A Double Life and Crooked Paths (by BettyHT)

Summary:  Two stories.  A Double Life starts as a favor to a friend but becomes a career choice as Adam strikes out from the Ponderosa on a new career but it is a cover for a second more dangerous career too. By Crooked Paths finds someone leaking the details of Adam’s secret life which allows those who seek vengeance to find him.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  T
Word Count:  72,404


A Double Life

Part I

Chapter 1

“There are no great men. There are only ordinary men who agree to face great challenges. There is no glory in serving your country. There is only duty.”

The words had hung in the air between them for a long time. Adam Cartwright wasn’t prone to impulsive decisions though he could make them on occasion if the situation warranted one. This situation however needed some careful deliberation, and he was doing that slowly enough to irritate his friend who had asked a question and wanted an answer. He had done his best to convince Adam that he was the man for the job and deflected as well as he could any argument that Adam had made against accepting the offer. That last line had been made to appeal to Adam’s sense of patriotism and his pride as well as his competitive nature. Maxwell Hart knew him well after attending college with him. Now working for the Treasury Department, Max thought that Adam was in a unique position to help him get close to some men who were undoubtedly involved in counterfeiting. Adam had invested in the bank they were using and he and his family moved lots of money through the same banks these men were using to push their fake money into circulation and defrauding others by doing so.

So far, Adam had countered every one of the arguments Max had made. He had said he was a rancher not an investigator, that he had no experience with banking and money, and that he had responsibilities to his family. Max had of course made arguments that he was intelligent, would learn quickly, would be helped by the best agents they had, and that he had responsibilities to his country as well. Finally Adam had said that he wasn’t a great man who looked for these kinds of glory opportunities. That’s when Max had laid that argument about duty and responsibility on him knowing how much that would affect him. Adam finally nodded. “What do you want me to do?”

“Your part is fairly simple. We need you to get close to these men so you can get into their homes, get to know their friends. If you get invited to a party, you can let our agent into the house. Then our agent can do the rest.”

“And how do I get him into the house? I would assume people like that have some security on their premises.”

“No him. Her. And she’ll walk in on your arm. Oh, I didn’t tell you the fringe benefit of this particular assignment for the government. You get to go to restaurants, the theatre, and anywhere else you care to go in the next few weeks in the company of a dark-haired beauty with green eyes they will never forget if they ever look at them because the rest of her usually draws a man’s attention right away. She’s got curves in all the right places.”

“You could have mentioned that earlier.”

“I was only going to appeal to your prurient interest if all else failed. No one will be surprised at all that you might be infatuated with her at your first meeting and want to spend time with her.”

After some hearty laughter, Adam looked very serious again. “Max, what if she gets caught?”

“Her life will likely be in grave danger.” After only a brief pause, Max continued. “You will be in about as much jeopardy, I’m afraid. You need to know that too. We’ll always have agents as near to you as possible, but they can’t be too close or they would be noticed. A lot can happen in the time it takes an agent to cover that kind of distance.”

“I’m normally armed. I’m assuming it would be wise to continue that.”

“It would, and the agent who is with you will be well armed too.”

“When will I meet her?”

“Tonight at the theater. You will ‘accidentally’ have a collision with her during intermission. You will make plans to meet after the show. You can go to dinner and no one will suspect anything.”

“I’ll have to let my family know that I’ve been delayed.”

“What kind of excuse will you give them?”

“Something they’ll believe and probably won’t like at all.” Pausing for a moment, Adam took a deep breath before asking the next question. “Max, how dangerous is this?”

“For you, probably not too much. I’d be careful, but if they catch her, they’ll likely think you have been used as a pawn. You go back to Nevada and they’ll forget about you.”

“What about her?”

“She knows the risks. She’s not new at this like you are.”

“What’s her name?”

“Flora Tudor. She’s an understudy in the theatrical company that’s performing at the Metropolitan Theatre. We were hoping for a stint at Maguire’s where a number of our subjects like to attend but couldn’t get her a spot in the company performing there now.”

“What’s her real name?”

“That will be up to her to tell you or not. It depends a lot on how much she likes you and trusts you. Her life can depend on that. I’ve assured her that you are trustworthy, but she’ll have to decide that for herself. She’s the one who will be putting her life on the line.”

“Fair enough.”

“The show she’s in is getting good early reviews though so the subjects we want should show up there soon enough. You know some of them a bit already so it shouldn’t be difficult for you to strike up a conversation. You’ll be going there every night after tonight because you’ll be smitten with Flora, of course. I’ve got a folder of information on the men we want you to get to know.”

“You were that sure of me?”

“I had four years of being your friend in college. I didn’t think you could change that much.” Max pulled the folder out of the leather satchel he had brought with him to the lunch they had arranged in a quiet restaurant and in a private booth where they could not be observed nor overheard. He had used the spot often. “Fold those papers and put them in a pocket or something so no one knows I handed anything over to you. Study them as much as you need, but once you’re invited to one of those parties, destroy them. If you come under suspicion in any way, they could send someone to search your room.”

“You expect them to do that.” It wasn’t a question.

“Nothing should be there to implicate you in any way to this investigation nor tie you to me other than as a friend who had lunch here today.”

“I won’t see you again?”

“No, I’m afraid that would be dangerous for you. Any messages I have for you will come to you through Flora from now on. Don’t trust a message from anyone else.”

“No one?”

“No one. I’ve lost agents before who didn’t listen to me on that score.”

“I’ll remember.”

“All right. I’ve got to go. A friendly lunch shouldn’t take much longer than this. You can do whatever you wish after this. Tell the telegraph operator that I gave you a tip about this play. Then you will have a cover story for tonight if anyone is checking.”

“You are a suspicious type.”

“With the amount of money this syndicate is moving around, it pays to be suspicious. It keeps me alive. Now, I bid you farewell and good luck.” Max shook his hand then and left to head back to his office. It wasn’t the last time that Adam would see him but it was the most pleasant. Max didn’t know that he had set in motion events that would alter Adam’s life dramatically.

After finishing his coffee and paying his bill, Adam took his time walking to a telegraph office and then leisurely strolling back to the hotel stopping in a few shops to buy a few things as if he had no cares in the world. Anyone watching him would have drawn that conclusion. Once back in his hotel, he ordered a bath and asked for a carriage to be there for him at seven to get him to the theater because he had a ticket for that night’s performance. The concierge smiled and told him all would be arranged and that he had heard that the play was quite good. They talked briefly and Adam headed up to his room for his bath returning shortly before seven to find the carriage there as requested. He had spent the intervening hours studying the papers Max had given him and been shocked a bit at the identity of some of the people suspected of being involved in the counterfeiting and fraud. Max was correct that he did know them, but he knew some of them better than Max apparently knew. This was going to be easier and more difficult than Max had explained. Approaching his friends and acquaintances was going to be quite natural, but getting invited into their homes so he could bring a spy into their midst who could do a quick search during a party was another matter altogether. Then for the first time, he wondered how many parties Max expected him to attend. He hadn’t asked and that had been a mistake on his part. He would have to ask Flora and as yet hadn’t even met her so wondered at how reliable anything she told him would be.

With only a short time to think about that on the way to the theater, he simply had to put it on a list of things to do and enjoy the first half of the play which did in fact live up to its billing quite well. Then as instructed, he headed out to the lobby during intermission so that he could be ‘accidentally’ be in a collision with Flora and thus meet her. When it happened, he found it far more enjoyable than he thought he would. He had moved about the lobby not recognizing anyone and not having the ‘accident’ he expected when he turned only to have a collision with a buxom woman hurrying past him who slammed into him with some force. He reached out to grab her as much to stop her fall as his and accidentally moved his hands along a soft large bosom before they came to rest on her waist to steady them both. He quickly dropped his hands then and apologized for being in her way and even had the good grace to blush slightly after having had some fairly intimate contact with the woman. Flora was a bit amused by his reaction but didn’t show that instead graciously accepting his apology and introducing herself.

“As long as we have been in such, shall we say, close contact, I should probably introduce myself. My name is Flora Tudor. I’m an understudy with the company here and was hurrying to get backstage before the next act begins. Hence, my speed, and my ungainly collapse into your arms. I should properly thank you for not allowing me to tumble to the floor although you did seem to exact a certain toll for your services rendered. Now however, after all this, I shall likely be late.”

“I’m sorry for that too, and I can plead surprise and shock for my ungainly attempt to rescue both of us from an untimely and I’m sure unattractive collapse in front of all these people. I’m Adam Cartwright. Perhaps I could buy you dinner after the show to make up for any inconvenience or negative repercussions of my transgression?”

“As long as you realize that it is only dinner and nothing more, I accept. Meet me at the stage door after the play.”

With that and a gorgeous grin that showed a dimple on the left side but not the right, she was gone, but there were some admiring as well as some jealous looks directed his way by any men who had heard their brief exchange. And in that one brief conversation and the making of that date, Adam took the first step in creating a new life for himself although he clearly had no idea of what he had done.

*****

Chapter 2

It seemed to Adam that everyone in that theatrical company must have left the theater before Flora finally emerged. He had waited nearly an hour after the play had ended watching any number of men waiting for the actresses to emerge and escorting them away until he was the only one left. However, he was very pleased by what he saw. She had been stunning in her theatrical makeup working as an extra which was all she could do as an understudy while the lead actress was healthy. However, without the makeup and costuming, she was a very attractive woman with her dark hair and green eyes as well as those curves Max had mentioned. He was going to enjoy working with her for the visual treat if nothing else. However, their conversation at dinner about the books they had been reading most recently resulted in animated back and forth discussion until they were the only ones left in the restaurant. Their server had to point that out to them. Adam was gracious and tipped generously apologizing for keeping the man late, but he was most pleased to get the extra money and wasn’t upset at all. He locked up after Adam and Flora left thinking they were a couple in love not realizing that they had only met that evening. Adam escorted Flora to her hotel which was next door to his and laughed about that.

“I’m guessing a friend of ours knew that, but didn’t tell us wanting us to stick to the script.”

“Adam, one thing you must be careful of doing from now on is talking like that where we might be overheard. Anything that could be interpreted in a way that could lead to unmasking us is dangerous. It’s time you understood that.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t think that it was important yet.”

“We don’t know when it might be important. After the lunch you had, it could be important already. We simply do not know, so from now on, it is prudent to be careful of everything.”

“I left some papers in my room.”

“For tonight, that was probably all right, but memorize what you need and destroy them now. I know you were probably told you had more time, but as someone who knows how to survive in this world, I say now is a good time.”

“Will I see you again tomorrow?”

“That’s the plan, cowboy.”

“Buy a ticket, meet you at the stage door, have dinner, and bring you back here?”

“We may alter that a bit after we get to know one another better and perhaps after you see some of your friends. There is always the possibility that there will be an invitation in there somewhere. It would be a shame to go to all this trouble and not get at least one.”

Heeding Flora’s advice, Adam studied the papers that night and then shredded them and fed them into the small stove in the bedroom of his suite. He slept late the next morning as he had nothing to do, spent some time again visiting shops, and then headed to the hotel to prepare for the evening. He guessed that would be the routine until they got the invitation that would move their plan to the next step.

That first invitation came the third night, much faster than they expected. Flora and Adam had been enjoying their couple of nights of getting to know one another and spending time talking about books, plays, travel, and many other topics at late night dinners, but it was to be only two relaxing dinners for them. On the third night that Adam attended the play, he was in the lobby when he saw an old friend but, unfortunately or fortunately, it was one who was on that list Max had given to him.

“Adam Cartwright, you old dog, I thought you were leaving a few days ago yet you are still here.”

“Yes, Malcolm, well, I heard about this play and decided to stay an extra day.”

“An extra day, but this must be more than that.” With a bit of a sheepish grin, Adam shrugged. “Out with it, man, she must be quite a catch for you to delay returning to that bit of heaven on earth you claim to have out there in the wilds of Nevada.”

Putting his head down at a bit of an angle, Adam scratched at the curls at the back of his neck as he was somewhat nervous about giving the answer. “I’m afraid the other members of my family living in heaven aren’t so happy with me now, but yes, she is quite an enticement to stay. She’s an understudy with this company, but you’ll see her as an extra in the play.”

With a sly grin appearing then, Malcolm poked Adam in the shoulder rather playfully. “She’s not the buxom wench with those green eyes that I could see from my booth, is she?” From Adam’s expression, Malcolm could see he had hit the mark. “And you’re taken with her too, aren’t you. Well, you were always a sucker for those types with the artsy flair, but I must say she is a pleasure for the eyes. Say, we’re having a small party tomorrow evening. Why don’t you come and bring her around too?”

Looking a bit embarrassed, Adam had his admission to make. “Ah, I have another ticket for her performance, and she has to work.”

Laughing good naturedly, Malcolm was enjoying himself. “That’s quite all right. Many of our guests will be attending something or other before arriving. The party may go on all night. Come when you can and stay as long as you like. How’s that for an invitation? I’ll have the official one sent to your hotel. Can’t be too careful these days. You never know who will try to sneak into a party or into your house. Say, where are you staying this trip? Same hotel as usual?” When Adam said he had, Malcolm said he and his family ought to invest in it.

“My family hasn’t, but I have. It gets me quite good service when I’m here.”

They shared a laugh about that but then had to hurry as the next act was about to begin. Adam had that to share with Flora when they went to dinner that night. He was far more nervous about it than he thought he would be. There was another complicating factor in that he was genuinely attracted to Flora and felt protective of her already. She put her hand on his arm and leaned toward him.

“Adam, you can back out of this. You could say that you have a family emergency and go home. No one would fault you. Max knows that he drew you into something for which you have no training and no expertise. He wouldn’t be surprised if you backed out. We can get this done without you.”

“But it would be more dangerous for you and for others without my help. I’ll stay.”

There was more than a feeling of protectiveness in his motivation. She must have sensed some of that and talked to him as they neared their hotels leaving him speechless as she greeted her doorman and went inside.

“Adam, I suspect that you are developing some feelings for me or at least some attraction, and I admit I am tempted to give in to doing the same, but that would be dangerous for both of us. After this is over, we can explore that option, and I admit I would like to do so if you are indeed thinking about that. I’ve already imagined you without your clothing and wouldn’t mind seeing if my imagination is correct. But for now, there can be none of that. It has to be all business. Good night.”

That night, Adam found sleep elusive. He suspected that was going to be the case from the start, but the additional complication of Flora telling him that she was developing feelings for him too made it worse. He had so many thoughts jumbled in his mind that it took hours to sort through things and even then, he had no resolution to any of it. All he knew was that he needed to be armed but not conspicuously the next night, and that he was going to do his best to make sure nothing happened to Flora. While he waited at the stage door for her the next night, he felt sweat trickling down his back and the night wasn’t that warm. Flora must have felt the tension in him because when they were seated in the carriage, she leaned into him as a lover might and whispered in his ear.

“Follow the plan. Don’t do anything more than what we have discussed and everything will be fine. Please don’t try to be a hero. By doing that, you will needlessly put others in jeopardy. We know what we have to do, and you know what you need to do. If you go off the plan, then the plan is trash and we have to scramble. When that happens, people get hurt and sometimes killed. I know you don’t completely understand all of this, so please trust me. Your job is to get me into the party, keep the host and hostess busy so that they don’t notice if I slip away for a while, and then escort me out as if nothing untoward has happened all night.”

Uncomfortable taking orders from anyone, and unused to taking orders from a woman, Adam was a bit irritated by what she said and didn’t reply. He sat silently and thought through what she had said though and realized how sensible it was. Before they reached Malcolm’s home, he leaned toward her, kissed her on the cheek, and smiled. “Are you always right?”

“No, but there are times when I have to be. This is one of those times. I knew you didn’t like hearing what I had to say, but I had to say it.”

“I guess I had to hear it too. I’ll do what you say unless it all blows up in our faces, then it’s all bets off. If shooting starts, I won’t stand idly by. All right?”

With a look that could start a fire in the Sierra Nevadas, Flora stared at him, but he stared back as intensely until she nodded. They were probably evenly matched in being stubborn. By the time they left the carriage though, they were smiling and the picture of a happy couple. They brought their invitation to the servant waiting at the gate with a tray for them and were admitted through the gate past guards that they could see were armed. More and more, Adam was thinking that his friend Malcolm was probably involved in what was happening and probably deeply entangled in this syndicate that Max had mentioned. However if he was one of the lower level managers of the operation, who were the people in charge and how high up did they go? This scandal must have some far reaching tentacles for people like Malcolm to be in a lower echelon of power. His family was reasonably wealthy and well connected to people in power. Adam began to realize the jeopardy in which he had placed himself and in which Max and Flora already were.

Nothing that Adam feared occurred that night. He circulated through the house with and without Flora who circulated the same way. They met each other a number of times during the night and would walk together through the house talking animatedly and out into the garden and back into the house again where often Adam went in search of a drink and something more to eat, and Flora would say she was going to freshen up or do something else meeting him again in a short time. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary apparently to anyone else there as couples did much the same with the men congregating together frequently as did the women and then couples would reconnect only to separate again for various reasons as the party progressed. It was very late or one could say very early in the morning, when the party began to break up. Pleading exhaustion, Flora asked if Adam could take her to her hotel as she had performed in two shows that day, a matinee and the evening performance. Their host and hostess were understanding and thanked her for coming with Adam despite her arduous schedule. They parted amiably and once in the carriage, both sighed in relief. Adam asked her if she had been able to do what she needed to do. She looked at him and said he probably didn’t want to know that because what he didn’t know he could never divulge. That bothered him and they rode the rest of the way in silence. She bid him a courteous goodnight and he did the same heading to his room for another troubled night deciding that this life was not for him, but he would see this through because he had said he would.

Attending the theater for two more nights, Adam received another invitation. He was pleased to accept it. This one was from an acquaintance he hardly knew, but the man had seen him at Malcolm’s party and clearly was infatuated with Flora. He couldn’t stop talking about her as he conversed with Adam during the intermission. If they went to the party, Adam guessed that Flora was going to have an especially difficult time slipping away to do whatever it was that she did which he suspected was to slip into an office, a library, a study, or even a bedroom looking for any stash of information that could be useful. As much as this man was interested in her, it was unlikely she was going to be able to escape his attention for long, and if she tried, she was likely to be found out. Adam planned to warn her, but doubted that she would heed it. He wondered if he should even tell her about the invitation.

*****

Chapter 3

As things turned out, Adam didn’t need to do worry about not telling Flora about the invitation to the party because he was worried about her and what might happen to her. He attended the theater two more nights and accompanied Flora to dinner. They kept their ruse going and received another invitation. However, they didn’t have to go to that party either though Adam had accepted the offer. On the day of the first party to which they were invited, Adam had a knock on his hotel door in the early afternoon. He answered it to find a slightly disheveled and sweating Malcolm McDonald standing there with a pistol aimed at his midsection. There wasn’t much he could do except look shocked because he was. No matter how many times something like that happens to you, you can’t get used to it and it is shocking. He did his best though not to betray anything more than that shock.

“Malcolm, if I have done something to offend you, I sincerely apologize for whatever it was. I definitely had no intention of making you upset with me. If you think I have any intentions toward your wife, please be assured that my only intentions are in regard to Flora Tudor who is being especially resistant to my charms. Now could you please point that pistol in some other direction?”

Dropping the small caliber pistol to hang beside his leg, Malcolm looked defeated. “I knew it couldn’t be you, but I had to be sure. The way you looked just now, I know it wasn’t you. Adam, I’m in terrible trouble. I thought for one crazy moment that perhaps you had come into my house to spy on me, but just now you were thinking and acting so innocent that I know it wasn’t you. You weren’t an actor in college; you were a singer.”

Relieved that Malcolm didn’t know him as well as Max did, Adam had to find out why the man had accosted him that way. “Malcolm, why would I want to spy on you anyway? I mean, what could a banker be doing that a rancher like me would care to know?”

“I know. It sounds so crazy now when I hear you say it. Adam, I’m in terrible trouble. I got in because it sounded so easy and like it wasn’t ever going to be dangerous or anything like that. The men who made the offer seemed so civilized and not at all like the kind of men who could do what they’re threatening to do. Now they’ve issued these awful ultimatums and me and my wife and my children are forfeit. Adam, I don’t know what to do.”

Knowing what he was talking about but unwilling to show his hand, Adam had to keep him talking instead. “Malcolm, what kind of trouble could this be? What could you have possibly done to be this desperately afraid for your family? How can I help?”

“I don’t know if you can help, Adam. I don’t know if anyone can help.”

“Tell me the trouble and maybe then I can tell you if I can help.”

“You have to swear you won’t tell anyone what I tell you.”

“I swear I won’t tell anyone what you tell me. Good enough?”

“Yes, I remember you always kept your promises. All right. Adam, I work for people who are counterfeiting dollars, I mean twenty dollar bills and more. They’re doing all sorts of other things too but I’m not part of that. What I do is trade them real money in my bank for their new money and send it out in batches with my customers mixed in with real money. No one ever notices. For that, I get a very nice profit. No one gets hurt. At least that’s what I thought.”

“What changed?”

“Some people got arrested. People who work with me, you know, the people who bring money to me and take money away. They think I ‘snitched’ as they put it. They’re checking they said, and if they find out what they think is true, they said that they will kill me and kill my wife and my children. They want to make an example of us they said. They want everyone to know what happens if you snitch. They were at the bank not more than an hour ago. I don’t know what to do.”

“Did they follow you here?”

Looking more panicked than ever, Malcolm jumped up and looked like he was going to run. “Oh, God, Adam, I’m sorry. They’re going to think you’re part of it now, aren’t they?”

Standing as quickly, Adam put a hand on his arm. “Maybe not. Wait. Listen, I had lunch with Maxwell Hart. I went to school with him. He’s working here in town. I know he’s honest and he works for the government; the Treasury Department, I think. Malcolm, if you went to him and told him what you told me, he would be able to get the government to protect you and your family.”

“But I would go to prison.”

“Maybe you would, but maybe they would give you amnesty for what you could tell them about the others. It has happened before. Even if they don’t, prison for a few years is better than being dead, and you save your family. Isn’t that important enough to take that chance?”

“You’re right. You’re right. Where can I find this Maxwell Hart?”

“He works out of the federal building. I don’t know exactly what he does, but he’s a lawyer so he does something legal there with the Treasury Department. I’m sure he can help you. Let’s get you downstairs and into a carriage. Go pick up your wife and children and head to the federal building. All right?”

Soon they were at the front door and Malcolm was getting in a carriage. He was obviously followed there because Adam saw men who were watching him. He hoped they were working for the good side and not the bad. He got his answer almost as soon as the carriage pulled away because Flora was suddenly there with a huge smile. He grinned at her and swept her into his arms whispering in her ear.

“He’s going to talk. He’s going to get his family and go see Max. I told him that Max is a lawyer who works for the Treasury Department and could help him.”

Releasing Flora, he leaned back, and she continued to smile at him and tipped her head to the side as if coquettishly teasing him even as she softly talked to him about what he had said.

“You did well then. We were thinking of arresting him, but this is better. He’ll sing like a bird this way.”

“Do we have time for a little lunch before the theater?”

“Yes, perhaps a little room service?”

Walking up the stairs to his suite with Flora, Adam had some wonderful thoughts about what might happen but had wondered at her more solemn expression. Their lunch had turned out to be a bittersweet occasion.

“Adam, could you be comfortable with me continuing to be an undercover agent for the Department of the Treasury? Could you live with that knowing the kind of danger that I’m in regularly and that you would be in because of a relationship with me?”

“No, I have to admit that would make me very uncomfortable. Haven’t you done enough. Can’t you retire?”

“No, I haven’t done enough. I need to finish this.”

“Why? What’s the story, Flora? Why won’t you ever tell me why you do this and what your name is?”

“I can only give that information to someone with whom I work. It is only with those people that I can fully trust that information. Would you consider working as an agent?” She could see from his expression that his answer was going to be negative before he had a chance to answer. “I didn’t ever think so and that’s why I never told you. Your response was so quick that I know it is unequivocal. I can’t trust that information being out there with anyone else.”

There wasn’t any wiggle room for them because she was committed to what she did. He asked her why, but she declined again to answer as she had declined again to tell him her real name. He guessed she had other names too, and she didn’t deny that when asked.

“So we can be friends while we’re both still here, and then that’s it. After these few days, we won’t even have that.”

It wasn’t a question because Adam already knew the answer. He thought he was already falling in love with her and did admire her a great deal. However, there was no future for them. It was another failure in the romance department for him. Women he chose always seemed to be the wrong choice. Women who chose him were not women he would ever choose. He spent a few more days in the city attending the theater and going to dinner with Flora but the situation had changed. They attended the two parties to which they had been invited. Flora told him not to worry as she wasn’t going to be doing anything other than being a guest. They had a pleasant evening even though he was planning to leave the next day.

Ready to say goodbye before he said actually had his chance to say goodbye, Adam had almost nothing left to say. For the first and only time, he kissed Flora. She didn’t resist the kiss but returned his kiss with equal fervor and then broke away with equal reluctance. She seemed almost relieved too to be able to bid that final farewell. He didn’t know she cried for a number of nights afterwards because she regretted so much the choice that she thought she had to make.

“Sarah, you’ve done enough. You could retire now and do something for yourself for a change. Paul wouldn’t fault you for that. You’ve already given years to this quest for justice for him. He wouldn’t mind you having a little happiness after all that you’ve already done.” Max hoped she would listen to him and consider retiring. He was beginning to feel like the big brother to her that Paul had been before he had been murdered by the same kind of men who ran the syndicate they were both trying to destroy. However as he watched her, he could see she wasn’t about to give in yet even if her best chance at a happy future had just walked out that door.

“No, I’ll see it through. I said I would when I signed on, and nothing has changed about that.” Her words said that, but her red eyes and expression said that something important had changed, but she was going to sacrifice it for the good of the country. “Do you think that Adam will be safe?”

“I hope he will. Malcolm McDonald was suspicious initially and may have said something about him, but he handled himself well under those circumstances and gave them no additional reason to think he could have had anything to do with what happened. He sent Malcolm to me and then had nothing more to do with it. You and he went to two more parties. I’m sure you were watched. That’s why I didn’t want you to do anything except enjoy the party. Both of you should be in the clear as far as suspicion goes, but with men like this, we can never be sure.”

“We’ve made a dent in their organization, but we’re still a long way from finding the men at the top.”

“I know. I had thought Malcolm would lead us higher up, but he couldn’t do much more than the next echelon. We’ll keep going, Sarah. You have made too much of a sacrifice already. We need to finish this.”

Max had made sacrifices too and knew how she felt. He wished he could have done something differently for his friends, but there were more important things involved than a romance. For Sarah and Max, their sense of duty and patriotism and their pursuit of justice had taken over their personal lives. Adam didn’t even know Sarah’s real name. Even her true identity had been sacrificed. Max thought that Adam would understand if he knew the whole story, but unfortunately under these circumstances, they couldn’t tell him everything.

*****

Chapter 4

The ride across the Sierra Nevada Mountains was rough. It wasn’t only the incessant bouncing in the stage, the smells of the other passengers, the food served at stations that could be described most charitably as edible, and the forced close quarters with strangers. It was that Adam wanted most to do something to burn up the negative energy that engulfed him and dominated his thoughts and feelings. He was depressed about his life which had brought him to this point and found fault everywhere his thoughts turned and with nearly every decision he had made that had created the direction of his life. Here he was in his thirties, unmarried and lonely living in his father’s house and being ordered by him as to what to do and when. None of the scenarios he had envisioned for his life fifteen or so years earlier were anything at all like what he was living. He was a disappointment to himself. What he was doing of course was projecting all the sadness of saying goodbye to Flora onto the general dissatisfaction that had been building within him for some time. The combination was toxic and caustic. By the time he got to Virginia City, he was in a sour mood.

It didn’t help that his brothers were in a sour disposition as well. While Adam had been building up a load of resentment for the ranch that he saw at that point as the source of much of his unhappiness, Hoss and Little Joe resented what they thought was the extended vacation he had taken while they worked to prepare for the upcoming move of the cattle to their winter pastures. There was a lot of hard work searching for cattle in brush and up on high plateaus to be sure none were missed. They had to spend most nights sleeping on the ground a long way from their comfortable beds after spending the whole day in the saddle. Normally they would have been switching off this work with crews alternating between the upper pastures and lower ones where they were branding young stock that were brought in without brands and checking over the health of the herd culling out any that looked like they might not survive the winter. However because Adam was gone, each brother spent more time out there than usual.

It came to a head when Adam rode into the yard at the same time that Little Joe returned from his latest turn up in the high pastures. It was a Friday and he knew he would have to work the next day as well probably because there was no one else there to take over and perhaps Sunday as well if they couldn’t get everything done on Saturday. He was thinking some very negative thoughts about his older brother when he saw him and didn’t take long to express himself. What happened next shocked him though.

“I’ll go up and take Hoss’ spot. He can help you here tomorrow. That way you can have Sunday off too. Let me get changed and pack my saddlebags and I’ll go.” Adam thought that perhaps he could work himself into exhaustion and thereby find a way to sleep at night. Those green eyes haunted his dreams and his negative thoughts made sleep as elusive as it ever had been.

Joe should have accepted his offer and probably thanked his brother. Instead, he wasn’t gracious because of all the resentment that had been building for weeks. He wanted to vent so he only added fuel to the fire burning inside Adam by spouting some of his venom. “I guess it’s the least you could do after cavorting around the city while we worked here doing your job as well as ours. I hope you think it was worth it to play the city dandy and let your brothers do the work that paid for you to relax and have fun.”

Things could have gotten very bad very fast then except Ben came out of the house and immediately saw signs of trouble even as he welcomed his eldest son home. “Now, I heard what sounded like some angry words as I came out here. What’s going on? This should be a more positive occasion when we have a family member return home safely.”

“Maybe it would be if he hadn’t been off in the city while we were here doing his work.”

“Joseph, I’m sure Adam had a good reason for what he did. You know he doesn’t shirk his responsibilities to this ranch nor to his family. There have been plenty of times when he has taken on responsibilities that belonged to others.” Ben raised one eyebrow as he stared at Joe who had the good sense not to challenge that assertion. Adam wasn’t so accommodating.

“Pa, I don’t need defending. I already offered to go up to take Hoss’ place. I’ll go inside to pack a saddlebag and be right out.”

Ben quickly put a hand on Joe’s arm to silence him even as he addressed Adam. “Son, I was hoping we could talk about what you’ve been doing and about the contracts you sent back.”

Without emotion and without any kind of noticeable reaction, Adam responded as if he was talking to a stranger. It was clear to Ben that the emotional mask was back in place. “The contracts were standard, and the rates in them were acceptable, weren’t they?”

“Yes, of course.” Ben noted that Adam didn’t make any reference to what had kept him in the city.

“Then there really isn’t anything we need to discuss. I’ll be back out here in a few minutes. I haven’t anything more to say, to either of you right now.”

As Adam quickly took his leave and walked into the house, Ben turned to Joe. “What did he say to you?”

“Not much. Only about as much as what he said to you. Why?”

“Something is bothering him very much. He’s very troubled by something. It must be why he was in the city so long.”

“How did you get that? He didn’t say anything like that.”

“Oh, Joe, he did. Everything about how he talked, how he stood there, and how he responded was telling me how troubled he is. I wish he wasn’t going away again so soon, but perhaps that’s what he needs. Maybe some time up there will help him clear his mind. At least he’s home again.”

“Well, if it helps his mood, that would be great too.”

Ben smiled and put an arm around his youngest son’s shoulders. “Remember too that it’s not wise to poke a sleeping cougar with a stick.”

“Isn’t that a bear you’re supposed to say that about?”

“Usually, but this is Adam we’re talking about. A cougar is faster and more deadly in that circumstance.”

Cringing a little, Joe had a sickly smile. “I probably shouldn’t say some of those things I think sometimes.”

“Sometimes, Joseph, sometimes.”

