddard he used to tell us when we were young. I don’t think the kids have heard that one. The boys especially are gonna love it.”

So Hoss went downstairs to tell frog stories to the children.

“Why are frogs always so happy?” None of the children had an answer for Hoss so he told them. “Cause they eat what bugs em.” The girls laughed and the boys groaned. “Hey, Pa, don’t you know a few frog stories?”

“Well, yes I do have one. Do you know that Captain Stoddard, Adam’s grandfather, had a talking frog?” At the children’s amazed looks, he continued. “Yes, when he was traveling in Asia, he came to this exotic isle. There when they were getting water and provisions, he found a talking frog. It said to him. ‘Pick me up and kiss me, and I’ll become the most gorgeous woman you have ever seen in your life.’ Captain Stoddard picked up the frog and carefully dropped him in his shirt pocket. The frog had to ask ‘why?’ and the Captain said ‘At my age, I’d rather have a talking frog than a beautiful woman.'”

The girls had expected a romantic story and groaned, but the boys laughed. Hoss picked up again with frog stories.

“When I delivered some cattle to Texas, I got to go fishing down there with some of them cowboys. We ran out of bait and hadn’t caught a single fish. Well then we saw this cottonmouth with a frog in its mouth. One of those cowboys knew the snake couldn’t bite him with that frog in its mouth and frogs make good fish bait. So he grabbed that snake and took the frog right out of its mouth. Then he didn’t know how to let go to that snake’s head without getting bit. One of those other cowboys took out his bottle of moonshine and poured some down that snake’s throat. That snake went all glassy eyed then and the cowboy tossed him in the water. Little while later, that snake was back with two frogs in its mouth.”

Ben had never heard that one and roared with laughter joined by the rest of the family. Then Hoss started the heart of the plan.

“Yep, and your Uncle Joe has a frog in his throat. He and Adam forgot you weren’t supposed to swim in that lake at this time of year, and they went swimming to cool off before they came home last week.”

“Why shouldn’t anyone swim in the lake now?” Dorothy was intrigued but just a little worried too.

“Well there’s all sorts of frogs’ eggs floating in the water. They’re so tiny, they’re invisible. But ifn you get some of that water in your mouth or in your ears, a frog’s egg can hatch and you get a frog in your throat.”

“Papa, you’re joshing us, aren’t you?” Now Dorothy was very worried.

“Nah, you just wait until you see your Uncle Joe and ask him. He’ll show ya the frog in his throat.”

Now Ben and the boys knew where this was going and waited for the girls to react. Right on cue, Joe walked around the end of the house. The girls immediately clamored for him to show them the frog in his throat, so he opened his mouth and on his tongue, was a tiny tree frog. The girls screamed and ran into the house as the boys roared with laughter. The adults smiled. Joe did love playing that trick, but they had forbidden him to use it to scare the girls when they were younger because Joe had done it to Eric when he was young, and he had nightmares about it for weeks.

Inside the house, the girls were standing by the window in the dining room to get enough light to look in each other’s mouths. They examined each other over and over again.

“I wonder how long it takes?”

“I don’t know. I wonder if there’s a cure?”

“How can we ask without telling them we were naughty?”

“Yes Papa told us not to swim in the lake, and we did it anyway, and now we gots frogs eggs in us.”

Hop Sing had overheard the stories that were told, and heard the girls talking when they rushed inside. He knew then exactly what they had done and why they were so worried. He walked out into the dining room to address the girls.

“Hop Sing hear girls talk. Only one cure. Must keep mouth shut. Only open eat and drink. Otherwise fresh air help frog egg hatch.”

“Oh, thank you, Hop Sing.” “Thank you.” “Thank you.”

Hop Sing raised his finger to his lips and the girls immediately clamped their hands over their mouths that were suddenly squeezed shut. Hop Sing smiled and walked back into the kitchen as the girls went back outside. Everyone was surprised at how quiet the girls were the rest of the day although they ate and drank at dinner and didn’t complain nor did they look scared any more. On Sunday at church, the girls were quiet and their fathers were relieved not to have to discipline them in church in front of their friends and neighbors. The girls in fact had never been this well behaved in church where they usually couldn’t stay quiet.

*****

Chapter 3

After church, Hoss and Joe and their wives talked and agreed that their daughters would get extra chores helping their mothers for a week, would not be allowed to play outdoors, and would have to write an apology to their mothers for doing such a dangerous act. Both men had told their wives the night before what they had found out about the girls swimming in the lake, and they had worked out what they thought were acceptable punishments that were finalized when they were able to talk to the others. Neither father was comfortable in spanking a girl so they hoped the girls would not challenge them on these punishments and force them into an unpleasant decision.

Confronting their daughters at home, Hoss and Jillian were dismayed to have Dorothy argue with them.

“It’s not fair. The boys always get to have fun. They’re trusted to do the right thing. But you never trust me.”

“You are much younger. The boys are two, three, and four years older than you.” Jillian was going to try logic.

“And I’ll always be younger. Will you use that to forever tell me I can’t do things? Eric was doing a lot more by the time he was seven than what you let me do. He was riding a horse and everything. You even let him swim in the lake with those frogs’ eggs in there!” Suddenly Dorothy remembered Hop Sing’s advice and clamped her mouth shut tight again.

Hoss had just known that story would come back at him. “Ah, honey, that frogs’ eggs story is just a tall tale. There aren’t frogs’ eggs that will grow in your throat.”

Jillian tried to help. “Saying someone has a frog in their throat is just a way of saying their voice is very hoarse and sounds a little like a frog.”

The eyes on both Dorothy and RoseMary got very big. Almost as a chorus, they responded. “Papa, you lied to us!”

“Girls, your father did not lie to you. He told you a tall tale to make you feel bad about what you did. If you recall, it was while the men were telling all sorts of stories. You don’t really believe that Captain Stoddard had a talking frog, now do you?”

RoseMary was very upset. “That was a lie too?”

“Honey, now Papa didn’t lie to you. I was just joshing with ya and telling stories.”

Dorothy also had an accusation to make. “But I asked if you were joshing us, and you said you weren’t.”

“Honey, we was just kidding around. No harm done.”

Jillian had wondered whether telling them the frogs’ eggs story was a good idea when she found out what the brothers had told their daughters. It was exactly the kind of thing men might do, and it was funny. But she had worried about how their daughters would react, and this conversation supported her point of view. She didn’t have to wonder too long about other ramifications once Dorothy asked her next question.

“So, what about that story you told about how Aunt Traci had a baby. You said a stork delivered the baby, but why did her belly get so big, and then it was smaller when the baby came?”

“Oh, Hoss, I believe I have lunch to prepare. You can handle this one with the girls.” With a big grin, Jillian headed to the kitchen highly amused at the panicked look on her husband’s face. Well she was thinking that he had opened this can of worms himself so he could handle it on his own too. She could hear them talking while she was working in the kitchen and smiled in sympathy at the next question from the girls. She knew exactly where this was headed.

Dorothy was very smart and now she was on a roll. “She really did have that baby in her belly, didn’t she?”

Hoss had to nod.

“Well, how did it get in there?”

“Ah, I think that’s the kind of thing a mother talks to her daughters about.”

From the kitchen, Jillian chimed in. “No, not at all. You’re doing fine. Keep going.”

“Yes, Papa, I want to know too. How does babies get inside mamas? Hey, was we in Mama’s belly too?”

“Yes, RoseMary, you both were. Now when a man and a woman love each other and get married, they kiss, and do stuff, and then the baby is in there.”

“RoseMary thought for just a short time. “Don’t you and Mama kiss and do stuff any more? Ifn you did, we could have a baby just like Aunt Traci has a baby but Hope is getting big now and are they gonna kiss and do stuff and have another baby?”

“Ah, I think you need to ask your Aunt Traci and Uncle Adam that. And you can ask your Mama about us having another baby too.”

“Can we ask her now?”

“Well, RoseMary, I think that is a wonderful idea.” Hoss smiled and decided it was time to go outside and do some chores that needed to be done.

Before Jillian had a chance to stop Hoss, he was outside and the girls were in the kitchen so she had to do something quickly. “You girls have extra chores to do. First RoseMary wash your hands and then you may set the table as you usually do. While she is doing that, Dorothy go to the garden and pick the beans. Lunch will be ready by the time you’re finished and wash your hands.”

Dorothy was ready for that one. “Mama, is it right to work picking those beans on the Lord’s day? Grandpa says we shouldn’t do unnecessary work on Sundays.”