Even Joe could see how unhappy Adam was when he paid attention to his oldest brother and how he looked when he returned dressed for the high country and carrying his saddlebags. Hop Sing brought out a food bag and got a terse thank you. Without any more challenges, Joe told him exactly where the men were currently working. With a brief farewell after he saddled his horse, Adam left. Ben and Joe watched him ride out and hoped his mood would be improved by the time he returned. When Hoss got back, he asked them what had happened with Adam to make him so cantankerous and he openly worried about the men who had to work for him that week. They couldn’t answer his question, but like them, he hoped for improvement. They were disappointed. Adam’s disposition was as sour with them when he returned over a week later on a Monday morning as it had been on the Friday when he had gotten back. His family attributed it then to the long hours of work never suspecting at that point that there was a woman at the heart of it. Hoss talked to the men and found that Adam, although serious and businesslike, had been fair and reasonable about the work leaving them with no complaints.

“Hoss, we wondered what was wrong. I mean, we could all tell something was bothering the man, but we know how he is. We’ve worked with him long enough.”

“Ya, he keeps it to himself, don’t he?”

“Yup, that’s what we figured. Long as he didn’t want to talk about it, none of us was figuring on pushing him.”

“No problems though?”

“No, you know your brother when there’s work to be done. He always works as hard or harder than everybody else. Makes it a damn sight harder to complain about anything. Besides, even if he pushed us some, it wasn’t unreasonable, and we got back here all that much sooner to better food and a softer bed.”

“He talk at all?”

“He talked some but not about anything important but more about the work and then about things to loosen things up in camp at night. You know, the stories he likes to tell about the hijinks that you boys especially Joe have gotten into. There’s a lot of funny stories he can tell about your family. No, it was pretty normal even if he seemed troubled some.”

So Hoss reported back to his father that the men had wondered what was wrong, but none faulted Adam for how he had done his job. That at least remained constant with Adam. He carried out his responsibilities as he always had. It was with his family that he was terse and on edge. Ben thought that perhaps he would take a stab at uncovering the mystery of why Adam had stayed in the city so much longer than required and then why he had returned so obviously upset by something but unwilling to share it with them. When Adam walked outside one evening after dinner, Ben looked over at Hoss and Joe as if to say he was heading into battle and stood to follow. Both Hoss and Joe wished him luck. Outside, it took some time to find Adam who apparently had decided to take a walk in the dark. He must have heard his father walking around and decided to come back for him or wait for him. His voice from the dark shade of a tree startled his father.

“I had hoped for a solitary walk, but I wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself trying to find me in the dark. Is there something you need?”

“Actually, I was coming out here to talk to you to find out if there was some way that perhaps I could help you maybe by being here to listen if you’re ready to talk yet.”

“I don’t think talking will be any help at all. Don’t they say time heals all wounds.”

For the first time, Ben got the impression that Adam had somehow had a relationship in that short time that had soured and left him hurting once more. Ben had lost three wives and the pain of those losses had been great but at least offset by the wonderful time he had been able to spend with each of his wives. Adam seemed never to be able to get to that point having his heart broken before he ever had a chance to experience the joy of being in love and being with that woman. “Time does heal wounds, but the scarring can be a problem. Sometimes, it helps to have intervention to make the healing progress more rapidly.”

“I guess of everyone here, you would know best about these things.”

Again Ben felt that whatever was troubling Adam was the loss of someone for whom he had begun to care very much. “What was she like?”

Snorting lightly, Adam walked out of the dark shadows and walked closer to his father. “You always seem to be able to guess. You should be a detective.”

“You didn’t answer the question though.”

“No, and I probably shouldn’t. It was impossible from the start, and I should have known that, but I let myself begin to believe that there was a chance. There wasn’t, and I have to accept that however much I wish I didn’t.”

“Was she why you stayed in the city so much longer than planned then?”

“No, another friend, someone I knew in college, and who works for the government now, asked me to do a favor for him. It was in working for him that I met her.”

“This favor, was it something to do with building?”

“No, it was something else, and I really can’t talk about it. The, ah, project isn’t completed yet and is secret in many aspects. I did a favor for a friend and served my country.”

“Adam, what kind of thing did you get yourself involved in?”

“It was my decision, Pa. It’s over now anyway so you don’t have to worry.”

“All right, but it is a father’s prerogative to worry no matter how old his sons get.”

“Yes, I suppose it is, but you can stop worrying about this one. I’m slowly coming to terms with everything. It was all still a bit raw when I got back. Sorry if I was a bit less than charming.”

“A bit less? That’s like saying a grasshopper is a bit less small than a grizzly bear.”

Inside the house, Hoss and Joe relaxed with smiles hearing their father and brother laughing outside.

*****

Chapter 5

The cattle were successfully moved from the upper pastures to the lower ones, hay was stored in large stacks and in hay barns for the winter, and other stocks and provisions were stockpiled in preparation for the winter. Joe and Adam brought in a small herd of mustangs and spent the late fall breaking them. They planned to use the winter months to do some training of them when the weather permitted and then finish the training in the spring adding some valuable cow ponies to the Ponderosa herd. In projects like that, Joe and Adam worked the most harmoniously so Hoss and Ben found there was less peacemaking that needed to be done between the two more hot-headed of the Cartwrights. For Joe, it was burning off that excess energy that was good and the sense of winning each time he rode an animal to a standstill, and for Adam, it was the sense of accomplishment as well as the connection he made with each animal as it was gentled.

Fall passed into winter with no turmoil and then it was time for the winter dance. Barbara Scott was in town to visit with friends and Adam dutifully agreed to be her escort to the dance. They had been friends for a long time but nothing romantic had ever developed between them much to Barbara’s disappointment. She had hoped for a long time that Adam would show a romantic interest in her, and for a time, it seemed he was interested, but they had kissed only one time. Then after that, there had been no more romance but only a warm friendship. She now had a beau, a widower with children, who had asked her to marry him. She had agreed and was to be married in April. When they had gotten quite warm from dancing and took a break sitting at a table and talking, she asked Adam to attend her wedding and he agreed that he would try to be there. He was having a pleasant time until then when she asked him a question that had nagged at her a long time.

“Adam, what was wrong with me?”

“What do you mean, what was wrong with you? Nothing was wrong with you as far as I know. You were and are a fine woman. You’ll be a wonderful mother to his children and I’m sure a good wife to him.”

“No, I mean to you. You never saw me that way. You kissed me only once, and then after that, I was like a sister to you and not a woman. Why was that?”

“Barbara, there is nothing wrong with you. It is me. I simply can’t seem to get myself to be serious about a woman.”

“Can’t you? Or is it that you’re looking for a type of woman that I’m not and that most women are not. I think you’re looking for a more dangerous woman, someone who will take things to more of an extreme. I remember when we went riding after you taught me how. You looked so bored riding at the slow pace that I found comfortable. You would have been happier with a woman who wanted to race you through those valleys. I’ve thought about this a lot. I think I was too safe for you. No matter how much you talked about wanting a home, a wife, a family, what you really wanted was someone to make you feel more alive, more excited about life. That wasn’t me and it wasn’t any of the other women here. You want challenges not calm and peace.”

Irritated as usual to have anyone trying to analyze his thoughts and feelings and especially irritated that she seemed to have hit close to the mark or close to the same thoughts he had been having recently, Adam said nothing. He didn’t want to hurt her, but he didn’t want to discuss this with her either.

“You use silence as a conversation weapon rather well too. I have nothing to counter that so I suppose I ought to change the subject. When you come to the wedding, you’re welcome to bring a guest. Your father and brothers have been invited as well although I’m not sure they will attend. April must be a very busy time on the ranch. Isn’t that when you do the spring cattle drive? Will you be able to get away?”

“Yes, that’s why I said I would try to be there. It could be a problem, but that’s still a few months away, so I’ll have to wait and see how things work out. If the spring is wet, we’ll go later and it won’t be a problem attending your wedding. If the snow melts early and the spring is drier, then there could be a conflict. I can’t predict what will happen. By the way, you haven’t mentioned the man’s name.”

When Barbara said who it was, Adam had to steel himself not to flinch. Samuel Clarksen was a name that was on the list he had gotten from Max and memorized. Certainly there was a possibility that there were two men by that same name, but he worried that they could be the same. “Oh, now that’s a distinguished sounding name. What does he do for a living.”

“Oh, nothing so exciting as what you do. He’s a bank manager in Sacramento. He also is a partner in that bank. I’m afraid my life is going to be as boring as can be by your standards. But I will be happy to be back in Nevada.”

“Back in Nevada? I thought you said he works in Sacramento.”

“Yes, but his company wants to expand into Nevada, and they’ve chosen him to be in charge of the expansion. There will be branch offices set up in Carson City and Virginia City for a start. Adam, I’m happy.”

“Barbara, what matters is what makes you happy. That’s all that I care about.”

“Thank you for caring, Adam. I really shouldn’t have gotten into all that other stuff. It’s my own darned curiosity that will never let me rest. I’ll keep my opinions about you to myself from now on. Is that fair enough?”

“Yes, now let’s go back in and have a few more dances before I take you back to your friend’s house. We wouldn’t want them to think I was a poor escort for you.”

Apparently Barbara never sensed the tension in Adam after that conversation, but all the way home that evening, Adam was thinking about Barbara and her upcoming wedding to a man who was likely involved in criminal activity. He didn’t know what to do and was troubled by that. Max and Flora had told him that his part in all of this was over, but he knew that the knowledge he had meant that it wasn’t over. By the time he got home, he had decided that he needed to get in touch with Max and let him know what had happened and ask what he could do. There was only one way to do that because none of this could be put on paper that could be intercepted. They needed to speak in person to one another.

Entering the house, Adam noted his father asleep in the red leather chair by the fireplace. No matter how old his sons got, Ben still seemed to want to wait up for them. Adam took care of banking the fire and setting the screen as well as shuttering the windows before he woke his father to tell him that Hoss and Joe were outside taking care of their horses and he could go to bed.

“I’d like to say good night to them before I do.”

“They only rode in as I was coming to the house. It could be a while.”

“That’s all right. I got quite a good rest already. How about you? Did you have a pleasant evening?” As Ben asked, he had already noted that darker look that Adam had showing he was troubled by something. He waited to see what if anything was forthcoming.

“Barbara is getting married. I told her I would try to go to the wedding, but it’s in late April. She knows that could be a problem.”

“Adam, Barbara has been a friend for a long time. Don’t worry about that. We can spare you for a week so you can attend her wedding. No matter what we’re doing, we can take a little time for a friend. Is that what was bothering you? I could tell that something was.” And Ben wanted to kick himself right then because he knew he had given Adam an out if there was something else on his mind. He wouldn’t tell him now. He would simply agree that was it and hold anything else back if there was anything else. He did, and yet Ben sensed in his response that it was the evasion he feared it was. Something more had happened, and like usual, it was going to be some time before he found out what it was.

“Thanks, Pa. I think I’ll head up to bed then. Joe and Hoss should be in soon.”

With that, Adam escaped as he often did without letting any of what was troubling him get out. He sat in his room at his desk with the lamp low as he worked on a message to Max until he thought he had it right. He told Max that he had enjoyed their lunch together and reconnecting with an old friend. He said if Max was ever passing through Virginia City or near there to let Adam know so that he could do his best to rendezvous with him to discuss more of their common interests and perhaps discuss future things they could do together to keep their friendship ongoing. Adam guessed there were enough coded words in there to let Max know that he ought to find a way to meet with Adam. He planned to send the letter as soon as possible. It meant he had to come up with an excuse to go to town on Monday to post it, but he didn’t think that would be too difficult to do. It did turn out to be more difficult than he thought it would be because the weather turned cold and snowy by Monday. His father told him he should wait but Adam knew that could mean weeks if the snow continued to fall. He went to town anyway and ended up risking his health and safety as well as that of his horse in order to get home. His family was very displeased with him. He could tell they had worried and guessed they had been ready to head out on a rescue mission about the time he finally dragged his sodden snow-covered horse and self into the stable. That no one offered to help him with his horse and the wet tack let him know just how unhappy they were with him. There wasn’t much he could do about that, and an apology without an explanation wasn’t going to help either so he said nothing. It wasn’t only the air outside that was frosty for the next week.

Waiting anxiously for a reply to his letter, Adam was surprised when he answered a knock on the door as he and his family were finishing breakfast about a week after posting the letter to Max to find him standing there at his door. Max looked cold and he was.

“You could invite me in. That’s a long ride in the cold to get here. When I got your letter, I thought it might be a good idea for us to talk.”

“That sounds ominous.”

“Sadly, it is. There’s news that isn’t good, and I could use your help again, and I gathered that you had some news for me and perhaps could use my help as well.”

By that time, Ben and Adam’s brothers had gotten up from the table and come to see who the visitor was. Adam introduced Max to them as an old school friend. None of them believed that Max had made that trip simply to visit, but with neither Max nor Adam offering any additional information, they could do nothing more than welcome Max as a guest in their home. Adam offered to show him to a guest room upstairs after Hoss and Joe volunteered to go take care of his horse. Upstairs, Max asked Adam to close the bedroom door so they could talk freely.

“All right, does your concern have to do with Samuel Clarksen? He’s the reason I’m here, and I suspect we are concerned about the same man.”

“Yes, he’s marrying a friend of mine, and she told me he’s expanding his bank’s operations into Nevada.”

“Yes, we found that out too and have had to expand our operations to Nevada as well.”

“Is Flora here?”

“No, Adam, she’s not going to be a participant in this portion of the investigation, but I’m hoping that you will. You have a perfect opening to get into that inner circle and get some names for us.”

Adam’s shoulders sagged as the full import of what Max had said hit him. He wasn’t free of this intrigue yet, and in fact, it seemed he was being drawn in deeper yet. However his sense of duty and responsibility would not let him say no. He had to help. He nodded as Max smiled.

*****

Chapter 6

For the next several months, Max traveled back and forth from California to Colorado several times so he had ample opportunities to stop in and visit an old friend with whom he had recently renewed his acquaintance. At least that was what it looked like to any who happened to be watching him or that was what he hoped they were thinking. What he and Sarah had uncovered was a conspiracy that reached that far and probably further. She was working the California end as she moved from theatrical company to theatrical company doing her best in her Flora role to glean information from new friends. It was slow going. Things had progressed much more rapidly with Adam helping her. However, Adam’s help in Virginia City was invaluable although it was upsetting a fair number of people. Max made a suggestion that Adam see about joining in the poker circle that included some men Max suspected might be involved in the conspiracy.

“Sam Clarksen likes to play poker. He’s quite good at it too so no one has ever worried about the bank’s money in that regard. However it does give us a way to get close to him if you’re willing.”

Without hesitation, Adam had answered knowing what Max was suggesting. “I rarely play for large stakes. I play for the competition not for the money. I assume these are large stakes games?”

“Yes, they are. Is your game up to it?”

“I play well enough when the stakes are thirty dollars or three hundred. I’m not sure what will happen when the pot if three thousand or thirty thousand.”

“I can bankroll you for the first game. Win or lose, after that, it’s up to you.”

After that, Adam had won. He won much more often than he lost and played with any number of groups including the group of bankers Max had told him to target. Once he did that, Max saw the wisdom of it. It appeared that Adam was burning off his winter blues with gambling. People in Virginia City apparently were well aware of his aversion to being cooped up and that he wouldn’t drink himself into oblivion to avoid something unpleasant. Therefore to see Adam Cartwright indulging in a competition like poker seemed a logical result of the imposed inactivity of winter on a restless man. However Sheriff Roy Coffee was worried about what he saw and rode out to the Ponderosa on a rare sunny day to talk with Ben. Surprised to see him, Ben invited him into the house for coffee and to warm up.

“Now, Roy, what brings you all the way out here on a winter day? Joe and Hoss are here so they’re not in trouble, and Adam is well past the stage of stirring up trouble in town.”

“Well, now, Ben, maybe stirring up trouble in the usual sense, but Adam’s got ways of stirring things up in unusual ways these days.”

“Unusual ways?”

“Well, you can’t be happy with all the days he’s been spending in town playing poker near all night long and sometimes through the day too. He’s in town right now. I saw him last night playing poker and he was still there this morning. He’s winning big again and the others don’t want ta quit with him so far ahead so it’s one of them extra long games again.”

“No one thinks that Adam cheats, now do they? You know Adam would never cheat.”

“Of course I know that. What bothers me is Adam spending all his time playing poker like a professional gambler. I mean, Ben, it’s got to bother you too. Adam always talked about wanting to do something with his life. He wanted to build buildings and such. He wanted to leave a mark, and now what he’s doing is taking other folks’ money.”

“They’re voluntarily playing with him, aren’t they?”

“Yeah, they are, but Ben, some of these folks can’t afford to be gambling away the money they’re gambling away. I don’t know what some of ’em are gonna do. Can’t you talk to your boy about what he’s doing?”

“Roy, I could try talking to Adam about it. He must know I’m not happy about how he’s chosen to spend his time, but I can hardly complain about it in ways that I did when he was younger. His brothers are men now so the argument that he’s setting a bad example would make him laugh.”

Hoss was listening and remembered those days. Adam had returned from college and liked to spend some time at the poker tables. He was good at it too, but their father had forbid him from continuing by saying that he was setting a bad example for his younger brothers. It had been an argument for quite a while until Adam conceded because the poker wasn’t that important to him. Hoss didn’t know why Adam had taken such a sudden renewed interest in the game, but it had happened almost immediately after his friend Max had visited. Adam had renewed his friendship with Max before he came home surly and unhappy too. Hoss guessed the two were related but couldn’t imagine how, and no matter how many ways he tried to get Adam to talk about it, his older brother never opened up. He guessed Adam was heading for some trouble in town if what Roy said was true. Hoss planned to use that as a way to try to get his brother talking, but knew it wouldn’t work unless Adam was ready to talk. If all else failed, they had a cattle drive coming up and the roundup and that would take him away from the poker tables. He listened as his father and Roy continued to talk about Adam.

“He’s spending his money. There’s no work here that he’s neglecting. I don’t know what argument you think I can use to tell a man what to do when he’s made up his mind to do something especially when that man is my oldest son.”

“Ben, I guess I was hoping you could reason with him. This is heading for big trouble. I know it. I think you know it too. How Adam don’t know it too is beyond me.”

“I’ll try talking with him whenever he decides to spend a night at home again, but the few times I’ve made comments, he hasn’t been very receptive. I doubt that I’m going to have much of an impact. Adam isn’t in a mood these days to listen to advice from his father.”

“Well, he oughta listen to advice from somebody. He’s heading for a world of hurt ifn he don’t. You mark my words, Ben. Things are gonna get ugly soon if he keeps going the way he’s going, and I can’t be sure that I’ll be there to protect him. If somebody wants to get somebody, they’ll find a way.”

“Roy, are you saying that there are threats against Adam?”

“No, but there’s talk. When there’s smoke, there’s fire even if it’s a small fire. You make somebody desperate, there’s no telling what they’ll do.”

“Who has Adam made desperate?”

“None that I know yet, but he’s taken in some big winnings. He keeps doing that and some of these men are gonna be finding it hard to pay the bills. You know they ain’t gonna be blaming themselves in most cases.”

While Roy was talking to Ben about that, a similar conversation was occurring in town between Adam and Max. Sam was in town and whenever he was in town, Max was in town. It was getting to be a problem because the town was too small for Max to be inconspicuous enough.

“I’m going to have to send someone else to follow Sam. It’s getting too obvious. He’ll know and it will spook him.”

“Too dangerous too. You’ve told me that agents have been found dead. It could happen to you too. Who will you send?”

“I’m not sure. It can’t be anyone any of them have seen. I may have to call someone in from one of our other offices.” Max sat on the stuffed chair in Adam’s room. “It’s getting dangerous for you too. You’ve spent too much time in my company. If they’re becoming suspicious of me, then they’re going to be suspicious of you.”

“I don’t know. Sam invited me to go with him to Carson City. He said he’d like to include me in a big poker game they have coming up over there.”

“Oh, Lord, you didn’t say yes, did you?”

“No, I told him that I couldn’t because I had some work coming up on the ranch and couldn’t be away that long. Why shouldn’t I go though?”

“If they are suspicious of you, that would be their perfect opportunity to find out if you know anything. They can be pretty rough.”

“I wouldn’t tell them anything.”

“I know you wouldn’t, but I don’t want you to have to go through the kind of questioning they might use. No, you’ve done enough again. We know now how they get the men they need to get control of the banks they want. You’ve helped them do it. They have quite a few men in deep financial difficulties now because of these poker games. I’m sure they can now step forward with offers of loans or some small thing these men can do for a payment. Desperate men will grab the chance like a lifeline not knowing it’s the first step into hell.”

“You’re going to let them do it?”

“No, but we’re going to work behind the scenes not openly to stop them. We want them to make the offers and we want the actual crimes to take place. Then we’ll step in. We won’t prosecute the men who have been used, but we need those overt acts to make the conspiracy charges stick.”

“At the trials, will my role in all of this come out?”

“Only indirectly. No, we can’t show too much of our hand yet. I’m afraid your reputation will take a bit of a hit from this, but the men who lost to you played voluntarily. No one forced them into those games.”

“That’s small comfort to their wives and children who will suffer with them.”

“Or to you who will be blamed by some for what happened. I know it’s not fair, but until this whole syndicate is brought down, the whole story can’t be told.”

After they finished talking, Max headed to his room. On the Ponderosa, Hoss came down the stairs dressed for a ride to town surprising both his younger brother and his father. He said he had some private business to take care of in town. Joe wanted to know what it was but was told it wasn’t something Hoss could talk about yet. Ben followed his middle son to the front door where he spoke very quietly to him.

“I’m not a betting man, but in this case, I would wager that if anyone can get him to talk, it’s you. Good luck, and bring him home if you can. What Roy said has me worried.”

“Me too, Pa. It’s why I’m going tonight. I figured there was no point in waiting here and worrying when I could be there and watching his back at least, and maybe kicking him in the backside as need be.”

Ben smiled but there was no humor in it. He would worry until he saw both of his sons home safely again. “Be careful. The roads will be starting to ice up soon. You plan to stay the night, I assume?”

“I do, and I’ll be home tomorrow if the weather holds.”

All the way to town, Hoss rehearsed the various things he could say to his brother and the questions he intended to ask him. As soon as he got to town, he put his horse in the livery and got a room as quickly as possible. He was anxious to see Adam and headed to where he thought he would be. He wasn’t there and wasn’t in any of the other places he thought he might be. He checked restaurants too. Thoroughly stymied, he headed back to the hotel and saw Adam walking down the street toward the Silver Dollar and a likely poker game. Hoss also noted that there appeared to be two men following Adam. He hurried to catch up to him and it was lucky that he did. As Adam neared the saloon, two more men stepped from an alley, and Hoss was sure he saw a pistol aimed at his brother. He ran then not worrying if anyone saw him and wondered why. By the time he got to the alley, two men had Adam pinned to the wall and a third had a pistol aimed at him as the fourth stood back. Hoss didn’t worry about what they were saying pulling his pistol and ordering the one with his out to drop it. The man was obviously not used to this type of activity and immediately lowered his weapon and backed away. The two holding Adam were clearly not sure what to do.

“Let him go and join your friends over there.” Hoss indicated they should move to where the other two men stood. Adam quickly moved over next to Hoss.

“Thank you, big brother. I wasn’t at all sure how that was going to turn out.”

“What do these jaspers want?”

“Apparently they want the money back that they lost in poker games.”

“Boys, this ain’t how it’s done. You all best get on outta here ‘fore Sheriff Coffee gets here. You need money, you come on out to the Ponderosa in a couple of days and talk to us about it. Don’t bring any guns, ya hear.”

The men left with a few backward glances not at all sure what they should be doing. Adam watched them go feeling guilty about the whole situation but not knowing what to do about it.

“Where have you been?”

“I’ve been in my room. I was up late last night or I should say early this morning so I was sleeping and then I had a bath. Why are you so concerned? Nothing has happened to Pa or Joe, has it?”

“No, not that you would seem to care anyway seeing as you ain’t been home in days. All you seem to care about is playing poker.”

Making a quick decision, Adam held up a hand. “Let me make a few arrangements and then we can go to my room to talk.”

“Real talking or more nothing?”

“Some ‘real talking’ but I’ll explain about some limits I have to put on the talking. You’ll hopefully understand better once I can speak freely but not here.”

The brothers walked together to the Silver Dollar where Adam begged off the poker game saying he was tired and Hoss was there to talk about ranch business. The men didn’t seem too disappointed except for Sam who asked if Adam would be there the next night. Hoss answered that their Pa wanted Adam back on the ranch for work that needed to be done. Adam had shrugged and the two brothers had left together ordering a meal before heading up to Adam’s room.

*****

Chapter 7

Once in his hotel room, Adam paused to try to think through how much he could say and what he couldn’t. “I guess by now you know that Max is involved in this. You can’t voice that suspicion to anyone. It could get him killed.”

“Adam, what kind of mess has you gotten yourself into?”

“Hoss, I’m working for the government on this. You know me. You know I wouldn’t knowingly do anything wrong. Anything I’ve done is part of an investigation. People have gotten hurt and more people are likely to be hurt, but it will be a lot worse if this organization isn’t stopped.”

“Are you in danger?”

“From them, probably not, because so far they don’t know what I’ve done or we don’t think they know what I’ve done. However with what they asked me to do here in town, maybe. There are some people in town who aren’t very happy with me right now. This was going to be my last night playing poker anyway. I told them that I had to head back to the ranch because of work that needed to be done. With the snow melting, I knew that we would be getting ready for roundup and then there would be the roundup and then the drive. There isn’t anything more for me to do right now, so I can go home.”

“Can you tell Pa this much too?”

“I will, but Hoss, I don’t think we can tell Joe. You know how he gets when he gets mad. If someone says something nasty about me, and he decides to defend me.”

“Yeah, I know. He might let something slip out.”

“If he does, what I said about not being in danger could change rather suddenly.”

“It’s gonna mean some kinda tetchy feelings between the two of you for a while then, and he ain’t gonna understand if me and Pa don’t seem to be the same way. He’s gonna guess ya talked to us and not to him.”

“At that point, I guess only the truth will work, but I hope that if I do my work and try to keep things as normal as possible, maybe things will slide back to being all right between us.”

Shaking his head, Hoss chuckled but without mirth. “What’s that thing they say about staying quiet and letting people think you’re a fool rather than spouting off and letting them know fur shur?”

Adam shrugged. He was hoping it would go smoothly, but like Hoss suspected things might not go so well with his youngest brother and knew it was completely his fault too. There were an awful lot of apologies he was going to have to make when this was all over. Hoss was watching Adam and guessed that there was more turmoil there than could be explained by what he had heard. He decided to take a stab at that.

“There a woman involved in this whole thing somewhere?”

The slight jerk of Adam’s head in response before he caught himself and put that mask in place was all the answer Hoss needed. He could see that his older brother knew that he knew and also knew he wouldn’t talk about it. Nothing more was said about that except as Hoss stood then to take the plates from their dinner and put them on the tray to set by the door, he put a hand on Adam’s shoulder and squeezed. They had all had enough heartache. Apparently Adam had gotten another dose. It explained more than anything the mood he was in when he returned home.

With some of the burden removed even if it was only a small part, Adam slept better that night. The next day, he and Hoss headed back to the Ponderosa with the sun shining. As they rode out of town, two men stood with Samuel Clarksen and watched Adam leave.

Sam was the first to talk. “Max Hart is gone. He was in several of the banks while he was here, and now he’s gone so maybe he wasn’t following me.”

“He did go see Cartwright while he was here.”

“They’re friends from college. Adam has never hidden that fact from anyone. I don’t think he’s involved in getting Malcolm arrested. I think Malcolm going to see him and then going to turn himself in to Max was simply a friend telling a friend what he thought he ought to do under the circumstances. Adam has done some real good things for me while I’ve been here. He got several of the men I needed in deep financial trouble. We can squeeze them now to get them on our payroll.”

“And then, just like that, he rides out of town?”

“He had already told me that the poker was to get him through the winter because he was so bored. But then he said he was heading back to the ranch because there would be work to do and that’s why he couldn’t go with me to play poker in Carson City. Last night he begged off the game because his brother was here to talk ranch business, and today, they’re heading back to the ranch. Seems all right to me.”

“All right, if you vouch for him, we’ll let him go, but if he’s working against us, Sam, know that it’s going to come back at you.”

Suddenly a bit more nervous about the whole situation, Sam made a suggestion. “Maybe we should watch him to see what he does. If he meets with Max again, then both of them should be eliminated to be safe. If Max stays away and Adam goes back to being a rancher, then it was only a coincidence and only old friends meeting up.”

“Now that’s a more reasonable way to look at it.” Looking at the two men with him, the head of the syndicate in California smiled. “You can take care of that for us, can’t you?” Then he chuckled. These men had taken care of so many others that he had lost count. They had started working for him in Milwaukee and eliminated a pesky lawyer working for a bank there. When things got a bit hot, they had moved upward and onward building a criminal enterprise in the west that rivaled anything in the east, and it was still growing. He wasn’t going to let anyone stop him. Luckily for Adam, the villain didn’t see him as a threat. He congratulated himself once more on organizing his syndicate in many echelons of authority with one level only aware of those directly above them. Malcolm hadn’t been able to do much damage because he didn’t know many people to turn in as he was on a lower level as one of the many people who had been brought in by various means to do the day-to-day business of the syndicate not like Samuel who was on a planning level and far more important to the organization. He wouldn’t have met with him if Max Hart was still in town. He still suspected Max and thought perhaps he might have Max meet with an accident to take him out of circulation for a while. He didn’t want to kill him. Killing someone with a position in government like that had a tendency to bring too much attention, but if he had an accident, then he wouldn’t be replaced but he wouldn’t be able to do too much either. The more he thought about that, the more he thought he would work on a plan to accomplish that. Within a few weeks, he heard that Cartwright was indeed working a cattle drive so he dismissed any worries about him.

However Adam’s worries weren’t so easily resolved. He did have a conversation with his father that was quite similar of course to the one that he had had with Hoss. His father asked more questions and wasn’t as willing as Hoss to accept the lack of answers. He probed hoping for more information or at least more reassurance that Adam wasn’t in fact in any grave danger. He didn’t get it as Adam could only tell him what he had told Hoss.

“Pa, what can I tell you to make you stop interrogating me. I can’t answer your questions. As far as I can tell, so far they don’t know what I’ve done or we don’t think they know what I’ve done either in California or in town. There is no way however to be certain of that. By me working on the ranch now, if they do have suspicions about me, those should be alleviated. Other than that, there’s nothing I can do.”

“I wish you had never gotten involved in all of this.”

“Pa, you don’t know how much I wish the same thing, but if I was given the same choice, I would make the same decision. I have no regrets about that. I did the right thing even if there was a cost to be paid. I had to do it.”

“I understand that. But, there’s no more? There’s nothing else that they have asked you to do?”

“Nothing. As far as I know, my part in this is over. I can’t tell anyone what I did until the investigation is over and anyone who can be arrested is arrested, but other than that, I’m through with all of it.”

“But you thought you were done with all of this when you left California?”

“Yes, but that was before they decided to try to move their operations here.”

“Hoss knows this?”

“Yes, I told him pretty much what I told you.”

“What are you going to tell Joe?” When Adam dropped his head and rubbed the back of his neck, Ben had his answer before Adam spoke. “You don’t want to tell him.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Why?”

“It’s pretty much what I told Hoss. After what I’ve done here, there’s going to be talk. We both know that no matter how angry Joe gets at me or what he says, if someone in town attacks me, he just as likely to defend me. If he loses his temper and says something about what I’ve told you even if it isn’t much, not only could my life be in jeopardy, but the people I worked with and were seen with me could be in jeopardy too.”

“You think people from this criminal group are in Virginia City?”

“I know they are. I’ve been playing poker with one of them on and off for weeks now.” Ben was shocked. “I didn’t tell that to Hoss because he would have started trying to guess who it was, and even an innocent question or two could have serious consequences. Pa, this is very dangerous territory. Nothing about any of this can be said to anyone until it’s over.” Ben didn’t have to mention anything about Adam’s reputation or that he might not want to go to town for a while. He already knew that. They wouldn’t talk about this subject again for a long time.