“Those beans will be too ripe by tomorrow. They need to be picked today. What does Grandpa say about wasting the Lord’s bounty? For talking back, you may spend the afternoon in your room reading the Bible and thinking about ways to improve your behavior.”

“Yes, Mama.” Dorothy knew when she was defeated. This was going to be a miserable day and she didn’t want to make it any worse than she already had.

“RoseMary may sit in the parlor and read the book she was assigned in school and has not read yet according to her teacher.”

RoseMary rushed to wash her hands and do her task before additional penalties could be added on. She silently set the table being careful to place everything exactly where it belonged as this was not a day to irritate her mother.

When lunch was ready, Jillian called Hoss and Eric to the table. The girls were already sitting silently in their spots. Hoss had to wonder how Jillian had quieted them. From the look on her face, it had not been a pleasant conversation so he thought he would wait until she was ready to tell him what had happened. Eric asked if he could go fishing after lunch, and Hoss looked at Jillian hoping she would be agreeable to that. He would like fish for dinner and hoped he could go with his son. He asked if Jillian had anything special for him to do or if she thought it would be all right for him to go with their son. Jillian smiled.

“Of course, Papa, and I think I’ll join the two of you. It’s a beautiful day. The girls can do the dishes and then the other things they have been told to do. I would love to enjoy the day with you and our son so we can have fish for dinner.”

That got slight groans from the two girls who quickly stifled their objections after one look from their mother. They had talked about the possibility that they might get caught swimming in the lake, but thought the fun they had had would have been worth the punishment they would receive, but now realized that had been a terrible miscalculation. Both wondered how Paulene was doing at her house with Joe and Amy.

Unlike Adam who in principle did not like spanking and Hoss who couldn’t hurt another person without an exceptionally great reason, Joe would use spanking even of a girl when he was pushed enough, and Paulene had pushed a lot. Paulene had been assigned extra chores and restricted to the house for a week just like Dorothy and RoseMary. Unfortunately, Paulene had her father’s temper and impulsivity. She had immediately and strenuously objected. Joe had leaned her over his knee and given her a spanking. The result was an angry, sullen girl who was thinking of what she could do because she felt she had been treated so unfairly. Nothing good ever came from thinking like that, but she didn’t know that yet.

*****

Chapter 4

The ride to school on Monday was very quiet. The girls did some whispering but Paulene was very afraid that her father might hear something so she kept most of her plan to herself. She would tell the other two when they got to school. As soon as her father left, she started.

“I’m going to kiss a boy today.”

Dorothy and RoseMary were shocked. “Why?”

“Well if you and a boy kiss, then he has to marry you and have children. If you’re married, you don’t have to live with your Ma and Pa, and they can’t tell you what to do, and they can’t punish you either. You get to have your own house and a horse to ride. I want one as pretty as Aunt Traci has.”

“Dorothy, we should kiss some boys too!”

“RoseMary, don’t be silly. You’re too young.”

“I’m almost as old as you.”

“Paulene is older than both of us. Let’s see if it works for her first.” Dorothy wasn’t happy at all with how their last plan had worked out. She was beginning to see that one had to plan much further ahead than a day or two, and one should also consider how others might react. She wasn’t quite sure how to do those things yet, but she was working on it.

Dorothy thought it was all a great idea though. “Who you gonna kiss so he’s got to marry you?”

“I’m not quite sure yet. Bill Bolding’s family has a lot of money but they live in town. He doesn’t have a horse, but he’s very cute. Nate Thompson isn’t as cute but he rides his horse to school every day and he’s only a year older than me.”

“Oh kiss him, kiss him. Will you have a big wedding? Can I be in your wedding please? I just know Ma will make me a pretty dress.”

“RoseMary we don’t even know if this is going to work. Paulene are you sure your parents are going to let you get married? You’re awful young to get married. That Turner girl just got married and my Ma said she’s too young to be married and she’s sixteen years old. You’re only seven.”

“Almost eight. Well, they might think I’m too young but once we kiss, it won’t matter. We’ll have to get married.”

“And how do you know that?” Dorothy was trying to be the voice of reason in this group but didn’t know that much about this topic.

“Cause I heard Ma and Pa talking. Ma said that Turner girl was too young to get married.”

“Aha, that’s just what I told you my Ma said.”

“Yeah, but Pa said that boy took liberties with her and she’s gonna have a baby so they got to get married.”

“If you kiss Nate Thompson, does that mean you’re gonna have a baby. Our Pa says that ifn a man and a woman get married and kiss and do stuff, then they gets to have a baby. You’re kinda small to have a baby don’t you think?” Now even RoseMary was starting to have some doubts about this plan.

“I think he has to kiss you back, and that’s when you have the baby.”

“What if he kisses you back then?”

“Well, then I guess I have to have a baby. Babies are really cute though. It would be fun to have a baby.”

“Dorothy and I watched Aunt Traci feeding Hope one day. Hope was sucking on these things you got right here.” RoseMary pointed to both sides of her chest.

“Why would she do that?” Paulene was intrigued. She had never seen that in detail. Aunt Traci usually had a towel or small blanket over Hope when she had seen her nursing her baby.

“Aunt Traci told us she’s got milk in there for the baby.”

“How does milk get in those?”

“Aunt Traci says God puts it in mamas so they can feed their babies.”

Paulene was realizing that RoseMary knew more about these things than she did. Dorothy hadn’t said anything for a while. She appeared to be thinking deeply about something. Finally Dorothy had something to say.

“Paulene, are you sure you want to do this? It seems like there’s a lot that could happen. Why would you want to take such risks?”

And suddenly the reason for the action once again became the all consuming thought for Paulene. She would be free of her parents’ unfair discipline and would be able to have a horse.

“I just gotta do it. I think I’ll kiss him right as we leave school today. Pa might even be here by then and he’ll see it. Then he’ll know what I have to do, and he won’t be able to do nothing about it.”

So Paulene was set in her plan, and by the end of the lunch recess, all the girls knew. All the teacher knew was there was an inordinate amount of giggling going on especially when Nate Thompson was called on to read. He stood at the front of the room causing all the girls in the room to start giggling immediately. The teacher surreptitiously glanced at his fly to be sure it was closed, and it was. Then she wondered if Nate had done something with one of the girls that had caused this reaction, but realizing he was only eight years old, she doubted that was the case either. She was mystified as to the cause of the girls’ strange behavior. When the clock struck three in the afternoon and nothing had happened, the teacher was relieved. Something was going to happen. Of that, she was sure, but now she could relax because it would not happen in the schoolroom so it would not be her problem.

Outside, a number of parents waited in carriages and on wagons for their children to be dismissed. Joe was waiting to give the Cartwright girls a ride home. He was not completely recovered from his respiratory infection and was on light duty until he was. Therefore he got to be a spectator for the great kissing controversy and witnessed his daughter starting it all.

As Paulene left the schoolhouse, she ran to catch up to Nate Thompson calling his name to get him to slow down. As he did and turned, Paulene kissed him and told him that now he had to marry her. Nate stood in shock but probably no more than Joe was. Then Molly Mason ran up to Matthew and kissed him saying that now they would have to marry. Several other girls kissed boys they liked and made the same announcement. Maggie Neustatder kissed Eric several times but made no demands.

“What’s going on? And why didn’t you tell me I had to marry you like all these other crazy girls are doing?”

“Oh they have this crazy idea that if you kiss a boy, he has to marry you.”

“And you don’t?”

“Of course not. I just wanted to kiss you.”

So Eric kissed her back, but quickly mounted up to ride home when he saw her father approaching. Eric was thinking he had his first girlfriend. He certainly had his first kiss now. He looked at the two other boys. LJ was smiling at him, but Matthew looked like he was in shock.

“Matthew, you do know that getting kissed by a girl doesn’t mean you have to marry her, don’t you?”

“Oh, good. Thank you. I was worried that it might be some strange custom out here in the West with which I was unfamiliar.”

At the school, Dorothy and RoseMary sat in the wagon and waited for all of the commotion to die down. A very red faced Mr. Thompson was yelling at Uncle Joe who was looking very angry himself. Then they heard their uncle say he was sorry, and that Paulene would be properly disciplined. Dorothy looked at RoseMary and nodded her head as she smiled. Just as she suspected, kissing a boy did not mean they had to marry you, and in fact made fathers and mothers very upset if the parents in this schoolyard were any indication. Uncle Joe came and plopped Paulene into the wagon sitting her down on her butt very hard. Paulene already had tears in her eyes, and then fear was added to the growing emotional turmoil in her. The other two girls didn’t dare say anything that might incur their uncle’s wrath because they had never seen him this angry. It was a silent ride to their home, and when their mother came out to greet them, she only got a perfunctory wave from Uncle Joe and then he left.