Instead, it was time to prepare for roundup and the cattle drive. There were a lot of tasks to do before they could do either. Adam worked at the forge to make some new branding irons as well as other items they needed on the ranch. Ben seemed to find a lot of tasks for Adam that kept him close to the house. It didn’t bother him, but it did bother Joe who decided to make an issue of it at dinner one evening. He didn’t understand why his father and Hoss seemed to have forgiven Adam for everything and were moving on as if nothing had happened. Much as they expected, Joe wanted answers. Ben and Hoss were surprised by what Adam said. Apparently he had been giving this some thought since he had spoken with them because he had something ready for his youngest brother.

“I’ve spoken with Hoss and with Pa about what was making me such a difficult person to be with. I was feeling a sense of dissatisfaction with the ranch and thinking about leaving. It made me very troubled and wanting to do something different. I thought I needed some challenges. I’ve come to terms with things now and I’m staying here now. I ask for your forgiveness for my boorish behavior and promise that I will do my best on the roundup and the drive as I have been since I returned from town this last time.”

Surprised and then pleased, Joe accepted the apology. Peace returned to the family. However, Hoss and Ben had some renewed concerns. Adam didn’t lie. If he said something, it was the truth. They knew he had told them the truth. Therefore, if he had told Joe the truth too, then he had been thinking of leaving and his promise to stay and work on the ranch had extended only through the drive. They had to wonder what that meant. Ben’s curiosity could only be held in check for so long. He finally asked Adam about it when he got a chance to talk with him privately.

“You heard that, did you? Yes, I meant it. When this mess is over, there’s someone I want to find. She’s important to me, and I need to know if there’s any mutual feeling there. I want to see her again. I’ll have to ask Max if there’s any way that it will be possible.”

“I understand. Know that we will help in any way that we can.”

“Thanks, Pa. And thanks for understanding too.”

“Adam, what about after that?”

“I’ll come back. What happens after I come back however, we’ll have to see.”

“You said you’re going to do the roundup and the drive. What about Barbara’s wedding. I thought you would want to be here for that? If so, you would miss the first week at least of the drive.”

“Pa, I have reason to believe that there may not be a wedding, and if there isn’t, Barbara quite possibly isn’t going to want to see me.”

“I suppose you aren’t going to tell me anything more than that either.” Adam’s shrug was Ben’s only answer. He had to accept that his son was involved in clandestine operations in which even he couldn’t know the details.

The roundup went very well and before they left on the drive, they heard that indeed Barbara’s wedding plans had been canceled and the home she had been getting ready in town was for sale. Her fiancé was in jail in Virginia City and would likely stay there until federal marshals could arrive and arrangements could be made to insure that he could be taken to San Francisco safely. Ben wanted so much to ask Adam how he had known this would happen, but knew he wouldn’t get an answer anyway. He had to live with the curiosity. However the drive went well and didn’t take long as they were only going as far as Sacramento with this one. The family was planning on spending a few extra days in Sacramento, but Ben received news when he arrived there that an old friend was going to be in Tucson and was looking to sell some of his prize stallions. They had just come from the stockyards where they had sold the herd. They were tired, dusty, and ready for a bath and a soft bed, but Ben looked at Adam with one of those looks that told him his father wanted something.

“Oh oh, something tells me that my bath and a chance at a soft bed just got delayed.”

“Do you remember the Montoyas who visited with us about ten years ago, and that beautiful pair of horses they had for their carriage. He’s selling some stallions. Apparently there’s to be an auction in Tucson.”

“And you would like me to go there to bid on them.”

“Yes, but Adam, the sale is in six days.”

“Six days! If I left now, I might not make it.”

“If you left now, you might.”

With a snarl and a roll of his eyes, Adam grabbed his saddlebag and held out his hand for some traveling money. “I assume you’ll send a bank draft if I win the auction?” Ben agreed and Adam hurried to the stage depot buying a ticket and getting the last inside seat. He climbed aboard just as the stage pulled out. With a chance then to greet his fellow passengers, he was astonished to look into some familiar green eyes framed with dark hair. Flora had an expression that said not to acknowledge her though so Adam didn’t and waited for her to introduce herself. She said her name was Martha so Adam told her his name. For much of the trip through stops all that day, Adam wondered what was happening that had her on that stage. He got no answers though.

*****

Part II

Chapter 8

During that first day on the stage and during each stop, Adam did his best to avoid eye contact with Martha. He decided he better get used to thinking of her with that name so he didn’t slip and use Flora in conversation or to address her at some point and give her away. He didn’t know why she was traveling, and for all he knew, she was with the target of her investigation. She did her best to avoid him as well so he believed his assumption that she was on an active investigation was correct. Their behavior though drew the attention of the other passengers who saw it as furtive and wondered why they made such an act of avoiding each other when it had appeared they knew each other when Adam had boarded the stage. Their act had fooled no one because the intensity of their feelings for each other had come through despite their best efforts to hide it.

Back in Sacramento, members of the syndicate had drawn the same conclusion but about Adam. They were reporting to their boss within a short time of him boarding the stage that he had rushed to get on the stage with one of their bankers who was going to Tucson with a large amount of counterfeit money to deliver. It was apparent to them that he was going to try to do something about that.

“Damn, he’s good. Here we thought he was some innocent cowboy who just happened to be around when two of our people got arrested. It looked like he might be in the clear after Malcolm but when Sam got arrested, we were told to watch him. Now we’re sure he’s part of the investigation of us. We already have men in Virginia City who will take care of Sam before he does any damage. You know what to do about the other two. Our ‘friend’ Max is going to have an ‘accident’ that will put him out of commission for some time and Adam Cartwright needs to be put out of commission for good. See to it.”

Late that day in San Francisco, Maxwell Hart left his office reasonably assured that he was on his way to breaking the syndicate. He had Samuel Clarksen sitting in the jail in Virginia City under the watchful eye of an honest lawman and newly sworn marshals who should arrive there the next day to take charge of him. He had a list of names of men in San Francisco, Sacramento, and Virginia City who had been corrupted by the syndicate and who would likely be willing to testify in exchange for a light sentence or in some cases immunity from prosecution. He still didn’t have the names of the men at the top, but he was sure that Sam was the key to that. Once Sam saw what he faced, he would likely talk too. Max wanted the men at the top and was willing to be generous to anyone else as long as he got to the top echelons of the organization. Sam was close. He was sure of that, but he was so absorbed in his thoughts, he never saw the men following him. He felt hands on his back at one point seconds before he was shoved into the street into the path of an onrushing freight wagon pulled by a team of six horses. Hands grabbed him to pull him back but not far enough as horses and then wagon wheels rolled over his feet and ankles. He heard screaming and realized he was doing it but couldn’t stop nor could he stop the flailing he was doing at the men who were trying to help him. He struggled and screamed until someone pushed some vile liquid into his mouth. He swallowed, coughed, sputtered, and then after a short time, fell into blessed oblivion. He wasn’t fully conscious and aware again for over a week.

In Virginia City, the new waiter at the restaurant who served the food that was brought to the jail to feed the prisoners was energetic, friendly, and did everything that was asked of him. The manager didn’t even think twice about sending him with the meals over to the jail. He knew he would follow the instructions exactly. There was an important prisoner over there, and they had been told specifically how to approach the door, how to knock and identify themselves, and then to wait at the window so they could be identified. Of course, carrying the tray of food would be an obvious way to identify whomever was coming from the restaurant or so the owner thought. Roy wasn’t taking any chances. Even his prisoner was nervous and had asked that the window in his cell be boarded up tight as well as the windows in all the other cells so that no one would know which cell he occupied. Roy kept a deputy or two patrolling outside and had one inside with him at all times. He looked forward to when the federal marshals would arrive to take this prisoner off his hands. He had been in the jail for weeks while the federal authorities tried to find enough marshals they could trust to bring him to California. When the young man arrived with the meal, Roy checked it over to make sure there were no weapons on the tray and checked the young man too before he led the man back to the cell to deliver the meal. All seemed to go well except the next morning, Sam didn’t wake up. When they went to wake him, he was stone cold dead and had been for quite a while. When Doctor Martin examined him, he said that his heart had stopped sometime during the night. Roy asked if it could have been poison, and Paul said it was possible, but he didn’t know how they could tell at this point. All Roy could do was to have the body removed and wire the federal office in San Francisco that their prize witness was dead. The young man continued to work at the restaurant for the rest of the month until he got a better job offer and gave his notice. No one ever suspected him of being an assassin.

The third target of the syndicate was more difficult to reach. By the time they got men together, the stage was almost a day ahead of them. It took three days to make up the time as the stage was making good time on dry roads. Their plan was that they were going to make it appear to be a robbery and take the money that their accomplice was carrying and make sure that it got to its destination in Arizona without mishap. Obviously that man was marked so orders were to eliminate him as well as Adam Cartwright. The head of the operation was cold-hearted, but these men didn’t care because for the work they did, they were very well paid. They didn’t know enough to be eliminated so they were relatively safe from the syndicate, and they feared the government very little with the syndicate backing them and needing their services. From their perspective, the syndicate was more powerful than the government anyway. There was one thing they did know however. They knew where the head of the syndicate lived when he was in Denver because they guarded the place when he was there. It was the crucial mistake that the man had made. No one in the government knew that yet, but when they did, it would be the opening in the case that they needed. Max had told Adam that he could make a thousand mistakes while investigating the case and it didn’t really matter. What mattered he said was the one mistake that the leader of the syndicate was going to make and they had to be ready to take advantage of it when he did. Well, he had made a mistake, but until they knew about it, they wouldn’t be able to take advantage of it.

By the way Martha was acting on the trip, Adam had to assume she was working. He stayed away from her but watched her. He couldn’t help himself most of the time but tried to be discreet pulling his hat down over his brow when he did so. One peculiar thing about the passengers was that two of them carried their valises with them during stops and at night. Based on that behavior, Adam had to assume they were carrying valuables of some kind and that it was likely that one of them was being watched by Martha. It was foolish for the two men to advertise the wealth they were carrying in such an obvious way. Adam had several hundred dollars in his pocket, but it was highly unlikely that anyone would guess that. Disappointed that he couldn’t speak with Martha but glad at least that he got to see her and be with her even if it was as if they were strangers, Adam wondered if there was any chance they could talk once they got to Tucson if she was going that far so when it was time to wash before dinner on the third night, he managed to whisper those questions to her when no one else was near.

“Adam, maybe, but wait until I check into the hotel and let me contact you. Now I have to go. We can’t be seen talking or they’ll think we know each other. I can’t draw attention to myself that way.”

Then she was gone, but Adam had to smile. He had an answer that was at least positive even if it might not happen. As he finished washing some of the dust from his face, the shorter of the two men with the valises stepped out to wash. When he saw it was only Adam at the wash basins, he went back inside. That made Adam smile even more. He had sensed that both men with the valises seemed to think that he was some kind of threat. He wasn’t sure why but guessed his scruffy appearance, the dark clothing, and the gun on his hip may have created the impression that he was an outlaw especially to men carrying valuables who probably couldn’t shoot well enough to hit a barn door at twenty paces.

The outlaws who were trailing them decided to wait to spring their trap until late the next day because they wanted the stage to be clearly inside Arizona Territory. That way, the California government would not be involved. Usually that worked out much better for them. So they made camp, and the next morning rode out ahead of the stage to set the ambush. The driver though was skilled and experienced. He saw signs of men ahead and knew what that probably meant so he pulled up and started to turn the stage around to make a run back toward the last station where they had gotten a change of horses. It was a desperate move but better than being ambushed. The outlaws though charged when they saw what he was doing. Inside the stage, Adam realized too what was happening and began to pull his pistol to help. One of the men with the valise, the shorter one, pulled his pistol and hit Adam on the back of the head with it because he thought he was in cahoots with the outlaws. The other man who worked for the syndicate had recognized him the moment he got on the stage and pulled his pistol to hit him as well knocking him unconscious. It all happened so fast and Martha was hanging onto the side strut of the coach to stay upright and likely couldn’t have stopped the assault anyway. Adam lay on the floor of the coach crumpled between their legs and unmoving as the coach lurched and rocked as the driver did his best to outrun the outlaws once he got the stage turned. It was hopeless though and eventually the stage overturned when one wheel hit a stone and tipped the coach up on one side. Momentum carried it over and the horses dragged it for quite a while until the drag forced them to a stop. The driver had been thrown and died from a broken neck. The outlaws were there immediately and pulling the bruised and battered passengers out. One held Martha as the others pulled out the two men who had been so protective of their valises. She was shocked when they simply pushed one a short distance from the coach and shot him in the head. Then they rummaged in the luggage until they found the valise he had and took it after opening it to check the contents. They had found the other man’s valise too and smiled when they realized that they were getting a bonus in this assignment.

“What about Cartwright?”

One of the men reached into the coach to poke Adam and check him over. “He’s dead. His head is all bashed in.”

“All right, then I guess all we can do is go.”

“Hey, can we take her with us?”

“Take her with us?”

“You know there ain’t many women in Arizona, and she’s a looker. We can let her go in a few days. I ain’t meaning to kill her or nothing. We ain’t killed no women. I mean only to, you know.”

“We can take her, but I’m not sure about the rest. We’ll let her go in Tucson. Yeah, might be nice to at least have a little female company.”

In shock because she believed that Adam had died in the crash, Martha’s professional instincts kicked in though. She was going to be with men who worked for the syndicate and apparently they had no idea who she was. They were going to let her go in a few days. She could put up with a lot for a few days if she got information to make them pay for what they had done, and perhaps they could give her information to make the rest of them pay too. Therefore, she didn’t resist too much when they forced her to go with them putting up token resistance but acting more like a victim of shock which they would believe under these circumstances.

When Adam awoke, it was to someone focusing light in his eye while holding his eyelid open. That caused blinding pain and he tried to raise his arms to stop the man but couldn’t for some reason. The man spoke gruffly to him.

“You’ll live. Well, you’ll live at least for a while.”

Struggling against the throbbing pain in his head that only got worse as he did his best to open his eyes, Adam finally managed to open them at least to tiny slits. He was in a jail cell and his wrists were shackled to a cot. It was all very confusing and he didn’t have the energy or the thinking ability at that point to reason it out. Instead, he closed his eyes and dropped back into oblivion hoping that perhaps that was all a bad dream.

*****

Chapter 9

The next time Adam woke up, he didn’t try to open his eyes first. He lay there and tried to gain an understanding of his situation as well as he could first. He was on a cot, his wrists were bound to a cot, and it was hot or at the very least, he was hot. With a throbbing headache, he tried to remember what had happened and surprised himself when he did remember being on the stage and being hit. He remembered falling and hearing her call his name. Then he heard nothing else. Trying to understand why he was hit, he remembered that the stage was being chased by outlaws. Why that led to him being hit was eluding him. At that point, he decided he would open his eyes. Taking that painful step got him the rest of the story.

“So you finally woke up. Good, the judge is due in town in a few days so we can have a trial and then a hanging.”

Turning his head slowly because instinctively, he knew it would be a mistake to do anything else, Adam saw a deputy sitting at a small desk not far from the cell in which he was confined. The office was small with this one cell, that small desk, a stove that was apparently seldom used, and not much else. By the light coming in the window, it was either early morning or late afternoon. Without any way to determine direction, he had no way of knowing. He needed some answers but that wasn’t high on his list of priorities.

“Why would I need a trial?”

Snickering and shaking his head, the deputy stood and walked over to look down at him as he lay on the cot. “I suppose you’re gonna say you had nothing to do with that robbery.”

“I had nothing to do with the attack on that stagecoach if that’s what you mean.”

“Our witness says the outlaws talked about you by name. You pulled your gun to help them. He and another passenger stopped you. The outlaws murdered the other man. Your friends thought you was dead.”

“They weren’t my friends.”

“I guess you wouldn’t think on them being friends now leaving you for dead like they did. If the one passenger they left alive hadn’t heard you moaning, nobody woulda known you was alive. He pulled you from that stage and tied you on one of them horses. He brought you here and told us what happened. Now, you’re one of them, and ’cause they got clean away, you the only one gets to pay the price.”

“But what about Martha? What about the woman on the stage?”

“What do you care? Well, since you was left for dead in the stagecoach, I spose you don’t know. They up and took her with them. Now that really got the folks here riled up.”

“You need to let me out of here so I can go after her. Didn’t anyone go after her?”

“Course we did but those men had quite a head start and we lost them up in the mountains. They’re heading south but I spose you knew that already. Maybe if you told us where, the judge might give you life in prison instead of hanging.”

“I can’t tell you anything that I don’t know. I’m not an outlaw. The passengers were wrong. I was going to Tucson to an auction to buy some stallions.”

“That’s a good one. Anybody going to that auction woulda been there already for days looking over them horses and seeing which ones they wanted to buy. Besides, we searched you and you only got about a coupla hundred dollars on you. You couldn’t buy those horses with that. You try that story on the judge, and you’ll be hanging from that big old white oak tree in no time.”

Keeping his voice low because his head hurt so much, Adam fought to keep his temper under control too because his fear for Martha was so great. “Why am I chained to the cot? You don’t think I’m that dangerous, do you?”

“Nah, it’s not that. You was thrashing about something fierce and you tried to push the doc’s hands away when he was trying to take care of you. Easiest thing was to chain you down.”

“You could take them off now.”

“I ain’t no fool. Those stay on until the sheriff is here too so one of us can keep a gun on you while the other takes off them cuffs. We may work this job part-time, but that don’t mean we don’t have some idea what we’re doing.”

“Part-time?”

“It’s a small town. We only get called on when there’s a crime like what you done.”

“I didn’t do anything.”

The deputy laughed and walked back to drop into the chair at the small desk again. “Yup, I gotta say that every darn one who ever sat in there done said the same darn thing.”

When the sheriff walked in a short time later, the deputy laughed and told him the same thing as well as repeating most of what they had discussed. They did remove his handcuffs, gave him some coffee, and offered him some breakfast, which Adam refused because his stomach roiled at even the thought of food. He tried to reason with the sheriff after the deputy left and got the same response without the laughter and mockery. Exhausted by then, he lay back and fell asleep. The next few days were repeats of that except he asked to send word to his family and was shocked by the response.

“Telegrams is expensive to send. We ain’t sending no telegram to your friends so they can come on down here to rescue you.”

“They’re not my friends. They’re my family. They can vouch for me and tell you that I was on my way to that auction. I was going to get the money wired to me if I needed it.”

“You got my answer on that already.”

“I have the right to a lawyer. I want to see a lawyer.”

“Only lawyer around here is the one who prosecutes the cases. He’ll have to be your lawyer too.”

“That’s crazy. I can’t have a lawyer who thinks I’m guilty.”

“Then you shouldn’t oughta rob stages for a living. Listen, you give us the names of the other men who was in on it, and the judge will likely go easier on you seeing as how you didn’t actually get to do anything. I mean ’cause you was already knocked out and all.”

“I can’t tell you what I don’t know. If you would simply contact any of the people I’ve asked you to contact, you would know that. What about Maxwell Hart? Surely you know he’s not an outlaw. He could vouch for me.”

“It’s the only telegram we did send. You must think we’re stupid telling us to send a telegram to a man who just got hurt so bad he’s in a hospital and can’t talk to anybody.”

“What?”

“Aw, you musta known it. We ain’t spending no more money on telegrams for you.”

“I had money on me when you brought me in. Spend my money on telegrams.”

“You ain’t got no money any more. We confiscated that for fines to pay for the posse, and paying to keep you locked up and to pay for the trial. We hafta pay the members of the jury two dollars each. The judge charges ten dollars. Then we’ll have to pay the hangman. Nope your money is all used up already.”

“This isn’t justice. You’re just putting on a show but you convicted me before I ever had a chance to say a word.”

“Nope, but I figure the jury’s gonna do that in record time with all we got against you.”

It was more the classic case of the stranger in town being railroaded through the system to the result that the town wanted. That the woman had been taken away affronted everyone there and they wanted someone to pay for that. It seemed that it didn’t matter too much to the population of the small frontier town who that was. The judge however did have some training in law and recognized some miscarriage of justice when he saw it although he wasn’t ready to set aside a jury verdict.

“What I want to know are the names of the other men involved in this heinous crime. I want to know, and I’m sure all these good people want to know, where the woman is who was abducted from that stage. I’m giving you three months of solitary confinement in Yuma Prison.” There were gasps from the gallery and the jury who thought the judge had gone insane. The judge held up his hands for quiet. “If at any time during those three months, you will tell the names of the other men involved in this crime, you will begin serving a twenty year sentence. You will be eligible for parole for good behavior. However if the three months pass and you do not divulge the names of those other men, then you will be returned to this county where the sentence of death by hanging will be carried out.” That got approval from the gallery and the jury.

Shaking his head now that the effects of the concussion were minimal, Adam asked if he could speak. The judge said no telling him that he was not to speak unless he was going to give the names of the other outlaws. Adam objected and the sheriff forcefully silenced him. He knew then that he had to hope that his family or his friends were coming to his rescue because there was nothing he could do for himself.

On the Ponderosa, Ben was only then beginning to wonder why he hadn’t heard from Adam. He guessed that perhaps Adam had either been too late for the auction or had not found any stallions he wanted to purchase for the Ponderosa. Of course, it could have been that Adam found the prices too high because he wasn’t one to spend too much on any breeding stock believing that one stallion wasn’t that much better than the next. Ben wondered if he was shopping around as long as he was in Arizona, but still wondered why he hadn’t sent a wire telling them something of his plans. It was another week before he got very worried.

By then Adam was sitting in solitary confinement in Yuma with a blanket and a bucket as his only furnishings in his cell. They had taken his clothing saying he wasn’t going to need them in the heat. It was hot in the cells and the walls retained the heat through much of the night. He was served one meal in the morning and one in the evening of very basic food. His bucket was emptied once a day. That was it. His routine couldn’t have been more boring. In order to stave off mental and emotional distress, he began to devise things he could do to pass the time but had to be careful to hide what he was doing so they wouldn’t stop him. He drew elaborate pictures with the colored sand on the floor of his cell. He kept small pieces of his food drying it into pieces that he could use to make tiny makeshift chess pieces and played chess against himself on a chessboard scratched into the sand on the floor. He wanted to sing, but there was a strict rule of silence. He had found that out the hard way and had the bruises to prove it.

Martha/Sarah was released by the outlaws when they left Tucson. She had not been terribly abused because she had thought Adam dead, which had made her morose and so lethargic that she hardly moved when they touched her not fighting back and not even showing signs of disgust. She acted as if she didn’t care and as if what they did was meaningless. In her mind, they could do anything they wanted to her as long as she got information that she could use to get the men who had caused this all to happen. She knew who these men were and planned to make sure they faced justice too eventually, but none of that steel resolve showed. What the men saw was a woman without spirit. She had to endure some indignity but they lost interest in her rather quickly and settled soon for having her fix the meals and wash the utensils packing everything away before they traveled each day toward Tucson. They held her until one of them dressed up smartly and impersonated the man they had murdered delivering the money to the bank before taking a room at the hotel and then taking a stage out of town. Once that was accomplished, they let her go and rode off. She headed directly to the sheriff’s office with her incredible story. He sent her to the doctor’s office after that, and then she spent several days resting in a room at the hotel and waiting for a response to the telegram she had sent to Max. When she did not receive a response, she sent another telegram to his second-in-command and was shocked at the response she got to that one. She headed by stage to the coast and got a berth on a ship to sail to San Francisco. Once there, she rushed to the hospital to see Max. Due to his standing, Max had a small private room with a bed, a small desk, and a table next to the window that looked out over the city. There was even a small vase of flowers on the table. Max was sitting in a wheelchair staring out the window.

“Oh, Max, what have they done to you?”

Turning in surprise to see his visitor, Max managed a small smile. “Sarah, I pushed them too far. I was overconfident. They didn’t kill me, but they sent a message didn’t they. The doctors say I may walk again with crutches or a cane, but that’s it. Until then, it’s this damned wheelchair. Now, it’s been a long time. Did they come after you?”

“No, but Adam’s dead.” Her voice was so flat and emotionless that Max wasn’t sure he heard her correctly and asked what she had said. She repeated it and then told her whole story. “Max, I want to go back there to make sure he’s properly buried, and then I want to go see his family. Oh, Max, we got him killed. If he wasn’t with me, he never would have been killed. He would have been able to act naturally around those people and they wouldn’t have thought he was an outlaw. Of course he might have been killed anyway. Max, based on what I heard those men say, I think they were there to kill Adam as well as to get the money and kill the man carrying it, the man I was following that day.”

“That’s possible. They targeted me at the same time and we had been working together in Virginia City. They must have figured it out. I feel more responsible. I was the one who got him into this. I wish I could go with you to pay my respects, but I guess I’ll have to write to his family and tell them what happened. They deserve to know that at least.”

“Max, then we have to get these people for what they’ve done.”

“Sarah, we’re out of this. They have already targeted me and taken me out of the picture. Now those men who work for them know you. If you show up again anywhere near one of their people, they’ll know and will kill you. You can’t do any more undercover work against them. You’ve done what you can. We have to give all that we know to the next set of investigators and hope they have more success.”

“We were so close.”

“I know. When we had Sam, I thought we were going to break the case.”

“When we ‘had’ Sam? Max, what happened to Sam?”

“He died. His heart stopped. We can’t prove he was poisoned, but that was probably what was done. He never said a word that we could use. By the time we went to search his house, it was on fire. His office was cleaned out. Then they found a way eventually to get rid of him too.”

“They’re very efficient.”

“And ruthless. Sarah, go see to what you need to do, and then perhaps it’s time to go home to your family in Milwaukee. They must wonder what’s happened to you.”

“I will, but first, I’m going to Arizona.” The last thing that Sarah saw was Max moving to the small desk and pulling out a sheet of paper to write to Ben Cartwright about the fate of his oldest son.

*****

Chapter 10

For the next several days, Sarah got rid of the things she had accumulated in the city. She didn’t think she would be coming back. She had a trunk she shipped to Milwaukee and two traveling bags she was taking with her. When she was ready to go, she went to bid Max farewell and then got on a stage to take her back to the area where the stage robbery had taken place. She got to the small town near there and headed to the sheriff’s office only to find that there was no one there. A sign on the door said to go to the boarding house. She needed to go there anyway to get a room for the night so headed in the direction the note said to go. An hour later, she sat in a room of shocked people, which included her.

“Adam isn’t dead?”

“He’s not an outlaw?”

“They didn’t hurt you?”

“He’s in prison? Why?”

It took quite a while to sort out the whole story and when they finally did, the sheriff wrote up what had happened and signed the paper with his deputy co-signing it. They handed that over to Sarah and told her to take it to Tucson to the judge there. The judge who had presided at Adam’s trial was on a circuit and not due back in this town for two weeks. Sarah was going to send a telegram but it was too much to explain in one so she decided to wait until she got to Tucson and could send a letter. It was such a mess and getting Adam out of prison was more important than sending a telegram at that point. However she ended up having to send one anyway because the judge required some validation of her credentials before he would even listen to her. Soon the federal marshal in the territory was brought in and the whole story was explained again. Then another telegram arrived from Max with a suggestion in coded language that Sarah understood but the others didn’t. She explained to them what Max was suggesting.

“Now, that’s kind of cruel to his family letting them believe that he’s dead.”

“We can probably work around that, but I know the men who work for the head of the syndicate when he’s in Denver and Adam can get close to them. By now, if I know him, he’s got a beard and probably looks quite different. I know he’ll want to do this. We can get the men who attacked the stage and left him for dead and at the same time, get the name of the man who runs the syndicate.”

“After what we did to him, you really think he’ll still want to help?”

“He won’t help you, but he will help me. I’m sure of that especially when he learns what they did to Max, and I already have an idea of what to do about his family. Now let’s go to Yuma and get him out of there.”

“But quietly. You don’t want anyone to know he got out?”

“Yes. It has to be done with the least amount of attention paid to it.”

“We’ll simply say he’s going back to the county that sent him there. It’s too soon but we can say the judge wants to talk with him. We’ll put him in chains and in a wagon. You can meet the wagon on the road and no one will be the wiser.”

At the prison, Adam didn’t know what to expect when the warden came into his cell. He was told to dress and that he was going to be leaving. He wasn’t given any means of cleaning himself so he put his clothes on over his filthy body. In chains, he was brought out to a wagon and told to get in the back. When he complied, shackles were placed on him. It was similar to how he was brought to the prison, but he had no idea what they were planning to do with him. The rule of silence that had been beaten into him meant he couldn’t question what was happening, and he was worried that somehow the execution date had been moved up before someone could come to his rescue. However almost as soon as he was through the gate, the driver told him to relax. Without turning around, he reassured him but gave him explicit instructions too.

“Don’t react to what I’m saying. You’re getting out of here. Sarah or the woman you knew as Flora or Martha is waiting outside of town. She’ll explain the rest. We have a place for you to spend the day and get cleaned up. You’ve been cleared of all charges and soon your family will know too. I know you must have a lot of questions. For now, you’ll have to wait but not for long. Within the hour, you’ll start getting some answers.”

There were so many emotions within Adam at that point that he had a most difficult time not showing a response. The driver was impressed that the man in back managed not to show what surely must be some strong emotional response to what he had just heard. He was going to like working with someone who had that kind of control under pressure. He had been sent with another agent to help Sarah and Adam. Max wasn’t going to let them head into danger without backup again. There were going to be two more agents in Denver who were ready to assist them too. The head of the snake was about to be chopped off and they all wanted to be part of it.

Adam’s control though wavered when the wagon was intercepted by the ‘rescue’ party who had the keys to remove the shackles and manacles. They had extra horses for Adam and the driver as another man took over the wagon and drove away. The two men told Adam they were going to a house not far from there and would meet Sarah there as she didn’t want to take a chance on the two of them being seen together yet. He was out of prison with their help so he trusted them as far as he could. They saw the hesitation so one man pulled his pistol and handed it to Adam.

“You can ride behind us if you want. If you think we’re pulling anything on you, you’ve got that.”

Adam accepted the pistol and the suggestion checking to make sure there were real bullets in the chambers. The men approved of his thoroughness too. They would have done the same under similar circumstances. Then Adam asked the second man for his pistol. Surprised, he handed it over, and Adam checked that one as thoroughly as the first.

“There, now we can go.” His voice was hoarse and raspy after not being used for so long, but it was clear enough.

The two men wheeled their horses around and rode toward the house glad that Adam Cartwright wasn’t on their trail. Sarah was waiting outside the small house when they got there. Adam smiled then finally knowing that everything was all right. He slid smoothly from the saddle and tossed the pistols to the two men. He walked to Sarah and wanted to grab her but knew how filthy he was and how badly he must smell. She didn’t seem to care. She threw her arms around him and invited the hug he wanted and that she needed. The two men took the horses to the small stable and left the two of them alone. Sarah broke the hug after a minute.

“Lord, you do need a bath.”

“And a shave and clean clothes if you have them.”

“First the bath. We’ll talk about the shaving.” Adam gave her a look that begged for more information. “We have a lot to talk about, but we have time, and you do need a bath and I do have one ready.” Sarah took his hand and led him into the house where a tub of warm water sat on the kitchen floor with kettles of water steamed on the stove. “There’s actually a drain to the outside so if the tub overflows or you want to drain it, it runs outside through that grate. Now, I can turn my back so you can undress and slide into the tub.”

Not needing any more invitation than that, Adam stripped down after pulling off his boots and lowered himself into the tub until only his head, shoulders, and knees were showing. When he told Sarah he was ready, she turned back and mixed some of the boiling water with some cool water in a bucket after handing soap to him and telling him to wash his face and hair first. She planned to use the bucket of water to rinse him and then he could soak in the soapy water while they talked. She had seen what looked like bruises on his arms and face and guessed he probably had more as well as the marks from the shackles and manacles. Soaking would make those feel better. It was warm in the kitchen, but being this close to a naked Adam was making her feel that it was even hotter even if most of him was not visible in the water. She asked him if he would mind if she opened the windows to try to cool the room down a bit. He didn’t mind at all after being in solitary for so long.

“Now, will you tell me what happened. I was told those men took you with them, Sarah.” It seemed strange to call her by another name, but at least this time, he knew it was her real name. “I hope it wasn’t too bad for you.”

“Actually, it wasn’t. One of them tried to do the nasty deed with me, but I was so, I guess you could say, uncaring, that he couldn’t. I thought you were dead. I decided that they could do anything they wanted as long as I got information from them that would let me get all of them and their bosses so they could all hang. They pawed me some and I didn’t even react. It wasn’t any good for them. Finally they told me to cook for them and they let me go after they did what they had to do with the money.”

“The money?”

“As you probably guessed, I was on the job and following the man with the satchel. Not the loud one but the other one. Apparently he was to deliver money to Tucson. When you got on the stage, they thought you were following him, which meant that you were working with Max and that their man was found out. That’s what the syndicate thought. Those men were given orders to kill both of you. They talked rather freely while I was in their camp not thinking that I would understand what they were talking about, but I was able to piece together things they were saying to get a pretty clear picture.”

“Why didn’t you turn them in when you got to Tucson. The authorities could have tracked them down and used them to get their boss.”

“The man who issues orders to them isn’t that far up. But I learned something very valuable when I listened to them. They were headed to Denver later this month. They’re guarding the home of the man who runs the ‘organization’ as they called it. Apparently, they guard his home every time he’s in Denver. That’s where two of this bunch is originally from so they know the area.”

“Now I’m guessing that has something to do with me not shaving?”

“Yes, we’re going to head to Denver, and I’m going to do my best to disguise myself. I’m going to watch for these four men. When I see them, I’ll point them out to the three of you. The two men outside are going to arrest or somehow get rid of at least one of them. They’ll want to replace the one or two they lose. You’re going to be available as someone recently arrived. We have people in Denver who will vouch for you as an outlaw on the run. Once you get in with them and take your turn guarding the man’s house, you let us know where it is, and we know who it is and can take it from there.”

“You don’t think they know me well enough to recognize me with a beard?”

“Hon, I barely recognized you when you rode in. With the longer hair, a beard, and new clothing, you’ll look like a completely different person.”

“Is Max going to be there for this?”

So Sarah had to tell Adam about Max and what had happened to him. Then she had to tell him even more difficult news. “Your family thinks you’re dead.”

“What?”

Sarah explained how that had happened too. Adam wanted to immediately wire his family to tell them that he was alive.

“Adam, you can’t or we can’t try to carry out this plan in Denver. They think you’re dead too so they won’t be looking for you. If they find out that you’re alive, they’ll be looking over their shoulders wondering when you’re going to show up. And worse, they are likely to send men gunning for you and that could put your family at risk if they go looking for you on the Ponderosa.”

“So you want me to let my family think I’m dead?”

“No, I have a plan for that too.” So Sarah explained what she thought they could do. Adam agreed it was probably the best way to handle it under the circumstances, and they did have until the end of the month to get to Denver.

“Now that was an awful lot of information to take in. You look thin. Would you like something to eat?”

“I would love something to eat but I would like to get out of this tub first.”

“Oh of course. I don’t know if I got the right size for you but I did get some clothing for you to wear. I’ll get them and you can get out and towel dry.”

Sarah handed a towel to Adam and left another on the chair by the tub as she went to get clothing for him to wear. She hadn’t completely thought about the logistics of this when she was putting the clothing away in a bedroom. Now she wondered how she was going to get the clothing to him with him out of the tub. When she returned to the kitchen, she paused at the door and moved slowly to see that Adam was waiting for her with a smile and a towel around his middle. He put out a hand for the clothing and she stepped forward to give them to him but noticed abrasions on his upper arm and then as she got closer saw more on his back.

“I should put some salve on those. We’re going to be on the trail for quite a while because we have to stay out of sight for the most part. We should take care of those now so they don’t fester. How did you get those anyway?”

“Mostly by brushing up against the side of the cell or by sleeping at night with only a blanket. They’re not bad.”

“Not now, but with clothing rubbing on them, they could get to be a problem. Sit on that chair and let me get some salve.”

By the time she returned, Adam had pulled on the pants that were a little too large for him but not by much. He was sitting on the chair waiting for her. She opened the jar of salve and spread it liberally on the abrasions on his back and upper arm. She paused then and put her hand on his chest. He looked up at her.

“My chest is fine.”

“Yes, it is.”

Leaning down then, Sarah kissed him. It was a soft kiss at first, and Adam didn’t want to push her knowing the experience she had just had. She pulled back slightly and asked if he wanted to kiss her.

“Yes, very much.”

“Then I think you ought to show me how much.”

With that invitation, Adam didn’t hold back. Pulling her down on his lap, he kissed her passionately but was still gentle with her. She wrapped her arms around his neck though and told him not to hold back. He didn’t then. He stood with her in his arms. She pointed down the hall.

“Your bedroom is that way.”

Later they lay together and talked softly.

“I could have pulled away. If you wanted me to do that, I would have. Sarah, you should have let me.”

“No, I wanted you where you were.”

“You could be with child.”

“I could be, but probably not. The odds are against it. I needed you and you needed me. I have some strong feelings for you and you for me, I think, and we need time to sort this all out.”

“I do.”

“But we can’t do this any more until this is all over. It will be a distraction, and anything like this could get us killed because we’ll be paying attention to each other and not to threats against us.”

“But after?”

“We’ll have to see.”

*****

Chapter 11

After hearing Sarah’s plan for letting his family know what had happened, Adam was in full agreement that he would do it her way and that he would accept the mission as outlined. There was the formality of having him swear an oath of office and accept a badge as a marshal. He wouldn’t wear it openly. None of them did. The next day, they packed up and headed north staying away from towns mostly. If they needed supplies, the two marshals with them, Mike and Xavier, went in to get whatever they needed so that Sarah and Adam were not seen by anyone. It was difficult for Adam to be with Sarah and yet to be there as no more than a colleague. She had said they couldn’t do anything more about their possible relationship until after all of this was over because it would be a distraction, but he found himself plenty distracted regardless. After a few days, he felt he had to talk to her about it so the first time that Mike and Xavier went to town for supplies, while they waited, he brought up the subject of their relationship.

“Sarah, you didn’t want to be distracted by a personal relationship, but I have to tell you that I am very distracted by the thought of what happened and what will happen. I would do better if I had some idea of what was going to happen next with us instead of the tension of not knowing.”

After having spent the last few days thinking much like Adam had been thinking, Sarah had come up with a plan. She decided that this was as good a time as any to begin to implement it. She intended to retire from this work after this mission and had already told her superiors that, but hadn’t told Adam. However, for now, he had to focus on the mission for his own safety. “Adam, what happened between us was something we both needed at the time. I needed you to be with me to wipe away the memories of those men and their hands on me. You needed me after all that had happened to you. I think we needed comfort in each other’s arms. We got that, and I don’t regret it at all, but I’m not ready to commit to a relationship with you. I’m sorry. I didn’t want to hurt you.”

Not sure whether he was shocked or surprised more, Adam had nothing to say at first because he had been sure that Sarah had strong feelings for him. He didn’t know what to make of what she had said to him. He decided that for the moment, he had to accept it. “All right. I guess that answers my questions. I won’t bother you with any more.” He had that mask in place that kept others out and held everything in. Sarah had not seen it before and found it almost frightening.

Knowing she had hurt him, Sarah had to comfort herself with the knowledge that he would now be better able to focus on the mission and not be distracted by her. She thought she had probably ruined her chances of a future with him by lying to him, but it was only the latest and most significant of the sacrifices she had made to get the justice she thought she had to achieve. When Mike and Xavier returned, they noted a change in the other two. They weren’t at all sure what had happened, but Adam and Sarah were more businesslike about everything. Of that, they approved because in the work they did, that kind of dispassionate attention to a task was usually the best way to stay alive.

As they neared the Ponderosa, the three let Adam take the lead trusting that he would get them onto the ranch without being seen. It was the last part that was tricky. Adam was going to see his father at least and his brothers if he could but didn’t want to be seen by anyone else. He got Sarah and the two marshals settled in a line shack and then set out to do some scouting of the ranch to see what was up. There seemed to be no activity in the southeast pastures so that worked to his advantage. He got very close to the house without being seen and watched for a long time but didn’t see any member of his family until midafternoon when he saw Hoss and Joe ride in. His breathing increased and his heart rate rose surprising him a bit because he wasn’t aware that he was going to be so moved by seeing them. Under the circumstances though, he guessed he should have known. He needed his family and seeing them so close without being able to freely go to them was difficult. A short time later, he saw his father ride in and go in the house too. Hands took care of his horse for him. Adam watched and waited but nothing more happened. He rode back to the line shack and told them what he wanted to do. He planned to ride back and wait in a thick grove of trees behind the house.

“Adam, don’t you think that’s rather risky?”

“I think it’s the best option. I’m going back there. When it’s dark enough, I’ll go from that grove behind the house into the house. Hopefully no one will shoot me before I have a chance to say something.” Sarah looked horrified. “I’m sure they won’t. Sarah, I’m sorry. It was gallows humor and I shouldn’t have said it.”

“We should go with you.”

“There’s much less chance that I’ll be seen if I go alone. I’ve ridden at night on this ranch too so I can find my way back here. Then we can leave in the morning.”

“I don’t like it. I don’t like any one of us going anywhere alone. There’s been too much of this lone wolf stuff. Max should have had backup. You should have. I should have. We need a new policy where no one goes anywhere alone. We don’t know what the other side knows. What if they know you’re alive and that you got out of prison? They could be waiting for you here.”

Xavier spoke up then. “It’s why we’re here. She’s right about all the lone wolf stuff. We’re all starting to think that we shouldn’t be doing these assignments without backup. The other thing we’re starting to worry about is that this syndicate is connected.”

“Connected?” Adam asked but he already had an idea because he surmised that the suspicions he had were similar to theirs.

“Yes, they seem to know too much and are too many places without interference. They’ve got somebody or maybe more than one in government office helping them.”

So Adam added his thought. “Or perhaps directing them? Have you considered that the head of this organization might be in the government? Is that why they knew that they shouldn’t kill Max but only put him out of commission? Because killing him would bring in more investigators and a replacement who would want answers? But an ‘accident’ only derailed the investigation long enough for them to do what they wanted to do?”

At that point, Sarah did a smirk worthy of any of the best ones Adam had ever done. “You just argued yourself into some company on this ride.”

With Adam leading them, they had no difficulty getting to the grove of trees except for the rough riding through gullies and such that he used to avoid being seen. Finally in the grove, he told them that they could move rather freely because the trees were so thick that movement wouldn’t be detected from the house. “We found that out when we were boys and played here. You walk in twenty paces and no one can see you because of the thick trees and the shadows. We can relax now. We’ll keep the horses back here and we can walk closer and watch.”

As the sun went down, what they saw confirmed the precaution of bringing all of them. There was a guard set at the ranch house. Adam had no theory even why that was the case, but what they did was watch the two men to see the pattern and figure out a safe way to immobilize them without drawing any attention. With the experience the four of them had, it wasn’t difficult. The first man was walking around the back of the house to check on things when he felt an arm go around his neck as a gun was placed against his temple and another set of hands took the rifle from his hands. The whispered command to remain quiet wasn’t even needed. He wasn’t about to resist. He was tied, gagged, and blindfolded in very short order and stashed safely behind the smokehouse. Sarah waited with Xavier and Mike then as Adam stepped into the house via the kitchen door.

The kitchen was already clean and quiet so Adam guessed Hop Sing was in his room. He had removed his boots at the door and moved soundlessly to the dining room. He saw the top of his father’s head in the red leather chair by the fireplace and knew he was awake by the lazy swirl of pipe smoke that blew up at that moment. He didn’t see his brothers and wondered where they were. Moving into the room, he waited until he was nearly by the chair before he said anything. There is no easy way to tell your father you’re alive when he thinks you’re dead.

“Pa, I’m home.”

The pipe shattered against the fireplace as Ben struggled to stand falling back into his chair once before managing to get to his feet on the second try and whirling around to look at the scruffy man standing beside his chair. There was the longish curly hair and the beard, but the eyes were the same and the voice had been his.

“I’m sorry to shock you like this, but I had to let you know I was alive.”

“Adam!” Stepping forward then, Ben wrapped his arms around his son and laid his head on his son’s shoulder as he cried.

“Pa, don’t cry.” Except Adam was crying too.

Then there was a lot more commotion as Hoss and Joe came down the stairs wondering at the scene before them as their father stood hugging a bearded man and crying. It was when they heard the next words, that they were shocked too.

“Adam, we thought you were dead. I’m so overjoyed to see you, but you look so different.”

Hoss moved closer. “Adam, is that you. Oh, Lordy, it is you.”

Ben released Adam then who was hugged by Hoss, and then Hoss looked back at Joe and released Adam who looked at Joe and then got a big hug from him.

“You came back from the dead. I don’t know how you did it.” Then Joe was crying too. Through his tears though, he had an important question they all had. “Why didn’t you let us know you were alive?”

“I am now. This is about as soon as I could. I didn’t know you thought I was dead until a short time ago.”

“Where were ya, then?” Hoss was confused.

“It’s a long story, and I’m sorry that I can’t stay and give you all the details.”

Ben interjected here because he was shocked again. “You only got back now, but you aren’t staying?”

“Pa, I have one more mission to complete.”

“One more mission to complete. So you work for them now. It’s not doing a favor for a friend any more.”

“No, with what happened, I work for the government now at least for this one mission. Pa, they tried to kill me. Then I was in jail for murder, tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang. I was sitting in prison in solitary. That’s why I couldn’t contact you. I had to wait for family or friends to save me. I couldn’t save myself. I thought you would know I was missing and come looking for me. I had no idea that you thought I was dead. The people I worked with found out that I was there and got me out. If they hadn’t, I would soon have been on the gallows.”

Ben didn’t tell him that Hoss and Joe were planning to leave the next day on a trip to go down to claim his body to bring it home for burial if possible. It seemed too ghoulish to talk about that with Adam standing there. He probably should have told him though because then Adam would have known that his family would have found out the same thing that Sarah had found and would have been able to rescue him as she had. Instead Ben focused on what had happened to him. “Why didn’t you have your lawyer send a telegram? We would have been there to help.”

“They wouldn’t send a telegram. Said it was too expensive. They took my money to pay ‘fines’ as they called them and ‘fees’ so I couldn’t pay for one myself. My lawyer was the prosecutor too in the case. If the judge hadn’t had a bit of a conscience and given me the solitary confinement, which I’m now convinced was a delaying tactic to give me time to find a way out of the mess, I’d be dead now. Anyway, that’s what it was: a big mess, and someday I’ll get to tell you the whole story, but tonight, I don’t have that much time. Now can you tell me why there are guards on the house?”

Hoss picked up that one. “Well, that’s a bit because of you too, older brother. Those folks who lost money to you in poker games ain’t the happiest of folks and one of ’em has been setting fires here. Well, we think that’s who it is, and it’s only one, but we got to watch out for ‘im. Nothing has happened for a long time now, but we was still being careful. We’ve hired some extra men so we can have guards out each night.”

Joe was worried. “You didn’t hurt the guards, did you? One of the guards tonight, Candy, is a new hire, and we like him a lot.”

“No one got hurt. You’ll find them out behind the smokehouse after we leave.”

“We? Son, you’re not here alone?”

“No, I don’t go anywhere alone any more. That’s the new rule. I might have been shot by one of your guards if I had. Now, you can’t tell anyone that I’m alive. The criminals we’re after wanted me dead, and they think I am. If they think I’m alive, they’re going to come after me, and they could come here looking for me.”

Ben had guessed that might be the reason for Adam’s appearance. “Will this ‘mission’ take care of that, or will you have to continue to live in the shadows like this?”

“It should take care of it, but I may have to lay low a while after it until all the principals can be taken into custody. It could be some time before I’m back, but I’ll be back.”

With hugs all around and well wishes, Adam was gone again. Hoss and Joe waited a few minutes and went outside to free their two night guards who wondered what had happened.

“Aw, just an old friend of ours who wanted to talk to us and doesn’t like being seen. He didn’t hurt ya none, did he?”

“Hoss, your friend has friends who are scary. I never heard a thing until I was held by two of them, and a woman whispered that I wasn’t to say a word. She has a cold way of talking.”

The other man they freed was also a new hire, Malcolm. He was upset about what had happened. “Who were those people?”

“Now, we done tole ya it was an old friend of ours wanted to talk with us without anyone seein’ him. Just the way he is. Don’t ya go worrying yourself about it. Everything’s fine.”

Malcolm didn’t seem appeased and Hoss and Joe assumed it was that he was embarrassed about being overcome so easily when he was supposed to be guarding the house. They both assured him not to worry because the man who had come in had very good skills at sneaking around.

“Yeah, he’s always been kinda sneaky.” Hoss’ statement made Joe grin.

When Hoss and Joe got back in the house later, they snickered a bit about Candy’s comment about the woman. “Figures our older brother would be workin’ with a woman. Gotta wonder if that’s what got him interested in this line a work in the first place.”

Joe chuckled even more with Hoss’ latest comment, but both sobered instantly when they got in the great room and saw their father with the family Bible. He had used ink to blot out the date of his eldest son’s death even as tears still trickled down his face. Ben was relieved beyond measure that Adam was alive, and now worried again at how long that would be the case.

*****

Chapter 12

Back in the line cabin later, Adam was quiet. Mike and Xavier went outside to take care of the horses, and Xavier caught Sarah’s attention and pointed at Adam. She knew he wanted her to talk with him. Brooding about things wasn’t going to help him get on with the mission.

“Are you feeling regrets now about what you’ve decided to do?”

Sitting quietly and staring at the fire in the fireplace, Adam didn’t answer for several minutes. Used to that kind of reaction, Sarah waited knowing her was thinking about how to answer and trying to get his thoughts in order. He would answer her when he was ready.

“Not regrets so much as ambivalence. When I was in my home again, I didn’t want to leave. It felt good to be back with my family. I felt safe. Yet, in my mind, I know I wasn’t safe, and I know I won’t be safe until this syndicate is defeated because they want me dead. There’s a war going on between my thoughts and my feelings.”

“I know what that’s like. I think we’ve all gone through that and probably more than once. It’s hard to live a double life.”

“How have you been able to do it for so long?”

“They killed my brother. The man running this is the same man who had my brother killed in Milwaukee or at least I think he is. He’s got a different name. He was wanted so he went west and changed his name, but this organization is so similar to a smaller operation he had going at home that it has to be the same man. My brother was a lawyer for a bank and alerted them that this man was trying to pull a scam that was illegal. He was found the next day with his throat cut, except they didn’t kill him outright. No, they took him out to a field and cut the vein in his neck and then left him there in the dark, barefoot and completely lost. Can you imagine what it was like for him. He felt his life blood flowing out through his fingers and couldn’t find help, couldn’t call for help, and couldn’t even go in the direction of help because he didn’t know where he was. They made him suffer terribly to send a message. It was too much though. People were horrified. The connection between the warning he gave to my brother and his death made the man a suspect immediately. An investigation was launched immediately which uncovered all sorts of crimes, and he had to flee. There was a pattern to those crimes.”

More than anything, Adam wanted to put an arm around her and offer her some sympathy and some comfort, but she had said there was to be nothing like that so he had to respect the boundaries that she had set. All he had was talk. “And when you learned of a similar pattern of crimes being committed here, you chose to be part of this investigation.”

“Yes, and I was already working for the government so it was not that difficult to do. What’s been difficult is getting information on these men. They’ve learned a lot about keeping secrets.”

“I’m very sorry that you had to suffer such a loss. Don’t worry, Sarah, we’ll get them this time.”

“You’re going to continue with the mission then?” Sarah was grateful that the conversation had turned back to the mission. She had felt her emotional control beginning to fail, and if it did, she knew Adam would comfort her and then all pretense of her not loving him would fall away.

“I was always going to continue with the mission. I was feeling torn though about leaving my family again, but they’ll be here when I’m done, and I have a greater appreciation for them than I did before all of this happened. I’ll get to show them that when I come back.”

After being able to spend two nights in the line shack, none of them looked forward to more camping on the trail, but they couldn’t go into Virginia City or Carson City and take a chance that someone might recognize Adam. However once they had traveled east of Carson City by about thirty miles, Xavier suggested that they might think about a stage ride up to the nearest spur line and then connect to the main line railroad.

“Xavier, Adam isn’t supposed to have money. He’s supposed to be needing work and be on the run. He can’t ride into Denver on the train an keep up that pretense.”

“No, and we shouldn’t all ride into town together either. You and I can ride into town on the train. Mike and Adam can get off at the stop before Denver and buy horses. They can keep their saddles and gear. Then they can ride into Denver separately so that no one puts them together either. I know the city well enough to map it out and give directions. We’ll get rooms at a hotel, and then we can all rendezvous there.”

Other than planning to go to Denver, remove one or more of the men on the protection force, and get Adam hired by being vouched for by contacts they had, they hadn’t worked out the rest of the plan. Usually Max had done that, and he was in no shape to be working out plans. Xavier’s ideas though sounded a lot like the kind of thing Max would have them do and the four of them quickly agreed to his ideas. On the train, they worked out the rest of the details and Xavier drew maps for Mike and Adam. Both had been to the city before but not to the sections they would be visiting on this trip.

“Now, the city is constantly under construction. It’s a lot like San Francisco that way so if the map is inaccurate in some parts, don’t worry about that. The key places should still be there. If you have trouble, go to one of the ones I’ve starred on the map and ask for the person listed there. They’ll help you with no questions asked if you say it’s for Zee.”

“Who’s Zee?” Adam asked but noted that Mike and Sarah were smiling. “What’s funny?”

“Zee’s my nickname, and don’t ask me how my family thought that Xavier became Zee but they did. When I hang around the tougher parts of towns, I don’t want to use a name like Xavier so there, I’m Zee.”

“That brings up another issue. I can hardly go by Adam when I’m there and give them a reason to wonder who I am. What name should I use?”

“What name would you like to use? It has to be something you’ll answer to or remember easy enough.”

“How about Abe?”

“That should do. All right, we’ll start calling you that and you start using Zee so that feels comfortable to you. Otherwise, I think we’re ready. Let’s get going. We’ve got a plan.”

Four days later, Mike and Adam left the train and watched it chug away to Denver. They had a two-day ride ahead of them and headed to the livery stable to buy two horses and then to the small store they saw to get some supplies. After two days in the saddle, they were as dusty as anyone would expect them to be riding into the city. Once they saw the city on the horizon, Mike told Adam to go first and said he would follow in two hours so that no one would put them together. By that night, they had managed to navigate their way through the city and find the hotel that Zee told them to find. They checked into their rooms and waited for Zee or Sarah to contact them.

For Adam, it was nerve wracking to sit in that room to wait but it was necessary. At about ten, there was a knock on his door and Sarah’s voice told him to open up. He did, and found all three of them outside his room with smiles and food although he wouldn’t have recognized Sarah. She wore clothing that made her look much heavier, a wig that gave her mousy brown hair, and tinted glasses that disguised her green eyes. She smiled when she saw him staring.

“Good, isn’t it. I feel comfortable walking around like this. I’ve looked in the mirror, and I don’t recognize myself.” Zee reminded her not to be overconfident. “Oh, I’m not, but this way I’m not scared to death either, and I can walk more naturally and act more naturally so I don’t stand out so much in a crowd. I think I blend in rather well which gives me a good perspective to look around for the men we need to locate.”

“Actually what she says is true. I’ve been her spotter, and sometimes, I have trouble seeing her in the crowds of people if I take my eye off of her, which I have to do of course or I’d stand out as being unnatural.”

“No sign of them yet?” Adam had hoped they would already be there. More waiting was going to be especially difficult.

“No, but there’s only seven days left in the month so they have to show up soon.”

Looking forward to that because then the inactivity would end, Adam also knew it meant that Sarah would be leaving. They had decided that it was too dangerous for her to stay once those men were identified. She would get on a train heading east as soon as she had pointed the four men out to Zee. She would be safe and her presence wouldn’t give them away. For Adam though who still felt strongly about her despite his best efforts to tell himself that she didn’t feel the same way about him, it was painful to contemplate never seeing her again. It was the next day when it all came together. Sarah spotted one of the men and made sure that Zee knew that. She got herself a good place to sit and watch to wait for the others to make an appearance. One by one, they entered the same hotel as the first man. They were careful men, they had to give them that. Upstairs, they saw that they had posted a lookout at a window so Zee pulled back and waited for Sarah to be able to make an exit without being noticed. Mike was there to greet them as they moved down the street.

“The two of you are together so I assume you found them.”

“Yes, they’re in the Hoffman House, second floor, the two rooms with a view of the street.”

“I’ll head down to the saloon across the street. Sooner or later they’ll probably go over there. You wait outside. If any one of them heads out alone, I’ll follow if the others don’t seem likely to follow him.”

“I’ll be back as soon as I get Sarah on that train.”

“Right now? I thought I would go back to the hotel.”

“What for? The only thing there are the other old clothing you used for your disguise. Your other things have been shipped ahead to Milwaukee. You have money to buy what you need when you get away from here. Now let’s get going. I don’t have a lot of time if I’m going to get back here to back up Mike.” Zee knew she had wanted to say goodbye to Adam, but there was nothing to be gained from that. At the train station, he wished her well and then had one parting comment. “If there’s anything there, he’ll find you one way or another.” Sarah’s sad smile said she didn’t believe it. Zee turned and headed back to his assignment knowing that people in his line of work seldom had long term relationships, but Sarah had now retired, and Adam was only in this double life for the remainder of this mission. Maybe they did have a chance. He wouldn’t bet against them even if the odds were not in their favor. Sarah found a seat and sat looking out the window with a hand on her stomach. He didn’t know it and she wasn’t sure yet, but she suspected that a part of him was leaving with her and would be with her for a long time.

At the hotel, apparently confident that they had not been followed and completely unaware that anyone would be waiting for them, the four syndicate men headed for the saloon much as Mike had predicted. He waited inside nursing a beer for well over two hours before one of the men complained that he had to go visit a horse leading to all sorts of rude comments from his friends. He got up to walk out as Mike drained the last dregs of his beer and sighed deeply as if he had to go home and didn’t like the prospect. Other men had done the same. Outside, Zee was waiting and followed the man at a discreet distance as he turned into the alley. The man was careful and looked around before unbuttoning his pants to relieve himself. He didn’t hear Zee come up behind him but felt that pistol in his back as he moved to button up.

“Don’t move your hands at all.”

“I gotta put myself back in and all.”

“No, don’t move.” Zee took the man’s pistol from his holster as the man thought about what he could do. He couldn’t yell and draw attention to himself. When he thought it was only one man though, he decided that he would fight. He spun around to grab the pistol and do just that only to find another man there with another pistol aimed at him.

“Now, I definitely wouldn’t do that if you wanted to live through the night. Take off your belt.”

“If I do that, my pants are gonna fall down.”

“Not if you hold them up with both hands.”

And then the man understood. With his pants unbuttoned and without a belt, he would need both hands to hold up his pants. They wouldn’t need to tie his hands to take him anywhere. He was effectively bound without being bound at all. If he tried to run, his pants would drop to his ankles and trip him up. These men couldn’t be criminals. They had to be the law.

“Who are you? You state or federal?”

“You can cover yourself now that the belt is gone. Now move down the alley. We’re going out the other end. We’ll tell you where we’re going, and maybe if you decide to talk enough, you can get a good deal.”

That was exactly what the man was thinking. He was trying to think of what he knew that he might be able to trade for his life and perhaps his freedom. He didn’t know if they knew what he had done. He could always blame the other three. He didn’t know that Sarah had told them what each had done at the stagecoach robbery and to her. There were plenty of charges already that they could use against him, but he might have enough information to avoid the gallows. Zee and Mike turned the man over to the federal marshals in the city with instructions to keep him locked up but not to let that information out to anyone. Then they headed back to the hotel to let Adam know that the first part of the plan was completed. Now they needed him to get hired so he needed to head to the saloon to have a drink. He probably wanted one anyway now that Sarah was gone and he hadn’t even been able to say goodbye.

*****

Chapter 13

Stopping at the saloon door, Adam did a quick sweep of the patrons inside to assess the crowd as if he was worried about who might be inside. Then he moved in as unobtrusively as possible taking a position at the corner of the bar nearest the door keeping his back to the wall. He could see the room easily enough and would notice anyone entering. He ordered a beer without spending much time looking at the bartender, which was message enough to that man that he didn’t care to engage in conversation. He drank his beer with his left hand keeping his right hand hanging casually at his side but of course in close proximity to his pistol. The three men at the table noticed him right away because he was in many ways like them. He was obviously being very careful and they guessed he was probably wanted as well.

At that point though, the three men were more concerned about their missing fourth man. When he had not returned, they had gone out to look for him and hadn’t seen him. No one around said they had seen anything happen and that the police had not been around. It was strange. They had gone back into the saloon worried about what might have happened. After another hour, they headed back to their hotel nervous and worried. They were getting ready to leave their hotel for another hotel the next morning when the desk clerk brought up a newspaper. There was a small note about the body of a man who had been found and was assumed to be the victim of a robbery. The police were asking anyone who thought they might know the man or anyone who knew of a missing man to come to a particular police precinct to talk to them. The description of the man fit their missing colleague perfectly. The story had been planted in the paper by Zee with a pair of nice little bribes to a reporter and to a police sergeant. Because all they had to do was the article and nothing else, they agreed. The three syndicate men were upset but at the same time relieved. Their fourth had been the unfortunate victim of a robbery, which was not wholly unexpected in the section of town where they were staying. He had probably not been paying attention considering why he had gone into an alley in the first place or so they surmised.

“Now we need a fourth man. We can’t cover two shifts at the house with only three of us.”

“It’s too late for them to send a man.”

“We could hire one here. All he has to do is guard a house. He don’t need to know any more than that.”

“If he works out, he could stay on with us, and if he don’t, well there could be another body for the police to find and wonder who it is. It’s only for a couple of days.”

“Who we gonna get?”

“Last time we needed some extra muscle, the bartender at that saloon gave us some good ones. Maybe he knows somebody.”

“It’s not the same bartender.”

“Bartenders in this part of town know people. For a little money, he’ll give us the right man.”

“I’m not sure I like it.”

“You’d rather pull double shifts guarding the house?”

“All right, let’s get somebody. You’re right. It’s only for a few days, but I don’t want to have to pull a whole day of guarding that house.”

By that night, the three men were in the saloon waiting for Adam to show. They knew him as Abe and didn’t have a last name. When he walked into the saloon, his routine was similar to the first time they had seen him. This time they evaluated him as a potential partner. He wore his pistol rig low like he knew how to use it. He kept his hat low over his eyes so he could survey the room without everyone noticing that he was looking. Again, he held his beer with his left hand and let his right hand hang loose at his side. Everything about him said he was dangerous. One of the men got up slowly and walked over to him. He saw how Abe stiffened a bit at his approach.

“Nothing to worry about, friend. The bartender here just gave us your name and said you might be looking for a bit of work for some quick money. We might be interested in hiring you. You want to hear us out and decide?”

Adam didn’t ask who the ‘we’ were. The man knew he knew what table he had been at. Instead, he waited a moment as if thinking it over and then nodded. “I’ll listen.” He used his beer to point to the table as if to direct the man to return and he would follow. Once at the table, he pulled up a chair so that he could still see the door. “All right, I’m listening.”

“Bartender said your name is Abe. What’s your last name?”

Adam looked at him for a long moment. “Lincoln.”

The other two at the table snickered. “Fair enough. You don’t know who we are either.” He proceeded then to outline the very basic job that needed to be done. When he finished, he asked if Adam was willing.

“Just a minute.” Adam went to the bartender and leaned over to ask a question quietly. The three men assumed he was asking the bartender to vouch for them. He returned to the table. “Only four days and I get paid cash up front each day?”

“We can do it that way if you don’t trust us to pay you at the end of the four days.”

“All right. Where do I go?”

“You can meet me here tomorrow at six. I’ll be working with you the first night. Wear dark clothing, and that’s all you need to know.”

“Good enough.”