“What was that all about?”

So Dorothy and RoseMary told their mother all about what Paulene had planned and done as well as explaining her reasons. Jillian smiled. She had heard stories from Hoss and Adam about Joe’s harebrained schemes. He was getting payback. She couldn’t wait to have the girls share this tale with their father. She was chuckling as she thought about it then, and each time she thought about it later, she would chuckle again. Hoss rode in soon after, and Adam was with him. Hoss and Jillian hoped that they could add a room to their house, and Adam was supposed to come by to take some measurements. It was perfect. The girls could tell both of them about Paulene’s antics. The family was going to have a lot of fun with this.

*****

Chapter 5

When Joe arrived at his house, he ordered Paulene to go to her room. Amy could see how angry he was and wanted to know what had brought that on. Joe couldn’t sit and paced back and forth across the kitchen as his wife cleaned up some green beans for dinner. She waited as Joe sputtered out the story bit by bit. He was angry, embarrassed, and worried at the same time.

Based on what Paulene had said, Joe knew that she had concocted this scheme to avoid being punished for her bad actions. She was seven years old and had the audacity to try to tell her parents what to do. She thought she was smarter than both of them. She was deceitful, rebellious, and disrespectful. All of that made Joe very angry.

Paulene’s scheme had made Joe the target of angry parents and there had been little he could do except apologize for his daughter and promise to discipline her for the trouble she had caused. Joe hated apologizing even when he was the one at fault so it was doubly difficult to do it for his daughter who had been so defiant. In addition, Joe knew that his brothers were going to be merciless with this story. He would have to suffer through their torment as well. It was all so terribly embarrassing.

Finally, Joe was worried. Hoss didn’t seem to have nearly the trouble with his two daughters as Joe did with his one. He was worried about what kind of trouble Paulene would get into when she was older if they didn’t get her to curb her impulsive and emotional behavior now.

Joe looked at his wife when he finished talking and she was smiling.

“How can you be smiling? After everything I said, you think it’s funny?”

Amy set the beans on the table and stood to stand next to Joe.

“Who better to understand our daughter than her father?”

“Why me?”

“Joe, I knew you for many years. We were in school together. You were impulsive, quick to anger, always looking for fun, scheming for ways to avoid work, and one of the most lovable people I ever knew. Paulene is so much like you at that age, it is frightening sometimes and yet so reassuring to know what kind of person she can grow to be.”

“If that’s true, what can I do?”

“What worked best when you were disobedient? Think about the methods your father used with you, and decide what had the greatest impact. That’s what we should do with Paulene.”

Sitting down then, Joe was quiet. He looked at Amy after a few minutes. “I am so lucky to have married you. I’ll take care of this.”

Walking upstairs to Paulene’s room, Joe got a little bit of his good humor back, but he put a stern visage on his face when he knocked on his daughter’s door. She told him to come in and he opened the door to find her red-eyed but standing defiantly waiting for him.

“Sit down Paulene. We have some serious business to discuss. Now that you’re getting married, you will have to stop going to school. No one who is married goes to school. You will need to spend all your spare time sewing your trousseau. I’m sure your mother and your aunts will help you learn how to sew. I know you will have a horse to care for at your husband’s family ranch so each morning you will muck out stalls in the stable with LJ to learn how to properly care for horses. Your ma will teach you how to make butter and cheese. Oh yes, you will have to start milking the two cows we have so you know how to do that. The rest of your day, you can work with Mama in the kitchen learning to cook and bake. Husbands expect that their wives can do that very well. Oh and you will have to learn to garden and take care of the chickens too. Perhaps you can start collecting the eggs tomorrow. There’s a lot to do to be a woman instead of a girl. Now do you have any questions?”

Sitting suddenly, Paulene had lost all the swagger and defiance. She sat still and shocked. She had never thought about all of those things. Looking up at her father, she had to say what was truly in her heart. “Pa, I don’t want to be married. I just want to be seven years old and go to school and be a girl.”

“Oh, so you want to be my daughter and do as I say?”

Recognizing the trap and unable to avoid it, Paulene had to agree. “Yes, Pa.”

“Very well. And do you know what the punishment is for a daughter in this family is willfully defiant and disrespectful to her parents? And what happens to a daughter who deceives her parents? What happens when that daughter does not accept her punishment for her bad behavior and tries to avoid it by creating even more trouble?”