When Adam left the saloon, he assumed he was being followed. He was careful and showed that he knew he was being tailed. He made if difficult for them finally going into his hotel and then waiting at the top of the stairs until one of the men approached the clerk and asked about him. The clerk told him what he had been paid to say and no more. The man seemed satisfied and left. Adam waited for a short time and went to his room where Mike and Zee joined him a short time later to discuss what had happened. They had been following the men who had followed him telling him that one went around back to make sure he didn’t leave.

“They waited outside for about a half hour and then left. Apparently they must have approved of the fact that you didn’t light a lamp to alert anyone to which room you had. They knew though.”

“Because the clerk told them.”

“Yes, he did. But your room has no outside access. We made sure of that. They would need a ladder to get in here.”

“Tomorrow we’ll be leaving long before you do to get into position to follow you. We’ll trade off so that it won’t be one of us following you the whole way. We’ve done this before. We’ve got two local officers who will be helping too. With any luck at all, this will be over tomorrow night.”

“Luck is something I haven’t had much of lately. I hope planning will take care of things.”

“We’ve planned everything as well as we can. If planning leads to success, then we ought to be successful.”

For some reason though, they were all on edge. It seemed that things had worked too easily so far. Whenever things went too easily, there was reason to worry that somehow there might be forces at work that they couldn’t see. That kind of unknown variable was always the worst problem in their missions. The other problem was waiting. None of them slept well that night. Then the next day, they waited not wanting to go anywhere and take the chance that they might be recognized or that something else could go wrong. At five, Adam left his room to go back to the saloon. He was going to be very early, but he had decided that was the way to do it. Because of that, Zee and Mike got to leave even earlier. They surprised the three syndicate men who had expected that Adam might have friends but by the time they got to his hotel to watch for any friends he might have, they were already gone. They saw Adam leave early and actually approved of that. They didn’t know why their boss was suspicious of this man but he was and had told them to go watch his hotel and him. They followed him to the saloon and watched him enter there. No one unusual was watching him or met him there either. Finally they went to the saloon for the meeting. ‘Abe’ seemed surprised to see all three of them.

“We’re all going to the house to start but only you and me are staying. We’re getting orders from the boss, and then these other two can head back to our hotel for some rest.”

What he said didn’t ring true. It sounded hollow so Adam knew he was lying. Why he would lie about something like that, he didn’t know but was glad that Zee and Mike were going to be following him and that they had enlisted help. He had a feeling that before the night was over, they were going to need it. It didn’t take long to get to the house because they took a direct route surprising Adam again. He had thought they would take a more careful route to be sure they weren’t followed but they seemed very sure of themselves as if they had nothing to worry about. That made him much more nervous than he had been. When they got to the house, they all walked around to the back and were let into the kitchen by the cook who said he was done and leaving for the night. He hurried away as if he wanted to be sure he wasn’t there for whatever was coming next. Adam was getting more nervous by the minute although no one would have known it by looking at him. The leader of their small group seemed to know what to do and led them through the house and stopped at what looked like a study. The door was open and a voice called out for them to enter. Adam nearly froze up when he heard the voice but had little choice at that point except to go with the other three and hope for the best. When he entered the room, he saw his family’s legal representative from San Francisco, Richard Blanchard, sitting at a desk with his feet propped up on a drawer he had pulled out.

“Well, you are looking awfully scruffy and much less well dressed than I usually see you, but welcome to my home anyway, Adam Cartwright.”

Shocked, the other three men stepped away from Adam and put their hands on their weapons. The man at the desk already had a pistol in his hand though so Adam wouldn’t have done anything anyway. He told the three to disarm Adam and give his pistol to him. They did and laid it on his desk. Adam simply stared at the head of the syndicate for a moment before asking the obvious question.

“So, Blanchard, how did you know?”

“I was a bit skeptical when these four said you were dead. They hadn’t checked thoroughly enough for me. I would have shot you as you lay in that stagecoach just to be sure. If they had done that, then I would have been satisfied. No, at first I thought you were probably dead especially when your father set up an appointment to have legal papers redone removing you from the documents and naming only your younger brothers. Then suddenly a week ago, I was informed that he had cancelled those appointments. Now I asked myself why he would do that. To me, there was only one answer. His son who was living a double life was alive in that other life. I had some people check out what had happened down there in Arizona and they came back with some very disturbing news. Then one of my men here mysteriously disappears and a dark haired stranger of about the same height as you just happens to be conveniently around and available for the work. It was all too coincidental.”

There was a knock then at the front door. He told one of the men to answer it and then to go outside with one of the others and guard the house as per their usual orders. He told the other one to stay to keep on eye on Adam. “He’s a smart one so don’t underestimate him. I have a use for him tonight though so I would rather he not be shot quite yet either.”

The next surprise for Adam was the man who entered the room. He was greeted by their host.

“Good evening, Senator. May I introduce Adam Cartwright. He’s one of the people who have been a thorn in our side, but I assure you that tonight, he will cease to be a problem. Adam, may I introduce you to the esteemed Senator from Colorado. He and I have been in business together here for quite some time. However, Senator, I have to tell you that our business partnership is about to end.”

“What? Why?”

“Well, you see this man works for the Treasury Department and the agents he works with now know this is my house and have undoubtedly seen you enter it. It won’t take long for them to put it all together so something has to be done about our arrangement.”

Casually as if he was simply going to move it, Blanchard picked up Adam’s pistol but turned it toward the Senator and fired. The man had a shocked look on his face as he fell back with a burgeoning red hole in his chest. With a sinking feeling, Adam looked at the dying man and then back at Blanchard.

“You think you can blame that on me?”

“Oh, I know I can. He’s dead by your gun. Next, my man there is going to kill you. Our story to the press is that you were an unknown intruder who killed the Senator and my employee killed you. The bodies of your friends outside will be disposed of without a trace. I doubt that any of you have had a chance to communicate the location of this house and therefore the owner to anyone else.”

“He won’t kill me. If he raises his gun toward me, he’s a dead man.” Adam was only partially bluffing. He had seen movement outside the window. If those were Blanchard’s men, there was no reason for them to be there. Therefore, he assumed it had to be either Mike or Zee. He also thought he saw a shadow pass by the door of the study. Again, if it was one of Blanchard’s men, there was no reason to be stealthy. He could only hope that he was correct.

“You are really something. I wish I had someone like you on my side. Luke, shoot him.”

Luke hesitated however looking at the windows on two sides of the room wondering if there was someone out there in the darkness with a gun pointed at him.

“I said to shoot him!”

Almost a bit reluctantly, Luke raised his weapon to point in Adam’s direction. The window crashed and Luke flew back against the wall probably dead before he hit the floor. Blanchard dropped behind the desk and Adam dove toward Luke hoping to get his weapon so he could defend himself if necessary. Blanchard knew the fate that awaited him if apprehended. He came out firing then with a pistol in each hand running toward the open door. All Adam could do was scramble for cover, but Blanchard stopped suddenly at the door as gunfire erupted in his hallway. He fell back wounded mortally and tried to raise his weapons to fire, but Adam was there to disarm him.

Blanchard gasped out his last words. “Damn you to hell.”

Staring down at the man who had created such evil, Adam had no sympathy for him. “No, I doubt you can do that, but I think that’s where you’re going.”

In a matter of minutes, Blanchard was dead bleeding out before any medical help could have gotten there to save him. Mike and Zee and several other official looking men were in the room by then checking the Senator and Luke determining that both of them were dead too. The head of the syndicate had been cut off, the syndicate would die now, and Adam was still healthy and whole.

*****

Part III

Chapter 14

As men rolled Blanchard’s body into a blanket, and then did the same with the Senator and with Luke, Adam looked at Zee and Mike.

“Excuse the language, but what the hell is going on?”

“We left so early today that I thought I had time to stop by the police precinct and thank my contact there for his cooperation for sending two officers to help us tonight. He didn’t know anything about it. Apparently my communication to him had been intercepted and his messages to me were forged. We got that all straightened out and Denver has two less police officers tonight, and there might be even less tomorrow. They’ve got a major internal investigation into corruption going on. He sent some trusted officers to help us. We had no problem with the two outside and they’re in custody. That gives us three who will talk. We had no idea that Blanchard was going to kill the Senator. I was sneaking into the house as the others watched from outside. If anyone had known he was going to kill anyone, we would have stopped him. We were only thinking that he might raise the gun toward you, and that’s what we were ready to stop. He caught us by surprise by turning toward the Senator and shooting him.”

Adam shook his head disappointed that he hadn’t been able to prevent a murder even if it was of a corrupt politician. “I saw it in his eyes, but the Senator didn’t. I didn’t know what to do especially as quickly as he acted.”

Mike tried to make him feel better about it. “None of us saw it coming, but he was so quick about it that he must have had it planned well before he did it.

Zee got back to business. “There’s nothing to feel guilty about. We did all that we could do. The Senator chose to consort with criminals and should have known the risks he was taking. I’m hoping that what happened means we’ll get all the evidence we need to break this case wide open. This is the scene of a crime so we can search this room thoroughly and I’m guessing we may find a lot of evidence and information here. We’ll get search warrants too for all of Blanchard’s properties and offices. It may take some time, but we’ll start arresting all the people who were working with him. We had no idea he had a Senator in his pocket.”

“This is big.”

“This is very big. There may be an investigation of the Treasury Department itself. How did they get those plates to begin with? There are a lot of questions, but now we’ve got the chance to find some answers. From here on in, Mike and I won’t have much to do with it. It becomes a paper trail now. The lawyers and investigators who do that will take over.”

“So we’re done.”

“You’re done. We’ll be reassigned.”

There were already more men coming into the room with boxes and emptying the drawers and files to cart them away. They were looking through some of the materials as they boxed them and called Zee over at one point. He nodded and smiled.

“That was rather careless of him.”

“What was rather careless?”

“He’s got a ledger and initials next to payouts. A number of the payouts match the Senator’s initials so he wasn’t coding the names. It shouldn’t be too hard to start putting names to the initials. That will help a great deal.”

“When can I go home?”

“For now, I can’t tell you. Let’s go back to the hotel and relax for a few days. When they can give us a better idea of the pace of the investigation and the arrests, then we’ll know when it will be safe for you to resurface.”

“I’d like to let my family know that it’s over.”

“We can’t do that directly yet, but I think I know a way.” Seeing Adam’s look, Zee smiled. “By now, Max is probably going crazy not being able to do anything. I know he’s in a wheelchair, but with someone to help him, he could travel. He’d probably like a trip to the Ponderosa. He could see your family and tell them what’s happened at least in general terms. Max won’t know much more than that anyway, but he’ll feel useful and your family will be reassured.”

“I like that plan. Thank you. I’d like to get my hair cut, get a bath, and shave too.”

“We can afford that, and probably a nice dinner tomorrow too, but first, let’s go get some sleep. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted. I didn’t sleep well last night, and it’s late.”

They were all in agreement on that so they left the large home in the nice section of town and headed back to their seedy hotel and a good night’s sleep. The next day, a message was sent to Max via a government courier. Max got that message two days later and was thrilled to have something important to do. He made arrangements and was on his way to the Ponderosa the following day with an aide along to assist him as needed. He was still mostly using the wheelchair but could go short distances using crutches so he could get on and off the steamboat and then the trains. Two days later, he was in Virginia City and had word sent to the Ponderosa. Max said he had a present for them so Ben sent Hoss to pick him up in town the next morning.

When Max arrived on the Ponderosa, one of the new hires saw Hoss helping him from the carriage and knew who he was. He guessed he was there and that Hoss was so happy because Max was bringing news about Adam. The man had assumed Adam might be alive ever since he had been tied up by strangers one night while doing guard duty. He had set one fire and had planned to burn the house down with the Cartwrights in it when he had the chance, but after that night, he had decided to wait to see if Adam came back again to exact the revenge he truly wanted. He guessed that possibility was getting closer, but if Max recognized him, it could all be lost. He asked the foreman for permission to go to town that night. He seldom asked for favors so he was told he could go. Once in town, it wasn’t hard to find what room Max had and what room his aide had. When Max returned, he planned to be there waiting for him.

Meanwhile, Ben, Hoss, and Joe were relieved to learn that Adam’s mission was over but wondered why he couldn’t head home immediately. Max explained that there was an ongoing investigation and that not all the arrests had yet been made. If Adam suddenly appeared, the fact that he was alive would alert some of their targets that it might be a good idea to run. They wanted all of them so they had asked Adam to lay low until they thought they had arrested everyone they could. Even the Senator’s death had been reported as from natural causes so that no one would suspect that there was anything unusual going on. Blanchard himself was often traveling so no one would suspect anything until he didn’t show up back in San Francisco when they expected him or shortly thereafter. They hoped to have all the arrests there done by then.

“How long will that take?”

“I can’t answer that, but I would say probably no longer than a month or maybe two at the most.”

“A month or maybe two. What’s he doing while he’s waiting?”

“Actually, knowing Adam, I can imagine he’s giving our agents about as hard a time as anyone could give them. I sent a message back and made a suggestion that perhaps he could take a trip east someplace for a short time to keep him busy but out of circulation at the same time. The other option was to find him a short-term job to do such as construction. He’s good at that and it would take care of his energy.”

They all laughed at that knowing how Adam was when he was forced to be inactive. Relieved too to know that he was not in danger any longer, they were impatient to see him, but also recognized why they all needed to wait for the reunion. Max assured them that the reason he was there was that Adam had wanted to come home and had wanted his family to know that. Ben smiled hearing him say that because he had carried some worry that Adam might decide that he liked this type of life and decide to stay with it. Max saw the look on the older man’s face and correctly guessed what he was thinking.

“Ben, your son is very good at this work, but he never liked it. Don’t worry. He’s coming home. He did what he did out of a sense of duty to his country, but he didn’t seek out the job and his reactions to what he had to do show that he could never make it a career. No, he was invaluable in this, but he belongs here.”

After having the special sumptuous meal Hop Sing had prepared, Max got a ride back to town from Hoss who got him there just as the sun was setting. Max told Hoss to be careful on the drive back, and Hoss assured him he would and that he knew the road well, and if he didn’t, the horses did. The aide that Max had hired was there with his wheelchair and helped him into the hotel and up to his room. Once in the room, he laid out a nightshirt for Max, set a basin of water on the nightstand, and made sure the commode was close. Max said he had everything he needed and could take care of the rest himself. He settled into a chair to read and fell asleep as the day had been tiring for him. A short time later he awoke to a hand on the side of his head and an arm around his neck. He wanted to yell out but there was too much pressure on his neck for him to do so. He heard a voice and thought he recognized it. The voice whispered in his ear.

“I was here to get my revenge on Adam Cartwright for what he done to me. I lost everything because of him. I guess you played a part in it so I don’t feel bad taking it out on you too. You all didn’t care about anything except what you wanted to do. You didn’t care that I was blackmailed into what I did. Well, I had no job, I lost my wife who took my children with her, and I lost my house and everything else. I have nothing. Now you’ll have nothing too.”

The man leaned forward then enough for Max to see who it was. Max mouthed ‘Malcolm’ just before Malcolm twisted his arm as hard as he could one way as he pushed his hand the opposite way breaking Max’s neck.

“There, now you know who sent you to hell.”

Malcolm gathered up Max’s body and grabbed his crutches. For convenience, Max’s room was the one directly at the top of the stairs. Malcolm cracked the door open propping Max’s body against the wall. No one was in the hall or on the steps. Malcolm stepped outside and heaved Max down the stairs with his crutches as if he had fallen from the top step and tumbled head over heels down the full flight. Alarmed by what he saw, the clerk ran to Max at the bottom of the stairs only to see sightless eyes. A number of people came to see what the noise had been. Meanwhile Malcolm was calmly walking down the back stairs of the hotel and exiting as no one was paying any attention to what was happening at the back of the hotel with the tragedy that had occurred at the front. Sheriff Roy Coffee was called in as was Doctor Paul Martin who declared the cause of death to be a broken neck. The official cause of death on Roy’s report was an accident. No one thought there was any reason to investigate further or to suspect that there had been any other cause other than a tragic accident. Ben Cartwright paid for the funeral when he found out what had happened. Max had no family having devoted his life to his career so there were no family members to notify and he was no longer working because of his previous debilitating injuries. The aide he had hired found other employment, and it was all quietly settled. Malcolm was very pleased with himself.

Two months later in Denver, Adam got the word that he was clear to go home with no restrictions. Zee and Mike had long since departed Denver for other missions while Adam had gotten a job with a construction company and was using his grandfather’s name to remain incognito. When he told the company that he was leaving, they were disappointed and told him he could have a job any time he wanted to come back because his work had been that good. He thanked them, but said he was going home to Nevada and didn’t think he would be in Denver again except to be passing through. He packed his bags and climbed aboard the train the next day anxious to get home to see his family. He had hoped that he might be able to find Sarah in the extra time he had, but no one had been willing to give him her full name so he had no way to get in touch with her. Going to Milwaukee and looking for Sarah with the green eyes seemed like a fool’s errand especially because if she had wanted him to come find her, she would have at least given him some information that he could use to find her. He was nearly back in Virginia City when he wanted to slap himself. She had given him the information but he had been too dense to realize it. Her brother had worked for a bank as a lawyer and had been murdered. A story like that would have been reported. If he had looked, he would have found it and then he would have known her last name. However, she had always been very direct with him so he wondered if she would have purposefully set it up like that or had that information simply been given to him because she trusted him and not because she ever expected to see him again. The more he thought about it, the more he knew he could find her if he tried but thought that she probably didn’t want to be found at least by him or she would have told him something more encouraging than she had. Instead, she had said goodbye or rather had told him she was leaving. He never did get to say goodbye. Happy that he was going home, he carried that sadness within his heart for another loss as he settled in for the trip enjoying the train ride knowing that in a short time he would see his family.

In Virginia City several days later, Adam went from the station to the livery stable to rent a horse. He hadn’t wired his family because he hadn’t been sure when he would arrive as he took any means he could to travel as fast as he could. There were people who recognized him and waved although many were shocked to see him. He waved back but didn’t stop to talk riding out of town at a good pace intent on getting home as quickly as he could. It had been his goal for quite a while. When he finally rode into the yard of the Ponderosa, he saw his brothers working with a man who looked a lot like him in how he dressed. First Joe and then Hoss looked up, and as soon as he slid from his horse, he was enveloped by his brothers welcoming him home and of course asking why he hadn’t let them know.

“Once they told me I could come home, I didn’t want to waste any time and I came as fast as I could.”

“Dang, it’s good to see you.”

“It sure is, older brother. Pa’s just went inside a little while ago. He’s going to be thrilled to see you. Hoss and I will take care of your horse if you want to go see Pa.”

“Thanks, Joe. I’ll do that.”

Without a backwards glance, Adam was striding to the house. Hoss saw his saddlebags on the horse and took them off calling to Adam who didn’t respond. A hand nearby grabbed them from Hoss.

“I’ll run that into the house for you, Hoss.”

“Thanks, Malcolm.”

*****

Chapter 15

When Adam pushed the door open, he didn’t at first see his father. He called out and Ben came around from his desk and saw his eldest son standing near the front door. Adam smiled at him, and Ben drew his pistol as fast as he could firing at Malcolm who had his pistol out and aimed at Adam’s back. Ben called his son’s name but saw the look of shock on his face instead of any kind of understanding of the danger he was in. Adam did move in reaction to his father pulling that pistol up to firing position and that saved his life, but Malcolm was too close for him to completely escape the attack. Malcolm and Ben fired at about the same time, and the roar of the firearms was deafening. In the yard, Hoss, Joe, and Candy whirled around from talking and walking with the horse to the stable and ran to the house. Inside they found Malcolm writhing on the floor with a bullet hole in his throat. He didn’t have long to live and couldn’t say anything. Ben was cradling Adam who only said one thing before losing consciousness.

“Pa, why?”

Adam had looked up at his father with such a sad look even with the pain he was in that Ben knew what he thought. He tried to answer Adam, but it was too late for Adam to hear him and understand.

“No, Adam, I didn’t shoot you. Malcolm shot you. I don’t know why.”

Hoss moved to pry his father away from Adam. “Pa, we gotta take care of Adam. He’s bleeding something fierce. Pa, ya gotta let him go so we can try to stop the bleeding.”

Joe worked too to get their father to release Adam as blood pooled beneath Adam at an alarming rate. Hop Sing had seen what had happened and rushed to get towels returning to add his insistence that Ben let them help Adam. It finally sank in through the shock and Hoss moved Adam onto his side so that they could press the towels against the wound to try to slow the bleeding. It did but not nearly enough even after fifteen minutes of Hoss applying strong pressure.

“We gotta do something else. Pa, Hop Sing, what we gonna do? At this rate, he won’t last until Candy gets the doc back here.”

“We could try cauterizing the worst of it, but that could cause more harm than good.”

“Pa, we gotta do something. If we don’t do anything, it won’t matter. He’s bleeding too much.”

Hop Sing appeared then with some utensils that could be used for that purpose. Hoss pulled back the newest set of towels, which were already being soaked with blood to show his father the shape of the wound and where the blood was coming out with the most significant flow. Then he pressed the wad of cloth back down to wait for his father to heat the utensil. Joe stood by not knowing how he could help as Hop Sing wrapped the handle of the utensil in thick cloth handing it to Ben. He directed Joe to make a bed of coals and use the bellows to make them glow. Joe jumped to the task grateful to have something to do to help. A few minutes later, Joe had to run outside to retch. He had never witnessed the cauterization of a wound on a person and when that person was his brother, it was more than he could stomach quite literally. When he came back in, he was going to apologize, but both his father and Hoss had white faces too showing that they had suffered much the same reaction he had. Hoss was once again holding a wad of cloth over the wound. He waited another ten minutes and lifted the wad of cloth.

“It’s a lot less. It ain’t stopped, but it’s a lot less. It looks real ugly, but he ain’t gonna bleed out anyway. I think we kin get him up off the floor and onto a bed now. How ’bout the guest room, Pa. I don’t think we oughta move him very far.”

“Yes, that will be best, I think.”

Working together, Hoss and Ben lifted Adam’s torso and kept his head steady as Joe lifted his legs. They carried him into the guest bedroom and carefully laid him on the bed removing as much of his clothing as they could without jostling him too much and causing any more trauma that might make his wound bleed more. They stayed with him until Doctor Paul Martin arrived and took over. Paul was upset to see the ugly cauterization even if he knew the necessity of it because it further complicated the wound treatment and trying to isolate the source of the severe bleeding. Hours later he emerged from the guest bedroom exhausted and dropped into a chair. The family anxiously awaited what he had to say. It was bad news, which caused him to hesitate and Ben to grow impatient.

“Out with it, Paul. How is he?”

“It’s bad, Ben. The wound itself isn’t that bad. He’s had worse. It’s the bleeding. He lost so much blood, and the cauterization has had effects that I can’t begin to tell you until he wakes up.”

“The effects of the cauterization and when he wakes up? What aren’t you saying?”

“The cauterization may have reduced blood flow to his brain. I won’t know if that’s the case and if there has been damage because of it until he wakes up. As far as that goes, the best I can tell right now is that he is in a coma. When someone is in a coma, it is impossible to predict when or even if they will wake up.”

“What do you mean ‘if’ he wakes up?”

“I’m sorry, Ben, but I have to be honest with you. He may never wake up.. Sometimes with major blood loss, the body shuts down. There’s nothing we can do about that.”

“When would we know that’s what is happening?”

“Within two days, we should know. If he can make it through the next two days, then I would say that issue is far less likely to be the major problem. We still don’t know when he will wake up. Patients have sometimes gone days, weeks, or even months without waking up.”

“Doc, what happens to them that doesn’t never wake themselves up?”

“Hoss, I think you know that answer. I wish I could say there was more that I could do, but medicine simply has no solution to what he faces right now. I’ll come back tomorrow to see if there’s a change.”

“What do we do until then?”

“Sit with him, talk to him, keep him company so he knows he’s not alone. See if you can get him to drink spoonfuls of water.”

“How about sugar water or broth?”

“Not today. I don’t know if he’ll swallow, and if he coughs or chokes on it, I don’t want that getting into his lungs. Let’s go with plain water to start and only very small amounts.”

Each day, Ben and his younger sons did as they had been directed to do. Paul came back the next day and the next, and there was no change. Adam lay still and gave no reaction to anything. Sometimes he would swallow in response to water being put in his mouth and other times he coughed or it dribbled out the side. He gave no response to any stimuli or anyone talking to him. Paul had them prop Adam up on pillows to take some pressure off the wound and to make it easier for him to swallow if he was so inclined. However the longer he failed to respond, the more Paul got worried about his mental state.

“Ben, most patients at least usually show some sign of trying to come out of a coma. Adam doesn’t seem to even try. Was he upset by something? Do you know of anything that could have made him want to avoid being here?”

So Ben had to explain that it was possible that Adam in the moment he was hurt may have thought that his father shot him. It all happened so fast he may not have had time to process what had happened before he lost consciousness. With the pain and shock of being wounded and less than a minute before he passed out, he may have drawn the wrong conclusion. When he said what he said, he may have been under that impression. Paul was shocked not only by what happened but that they had not told him that sooner.

“Ben, you should not be the one doing the talking here then. Each time he hears your voice, it could bring him back to that moment. No matter what you say, it could be your voice that he hears and then the moment when this happened. No, it would be better if you don’t talk to him at all.”

Ben was going to object, but Hoss and Joe both did their best to convince him to give the doctor’s advice a chance to work. Unfortunately that strategy didn’t help. Paul was stymied.

“I know Adam is prone to these dark moods, but something else must be bothering him to put him so low that he doesn’t want to wake up. What else could it be?”

“Paul, my son wouldn’t give up. Adam isn’t the type to give up.”

“Ben, every man has a breaking point. Adam has been under a lot of pressure for quite some time, and we know he was unhappy about things here before that.” Ben was somewhat dismayed to realize Adam had talked to others about his dissatisfaction about his life on the Ponderosa. Paul could see that in Ben’s reaction. “You can’t fault a man for talking to his friends. Now, however we need to find out what else could be bothering him so much that he doesn’t care whether he wakes up or not. ”

“We don’t know. He’s been gone for so long working on that undercover job for the government, and we don’t know all that he did or with whom he did it.”

“We better find out, and find someone who can break through to him, or Ben, we’re going to lose him. He’s in a deep coma and showing no signs of coming out of it.”

The next day, Ben spent a small fortune it seemed on sending telegrams out to try to find someone who might know why Adam would be upset about his work for the government. Two days later, he got a cryptic response that was signed only with the letter Z. Ben had no idea what that meant but the wire said that someone would be arriving soon perhaps in as little as three days and might be able to help.

When that person arrived, Hoss was the only one not surprised to learn that it was a woman because he had suspected for some time that there was a woman involved in whatever Adam had been involved in right from the start. He had not thought Adam would have been so moody about things unless there had been a woman in the midst of whatever he had been doing. When the carriage pulled into the yard at the Ponderosa, Candy was the first to greet Sarah who told him she was there to see Adam.

“Ma’am, I don’t know if you know this or not, but Adam is in a bad way. The family is real worried about him, and is waiting on somebody who’s supposed to be coming to try to help.”

“Well, that somebody is here. Please, if you could help me down, I would appreciate that.” Not used to the wrap dresses that she had started to wear, Sarah didn’t trust herself to step down and not tumble into the dirt, but Candy quite gentlemanly helped her down and escorted her to the house even if he looked a bit surprised that she was the one who was here to help Adam. As soon as Sarah entered the house, Ben and Hoss were there to greet her. She could tell that they had a lot of questions but first she wanted to find out as much about Adam’s condition as she could.

“Well, Adam finally got back here only a week or so ago, and he came into the house to see Pa after me and Joe had seen him. A man who works here tried to kill him for some reason and Pa shot him but not before he shot Adam in the back. Pa yelled at Adam and he saw Pa pointing a gun and ducked down some. It probably saved his life but the wound is nasty and it bled a lot. He lost too much blood but he lived. Now he won’t wake up. Doc says it’s a coma.”

Ben made his admission to her so that she would know the whole story. He had learned his lesson with Paul. “Yes, I’m afraid that it may be partially my fault. Doctor Martin has a theory that Adam saw me with a gun and then was shot. In his mind, the good doctor thinks Adam may believe somehow that I shot him instead of Malcolm shooting him.”

“Malcolm McDonald? Oh no.”

Ben and Hoss wanted to know about him then because they had been shocked at what he had done and hadn’t had a clue as to why he would do it.

“Adam helped me get information on Malcolm that caused him to have to turn himself into the authorities. It was the first thing that Adam did for us. It was the favor Max asked of him. He escorted me to parties so that I could search homes and find incriminating evidence. Malcolm must have figured it out or someone let him know how the information got to us. He blamed his old friend for what happened instead of himself for what he did.”

“Well that fits with what Candy said Malcolm said in the bunkhouse. Said he was working on a ranch ’cause he done lost everything in California and needed to start fresh.”

“Now we need to think about Adam though. What can you tell us about what happened with him that might make him so unhappy that he doesn’t want to wake up?”

Sarah avoided Ben’s question. “I think I ought to see him and talk to him.”

“Ma’am, Adam can’t hear you. He just lays there and don’t do nothin’.”

“On the contrary, Hoss, he may hear things but simply not respond.” Doctor Martin emerged from the guest room where Adam was in bed. “Good morning, I’m Doctor Paul Martin. I heard you say you wanted to talk to Adam. I’d like to be there when you do to see the reaction.” Paul could see how reluctant she was to have him there. “Anything you say will be held in the strictest confidence. I’m a physician and I know how to keep secrets. Now, if you’ll come this way.”

Paul ignored Ben and Hoss and took Sarah by the arm to lead her to Adam’s bedside not brooking any objections from her either. He had a patient who needed treatment and wasn’t going to be stopped. He brought Sarah to the chair at Adam’s bedside and then moved back to close the door before standing at the foot of the bed to observe his patient who lay pale and unmoving propped up on two pillows and covered in a sheet, a blanket, and a quilt to keep him warm. Hoss had said that Adam didn’t like nightshirts so despite Ben’s objection, Paul had removed the nightshirt hoping that being more comfortable might help Adam want to wake up. It hadn’t helped either. Paul watched as Sarah reached under the covers to take Adam’s hand, which she held between her hands.

“Adam, I wanted to say goodbye in Denver, but Zee and Mike said it was too dangerous for us to meet again when we were getting so close to finding the head of the syndicate. It was too dangerous for me and for you. I’m so sorry I couldn’t see you and talk to you that day. I know you were going into danger and yet you had to feel badly about how we parted. I know I did. I wanted to come see you after that, but I didn’t know if you wanted to see me.”

Sarah looked back at Paul. “It’s not working. He doesn’t hear me.”

“Oh, Sarah, I think you’re wrong. I think he hears you. His breathing rate has increased since you started talking. It’s not going to be like a miracle. He isn’t going to suddenly open his eyes and gather you in his arms. It will be step-by-step, but I think you’re making progress. Keep talking to him. It doesn’t have to be so serious either. Hearing your voice may be what is most important at this point.”

“Adam, I’ve been in Wisconsin. I think I forgot how lush my home state looks when I compare it to here. Everything is green all the time except when it’s covered in snow of course. But there are so many more people than when I left. Everything is growing so fast. It’s all hustle and bustle as they say. There doesn’t seem to be as much time to sit back and enjoy what God has given us. People don’t look up to see the clouds much any more. They have to watch traffic and they’re all rushing to something all the time. I like it better out here, I think, where you can take some time to look at the clouds and see the birds fly. If it doesn’t get done today, you can work on it tomorrow.”

Sarah paused then because Adam made a sound. She looked back at Paul who was smiling. “Yes, Sarah, it’s working. Keep talking. I’m going out now. You can talk more or simply hold his hand like you are. He knows you’re there. I’ll be back as soon as I let his family know that there’s hope again.”

*****

Chapter 16

When Paul got back in the room, he was smiling because he had finally been able to give some positive news to the family and he was happy too that it appeared that there was hope for his friend. Adam still had many years to live if he would only grab onto some hope and pull himself out of the hole into which he had let himself sink. Sarah had dropped a lifeline and it seemed Adam had grabbed hold. He made a few sounds though nothing approaching speech but sounds nevertheless. Sarah reached up and touched his face tenderly holding his cheek in the palm of her hand as she continued to speak to him. There was no movement but Paul thought that perhaps there was even more rapid breathing and Adam’s mouth had opened. He watched as Sarah pulled the covers down exposing the top of Adam’s chest. She paused as she uncovered the thick bandage that still came down across his shoulder and tied into the bandage that wrapped all around his chest to hold the padding against the wound in his back. Paul explained what he had done.

“And he’s propped up like that to ease his breathing and make it easier to spoon water into his mouth, but also to take pressure off his wound.”

Nodding, Sarah placed her hand on Adam’s upper chest and softly caressed him there. That action let both of them know that it was not their imagination. Adam noticeably reacted to her touch breathing more audibly and making more sounds. It continued for several minutes until Paul thought perhaps it was enough for their first meeting.

“Sarah, I think that might be enough for now. Why don’t you tell Adam to sleep. Tell him you’ll stay by his side and be here when he wakes. You can do that, can’t you?”

Sarah nodded without turning back toward Paul not wanting him to see the tears in her eyes. To see Adam so weak and vulnerable was heartbreaking and to think that she might be part of the cause of it was even worse. She knew that she and Max had gotten him into the life that had led to Malcolm shooting him. She felt terrible guilt and would do anything at this point to help Adam. She loved him too and couldn’t bear to see him suffering. She talked to him as Paul advised and then pulled the covers back into place and again took his hand between hers and sat silently as Adam settled back into a quiet state.

“Sarah, I’d like to think he may be sleeping now instead of in a coma. We’ll see what happens in a couple of hours. Thank you so much. Is there anything I can bring to you?”

“Perhaps some water. It was a long dry ride out here.”

As if by magic, Hop Sing was at the door with a small pitcher of cool water and a cup of tea which he set on the bedside table within easy reach for Sarah. He had a few sugar cookies on the tray as well. He smiled and left having done all he could do to help. Paul stepped out then too and pulled the door nearly closed and turned to see three men anxious to know what had happened.

“I think she reached him. His breathing increased when she talked to him and he made a few sounds. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but I think it’s the first step. When she touched his chest, he became even more agitated. I didn’t want to push him too hard so I asked her to tell him to go to sleep for a few hours. He almost immediately relaxed and quieted.”

“Paul, why didn’t you let her wake my son?”

“As I told Sarah, it’s not going to be that sudden. It will take some time, and it will be better if it happens gradually. Now he may open his eyes when he’s done sleeping. She planted an idea that she will be there when he wakes. He may not sleep very long because of that. She will let us know if he opens his eyes. We’ll be able to help him make more progress after that. Remember, even as he comes out of the coma, he will be very weak and it will take several months for him to rebuild his strength. He came close to dying. He won’t be able to recover so fast from what happened to him, but he will recover although we still don’t know if there was any permanent damage from the lack of blood flow after the cauterization. We can’t evaluate that until he is fully conscious.”

“Are you staying?”

“I want to stay for a bit, yes. I want to see if he is more aware in a couple of hours.”

Less than two hours later, Sarah was watching Adam because she thought that she had felt some pressure on her hand. She must have because then she saw his eyelids move and he began to blink his left eye and then both eyes although the left eye opened first. The right eye was a bit more sluggish but then he was blinking rapidly with both as if it was difficult to keep his eyes open. She spoke softly to him encouraging him to keep his eyes open and look at her. Slowly the speed of the blinking diminished but didn’t stop entirely. She touched his cheek.

“Just a moment. I have to tell them.” Cracking the door open, Sarah only said one word. “Doctor.” Quickly, she returned to the chair by the bed to take Adam’s hand in hers again to encourage him to keep his eyes open. He did and focused on her as she continued to speak softly to him thankful that he was awake.

When Paul entered the room, he went to the other side of the bed and tried to get Adam’s attention and couldn’t. He took his hand and gently moved Adam’s head so that he was looking directly at him. “Adam, do you know me.” It was minimal, but there was a definite positive response. Paul smiled and turned his head back so he faced Sarah again. By then all three Cartwright men were standing in the doorway. Paul turned to them. “He’s out of the coma and aware. He knows me and he obviously knows Sarah. My diagnosis now is that he will be fine with time, good food, and good care.”

“Oh, my son will get all of that.”

Paul saw it and Sarah felt it as Adam flinched at his father’s voice. Sarah spoke first.

“Adam, there’s something you need to know about how you were hurt. I’m going to tell you now. It’s going to be difficult for you, but you need to listen to me. Malcolm McDonald shot you in the back. He followed you into the house and was going to shoot you in the back. Your father saw him and yelled a warning to you even as he shot at Malcolm. He couldn’t stop him but he did kill him. The warning made you duck down some of Malcolm would have killed you. Do you understand me? Malcolm shot you.”

Frowning, Adam was again breathing rapidly. They all waited to see how he would react to Sarah’s last question. It took some time. Obviously he wasn’t fully able yet to function as well as he would if he wasn’t just emerging from a coma and still weak from blood loss, but he did assimilate the information and nodded. Ben came into the room then and approached his son. He reached down and put a hand on Adam’s good shoulder and Sarah tipped Adam’s head to that side so that Adam could see his father. Ben was overjoyed to see a tiny crooked smile appear. Hoss and Joe stood at the foot of the bed and slowly Adam turned to look their way and smiled again as they greeted him.

“Glad ta see ya back with us, Adam.”

“I knew nothing could keep you down for long.”

Then Hop Sing was in the room telling the men to leave so Sarah could help him feed something to Adam before he was so exhausted he fell asleep again. It was prophetic. They got only a few spoonfuls of thick rich beef broth in him before he closed his eyes and was sound asleep again. Hop Sing told Sarah that he would sit with Adam and she should take some time for herself. She stepped out then to find that Doctor Martin was about to leave.

“I should leave too. It’s getting late and I only rented the carriage for the day.”

Ben didn’t want her to leave though especially after what she had done for Adam. “No, you should stay here. I can have someone return the carriage for you.”

At that point, Sarah didn’t have the emotional energy to argue with him. She said she would go out to get her bag from the carriage though. Hoss said he would get it for her, but she insisted that she wanted to go outside for some fresh air. That she did insist on, and Paul said he would walk her out and help her with her bag. Sarah thanked him for that offer, and there was nothing more the Cartwrights could say about that. Outside at her carriage, Sarah got her bag from Paul who lifted it out for her. It was light enough as she had packed quickly. He noted how tired she looked.

“You need to get some rest. It’s probably better that you stay here rather than take the two hour carriage ride back to town and then have to get a room and look for a place to have dinner.” Sarah nodded because he was probably right about that. “How far along are you?” That shocked her. She had no idea that anyone would guess. “I’m a doctor, and I see some signs of it, but I wondered why a slender young woman would be wearing a wrap dress too. It all added up to what I asked you although I wasn’t sure until I saw your reaction. I was chancing getting a slap in the face, but I’ve had those before too.”

“Just over three months. I didn’t think anyone would notice, but I wore this dress to be sure except it seems to have had the opposite effect.”

“Everyone else is so concerned about Adam that I doubt they paid any attention. When will you tell him?”

“I’m not going to tell him. I plan to leave tomorrow as soon as I know he’s going to be all right. He never planned on this. We were thrown together. It wasn’t his choice.”

“Sarah, I saw how he reacted to you in there. He loves you. Someone else must have thought so too because they told you that he needed you, and you came. You must love him too.”

“He’s so weak now. I can’t tell him when he’s like this, and then expect him to make a decision that will affect the rest of his life.”

“He’ll get better and stronger.”

“I can let him know how to contact me. If he wants to know more, he’ll have what he needs to get in touch. That’s all that I’ll promise.”

“I think you’re wrong on this, but I’ll keep your confidence. You’re as much my patient now as he is. I wish I could tell him, but I won’t tell him unless you give me permission.”

“I won’t do that, Doctor.”

“I was afraid you would say that. Best wishes Sarah, and I hope you don’t regret the decision you’ve made for yourself, your child, and for your child’s father. I do think he has a right to make that decision for himself.”

Sarah said nothing more so Paul climbed in his carriage and left as Sarah carried her small bag into the house where she was guided up to a guest room by Joe. Candy had been waiting to drive the rented carriage back to town and had inadvertently heard the conversation between Paul and Sarah. He shouldn’t have heard it, but he had. He wondered if there would be a time when he would have to think about saying anything. He doubted that it was his place so he guessed the best thing was for him to forget what he had heard. He got his horse, tied him to the back of the carriage, and left for town to take care of the errand he had been assigned.

In the house, Sarah was once again with Adam and the men of the household couldn’t seem to stay away. There was a steady procession of them in and out of the room wishing for Adam to wake again. He did when Hoss was there, and Sarah had Hoss help Adam into a more comfortable position. Adam tolerated the adjustment well and took some of the broth that Hop Sing brought again. He seemed content to be there with Sarah and accepted the spoon from her more willingly than he would have from any member of his family. She spent the next day doing the same, but the morning after that, she insisted that she had to leave. Hoss gave her a ride to town after breakfast. She helped Adam that morning but didn’t tell him she was leaving. She knew it was cowardly, but she left a short note instead. It was very simple and gave her name and where she thought she would be living in Wisconsin if he wanted to write to her. Then she was gone, and it was up to Ben to tell Adam later when he asked for her. He was getting his voice back and his strength was improving too. Ben hated the look on his son’s face when he told him Sarah had left and that she had written a note for him instead of saying goodbye. He gave Adam the note. After he read it, he said he was tired and wanted to sleep. He didn’t say anything more about her, but his whole demeanor changed. He was still recovering but his spirit was broken. That much was clear. His physical recovery progressed as expected, but there was concern about his emotional recovery until he simply covered up his sadness and acted as if everything was fine. There were no outward signs to most people that he was still hurting inside and the wounds there weren’t healing well at all.

*****

Chapter 17

During his recovery, Adam did tell his family more details about what had happened from the ill-fated stagecoach ride through his incarceration in Yuma prison and eventual release when Sarah arrived. Adam found it difficult to talk about Sarah even in those kinds of conversations but did his best by trying to think of her as he did Mike and Zee, as fellow agents. It didn’t work out well though so he simply had to forge through and hide his feelings. He did that well but not well enough for his family who could tell after years of experience that he was in pain. Ben suffered a bit too with guilt for having sent Adam on that stagecoach ride, but Adam assured him that he couldn’t have known because none of them including him had no way of knowing that Sarah was on that stage following a banker carrying money to Tucson.

“Pa, that truly was an unfortunate set of circumstances especially for that banker. He was killed because of it. They thought that I was following him and therefore both of us were marked to die. If he and that other fool hadn’t knocked me out, they would have killed me like they killed the banker. Luckily for me, as Blanchard said, they didn’t make sure of it by putting a bullet in me as I was laying in that stage.”

So Adam next told them about Blanchard and how he had suspected Adam was alive and undercover making Ben feel guilty again. With that one, it was more difficult for Adam to convince him that he was blameless.

“By canceling that meeting, he guessed that you were alive.”

“Yes, but Pa, how could you know that one of our attorneys was the head of the syndicate. There are a lot of lawyers in the city, and many wealthy men. Any one of them could have been the head of that syndicate.”

“I should have been more careful though. If I would have postponed the meeting for any reason, he wouldn’t have been suspicious.”

“Who knows because someone in his position has to watch his back all the time. He might have been worried about that too. It’s all over now, Pa, and nothing you did caused any harm to me. I came out of it fine. It was such a little thing that I did that came back at me. Who knew that Malcolm would blame me for what happened to him. I guess it was because we were friends before it all happened that he took it more personally.”

Once it was all out, there wasn’t any reason to rehash any of it, but the memories continued to haunt Adam in his dreams at night and in his thoughts by day. He looked forward to when he could resume some physical labor hoping to banish some of his demons that way. It had worked for him some of the times in the past. He was glad to be home and glad to be with his family so he did his best not to let those negative thoughts affect his relationships with his father and brothers. Each day, he began to do some small tasks around the house and then around the yard but was frustrated by his physical weakness. Even simple tasks like chopping wood required him to take frequent breaks, and he couldn’t tackle the larger pieces as he didn’t have the strength for the job. He began working the forge too but only to make small pieces like horseshoes and hinges or any small item that was needed. Any of the larger pieces required too much pounding, and again he wasn’t strong enough yet to do it. After so many weeks of recovery, he thought he would be stronger, Doctor Martin continued to advise him that it would take more time. Paul told him to be grateful that he didn’t have any brain damage from the blood loss and that all ne needed was time to recover. It was small comfort to a man used to being able to do so much. Gradually though he could feel he was getting stronger though he was impatient with his own progress.

Knowing that Adam was unhappy no matter how much he tried to hide it, Ben decided to talk to him about it one evening when Hoss and Joe had gone to town with the hands. Adam was sitting and staring at the fireplace as it seemed he did rather often. Ben offered a chess game, but Adam declined saying he was too tired yet he didn’t go up to bed.

“Perhaps a little conversation then might help. I have some news that might help your mood some. There are a judge, a sheriff, and a prosecutor in Arizona who have lost their jobs.” Letting that sink in for a moment, Ben was surprised not to see more of a reaction from his son. “I thought you would be pleased to know that the men who railroaded you had at least lost their positions of power. If I could find the man who bore false witness against you, I’d do something about him too, but he seems to have moved on and no one knows where.”

“Pa, I’ve thought about it. They thought they were doing the right thing. Even the judge did his best to try to do the right thing. If he hadn’t sent me into solitary confinement, then Sarah wouldn’t have had time to find me and get me out of there.”

“What he should have done was set aside the jury verdict as a miscarriage of justice and thrown the whole damn case out. They had no evidence against you, and using the prosecutor as an excuse for giving you a defense was ludicrous. No, they don’t belong in the justice system, and Arizona has agreed. They no longer will be able to do to an innocent man what they did to you.”

Ben was so incensed by all of it that it actually amused Adam. Although Ben didn’t see the humor in it, he was at least pleased to see an emotional reaction from his son. Too much lately Adam had been so unemotional.

“Son, what makes you happy? I mean, in these last months, when were you happy to be alive?”

Dropping his head down at first, Adam cocked his head to the side when he looked up. “That’s a rather heavy philosophical question to just throw out there suddenly. You must have been thinking about this for a while.”

“I have, and you’re not evading answering it, are you?”

“That always worked so well when I was younger.”

“As did delaying answering and hoping the conversation would shift to another topic.”

Deciding he would answer, Adam spoke from the heart. “I’m happy to be with my family. I was happy when I was in Denver working on a big construction project and seeing something that I was helping design take shape. I was happy when I was spending time with Sarah.”

“But you can’t have all of those at the same time.”

“No, I don’t have all of those so I guess I have to learn to accept what I have and what I can’t have.”

“Have you tried contacting Sarah?”

“She’s walked away from me without saying goodbye more than once now. She hasn’t given me a chance to talk her into staying or even given me the courtesy of saying farewell. If she wanted me to be in contact, I would think she would at least have wanted to see me instead of leaving a note that said goodbye and left an address that said if I wanted to write, I could post the letter to that address.”

“Have you considered that perhaps it was so difficult for her to say goodbye that she couldn’t bear to do it in person?”

“I’d like to think that, but I don’t want to live on false hope.”

“She came all that way to help you and on very short notice. Adam, I think she loves you.”

“Well, then she has a damn odd way of showing it.”

“Perhaps she doesn’t know if you love her.”

That made Adam pause as he thought back over all the times they had been together. He had never told her that he loved her. He had said he had strong feelings for her, but nothing more. He had never done anything that let her know how much he cared. He did make love to her once, but he had been in bed with other women and didn’t always love them. Sarah had probably known that. He looked at his father who had that very slight knowing smile. He answered with one of his own that was a bit more sheepish though.

“I should write to her. Perhaps a letter that lets her know more about how I feel and see how she responds.”

“I think that would be wise, son. You need to know which way the wind blows so you can chart your course.”

“Thank you. I think I’ll go up to my room now and do some thinking and some writing.”

With some hope again, Adam’s mood improved and his improving physical strength and stamina helped with that too. He began to do more work at the forge and the men got used to seeing him there working on projects. They began bringing him things to fix or ideas of hinges for gates or other items that would be useful on the ranch. He was there at the forge working one day when Candy was assigned to do some training with a horse that had recently been broken but was skittish and needed gentling. The new hand was good with horses so Joe thought that a day working with the new horse might be a good idea. Adam watched him on and off for the morning and thought Joe had made a good choice.

It was about noon and Candy was bringing the horse out of the corral to water it when disaster struck. Candy had the horse on a long lead rope and wasn’t too concerned about any likely problem as the horse had been reasonably compliant for the last couple of hours. However a squirrel took that moment to dart across the yard and directly under the horse’s front hooves startling it and causing it to take several steps to the side bumping into the forge and knocking it to the ground with all the smoke and crashing metal of that. Adam jumped back away from the horse and the hot coals, as Candy unfortunately yelled at the horse and pulled at the rope. The horse reared up and kicked out its front legs and charged Candy who had no choice but to retreat toward the stable a couple of steps or be trampled but then had nowhere else to go. The horse reared up again and kicked out catching Candy in the knee and knocking him down. When the horse reared up again, Candy thought he might die trampled to death by the maddened horse when suddenly the horse was pulled off balance and away from him landing several feet away and turning angrily to the side. That’s when Candy realized that Adam had grabbed the rope in his bare hands and was pulling the horse toward him. However he had nowhere to hide and the horse was even more agitated. Adam did his best to try to keep the horse’s head down but couldn’t control him. Candy saw that he was doing his best to get the horse to a tree and wished he could help but his effort at standing was met with blinding pain from his leg. Adam got the rope around the tree but there was too much slack and it wasn’t going to be good enough. Fortune smiled on them then as Hoss and Joe rode into the yard and realized the danger immediately and boxed in the horse with their horses taking the rope and getting control of the animal. Between them, they got the horse back into the corral, closed the gate, and then dismounted and went to Candy who was still on the ground by the stable.

Joe knelt by his side. “How bad is it?”

“I don’t think she broke it, but it’s stinging pretty good.”

Hoss reached down to help Candy up. “We’ll get you to the house. Hop Sing will wrap that up for you. You’re looking at some time resting up, I think.”

“You better check out your brother too.”

“Why? He didn’t get kicked, did he?” Joe looked over at Adam who was standing and watching them with his hands at his sides.

“No, but he grabbed that rope with his bare hands.”

Joe walked over to Adam then and asked to see his hands. Rather sheepishly, Adam raised his hands to show that the palms especially were badly abraded. “Well, older brother, looks like you’re back on the patient list. You’re not going to be doing much work with those hands for a while.”

An hour later, Adam and Candy were sitting on the porch of the house. Adam had soft cloth wrapped around both hands with only the ends of his fingers uncovered. Candy had a large bandage on his knee with his leg propped up on a stool with a pillow under his leg for comfort. Hop Sing had coffee and cookies for each of them on the table between them.

“I don’t suppose you play chess, do you?”

“Why? You think I don’t look smart enough to play chess?”

“No, I wasn’t saying that. It’s only that very few out here know how to play.”

“Well, I know how to play.”

“You do. Wonderful. Maybe we can play some chess to pass the time.”

“I don’t know. Are you any good at it?”

Jerking his head to look at Candy, Adam saw the slight grin and the crinkle at his eyes. He knew he had met someone who liked to spar with language as much as he did. He guessed perhaps they would have an interesting convalescence. The two of them spent the next few days on the porch most of the time, talking, playing chess, and reading. Candy was pleased to find out that Adam had an extensive library and was willing to loan him books to read. He read Moby Dick the first two days and then began A Tale of Two Cities, which Adam had recently read. It was after they had been doing some reading and after Adam had gotten a reply from Sarah, that Candy thought he should say something.

“I need to tell you something. I need to thank you for saving my life.”

“Candy, I was saving the horse. How many times do I have to tell you that? If that horse had killed you, they would have shot it. It would have been a terrible waste of a good horse.”

“Are you ever serious about things like that?”

“You already know the answer so why ask the question?”

“There are things you are serious about. I noticed you looked real serious when you read that letter from Sarah.”

“Does everyone know I wrote to her?”

“No, I was guessing, but you confirmed it.” Adam gave him a scowl then which made him smile. “I have been thinking about the two of you though.” That made Adam frown because he had no idea why he and Sarah would concern Candy. “I know something that I think I ought to tell you. I’m guessing she didn’t tell you or you would have had a bigger reaction to that letter. I know you play it pretty close to the vest, but nobody is that good.”

“What could you know about Sarah that I don’t know?”

“When she was here when you were so sick, I was supposed to take her carriage back to town that first day. I accidentally overheard her say something to the doc when I was coming to get the carriage.”

Worried then, Adam needed to know. “Now you have to tell me. What did you hear?”

“I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, and I thought it best never to say anything as it wasn’t my business, but now that we’re being friendly and all, and you did save my life.”

“Damn it, tell me!”

“She said she was maybe three months along. Now I don’t know any other thing a woman would be three months along in so I figured what you’re probably thinking right now. It’s been a couple more months now too. I figured she ought to tell you, but if she didn’t in that letter, well a friend ought to tell a man. Right?”

“Now what do I do? I get a more or less noncommittal letter from her, but you tell me news that says there should be a major commitment.”

“You’re a smart man. You’ll figure it out.”

Standing, Adam walked into the house without saying anything more.

*****

Chapter 18

The way that Adam walked in the house, stopped and stared at the fireplace, moved to sit, and then moved to go up the stairs before pausing once more let Ben know that there was something major troubling his son.

He called out from his seat at the desk. “Adam, what’s wrong?”

Whirling around as if he hadn’t realized anyone else was there and was startled, Adam looked at his father but didn’t say anything for a minute. When he spoke, his voice was flat and unemotional although Ben knew there had to be a violent swirl of emotions within his son based on the content of his statements.

“Sarah is having a baby. Our baby. My baby. But she never told me. I found out from Candy who overheard her telling Paul when she was here. But she never told me. She wrote this letter to me and still never said anything. Pa, I don’t know what to do.”

“You’re going to go see her, aren’t you?”

“Yes, that was the first thing I thought to do.”

“I’ll go with you.”

“Go with me?”

“Of course. When a man’s son gets married, he wants to be there to see it. Now, let’s go upstairs and pack. We can get an early start tomorrow after we get things organized here.”

Hoss and Joe had walked in the house and heard only those last several sentences from their father. Both were shocked but excited.

“Hot diggity, Adam’s getting himself hitched? Is Sarah here?”

“No, Hoss, Pa said they’re going upstairs to pack. Hey, Pa, can we come along? I mean, when a man gets married, his brothers ought to be there to see it too.”

“I think that’s a splendid idea. We’ll have to get some plans written down for the hands and put someone in charge. We won’t be able to be gone for too long, but for this, we can take the time we need. Right, Adam?” Ben looked at his eldest son who stood with his mouth open at what had happened. “Now, Adam, close your mouth or people might start thinking you do have some of that brain damage Doctor Martin was worried about.”

That got the desired reaction and more. “I don’t think it’s up to you to tell me that I’m going to marry Sarah.” Adam had that stare that said he wasn’t going to let anyone tell him what to do.

“Well, that’s what you were going to do, wasn’t it?”

“But she has to say yes.”

“I have no doubt she’ll say yes, and if she doesn’t, I have no doubt that you will convince her to change her mind. Now, let’s get packed and get things organized here. We’ve got some traveling to do.”

“You don’t all have to come with me.” Adam looked at his family who all gave him the same look. “I feel like a small child who needs his family along for support.”

“Nah, ya don’t need us along. We need to be along ’cause ifn you’re getting hitched, I’m gonna be there ta see it. I’m gonna make me some money on this too.”

Adam paused saying nothing at first but his eyes narrowed. “You didn’t bet on me marrying Sarah, did you?”

“Nah, it wasn’t like that at all. I just took the bets of them that said she wouldn’t have you. They figured she could do better, but I figured if she come all this way to help ya, she was willing ta settle for ya.”

“Gee, Hoss, thank you so much for that vote of confidence.”

“Not a problem, older brother. Me and Joe always got confidence in ya. Now let’s go get packed. I’m looking forward to this. I heard they got real good beer in Milwaukee.”

“Good cheese too.”

“Eww, Joe, why’d ya hafta go and ruin it for me like that? It’s gonna take a lot of beer to wash that idea out of my head. ‘Course we’re gonna be celebratin’ a weddin’ so there’s gonna be a lot of beer, right, Adam?”

“I don’t know, Hoss. I don’t know what religion her family is. Maybe they’re Methodist and don’t drink at all.”

That brought such a sour face up on Hoss that they all laughed. It did make for a light mood that mostly lasted not only for the evening but for the trip to Wisconsin although there were times when Adam was lost in thought and Ben told his other sons to let him be. They stayed in Chicago long enough for Adam to buy a ring and then headed north. Once they were in Milwaukee, it was a matter of finding the address only to discover that the family had recently moved because the growth of the city had infringed on their farm. They had headed north. So it was one more night in a hotel and then on the train again for a ride north. They stopped at a little train station in De Pere where they asked for directions. The man told them to head up the Ledge. They all had blank looks when he said that, so he stepped out of the little depot and pointed to the east. There was a long ridgeline running north to south.

“That’s the Ledge. Go on the road that heads straight up there, and turn right at the tavern that’s also a general store. They just bought the place with the red brick house. You can’t miss it.”

He stepped back into the depot leaving them to find their way to the nearest livery stable to rent horses. They weren’t the type of riding horses they were used to looking more like plow horses than anything but they would get them there. The road also turned out not to go straight up but wound around and up eventually though coming to a crossroad where there indeed was a tavern that was also a general store. There was a stable there too with signs out that advertised that they could fix wagons, axles, and farm implements. As directed, they turned right and rode only a short distance until they saw a red brick house and assumed it had to be the one they were seeking. Riding into the yard, they were met by an older man who stood staunchly in their way and asked what business they had.

“I’m Adam Cartwright, and I’m looking for Sarah Mueller.”

“It’s about time you got here. Or really long past due considering.”

“Sir, are you Sarah’s father?”

“I am.”

Adam dismounted and walked up to the man. “Sir, I would like your permission to ask your daughter to marry me.”

“Well, now, that’s the way things oughta be. You go on up to the house. If she don’t say yes, you tell her she’s gonna hafta be giving me a darn good reason why, and tell her there ain’t no good reason why. Now go on with ya. I’ll take care of your horse and talk with these fellers here. They your family?”

“They are.”

“Good. It’s always good to have your family here for the wedding.”

Looking back at his father and brothers, Adam shook his head before turning to walk to the house. He got there as Sarah walked out onto the porch. He climbed up two steps and stood there waiting to see what she would say.

“Why did you come?”

“I think you know. Sarah, I want you to marry me. Your father says you ought to say yes. So, will you marry me?” Sarah said nothing but wrapped her arms around herself. “Sarah, there’s something I should have told you a long time ago. I guess I thought you knew, but I still should have said it, and apparently you don’t know. Sarah, I love you. Please marry me.”

“Adam, it’s more complicated than that.”

“I know about the baby. Now, will you marry me?”

“Are you asking me because of the baby?”

“No, I’m asking you because I love you, and I want to marry you. I’m glad about the baby. It would have been good to wait until we were married, but I’m happy we’re going to have a baby. Now, will you marry me, my love?”

“Yes, Adam, I will marry you.”

Stepping up the last step, Adam gathered Sarah in his arms and kissed her.

“Adam, we shouldn’t kiss like this in front of everyone.”

“We’re going to get married, and you’re already with child. They’ve probably guessed that we’ve done more than kiss before.”

“Yes, but please, not in front of my parents.”

“Is there some private place we could talk?”

“As soon as you meet the rest of the family, yes, we need to talk.”

Soon there were Cartwrights and Muellers all crowded into the small farmhouse until everyone had met everyone. There was a fresh apple pie, bread, preserves, cheese, butter, and ham on the table in short order. Hoss ignored the cheese but found the rest much to his liking. While everyone was engaged in eating and talking, Adam and Sarah had a chance to get away for some much needed conversation. She led him to a bench behind the house and next to a big maple tree. Once they sat, he had the question he wanted to ask most.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I was going to tell you when I knew. I only suspected at first and knew I could be wrong. I didn’t want you worrying about it and then find out it wasn’t true.”

“But when you knew it was true, you didn’t tell me.”

“By then, I knew more about you and I was afraid of what you would think. I didn’t want you to think that I did it on purpose to try to trap a rich man into marriage.”

“You weren’t thinking that way at first. What changed?”

“Well, from the first, I knew you weren’t poor. I mean, you took me to those parties in the city so you had to be well enough off, but I was thinking you were a rancher from Nevada, so well, I didn’t think you were rich like you really were.”

Adam understood then. “So, you thought being from out there in the wilds of Nevada or some such thought you had, you didn’t think I was a wealthy man until you saw the Ponderosa. Then suddenly you had a whole different way of thinking.”

“Yes, wealthy people have a different way of looking at things a lot of the time. Adam when I saw your house, I was shocked. You brought us to what you called a line shack that was almost as big as the house I grew up in. Your house was amazing. You have guest bedrooms and a cook. I never had anything like that. This house here is the biggest one my parents have ever owned. It has five rooms in it. You have that many bedrooms in your house.”

“Sarah, we started with nothing. We worked hard for twenty-five years to build up that ranch into what it is. I know what it is to go without a meal, and I know what it’s like to work from when the sun comes up until it sets and drop into bed too tired to eat. I’m not some man who inherited wealth or was born into it.”

“I know that now, but I didn’t know that then. After keeping the secret from you for so long, I didn’t know what you would think if I suddenly dropped it on you. I didn’t know if you would believe me.”

“Love is built on trust. I trust you. I trusted you with my life. I believe you.”

“Oh, Adam, I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve you. I do love you so much.”

“Those last few are the words I wanted to hear. Now, let’s plan the wedding. You will come back to Nevada with me, won’t you?”

“Nothing could stop me. I would love to live on the Ponderosa and raise our child there with you.”

It took a few days to get everything arranged, and the minister wasn’t inclined at first to marry them with such short notice and after only a couple of days of betrothal but once informed of all the circumstances, he relented, and the wedding occurred on Saturday with all their new neighbors in attendance and lots of food and beer enough to make Hoss happy as can be. No one was happier to witness the wedding though than Ben who watched his eldest son marry. He was aware too that they planned to return with them to the Ponderosa and wouldn’t have any time to themselves. Sarah had very little to pack so it was going to be an easy move. Her parents were sad to see her go, but Adam promised that they would return at some point for another visit.

“The trip by train isn’t that bad. When our child is old enough to make the trip, we’ll head back here for a visit.”

Sarah smiled as her parents looked skeptical. “Adam keeps his promises. You’ll see us in a few years because if he says we will, then we will.”

The trip back to Nevada seemed to go much faster than the trip to Wisconsin in some ways and very long in other ways. Sarah was anticipating the arrival in Virginia City with great joy, and Adam talked quite a bit about his plans for them. They had to spend a lot of time talking because they didn’t have enough privacy on the train to do anything else. Both looked forward to the first night on the Ponderosa when they would be together in the privacy of their own bedroom for the first time as husband and wife. Rushing to board a train to head home after the wedding had seemed a good idea until they realized that they would have to put off any intimacy for the duration of the trip. Joe started to tease Adam about it at one point but Ben put a halt to that immediately saying it was an improper subject for teasing.

In Virginia City, Ben told Hoss and Joe that the three of them were staying in town overnight, and when they were going to say something in response, his lowered eyebrows said that wouldn’t be a wise thing to do. Adam thanked his father for allowing him to have a night of privacy with his wife. Within a short time, he had rented a carriage and was on his way to the Ponderosa as Ben announced the news and bought a round at the Silver Dollar.