By that point, Paulene had tears sliding down her cheeks. She was nodding yes and her lower lip was quivering as she knew what was coming next. At dinner, she was silent and didn’t squirm even though her behind was quite uncomfortable despite the pillow her mother allowed her to use to pad the wooden chair. She had apologies to write and homework to do which kept her busy until bedtime. The next morning, Dorothy and RoseMary wanted to know what happened.

“I think you know what happened.” And Paulene was quiet for the rest of the ride.

Meanwhile the boys were riding in together as they did every morning. They were talking and laughing about what had happened the day before. LJ and Matthew were just a bit jealous of Eric for getting his first real kiss, and having a girlfriend although neither was sure they wanted either of those yet. It just rankled a little that Eric had something they didn’t have. Then they began talking about their mothers’ birthdays which were all in the late fall. They each hoped to get something special.

“I have about two dollars.” Eric regretted now buying himself that new jackknife when he already had one, but it had that carving of an eagle on it and he had been unable to resist.

“I’ve got five and a half dollars.” LJ had not spent like Eric but like Eric, he didn’t have much of an income either.

“I’ve got about fifty dollars.” Matthew’s statement had the other two speechless with their mouths hanging open.

“How did you get that much money?” was the question both boys asked.

“Well I was in the bunkhouse one day, and the men asked if I wanted to play pool. I said I didn’t know how. They said for a dollar wager, I could play. I had a dollar and wanted to play so I did. I beat the man I was playing against so then I had two dollars. They got mad and said I lied. I said I did not. I had never played pool but I had played billiards and that they were remarkably similar in technique. So they forgave me, and asked me to try again against their best player. There were more wagers and they gave me three to one odds. I won so then I had six dollars. It really is a fun way to get money. Well, by the end of that afternoon, I had eighteen dollars. Whenever the men want me to play, I do and bet with them. I win most of the time but lose some too. That’s what makes wagering so intriguing. I try to work out the mathematical likelihood of making money with my play and my wagers.”

“Darn, but you make the most complicated stuff sound so easy. Is wagering just your fancy way of saying you’re betting?”

“I suppose that’s true.”

“Could you bet our money and make more for us?”

“I should think so. It will take a while. For some reason, the men only do this wagering on random nights. I don’t understand the logic of it.”

“Don’t you get in trouble with your pa for gambling?”

Suddenly it dawned on Matthew that the nights were not random at all. “Papa and Grandpa are never there when the men want me to play pool with them.” He had assumed all along that they were being nice to him by entertaining him when the men in his family were gone. Now he suspected there was something more sinister at work. “I’m beginning to think that perhaps I should not be doing it at all.”

“Probably not, but how about you do it just maybe one more time so we can have enough money to get our mamas something good for their birthdays?”

“I guess so, but I can make no promises. I don’t know when they will ask me to play again either.” At their hangdog looks, Matthew had to relent. “I’ll do my very best though.”

All smiles then, LJ and Eric rode on either side of Matthew to school. The boys began to talk about what they could buy their mothers. It was an interesting discussion as boys tried their best to understand what a woman would like. It wasn’t easy for them to imagine, but they had a long list of possibilities with the three of them working together. All would have worked out very well for them except that Adam had to tease Joe just a little about what Paulene had done.

“Well, maybe you oughta look closer to home and see what your children are up to.”

Knowing that Joe was referring to Matthew, Adam couldn’t think of anything that he had done on a par with Paulene’s shenanigans. Seeing Adam’s obvious ignorance of his son’s gambling, Joe just had to fill him in enough.

“I hear Matthew is quite the pool shark. Must have learned a few tricks from his father on how to bank those balls.”

Adam still had no idea what Joe was talking about, but he was determined to find out. As Adam rode toward home, Joe started to feel a little badly. He had snitched on Matthew in order to get even with Adam. That would not sit well with the rest of the family especially Matthew when they found out. This week just wasn’t going well.

There were going to be even more people mad at Joe than he realized. When Adam talked to the hands, they admitted what had been happening. When he talked to their father about what had been happening, they agreed on some new rules for pool table use in the bunkhouse including only men could play and no betting. The men had known the risk when they included Matthew but were quite perturbed when they found out it was Joe who had let the cat out of the bag. They felt sorry for Matthew because they knew that when he got home, he would pay an even steeper price for they had seen how angry Adam was.