When Adam was finally able to walk Sarah up the stairs on the Ponderosa and close the bedroom door, he found himself surprisingly nervous and Sarah turned to him and said that she was nervous too. He smiled and admitted the same to her. Their first encounter had been spontaneous. This one was something they had anticipated for some time. Both wanted it to go so well. Adam said they would take their time to enjoy each moment. That worked. From the first buttons that were opened until they lay together side-by-side arms warmed by their exertions and fully relaxed by the results, they showed how much they loved each other. Adam moved his hand slowly across Sarah’s lower belly and the slight bump there. He had a look of wonder on his face as he did that, which let Sarah know he truly did want this child of theirs.

“Now, we need to start talking about some names.”

*****

Chapter 19

Over the next few months, Adam and Sarah discussed quite a few names until they were able to settle on two possibilities. Sarah wanted to think about honoring her brother or Max but Adam told her he didn’t like the idea of using a child that way. He was afraid that having either name would be too much of a reminder of what had happened. Instead they found a name that they could use for a middle name to remember both of them without the negative connotation if it was a boy or a girl. The name was going to be Rachel Emerson Cartwright or Andrew Emerson Cartwright as her brother and Max had admired Ralph Waldo Emerson, the author, as did Adam and Sarah. It was a more positive way of honoring those who were gone. It was a matter then of awaiting the birth. That created more tension as it got closer with not only Adam but all the men in the household worried about the delivery. Sarah was a slender woman and she got quite large by her ninth month. Paul said it was normal and only looked that way because she was naturally slender.

Working on their new house helped Adam burn off nervous energy, but Sarah was confined more and more to sitting and doing little more than reading or doing some minor stitching and sewing because it was too difficult for her to get up and down or walk much, and bending was impossible. She couldn’t see her feet and needed help getting her shoes on each day and off at the end of the day. It was even difficult for her to dress herself in the last month. Finally, Ben thought a little counseling was in order. He rode over to the building site nearer the lake that Adam had chosen for their new home.

“Adam, you’re finding this house project a godsend for your worries, I take it. You’re able to hammer and saw and not have to think so much about what could happen.”

“That’s it, Pa. It doesn’t entirely take it from my mind, but at least for a few hours at a time, I don’t think about all that could go wrong.”

“Have you thought about Sarah? She doesn’t have this luxury. She sits alone much of the time with only worries to keep her company.”

Pulling off his hat, Adam wiped his brow and looked down before he gave a deep sigh. “I hadn’t thought about it that way. I was thinking of escaping without thinking that she can’t escape. I’ll head on back there if you think you might be able to handle my work crew here.”

“Oh, I’ve had some experience with those two. I think I can handle them.” Hoss and Joe both gave those mock looks of disgust at their father and brother but it was all in good humor. They wished Adam well and told him to take good care of Sarah. Adam pledged to Sarah that he would spend the next couple of weeks tending to her every need. It didn’t take that long though. Andrew Emerson Cartwright woke his parents a week later in the middle of the night and was born by midday to the delight of the whole family. By the time the doctor arrived, all was well, and the doctor only had to examine mother and son to say that there were no problems to reassure everyone.

During the delivery though, the family had gotten to know Sarah better and saw some of the courage and strength that had made her so formidable as an agent for the government as they sought out corruption and crime. She demanded that Adam stay with her and help with the birth of their child. Ben said that it wasn’t usual for men to birth babies.

“You were there for the birth of all three of your sons, weren’t you?”

“Yes, but Elizabeth was very weak, and with the other two, there weren’t women to help or not enough. I had to help.”

“Well, do you see a bunch of women standing here ready to help? Adam stays.”

Forceful as Sarah was with Ben, during the labor, despite the intense pain, she never cried out nor did she do what so many women did and blame her husband or even curse because of what she had to endure. Ben had warned Adam of that possibility, but Sarah only asked that he be there and that he do what he could to make her comfortable until the actual delivery was closer. He sponged her face with a cool damp cloth, and rubbed her shoulders and neck as often as she wished. He covered her when she said she was chilled and pulled the covers away when she said she was too warm even if those events were only minutes apart. When the baby’s head crowned, Hop Sing had Adam receive the baby and then wipe it dry before wrapping it in the soft receiving blankets. Adam placed their son in his wife’s arms and sat close to her as she got to snuggle with her son for the first time. He was smiling but tears coursed down his cheeks too. Sarah couldn’t help it and joined him in that. They had been through so much but now had so much joy. Once the rest was cleaned up and she was in a fresh gown, the family was invited in to meet the newest member of the family. Ben couldn’t have been prouder of his first grandson and his first daughter-in-law who had brought him into the world. Life changed quite dramatically for a while until Andrew settled into a routine.

Things got back to normal then with Adam spending time working on their new house when he could find time away from ranch business. Ben did his best to see that Adam got as much time as he could be spared. Ben also had a conversation with Adam to help ensure that his son would stay on the Ponderosa. Ben had listened well when Max had been there and they had talked about Adam. Ben had listened too when Adam had told him what made him happy, but he had said he didn’t have all three there together. He was determined to do what he could to bring those things together if he could because it was the only way he could see that Adam would stay on the Ponderosa.

One evening as Adam held his son and rocked him after Sarah had nursed him, Ben thought it might be a time that they could talk. He settled in the chair next to his son and admired his grandson. Then it was time to open a more serious conversation.

“I was thinking, Adam, that when you finish your house, you could design and then build a new lumber mill for the Ponderosa. Perhaps one that would not only supply our needs but that would produce a significant amount of products for sale here and in California.”

Surprised a bit by his father’s willingness to do that, Adam did see a problem with the plan though. “I’d like that, Pa, but we would have to work on getting our own freight line or something else to carry our goods if we wanted it to be profitable.”

“I’ve been thinking about that too. When you’re done with the new mill, I thought we could talk more about your idea for a steamboat to carry goods and people across the lake to California. There would have to be docks and storage built on each end of the route too. We need to look to the future now with another generation.”

Adam chuckled a bit before answering. “It may be a while before Andrew is interested in the business end of the Ponderosa.”

Ben smiled as he watched Andrew squirm in Adam’s arms and his son shifted Andrew until he settled against his father’s left shoulder, which seemed to be the place he liked to rest his head. “Well, we need to be prepared. There may be more children in the future too. In fact, with Sarah here, it seems your brothers are getting more serious about looking for someone who might make a good wife. I think it’s quite a good incentive for them to see you and how happy you are. They may be a bit jealous and want the kind of life you have here too.”

“Yes, this is the life I want to have.”

*****

 

By Crooked Paths

Chapter 1

The title grabbed Joe Cartwright’s attention at the mercantile: Rogue Ruffian Rancher of Nevada, the Demon Desperado Despoiler of Public Funds and Private Virtue. Dime novels were a passion of his despite his father’s raised eyebrows and frequent comments about him wasting his time with them. To be able to read one that was about a rancher in his own state seemed more than he could have dreamed possible. He snatched it up and paid for it noting there were several more copies there. As he paid, the owner said it had been a popular item with several sold that morning already and he had only put them on the shelf when he opened up. Apparently Joe wasn’t the only one who thought the subject matter was intriguing, and he congratulated the owner on his wise decision to stock up on the novel. Joe planned to keep this one in his room knowing his father wouldn’t object if he said he was tired and needed to head up to his bedroom early. Then he would have a couple of hours to devour this tasty morsel without his father objecting at all. His plan worked perfectly except he hadn’t realized just how impatient he would be to get to the book.

When Joe finally got to his room, he kicked off his boots and immediately dropped on his bed to begin reading making no pretense of sliding into bed. If his father poked his head in the door, he was going to see that Joe had been misleading him about why he went upstairs early. Joe devoured the first chapter and started to see some disturbing similarities to real life. He read more and every chapter made him more and more concerned until he was so upset that he had to stop reading and go talk to his father. Hoss was coming up the stairs by the time Joe headed down the stairs.

“Hoss, you probably want to stick around for this. I’ve got some bad news to tell Pa.”

That announcement clearly made Hoss confused as to why Joe would have bad news. “You bin up in your bedroom. Lessen ya had a gal up there with ya, how could ya have bad news for Pa that ya didn’t have before?”

“It’s a kind of a long story. Come on down so I only have to tell it once.” Joe walked down the stairs then leaving Hoss no choice.

Sitting in his most comfortable chair and enjoying a small brandy before retiring for the night, Ben Cartwright was surprised to see both sons descending the stairs and with such serious looks especially his youngest. Hoss looked more perplexed than anything. “What’s going on? This looks like something serious only I haven’t heard a sound so I know there’s been nothing happening here for at least a few hours.”

“Pa, it’s this novel I bought at the store today.” Seeing his father’s eyebrows lower and come together, Joe could guess what he was thinking. “I know what your opinion is of these kinds of books, but I find them entertaining and they’re cheap so I’m not wasting a lot of money. Heck Hoss spends more on candy in a week than I do on these. But that’s not the issue we need to discuss. What we need to talk about is what’s in this book.”

Joe handed the book to his father who looked at the title and scoffed. “Well, he’s not a master of synonyms, that’s definite.”

“Pa, this is serious. This book is about a Nevada rancher who runs a syndicate and kills his friend who is investigating it after luring him to Virginia City to his ranch for a visit. He marries a top undercover agent after turning her against the government and into a double agent for his criminal organization. He assassinates a top businessman and a Senator when he’s in Denver, Colorado because they were about to open an investigation of him. They had found out about all of his ties to all the various crimes he had committed and then it says that he killed an ally in his home before the man could turn on him and go to the authorities with what he knew.”

As Joe had talked, Hoss’ eyes got big and his mouth dropped open. Ben stood and his face turned red. He was ready to throw the book into the fireplace but stared instead at the cover noticing for the first time the name of the author printed in quite large print across the top of the cover so no one would miss it.

“Tobias Wentworth Finch! I should have had Adam shoot him when we had the chance. The scandalous libelous filth he’s written here is contemptible. It’s the exact kind of slime that lizard would write. After all this time to come after Adam to get revenge. This book belongs in the fireplace. No one should tell Adam or Sarah either for that matter about this book.”

“Pa, it’s not that simple. That wasn’t the only copy in the store, and he said he had sold some already before I bought one. By now, there are probably other people reading that in town already, and they would have to be completely ignorant about what’s happened out here in the last year not to put this all together to realize that it’s Adam that he’s talking about.”

“I don’t want Adam to know. He’s finally home and having some peace with his family and in his new house. I don’t want him disturbed by this now, at least not yet. Tomorrow at church, no one should say anything. You two stick close and try to make sure no one says anything. Then they’re coming here for dinner so that will take care of the rest of the day.”

“That’s one day, Pa. We can’t keep this from Adam forever.”

“I know that, Hoss, but I want a chance to speak with Hiram Wood on Monday about this. I want to know if there’s any legal action we can take. Maybe a lawyer can do something against this before Adam even finds out.”

“And Sarah. Pa, she’s going to be as upset as Adam, and even more worried because she knows just like you know how he’s likely to react.”

“I know, Joe. Adam is going to be furious, and like Sarah, I’m worried about what he will do when he finds out what Finch has done.”

“We have another worry, don’t we, Pa? Adam told us that his role in this as well as Sarah’s was kept as quiet as possible to prevent possible retaliation. They never were named in any of the articles about this although people locally knew quite a bit especially after Malcolm was shot here trying to kill Adam. But away from here, most people hadn’t heard about him as having a role in this. How did Finch find out about all of this? I mean he’s got all the details.”

“Yes, he certainly does seem to have all the details. It seems that there may be someone in the government who helped him for some reason. We’re going to have to find out who that was too.”

“Mebbe when ya go ta town ta see Hiram, you could send some wires out too ta find out who’s leaking out all this information to that little weasel.”

“I’ll do that, Hoss. Now, let’s get some sleep. We don’t want to look like we’re too worried tomorrow at church or Adam will wonder what’s wrong.”

On Sunday at church, there were no unwelcome comments. Apparently whoever had purchased those books was either not a member of their church or hadn’t read the book yet. At least they had some time before Adam found out about the book being published. Then they had a pleasant day at the ranch with the whole family together. Ben thought they did rather well, but they didn’t do as well as he thought. That night, Adam and Sarah discussed what they perceived as some rather unusual behavior of his family.

“Adam, your family, your brothers especially, were acting a bit odd today at church. Do you have any idea why?”

“Odd in what way? I mean, with my brothers, sometimes it’s hard to tell.” Adam was in a mood for something other than conversation and was paying more attention to helping his wife undress for bed than he was to what she was saying.

“Now, I’m being serious. We haven’t had a chance to talk all day.” She couldn’t fend him off entirely though as she was as interested in other activities as he was. The more his hands roamed, the less she was interested in talking too. When he started to kiss her on the back of the neck and then work his way around to her cheek, she knew it was hopeless. “All right, but can we talk after?” She was sure she heard a murmured agreement there but wasn’t going to worry about that. She knew they would talk whether it was later that night or the next morning. It was the next morning.

“Yes, I did notice that Joe and Hoss seemed to be hovering and almost as if they were herding us keeping others away. It was odd. Maybe it’s because there were people coughing in church, and they wanted to protect Andrew and didn’t want him exposed to people who might be sick.”

“I might accept that except they were acting that way before church running up to us when we arrived and hardly waiting until you stopped the carriage before they helped me out and escorted me and Andrew while your father waited for you and walked with you to the church.”

“Yes, you’re right. I had forgotten that. I thought at first he wanted to talk with me about something important, but it was idle chatter. That in itself was out of character for him.”

“Yes, he’s more like you. He usually only talks when he has something to say. He’s not uncomfortable with silences.”

“Not like Joe. He wonders what’s wrong if there’s silence and tries to fill it.”

“Yes, he and Hoss did their best to dominate the conversation until services started so no one had a chance to come up to us to talk to us at all.”

“You think that’s what it was?”

“Adam, your brothers have never done that before. It was out of character. Something is going on, and I’d like to know what it is.”

“Now, I would too, but I’m working at the mill site today, and they’re both going to be up in the northern pastures. I won’t see them today.”

“There’s no hurry. I have to get the house ready for my parents’ visit. They should be here by the end of the week if all goes according to plan.”

“I’m still surprised your father accepted my offer of tickets for the trip. I thought he would be too proud to accept them.”

“I think my mother may have had something to do with that. She wants to see Andrew very much, and she knows we can’t travel with him for quite a while yet. It would be too difficult.”

Andrew was growing, but at six months was still nursing, wore diapers, and required naps both morning and afternoon or he got fussy and cried quite a lot. When he wasn’t sleeping or eating, he insisted on being on the floor and moving about preferring any kind of activity to being confined to his crib. Adam shuddered to think about traveling with him, and Sarah grinned knowing exactly what he was thinking.

On the Ponderosa, Ben was thinking about another matter entirely and finished his breakfast quickly, reviewed the day’s work schedule with Hoss and Joe, and then saddled up Buck for a ride to town. He had seen Hiram the day before at church and briefly mentioned that he had an important matter to discuss with him. Hiram had told him that his morning was open and to come to town anytime before noon. When Ben finished explaining the whole situation to Hiram, he was dismayed by the answer he got.

“Ben, libel laws are not as helpful as you might think. First, we would have to show that Adam is indeed the subject who is portrayed in the book. That would do exactly what you do not want done which is to showcase what Adam did in his work as an undercover agent and probably as well the work that Sarah did. Then we would have to show that portraying that has had a negative impact on Adam or on Sarah. At that point, we could get the book stopped from being published and all those not sold could be recalled. However that would make those already sold all the more valuable. Finally even if we meet those two conditions, we would have to show that the author and, by extension, the publisher were aware of the possible negative consequences when they had the book published in order to get damages from them. Most likely they would get to keep all the profits made from the publication of the book.”

“So you’re telling me that there’s absolutely nothing we can do?”

“No that’s not what I meant to convey. What I said was that a libel suit would not achieve what you want to accomplish. However, if you want to spend the money, we can tie them up in court by filing requests for injunctions and other legal actions. It could make them frustrated enough to drop the publication as too much trouble. Anything that cuts into profits is a high motivation to a publishing company because their profits usually aren’t that big to start.”

“Is that what you recommend?”

“If you want to do something to stop the publication and distribution of that novel, yes, it would be my recommendation. It will be costly though. I have to warn you about that.”

“Start doing what you have to do and send the bills to me. I want this stopped.”

Leaving Hiram’s office, Ben was hailed by Dan DeQuille from the Territorial Enterprise. He must have seen Ben come into town and been waiting for him. Dan didn’t usually sit on a bench and watch people move through town. Ben had a guess what he wanted and was correct in that.

“Ben, I got a copy of a very interesting book yesterday from a citizen in town. She had read it and found that the title character seemed to resemble Adam very much. It has the rather unwieldy title of Rogue Ruffian Rancher of Nevada, the Demon Desperado Despoiler of Public Funds and Private Virtue. Would you like to comment on that?”

“No, I would not.”

“If our paper would secure the right to serialize the book, what would your reaction be?”

“I would have my lawyer filing every legal action imaginable against you, your editor, and your paper until my last penny was spent.”

“I guess that is your comment on that then.”

Without anything more than a scowl in response, Ben mounted up on Buck to ride out of town but made one stop at the general store. Dan walked back to the newspaper offices to tell his editor that the idea he had was not a good one and would cause them far more trouble than the editor’s wife had in mind when she had given him that dime novel.

*****

Chapter 2

Dan would have been well served to sit on that bench a bit longer for he would have seen Tobias Wentworth Finch arrive in Virginia City. Of course, he probably wouldn’t have recognized him, but when word started being passed around town that the author of the dime novel that was the subject of so much gossip was in town, Dan would likely have made the connection with the smarmy looking short man who had arrived on the late morning stage. Instead, he never saw him and Finch was disappointed that no one recognized him on his arrival. He did announce his name to anyone who cared to listen though and soon word was being passed around. By then though, Finch was up in his hotel room meeting with his co-conspirators and enjoying himself immensely and gloating about how well things were progressing. He loved to see their looks of what he interpreted as admiration for the job he had been doing.

“Sales of my book are going through the roof here and in California. People can’t get enough of it. Some say it’s my best work yet and accolades are pouring in. I’m getting many offers to write for various publishing houses. I’m thinking about which ones to accept right now.”

“Finch, you only got that because we gave you the story. You couldn’t have thought of a story like that to save your life.” Owen Lewis smirked as he sipped his brandy and smoked his fine cigar, both of which he had brought to Finch’s room. He knew the writer wouldn’t have anything that would suit his tastes just like he knew the little weasel was fuming now but didn’t dare dispute what he had said. He enjoyed taking him down whenever he got all pumped up like he was at the moment. He decided to give him some orders to remind him who was in charge. “Next up, all you need to do is flaunt yourself around town to make sure to stir things up enough to get young Cartwright mad enough to come after you.”

“You’ll protect me from him, though, won’t you, just like you said you would?”

It pleased Owen so much to see Finch’s whole demeanor change. “Of course I will. Cartwright won’t kill you. I know him that well. I’ve studied him. He will push the limits of the law, but he won’t cross the lines. He won’t kill you.”

Finch stared at the floor but what he wanted to do most was smash his fist into Owen’s face. The man liked to remind him all the time about who was superior and who was in charge. He decided to challenge him a little more to try to save some of his pride. “I don’t know. You’ve never seen him angry. I have.”

Owen wasn’t bothered by the puny attempt to take a swipe at him. “He has a temper. We know that, but he’s smart. He’ll try to use the law and anyone else he can use to get you. He won’t put all his cards on the table. He didn’t in Denver. He walked into that house knowing he had allies outside. He played our partners and they ended up dead. Well we’re going to play him this time. We’re not putting all our cards on the table. He’s the one who won’t know what’s going on until it’s too late to do anything about it.”

Finch found that even more irritating. The man was lecturing him. “He’s a dangerous man.”

That one pushed Owen too far though. “So am I and don’t forget it. No one should question me. Is that clear?” The implied threat was all too clear.

Swallowing audibly, Finch nodded. He waited for the other man to speak. It was the brother of the Senator who had been killed in Colorado the year before when the head of the syndicate had murdered him intending to blame it on Adam only to be gunned down by government agents instead a few minutes later. Clark was consumed by the desire for revenge. He was here for only that reason and would do anything that Owen wanted as long as it meant that Adam Cartwright would die. Finch still didn’t understand their full plan, but though loath to admit it, he was afraid of these two men so he didn’t ever push them to tell more than they were willing to tell him. Besides, he figured that the less he knew, the less he could be held responsible if the plan went awry and they ended up arrested instead of Adam. It didn’t matter so much to him any more. He had gotten a big dose of revenge on Adam already, and it had been highly profitable too.

Looking at Finch and seeing the fear of Owen give way to smiling, Clark correctly guessed that Finch was back to thinking about himself. “Finch, don’t you have some walking about town to do?”

Startled, Finch stood and moved toward the door. It was his room though and he wasn’t sure exactly what to do about the two men sitting in it and now he was doubly insulted to have Clark ordering him about too. He decided there was only one way to handle it. “You gentlemen are welcome to stay in my room as long as you want. I’ll be out and about for hours, I guess. I won’t be back until dark. I’ll have dinner and maybe even go to a saloon and have a drink. Is that a good plan?”

Owen smirked again at the way he and Clark had made Finch twist in the wind like laundry on the line. “Oh, that’s a fine plan. And, it may be the room you are occupying, but remember who’s footing the bill.”

“Yes, sir, I mean, yes, Owen, I will. I am grateful, and I’ll do just what you want. You won’t be disappointed in me, Owen. You can count on me.” With that, Finch pulled the door closed behind him, took a deep breath, and headed down the hall trying to regain his composure. Those men shook him up. Somehow being with them was worse than attending a funeral. Talking with Owen Lewis was like talking to the devil himself. It was irritating though to have Owen Lewis have to remind him that he was paying for the room. After all, he was doing a favor for the man so paying for the room was small recompense for what Finch was doing for him. He was quite full of himself and Finch was looking forward to the time when he would be able to gain the upper hand on that inflated blowhard. He had seen men like him before who had so much over-confidence. They looked just as defeated as a drunk in the gutter when someone took them down, and Finch smiled as he thought about how he could look down his nose at Owen Lewis when that day came. Finch shook himself to get rid of that image of Lewis with that dangerous leer and thought instead of him cowed and defeated. It allowed him to adopt a fake smile as he walked down the stairs into the hotel lobby where he prepared himself to meet his many adoring fans or as many as he could find who at least knew who he was and liked his book. He guessed he would probably have to find a way to introduce himself and make sure people knew who he was. He began to think about how to accomplish that and headed for the store that was selling his book where he got some bad news.

Up in his room, Owen and Clark laughed about Finch. Clark had a question for Owen that surprised him. Owen had no idea Clark was that perceptive and decided he needed to be more careful around him.

“When you said Cartwright would never kill him, you of course left out the part about who would kill him. Who is going to kill Finch? He’s too much of a liability to let live.”

“I’ll have someone in my organization take care of Tobias Finch when his usefulness is at an end. For now, he still has a role to play. It doesn’t have to be killing him though. He simply has to leave. What makes you think I would have him killed?”

“Oh, I thought you were the kind of man who didn’t leave potential trouble laying about.”

“Finch is only interested in money. Men like that are easy to take care of. He will be fine as long as he works for me.”

“You’re the boss, but if my brother had taken care of problems like Adam Cartwright and others sooner, then he would still be alive and so would the rest of the leaders of the syndicate. You’re lucky to have survived. We’re the only two that the agents didn’t uncover from the top echelons. My brother was dead so he couldn’t turn me in, and the men who knew you were part of the organization died in jail. That was lucky for you.” Clark watched to see Owen’s reaction. He had done this several times because he suspected that Owen had had his friends killed before they could inform on him in order to get a better deal for themselves. Owen never twitched though. He was either innocent or had the nerves of a Mojave sidewinder. Clark couldn’t tell which but decided he better watch his back as well as he could.

“Now, we shouldn’t be seen together. I want you to get to work on your assignment. Watch Adam Cartwright and keep track of his movements. I want to know where he is and what his schedule is like. We may need to take him at some point, and I want to know the best way to do it. While you’re at it, keep track of his pretty wife as much as possible too. I’ll send two of my men with you. You’re in charge, but send regular reports back with one of them. I’ve given you enough money for any supplies you may need.”

“I’m ready. I can’t wait for this plan to play out. I wish I knew all the details, but as long as you promised me that Cartwright will go to the gallows, that’s good enough for me. When I see him swinging from a rope, I’ll be satisfied. You will never find a more loyal man in your employ than me.”

“That’s good to know, Clark. I know I can trust you. I wish I could trust Finch like that, but he’s only a temporary employee.”

Again, Clark got the impression that Finch was going to die, but didn’t dare say anything to contest what Owen had said earlier. Once Clark had left, two men stepped into the room from the adjoining room from where they had heard everything.

“Boss, I think Clark is figuring out the plan.”

“That’s all right because I think he’s only figured out what’s going to happen to Finch. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen to him. He doesn’t see it at all because he’s so focused on trying to guess what I’m going to do to Finch. Let’s keep him focused on that for as long as possible. He may be very useful along the way as a way to insulate me from any potential trouble. Now, one of you, go with Clark and take one of the other men we hired here. In a couple of days, give me a detailed schedule of what Adam and his wife have been doing. The other, go find Finch and stay close enough to hear what he’s saying. Once he’s back here for the night, report back to me no matter what time it is.”

“Boss, Ben Cartwright was in town this morning seeing a lawyer. Should we try to find out what the lawyer is doing?”

“No, by tomorrow morning, I’ll have a few more of my men here including a lawyer. I’ll have him do some checking. You concentrate on your job. While you’re at it, find out what you can about the Cartwrights from the two men we hired. They must have heard gossip, maybe played cards or had a drink with one or more of them, or maybe know friends of theirs. Anything you can find out, let me know. I’m filling out a file on each one of them. Before we put this plan completely into action, I want to know exactly who we’re up against. Ben Cartwright shot Malcolm so he’s a force to be reckoned with and he knows enough to enlist a lawyer already. That tells me he’s one we’re going to have to deal with too.”

“I’ve seen him around a bit since you sent us here to get things set up. He’s got that walk that says he’s in charge. You know the kind. He won’t take anything lying down. He’s one to come out fighting. When his boy is in trouble, he’ll be there to back him up. Maybe he could have a little accident to keep him out of action for a while?”

“We’ll see. We may have to add that to the plan. Now you two go do what you have to do.” After they left, Owen sat back and finished his brandy and his cigar. He thought about how his list of people to eliminate kept getting longer including the two men he had just sent out to do his work. He was going to miss them the most, but they already knew too much, and he had seen what could happen when there were men who knew too much. If they got in trouble, they turned on you and told all they knew to get themselves a good deal. Once this job was over, they were expendable because he could find others just as good who didn’t know what these two knew. He could rebuild the syndicate from the ground floor with no one knowing any more than he wanted them to know as soon as he flushed out the undercover agents who had helped Adam and Sarah bring down the original syndicate. He wasn’t positive how many there were, but based on his sources in Denver, he believed it was only two. Four government agents and four men working with him would soon be dead, and then he would be the only one left. He smiled and puffed away savoring the taste of an expensive cigar and expensive brandy. He still had the plates for counterfeiting, still had contacts for a number of other enterprises, and only needed this plan to succeed to begin rebuilding. It had to happen soon though because his funds were nearly used up. Without the syndicate operations, he had no source of income and all that money stashed away was rapidly dwindling into nothing. He was glad that he had no belief in God and an afterlife because if he did, he would have a lot to fear for the things he had done and for what he planned to do.

Owen had plans for Finch, but Finch was making plans for Owen too. Finch had started taking notes on Owen Lewis thinking that once his book on Adam had garnered enough publicity for him, he would write one about Owen Lewis. If the Rogue Ruffian Rancher didn’t get serialized, Finch guessed he could probably get a book about the Demon Devil Double Dealer sold to the big city papers when so many were beginning to champion the fight against corruption. He was beginning to see some of it up close and had a good model for his next subject. To that end, Finch was filling notebooks with sketches, notes, and information about Owen Lewis and all the men he had met because of the man. Finch had no idea how important that was going to be eventually especially as Owen had no idea that he was doing anything like that. Finch grinned every time he thought about it. It was going to be sweet revenge for how Owen made him feel when they were together. Finch usually had to struggle so he didn’t wet himself as Owen always looked at him like a hawk looked at a mouse scurrying about down below. Finch thought he shouldn’t treat him that was as they were partners but was smart enough never to say that. Instead, he was going to serve his revenge cold and when he was no longer anywhere near Owen Lewis.

When Lewis’ man caught up to Finch, Finch was grinning that usual inane grin he had. Lewis’ man had no idea why he could be smiling, but then again, he had no respect for Finch so never thought he might have a plan of his own.

*****

Chapter 3

That night on the Ponderosa, Ben asked Hoss and Joe to stay at the dining table after dinner was concluded because they had some serious business to discuss. Both had been expecting something like that ever since their father had arrived home obviously agitated but not ready to talk. They had waited for him to choose the time.

“We figured on you wanting to talk. We’re ready ifn you are, Pa. I’m guessin’ the talk with Mister Wood didn’t go too good, huh?”

“No, Hoss, it didn’t. It seems that libel laws aren’t very helpful in a situation like this. We would end up publicizing what we want to keep quiet by bringing it to court and making a huge issue of it. We also would have to show how this book has harmed Adam or Sarah in order to get damages from the author and the publisher.”

“So we just have to let them go on selling that book no matter how much damage it does?”

“No, Joe, I did buy the two books that were still at the store, and I warned him that if he bought any more, I would open up a competing store and do my best to get every rancher and miner to spend their money at my store even if it meant I had to run a price war. He got my message.”

“That’s it. That’s all we can do. Pa, that don’t seem like enough. Dadburnit, when Adam finds out, he’s like as not gonna do something ’bout this, and you know that temper a his. We need to get this under control before he finds out.”

“Hiram is going to hit the publishers with other legal problems and hope that they will back off publishing that book because fighting us in court will cut into their profits too much. I’m telling you because it’s going to cost us. Are you all right with my telling Hiram to go ahead and do that?” Both Hoss and Joe agreed immediately. “As for telling Adam, I’m going to do that tomorrow morning. I’ll take the two books I bought and bring them over there to show him and let he and Sarah have them. They can burn them when they’ve had a chance to skim through them. I’ll tell Adam what I’ve told you, and we can talk. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep him calm enough for the time being. He does have a young son who should be his main concern right now, and his in-laws are due to arrive this week so he can’t go rushing off to see the publishers or to find Finch.”

It was the next morning when Ben found out that his careful plan was going to need some adjustment. Roy Coffee arrived at the ranch shortly after breakfast. Ben greeted him and wondered at his early arrival especially as it was during the week and none of the hands had been in town.

“Ben, it ain’t about anything that’s happened really. I’m more concerned about what might happen next.”

“I suppose you’ve heard about the book. I’m going to go talk to Adam about that this morning. I’ll try to calm him down, but what would that have to do with you. I already got the store to agree not to sell any more books so there’s no more trouble in town?”

“Now there’s where you’re wrong, Ben. Ya see, that Finch fella showed up in town on the stage yesterday. He’s been around town and talking some. Now he’s found out that no one in town will sell his book and the paper won’t serialize it. Instead he’s come up with a plan about having a reading and offering a free copy of the book to anyone who comes to the reading. Guess he brought extra copies of the book with him. Ben, I can’t hardly stop something like that.”

“I can. I’ll get Hiram to file an injunction against it. I’ll hit him with every legal device we can think of until he can’t afford to have that reading as he calls it. It’s a publicity stunt and nothing more.”

“Well, he’s shur stirred things up in town, I can tell you that. He’s been talking about that book of his, and if anybody asks if it’s Adam, well, he just says it’s fiction and how it would be libel maybe to write about a real person and say things so nasty about him, but then he laughs like he ain’t telling the whole truth. Ya know what I mean?”

“Oh, I know what you mean, Roy. I’ve met Finch before.”

“Most folks ain’t read the book seeing as how there’s only two that was sold in town and nobody seems to know where one of them is so there’s only one being passed around. Ifn I could get hold of it somehow, I would.”

“Roy, I have an idea. You can put a bounty on that book. Tell them I’ll pay one hundred dollars to have that book in your hands by the end of the day today. I’ll get the money for you right now so you can pay cash to whomever brings that book to you.”