After Adam explained to Traci, she just smiled.

“How can you be so calm when you find out our son is a gambler?”

“Oh, and who taught him to play? Who taught him about probabilities in betting? Now I know you said it was just a fun way to study mathematical equations, but now you have the result. He is his father’s son. He uses his wits to get ahead.”

“So you would just let it go?”

“Oh no, not at all. I don’t want an eight-year-old gambler son. I just want you to think about what would have stopped you at that age if you had done something like this.”

So on that Saturday, Matthew went to town with his father. He had been surprised that nothing had been said about his pool playing and his wagering. On the way to town, that ended.

“So I hear you are quite good with a pool cue.”

Matthew looked at this father in alarm until he saw that he was not looking angry. He nodded affirmatively to his father’s look.

“Well, I would like to see you in action. I’ll finish my errands and then we can go to the best pool hall in town. You can show me how you play.”

Matthew wasn’t so sure about this, but it was his father’s idea so he was willing to try. In the first game at the pool hall, he learned that everyone who played, wagered. He looked at his father who nodded and smiled. Matthew made the two dollar bet and won. He looked at his father and grinned then. The man he was playing against grumbled a bit and asked for a chance to win his money back. Matthew played again and won. Then the man asked him for odds and a bigger bet. Matthew gave him two to one and bet ten dollars and won. The man increased his demands. Matthew gave him three to one and bet twenty dollars. The man broke and then ran the table. Matthew never got a chance to even make a single move. The man picked up all of Matthew’s money, nodded at Adam, and walked to the bar to order a drink.

“I guess it’s time to go home.”

Matthew frowned at his father wondering if he had asked the man to do that. Finally he asked him outright.

“No, but I suspected immediately what he would do. I don’t think you’re ready to play a man’s game, do you?”

Matthew shook his head. Tears threatened to fall.

“What were you going to do with the money?”

“I wanted to get Mama a really nice birthday present.”

“There are better ways of getting money to do that. I’ll make a list of jobs on the ranch that you can do, and I’ll set a wage for each one. They will not be your normal chores, but other things that we need done. Is that fair?”

“Yes, Papa, but I lost Eric’s money and LJ’s too. They asked me to wager their money.”

“I’ll talk to their fathers. I think they will be willing to do the same thing. If you boys don’t have enough by the birthdays, I’ll loan money to make up the difference.”

“Thank you, Papa. And I’m sorry. I didn’t really think about it being wrong until I realized that they only asked me to play when you and Grandpa were gone.”

“It’s all right. Lesson learned?”

Father and son rode home then, and chatted about what Traci would like for her birthday.

*****

Chapter 6

On Saturday after chores were completed, LJ, Eric, and Matthew had permission to go to the lake to fish or even to swim if it was warm enough. They were to stay together regardless of what they chose to do, and to be home by dinner. The boys had a great time walking in the water, skipping stones, and climbing the rocks. There was a cave they wanted to explore but didn’t want any of their fathers angry at them so they decided to ask Joe if he would go with them and explore. He was the most daring of the fathers as far as adventures like that so they thought to see if LJ could talk him into it for the next Saturday. As they climbed down from the rocks to head to their horses, they found a dead rattlesnake. It looked like an eagle or other large bird had killed it but lost it in the crevice between the rocks.

“Oh, I know what we could do with this. My Pa told me how he scared Uncle Adam and Uncle Hoss with one of these. He tied a string to the rattles, and then he coiled the snake up and hid in the hayloft. When Uncle Adam and Uncle Hoss came in the stable, he pulled the string and rattled the rattles.”

“Then what happened?” Eric was hooked.

“He said Uncle Adam drew and shot it which scared their horses, and they had to run after them and bring them back. By the time they got back, Uncle Joe had untied the string and left the shot up snake laying there.”

“Didn’t they ever catch him out?” Eric was also worried about Uncle Adam finding out because everyone knew to respect his temper.

“He said Uncle Hoss thought the snake looked a ‘mite peculiar’, but Uncle Adam grabbed a shovel and carried it outside and buried it. He said Uncle Joe told them about it when he was all growed up and laughed at them. They didn’t like that at all, but I think it’s really funny.”

“Well and good, but on whom could we play such a prank? We know about it, we can’t play it on the girls, and our fathers would be very upset if we tried it on them.” Matthew was ever the practical one.

The boys were quiet as they walked to the horses. They were thinking. LJ came up with an idea first. “Let’s put it in the necessary at school. We can tie a string to it and run it out through the little window in the back. Then when someone goes inside and closes the door, we pull the string and rattle the rattles. It’s dark enough in there so that they won’t be able to see it’s dead.”

“What if one of the girls or the little kids goes in there first?” Matthew was looking for the drawbacks.

“We could put a cloth over it that would come off when we pulled the string. That way no one would see it until we wanted them to.” LJ was liking the plan more and more.

“LJ, I think there are too many variables in your plan.”

“Matthew, what the heck does that mean?”

“It means that too many things could go wrong. I don’t think we ought to do this. In fact, I don’t want to do anything with it at all.”

“All right, but all the kids are gonna think Eric and me are really smart when we do this. You sure you don’t want to share in the glory?”

LJ packed the snake into his saddlebags with Eric’s help. The three rode together to Eric’s house and then LJ and Matthew rode toward their homes with LJ splitting off a short distance before the main house to go to his. On Monday morning as the boys rode to school, LJ gave Matthew one more chance to join in on the prank. Matthew declined and decided it would be prudent to stay as far away from the two as he could. He tried one last time to talk them out of it, but they were too enthusiastic and excited to listen to him.

LJ and Eric got the snake into the necessary and covered it up as well as running a string from the rattles up through the windows and outside. Then they ran and hid behind the necessary waiting for a victim. They saw George heading their way and ducked down. When they heard the door to the necessary close, they pulled the string several times making the rattles rattle. What they heard next shocked them. The schoolteacher screamed and then yelled bloody murder and burst from the necessary with her drawers down around her ankles. The children were still outside the school, and they roared with laughter. LJ and Eric ran as fast as they could away from the necessary and hoped to circle around to the schoolyard to blend in with the crowd.

As the teacher pulled up her drawers, Matthew ran to the necessary to remove the dead snake. As he did so, the teacher roared his name in unrestrained fierce anger.

“Matthew Cartwright, how dare you. You march into that schoolhouse right this moment.”

“But, ma’am, I didn’t . . . ”

“Don’t you dare speak to me. You will march in that schoolhouse this minute, or I will drag you in there.”

“Ma’am, I just wish to explain that I …”

“He didn’t do it, ma’am, I did.” LJ stepped forward to admit his guilt.

“It wasn’t Matthew. I did it too.” Eric followed quickly.

“Me too.”

“And me.”

Almost all of the children admitted to doing it. Many thought they were protecting Matthew. He was always so nice to all of them and so helpful, they couldn’t let him take the punishment. The teacher stood there perplexed. She could hardly punish all of the children for what one or two had done. On the other hand, all of the children except the guilty ones were lying.

She wrote a list of spelling words on the board when they were all inside. It was the longest list any of them had ever seen. It was honesty, truthfulness, respect, honor, and a host of other words describing attributes that parents and teachers wanted the children to learn. There were ten of the simplest ones for the youngest, and the total went up by ten for each age until the oldest students had a total of one hundred words to learn by Friday. In addition, there was an essay assignment to use all of the words in an essay. That essay was due by the end of the week and had to be signed by a parent who had read it. All of them would read their essays on Friday to the class. The older students would be expected to help the younger ones. As expected, there was a lot of discussion among the students during the morning recess and during lunch. LJ and Eric went in early after their lunch and asked to speak with the teacher. They had notes to bring home to their parents after that. After lunch, the teacher reduced the spelling list by half, but the essay assignment stood although of course there were now half the list of words to use so that would be less too. The teacher explained her reasons to the class.

“Two students decided to play a prank. Other student knew about it and did nothing. Others claimed to have participated in order to protect the guilty and that is dishonest. Almost all laughed at someone who was embarrassed and humiliated. No one can be proud of what they did out there today. That’s it. School is dismissed.”

Matthew stood up and applauded. LJ and Eric and then most of the students stood and applauded. Finally all of the students participated in a standing ovation for their teacher. She earned a lot of respect for her actions this day, and the students wanted her to know they were in fact sorry for what had happened.

That evening, LJ and Eric admitted to their parents what they had done. They didn’t think it was funny any more. They were assigned extra chores at home, and were restricted from any trip to the lake for two weeks. They accepted the punishment for they had finally understood that pranks that hurt someone were not funny.

***The End***

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