“Ben, what if the one who’s got the second book comes in too?”

“I’ll give you enough for that one too.” Ben handed over two hundred dollars

“Well, now, that might just make my job a bit easier. Thank ya, Ben. I’ll head on back and you do what you gotta do to keep Adam from coming into town. I wanted to tell ya so you could take care of things peacefully ’cause I got a feeling if Adam gets anywhere near that Finch, I’ll be locking Adam up, and you know what I mean.”

“Can’t you run Finch out of town?”

“If he makes a disturbance of any kind, I will, but so far, he’s done nothing to give me the right to do that.”

“I wish he would.” Ben too was worried about what Adam would do when he found out about Rogue Ruffian Rancher and that Finch was in town.

Later the same morning when Ben finished telling Adam about the situation, Adam had the predictable reaction in that he wanted to go to town to confront Finch. He and Sarah had not spent much time perusing the books Ben had brought because the title itself was quite a signal that there was trouble and of course Ben’s demeanor and his special trip there signaled that there was something wrong with the book. All they needed was a quick skim to find that there was far too much in the book that was about them especially about Adam. Sarah was Ben’s ally though in keeping Adam from doing what his temper made him inclined to want to do to Finch.

“They’re baiting you. If you go after Finch, you would be doing exactly what they want you to do. You would be nothing more than their puppet on a string.”

Ben waited as he watched Adam consider what Sarah had said marveling at the calm way his son accepted her response. He trusted his wife, which was so important to their relationship. After a moment, Adam had a question for her to get her opinion to help him clarify his own thoughts.

“What should I do?”

“Make them show their hand. There’s something more going on here than one book being published by one man who wants to get even with you and make money in the process.”

Now that had Ben confused but he saw Adam nodding and realized he had missed something. “Why do you say that?”

With a slight smile, Adam answered. “Because in my anger at what was being done, I missed the obvious point. How did Finch know all of this? Much of what he has attributed to me and insinuated that Sarah knew or participated in too could only be known by someone who was investigating it or was being investigated. I doubt very much that Finch has visited these men in prison and solicited their knowledge of what occurred, so he has gained access to the government records or there is someone out there that escaped detection.”

“Which do you think is more likely?”

Looking over at Sarah, Adam could see from her expression what she thought. “There’s someone else out there. Finch wouldn’t pay what it would have taken to bribe people to get at the government records. Someone gave him that information.”

“But why come after you and Sarah?”

“I don’t know, but it could be retribution. We always had the feeling that some people slipped through the cracks in the investigation. In a criminal operation that big, there’s always the chance of missing some people when you take it down. That’s why Sarah’s advice makes sense. We need them to show their hand. We need to know more of what they’re trying to do and who they are.”

Looking at Sarah, Adam said only one more thing. “Zee.”

She agreed. “Yes, we could use his help.”

“I got a telegram when Adam was hurt that told us Sarah was coming and it was signed with the letter Z. Is that the same person?”

“It is, Pa, but you won’t likely be meeting him. He likes to stay in the background and work quietly behind the scenes. I’ll send a wire to the Treasure Department saying we need help. We have a code that we were given to use should we need Zee’s help. If we send it, he should show up here. In fact, if they know about this book, they may have put him on the case already. It may be best if I write it out and you send it when you go to town.”

Ben agreed to that. “Sarah, I know your parents are due to arrive this week. Is this going to be awkward?”

“Perhaps a little. We may need to have some help picking them up in town. Other than that, I think we’ll stay away from town. That will frustrate whomever is doing this. If they know Adam, they’ll be expecting him to confront Finch. When he doesn’t, they’ll have to come up with a new plan. It will give us time to find out what we can.”

“Pa, can you let Roy know about our conversation so he can watch Finch and try to find out who he’s seeing in town. He can’t be doing this alone.”

So Ben went to town to have Hiram take any legal action he could against Finch and his proposed public reading and spent some time with Roy explaining his discussion with Adam and Sarah. Xavier Gilbert had already talked with Roy without identifying himself as the man known as Zee, but his obvious concern for Adam and Sarah and what he proposed to do let Roy know he was a friend. He had asked Roy to keep his presence in strictest confidence so he could do his work. As Finch moved about town, Zee watched and noted the man who was always shadowing him. A trip to Finch’s hotel led to the discovery that his room was being paid for by a corporation that was also paying for three other rooms at the hotel. Zee knew then that he needed help and sent a wire for his partner, Mike, to come to Virginia City. He guessed that someone they had missed in their original investigation of the criminal syndicate that Adam and Sarah had helped bring down was behind this situation, and he feared what their ultimate goal was. Unless the two of them could come up with something concrete, they wouldn’t get any more help on this case so he began to work in earnest to uncover as much as he could.

Within a few days, Adam and Sarah headed to town with the rest of the Cartwrights and Candy too to welcome Sarah’s parents. With such a large entourage, it was nearly impossible for anyone to approach either Adam or Sarah to say anything as one of the four men with them made sure of it. Once her parents were there and introduced to everyone, Hoss and Candy got their luggage loaded into the buckboard and Adam and Sarah got into the larger carriage with them as Ben and Joe mounted up on their horses to ride beside them. The whole group proceeded out of town without any disturbance being made. It had all worked smoothly. No one had known they were coming to town, and with the plan they had, no one had been able to cause a disturbance of any kind either. Watching nearby, Zee saw Finch frustrated on not being able to approach Adam to say something and then saw him exchange some angry words with a man a short time later. It was a different man than the one who had been shadowing him so Zee had increased his list to three men who were involved in whatever plot that was unfolding. He wasn’t sure what it was, but he thought it was probably time to contact Adam and Sarah to discuss it with them.

The trip to the Ponderosa took quite a bit of time as Adam and Sarah showed off some of the sights taking her parents on the long way to their home. Andrew was at their house with a neighbor who had agreed to stay with him. Adam explained to Augie and Marcella that Andrew was rather fierce in his crying if he missed his naps so they thought it best to leave him home for his morning nap so he would be in a better mood on meeting his grandparents. Marcella smiled and said that their son Paul had been much the same way. That afternoon after lunch, Augie and Marcella Mueller spent their time playing with their grandson and holding him while he napped. Adam said they were going to spoil him, but Sarah only smiled and told him that one day wasn’t going to spoil him. Adam wasn’t so sure. That evening, they had dinner at the main house, and the Muellers were impressed with the large scale of it as well as its comfortable nature and casual appeal. They enjoyed Adam’s home too with its efficient layout and modern conveniences in the midst of the Nevada mountain country. His home reflected his personality with a place for everything and everything in its place, but Sarah’s touches were clear too with bright colors highlighting each room and windows letting in bright sunlight with each one framed by fashionable curtains. Augie and Marcella noted how the two homes reflected their owners so well.

After their long trip and the busy day, they were ready to retire to their guest room quite early. Adam went outside to see to his horses and two milk cows in his small stable. As he neared the stable, something didn’t seem right. He drew his pistol and approached cautiously entering slowly and keeping the lantern off to his left and looking away from it to keep his vision focused on what was in the shadows as much as he could. Zee raised his arms and stepped out from a stall.

“You do have good instincts for survival. I think you’re going to need them again too.”

“I could have shot you.”

“No, I know you so I knew you wouldn’t. I was waiting for you. We need to talk, and I saw you had guests and didn’t want to disturb you.” Then Zee filled him in on what he had found out which wasn’t that much but pointed at a plot. He shared his suspicions too which mirrored those that Adam and Sarah had. “I’m in agreement with Sarah that they wanted you to confront Finch. I wonder why though. What could be the purpose of that?”

“I think they want to draw you out and probably Mike too, but how could me confronting Finch do that?”

“Yes, that’s a strange way to go about it. There’s definitely something we’re missing here. Maybe you can tell Sarah what I’ve told you and she can come up with a theory. Or you can keep thinking about it and come up with one. We’re operating in the dark here. I’ve contacted Mike to join me here, but I don’t know when he’ll arrive. He’s always been the one who’s the best at coming up with theories.”

“Where are you staying?”

“In your stable tonight, if you don’t mind?”

“I’d invite you to stay in the house, but the guest bedroom is taken.”

“No, I’ll be fine here. I will join you for breakfast though if you’re willing to extend the invitation?”

“Of course. Have you had dinner?” When Zee said he hadn’t, Adam told him to feed the horses and get them some water and he would be back with some dinner by the time he finished. Sarah was busy with Andrew so Adam got the food heated for Zee and returned to the stable with that and an extra blanket. He showed Zee where the extra lantern was in case it was needed, and showed him that there was a cot in the tack room.

“You think of everything.”

“Sometimes we have a hand stay over here when there’s some work that needs to be done so it seemed a sensible thing to include. Join us for breakfast in the morning. I’ll introduce you to Sarah’s parents as a hand staying over to do some work. You can stay here in the stable whenever you need a place.”

“Thank you. This will work out well.”

*****

Chapter 4

On that morning when Adam’s in-laws arrived in Virginia City, Owen Lewis couldn’t have felt more frustrated when he saw Finch so ineffectually trying to approach Adam Cartwright and failing so miserably. His plan hinged on Finch getting Adam Cartwright angry in public and letting that famous temper do the rest as Owen had no doubt it would do. Everything he had learned about Adam said that he would threaten Finch and probably grab the little weasel while he did it. Owen was actually looking forward to that part for there had been a number of times he wanted to grab Finch and throttle him. He wanted to see his eyes bug out and his lips turn blue. It had been years since Owen had actually done anything like that. He paid other people to do that kind of work for him now, but he had to admit to himself that there were times he missed doing it himself. Later, standing in his hotel room and staring out the window as he thought about what had happened that morning, he experienced one of those times. The feel of that man’s scrawny neck in his hands as he slowly throttled the life out of him and looked into his eyes as he knew he was dying and knew who was killing him and couldn’t do anything to stop was the kind of feeling of power that Owen had always enjoyed. As a child, he had killed animals but the ones he enjoyed killing most were the ones he had been able to tie up or trap so that he could kill them as they looked at him knowing they were going to die and he was the one who was going to do it. Some snarled and spat at him and others cowered, but all of them in effect were paying homage to his power, and he knew it and loved the feeling. He decided at that moment that he was going to kill someone, and he knew exactly who it was going to be and how he was going to do it. It made him excited just to think about the new plan. He had to do something with the way he felt so he told the two men in his room that he was going for a walk.

“You want we should come out and walk behind ya, boss, ta make sure nobody is following ya or nothing?”

Owen’s first inclination was to say no. He wanted to continue that feeling of being all-powerful, but his truly powerful survival instinct kicked in and he told the men what to do. Before they could go out though, one of the men who was assigned to watch Adam Cartwright was there to give a report.

“He’s got guests in the house. It’s an old man and an old woman look to be her parents. What’s a lot more interesting though is there’s a man staying in the stable. He came in when he was nearly dark the first day we got there, and he’s still there. He has breakfast with them, and then he heads toward town here.”

Owen wanted to know what the man looked like and his employee produced a sketch that he and the others had made. It was rather crude as none of them were artists but it was a fair rendering of the man. When Owen saw the sketch, he had that feeling of déjà vu and wondered where he might have seen this man before because he was sure that he had. It was one of the other men who had an idea.

“I think I seen him in town. He seems to be lounging around on a bench a lot. I figured him for a cowboy out of work, but maybe he’s more than that.”

Owen’s previous disappointment in Finch began to dissipate as he realized that Finch and his book might have brought one of the agents he wanted to Virginia City. “All right, you know what he looks like, so you’re staying here. We’ll send someone else out to help watch Cartwright. Now, here’s the plan. I want the three of you to spread out and move west along the street. One can even step into a shop and buy some candy or something. Then I’ll come out and move in that same direction. I want you to see if that man shows up. If he does, then the hunter becomes the hunted. Follow him after I’m back here. If we’re able to identify him and follow him, we’ll keep a man or two on him from now on.”

“You think he’s one of the men we want, don’t you?”

“He possibly could be.”
“Why don’t we just take him out and make him disappear for you?”

Sighing in exasperation to have his orders questioned again, but at least this time, it was from ignorance and an effort to help him rather than to challenge his authority. He wasn’t angry. “If he is one of those I want to draw out, then he will help draw out any others. He has to be alive to do that, now doesn’t he?”

“Oh, yeah. Sorry, boss. I shouldna said nothing.”

Owen decided that this one might be dumb enough to keep around longer at least until he had a lot more men hired after this operation was completed. “What’s your name?”

“Matt.”

“Matt what?”

“Oh, Matt, sir.”

“No, what’s your last name?”

“Oh, Johnson. My name’s Matt Johnson.”

“Real name?”

“Huh? Oh, yes, sir, my real name. My folks are Johnsons from Kentucky, sir.”

Owen smiled. He didn’t do that often in true amusement, but this naïve man who was willing to kill for him did amuse him. He might be willing to keep him around. He could be useful with his willingness to do anything and apparently not enough intelligence to remember much else. That was a real benefit in an employee as far as he was concerned. “I like you, Johnson. You may have a bright future working for me.” Johnson beamed as Owen smiled and the others were clearly confused. That ended quickly though as Owen told them that they had their assignments and to get to work. He waited for them to get outside and in position and then walked down the stairs regally and outside for a leisurely stroll. He never spotted the man who had been mentioned which in itself was a clue that he was probably a professional. When he returned to his hotel room an hour later, he poured himself a brandy and waited for his men to return or at least two of them as he wanted one to be following the man they had been hoping to locate and observe. It didn’t take long for the two men to get to the door. Not too surprisingly, they had sent Johnson to follow the man.

“Johnson isn’t the brightest. Why send him?”

“He tracks better than any of us. If he loses sight of him, he can track him. Besides, we know where he’s going by nightfall. The man was definitely checking you out, boss. He followed you rather well too always keeping other people or things between you and him.”

That confirmed Owen’s suspicions. “It has to be one of the men we wanted to flush out. All right, that makes three. Now we need the fourth one. Hopefully he’ll show when Cartwright is in trouble and the other man is missing. Finch needs to put on his show on Sunday. Find him and tell him I need to see him this evening after dinner. That’s all for now. You can go relax for a few hours. I’ll have dinner in the restaurant here after I meet with my lawyer. I have some work for him to do too.”

Enjoying his dinner, Finch was disturbed by a cowboy bumping into his chair and making him drop his fork. The cowboy picked it up and handed it back with an apology and then a whispered message. “Boss wants to see you after dinner. He has some orders for you so go as soon as you’re done eating.” Mildly irritated by the bump, Finch was incensed by the imperious nature of the summons he had received. In his mind, they were partners in this enterprise but Owen was treating him like some lackey. He didn’t like it, and he was going to tell Owen if he didn’t start treating him with more respect, he was backing out of this deal and heading back to San Francisco. After all that had happened, he had decided to sign with a publishing company and didn’t need Owen any more. He had some sweet revenge and made a tidy profit while doing so. The fire that had burned inside him had been banked. He was ready for all of this to be over. He prepared himself to go up to Owen’s room to see him and have it out with him.

Up in his room, Owen was working on the fine points of his plan by having his lawyer ready to cover what he expected the Cartwrights and the sheriff to do. “I expect them to be filing all sorts of legal blocks in Finch’s way of doing that public reading. You step in to represent Finch on behalf of the publishing company. No one is going to question that in the short term, and by the time anyone would likely think to check into it, this will already be over. Now of more immediate concern is what I want Finch to do on Sunday. After that, the sheriff may try to force him to leave town. For my purposes, I need Finch here. Whatever the sheriff does, you have to stop him by whatever legal means you have or at the very least delay whatever action he attempts to take. I want all attention focused on Finch and his troubles with the Cartwrights, or more specifically with Adam Cartwright.”

Once the lawyer had asked any questions he needed to ask, he left to begin preparing any legal documents he would need to have on hand. Owen sat back to enjoy his usual brandy and a fine cigar as he felt his plan coming together again. That one of the agents who had worked with Adam and Sarah had already shown up was gratifying to him and reinforced his belief that he had developed a foolproof plan. He was sure that the man they had spotted had to be one of the government agents. He wondered when the other one would show. It made him a little nervous not knowing where the other one was. He knew he did this to others but hated the feeling when it was done to him. When Finch finally arrived, he was in no mood for any trouble from him. He thought when Finch walked in that he looked like a little prancing rooster about to strut his stuff. The glare he gave him must have been enough. Finch agreed to his request without so much as a single word of objection. He found that somewhat remarkable, but when Finch left, he looked in the mirror and gave himself the same glare. Then he laughed for he knew how frightened Finch must have been seeing him look that way. He looked like he wanted to kill something or someone. He did, but not Finch, at least not that night. Of course Finch didn’t know that and could only go by what he could see, and what he had seen had probably nearly made him wet himself. Owen liked that image too and was in a much better mood by the time he slid under the covers to enjoy a very pleasant night dreaming of the wealth and power that was to be his.

However Finch didn’t sleep hardly at all resenting the way he felt humiliated in Owen’s room. His resolve to challenge him had disintegrated under the man’s intimidating look. He had felt like a wounded animal must feel with vultures circling above waiting for the sure demise. That was how Owen looked at him. He looked down on him, but also looked at him as if he was expendable. Finch wondered about that. Surely he didn’t want him to do as he asked in order for him to get killed. The more he thought about it, he guessed that perhaps Owen did wish it, but he knew Adam Cartwright would never gun him down when he was unarmed no matter what he said. Besides, he was going to confront him when he was with his family and surely they would restrain him from any outrageous act. And what Owen wanted him to say was outrageous and far worse than anything that Finch would ever have said on his own. He had nothing against Adam’s wife and would never have thought to insult her in order to get even with her husband. She was included in the book because Owen had insisted on it and that had seemed like it wasn’t so awful, but what Owen wanted him to say was going quite a bit further than that. He was going to have to work up his courage to be able to go through with it, but then that was going to have to be it. He was going to wash his hands of Owen Lewis and get out of town. Meanwhile he had a lot more material for his notes and sketches and spent a good part of the night adding to those.

*****

Chapter 5

On Sunday morning, as instructed, Finch headed to church which was something he hadn’t done in years. At least he believed in God. Finch wondered about Owen Lewis though and doubted that he ever attended church or had any faith at all. He knew Lewis was attending services as well though because he wanted to witness the confrontation, but smiled as he imagined the building going up in flames when Lewis set foot inside. Then his mind returned to what he had to do and the smile faded away. He saw the Cartwrights arriving and hurried to get inside before they saw him. He was to stage his little act in the church itself according to Owen’s plan so that there would be the greatest number of witnesses and no mistake about what was said. He took a seat at the end of a row near the back and waited. When Adam walked in with his family, he was ready for him.

“How dare you set foot in the house of the Lord after the things you’ve done? And you bring her with you? Tell me, that baby was born rather soon after you were married.”

“Finch, shut your mouth!”

“Did you bed her to win her over or did you force her?”

At that point, Adam lunged toward Finch and Hoss and Ben grabbed him to restrain him. Finch wasn’t quite finished though.
“I suppose once she was heavy with child, she had no choice but to take your side and keep her mouth shut about what you did.”

Ben and Hoss could keep Adam from striking Finch although it was challenging, but they couldn’t stop him from talking. “Finch, shut your mouth or I’ll shut it for you.”

“Like you did with all those others? Are you going to shoot me too?”

“I’ll do whatever it takes to get you to stop spreading your filthy lies.”

By then, there were enough concerned members of the congregation who decided the best course of action was to get Finch out of the building. They propelled him through the doors and down the steps letting him know he was not welcome in their church because of his behavior. He left them with a few choice comments and turned to walk back to the hotel. He was hailed then by an older gentleman.

“Mister Finch, is it? May I have a moment with you?”

Finch waited for the man wondering what he wanted and expected that perhaps he had a question about what had been said inside. Instead the man smashed a mighty powerful roundhouse swing into Finch’s jaw nearly lifting him off his feet and knocking him on his back in the dirt. Looking up in pain and shock, Finch had no idea why the man had hit him until he spoke.

“If you ever speak of my daughter in that way again, you’ll get the same and maybe more. You need to learn some proper respect for people. Your book was enough trash but speaking it especially in church shows that you’ve got no proper respect for people at all. Now, get on your way before I decide you haven’t had enough of a lesson.”

The man turned and walked back to the church without another word. Finch decided that his earlier decision to get out of this mess was the correct one. He was going to pack his bag and get on that early stage on Monday morning. He knew that had to be Sarah’s father and he knew nothing about the man, but the blow to his face had been enough to tell him that a few more like that and he might never wake up. His jaw felt like it might be broken and he was sure that some of his teeth had been jarred loose by that one blow. He wasn’t going to report the man to the sheriff though. He only wanted to get out of this town and away from these people before something worse happened to him. He had seen the dark look in Adam Cartwright’s eyes, and he had often heard the term ‘if looks could kill’ but hadn’t entirely understood it until that moment. He hoped that the restaurant would have a bag of ice. He was going to need something for his poor aching jaw and the headache that was building too.

Inside the church, Owen sat and observed doing his best to remain inconspicuous. He noted the older man leave the group of people around Adam and then return about five minutes later to be greeted by Sarah and by an older woman who appeared to be Sarah’s mother so Owen assumed the man must be Sarah’s father. Curious as to what that could mean, he watched carefully and saw the woman who had to be the man’s wife take his hand, examine it, and then talk to him with that strange combination of dismay and pride you sometimes saw women display with their husbands. He wanted to chuckle but held his expression carefully neutral. His guess was that Tobias Wentworth Finch had paid a price for insulting Sarah Mueller Cartwright. It didn’t bother him at all and in fact pleased him somewhat in that at least someone had hit that little weasel. All in all things were going quite well. In front of all sorts of upright citizens, Adam Cartwright had threatened Finch saying he would do whatever it took to get him to stop spreading his lies. That was a very clear threat and for anyone who knew Adam, they could quite easily assume that it could imply violence. Sarah has the same look as she sat with Adam as her mother did sitting with her husband. The other Cartwright men looked unsure of themselves as if they didn’t know what was likely to happen next. Quite clearly they had never expected anything like this to happen at church services. Owen leaned back and would have patted himself on the back if he could. He had guessed that and was proud that he had outsmarted them so easily bringing the attack to them in what they thought was a safe sanctuary.

Continuing to observe them during the service, Owen had no reason to change his opinion until they were leaving. It was on chance remark that he overheard that reinforced the wisdom of his decision to attend these services. As the Cartwright entourage filed out, he heard Adam ask his wife why Finch would have pulled that stunt at church.

“Sarah, there’s something more going on here than the obvious. Someone other than Finch is involved in this. I know it. I only wish I knew who it was.”

“I know. There was nothing to be gained for Finch by doing what he did. Someone else wanted you to get in an altercation with him. But the biggest question remains why would they want that? What is the reason for it? Adam, there’s a bigger conspiracy here than we know and we need to analyze everything that’s happened so far.”

“Maybe we need to sit down with Zee and see what he thinks.”

“That’s probably a good idea.”

Then they were too far away and too many people were in the way so that Owen couldn’t get closer without being obvious. He thought he had heard enough though. The man he wanted was called Zee. That should help. Now if the fourth one would only show up but perhaps the next step in his plan would draw that one out too. He had to hope that was true. Once back in the hotel, he waited for Clark to come to his room to finalize his part of the plan. He had to get it just right or the plan would falter. They had until the late afternoon to practice though so he thought it would work out to accomplish what he needed to get to the next part of the plan. Then he had Finch summoned to his room. When his man came back to say Finch was done with everything and wouldn’t be doing any more, Owen told him to bring Finch to his room even if he had to do it with a gun at the little weasel’s back. He noted that his man seemed to enjoy those instructions so he guessed that everyone felt about the same way about Finch. No one was going to miss him. When Finch came in the room, he had that odd look of defiance and fear that he always had. Owen had no patience with it any longer nor did he have any reason left to coddle the man.

“We’ve got a meeting tonight with Cartwright at the place Clark has rented. You’re going to be there. We’re going to confront Cartwright and get him to become violent. Then he’s going to be arrested. Your part in this ends tonight but not sooner. Do you understand me?”

Finch wanted so much to object, but at least Owen was telling him it was about to be over. He only had to go to the meeting. “So you want me there to get Cartwright upset enough to attack me again? But you’ll be there to stop him and he’ll get arrested?”

“He’ll get arrested. Never fear. By the end of tonight, your worries will be over and Cartwright will be sitting in jail.”

Finch wasn’t quite sure how to interpret the sneer that Owen had, but he had to assume it was because Owen’s plan was about to succeed. “All right. I’ll do it, but then that’s it. I’m not doing another thing for you.”

“I can promise you, Finch, that after tonight, I will never ask another favor of you.”

“All right. You’ll get me when you need me then?” Owen nodded and Finch moved toward the door looking at the men in the room for any sign that they were going to object. None did. He left as hurriedly as he could. Somehow he never felt safe when he was with those men. He never had questioned why Owen wanted to do this to Adam Cartwright either. He should have. Instead he went to his room and nursed his sore jaw until there was a knock on his door at six.

“Clark did his work. He told Cartwright he had information on what was going on but said the man who needed to tell him couldn’t be seen talking to him. He told him where we would be meeting. He agreed to be there at seven. We’re all going to be waiting for him.”

Owen, Finch, and Clark left then one-by-one after they gave Finch directions to the house and sent him out first. Clark went next and Owen went last. All three were in the house by the time Adam arrived. Zee had said he didn’t trust Clark so he trailed Adam and planned to sneak up on the house after Adam entered.

At the window, Owen watched Adam arrive at the house and look around to make sure there was nothing suspicious that he could see. There was a carriage and a horse. The house was lit up normally. He walked to the door and knocked, and Owen signaled to Clark to let him in. When Adam walked in, he was surprised to see Finch there, and then when he saw Owen, he knew why Clark had seemed vaguely familiar. The two men together made the memory come back to him. Owen could see it in the way he reacted. As a precaution, he had a pistol in his hand and kept it pointed at Adam from the moment he entered the house.

“You see. That’s exactly what I feared. You remember seeing us leave that house in Denver as you arrived.”

“You’re going to prison.”

“No, but before the night is out, you’ll be arrested. If you think your friend outside is going to be any help, he’s dead already.” Finch turned to Owen in shock at that statement. Owen kept his gun trained squarely on Adam’s midsection as he ordered Clark to take Adam’s pistol.

The door opened again and one of Owen’s men stepped inside. “Johnson got the other one. Knifed him. He’s dead. What should we do with him?”

“Have Johnson take him far from the city and away from any roads and bury him. He should cover it up so no one will ever find it.”

Owen could see that Adam covered his shock well. He wouldn’t have to act much longer. Owen nodded to Clark who hit Adam in the back of the head stunning him and knocking him to the floor. He kicked him a few times for good measure then until Owen told him to stop.

“Finch is a small man. He wouldn’t have done much damage.”

Finch was confused by what was happening, and he was never going to understand it. Clark raised Adam’s pistol, turned to Finch, and shot him point blank in the chest killing him almost instantly. He casually dropped the pistol next to Adam, kicked over a table and some chairs to make it look like there had been a fight, and walked out the door. Owen broke a few glasses and knocked a picture off the wall before following Clark out the door. Clark had rented the house in Finch’s name. Johnson had a job to do, but the rest of his men were going to stay there until the sheriff arrived, and then they would tell him they had heard shots or at least a shot fired. Adam Cartwright’s good friend was going to go inside that house, find an unarmed Finch shot dead by Adam Cartwright’s pistol, and have to arrest Adam Cartwright for murder. Owen and Clark had another house rented and had moved out of the hotel that afternoon without telling Finch. They planned to lay low and wait for events to play out as they hoped they would and would help them along as needed. They would wait for their men to return to tell them what had happened.

*****

Chapter 6

Knowing what they were doing, Adam was powerless to stop them. His face was pressed into the floor as he struggled to overcome the pain from the kicks as well as the dizziness from the blow to his head. He had heard the shot and felt as much as heard the body drop. Even stunned as he was, it wasn’t difficult to conclude that Finch was the one who had been shot. Adam worried about Zee and wondered if he was dead. It had all turned into a horrible mess very quickly. He should have listened to Sarah when she told him and Zee not to go to the meeting. They had thought Clark was not a threat or not enough of a threat for them to take more backup. It had been a mistake. Using what strength he could summon, Adam managed to pull himself to his knees, right an overturned chair, and sit on it. With his elbows on his knees, he was able to stay in the chair, and his eyes gradually adjusted to the dim light in the room so he could see Finch’s body sprawled out not more than ten feet from him. He was in no shape to do anything more than wait for someone to arrive, and he guessed it was likely to be Sheriff Roy Coffee. He hoped Roy would believe him when he told the story he was going to have to tell but wondered how much he should say before he talked to Sarah and to his father. When Roy got there, he didn’t tell him much. Roy did what he had to do.

“Adam, did you shoot this man?”

“No, there was another man here who shot him. Don’t bother checking my pistol though because he took my gun as soon as I got here, and he shot Finch with it after he hit me.”

“Now who was this man?”

“He said his name was Clark. There was another man here too, but I don’t know his name. I saw both of them in Denver when I was working for the government. They were on the other side.”

“What possible reason could they have for wanting Finch dead? Seems to me they’d like you being blamed for all that trouble ifn they was part of it, and Finch was laying all the blame on you for everything.”

“They want me out of the way. Being blamed for killing Finch is their way to do that.”

“Adam, I hate to say this, but I gotta take ya in. Until this is all straightened out, the evidence is stacked up against ya, boy. All those people who heard ya threaten him and now he’s dead by your gun, and you’re the only one here with five men outside saying no one else left. I gotta do my sworn duty.”

“I know, Roy. I expected it, but could you do me one favor?”

“What’s that?”

“I need a shoulder to lean on.”

Once Adam was in a cell, Roy sent a deputy to the Ponderosa to inform them of what had happened. He wanted to tell them but needed to get going on the investigation. He sent Clem to the house where Finch’s body was to take care of that end, and he went to the hotel to question the clerk there. He found out that a Clark had been staying there.

“He checked out early today, Sheriff. He left town.”

“Well, Mister Finch didn’t check out, but he won’t be coming back. You kin send his stuff over to the undertakers.”

Roy didn’t answer any questions but left immediately to see if Clem had found out anything. He hadn’t. The men there claimed that no one had left the house after they had heard the shot. That meant there were five witnesses to dispute Adam’s version of events. They weren’t exactly stellar witnesses, but a jury was likely to believe them because they were five to his one. It wasn’t looking at all good for Adam, and then Roy saw Ben drive a carriage into town with his deputy riding beside him, and he headed back to his office knowing that they would want to see Adam. He had to assume that the person he saw sitting next to Ben was Sarah and expected that the next few hours were going to be unpleasant for him. They were to some extent except Adam told both his wife and his father not to blame Roy. Then he made Roy wonder because he kept asking if he ought to tell Roy the whole story. Finally Roy had had enough.

“Of course, you ought to tell me the whole story. Dammit, I’m the best friend you got in this whole mess, and I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s going on.”

That was the first time that Roy realized that Sarah was crying. She was a strong woman, and he wouldn’t have expected her to cry about Adam being in jail. He expected temper not tears. Adam saw him staring.

“She’s upset because a friend of ours might have died tonight.” Roy looked even more confused so Adam began to tell the story about Xavier Gilbert or the man they knew as Zee. Adam explained the theory that Finch’s book was a conspiracy to draw Zee there and that the people in the conspiracy probably wanted to eliminate Zee as well as Adam and Sarah.

“Now I met this Xavier. He come into my office and told me what he was doing and swore me to the strictest confidence. I knew he was gonna be watching that Finch feller and he told me he thought there were others involved, but I never heard nothing more from him. But they ain’t killed ya or even tried to.”

“Haven’t they? If convicted, I’ll get the gallows for shooting an unarmed man. Putting me in jeopardy will be their method to try to draw out the fourth agent. Mike was already contacted by Zee. We assume he’s on his way, but he hasn’t contacted us, and Zee hadn’t heard from him either. I hope he knows what kind of hornets’ nest he’s riding into.”

“What about Sarah? They must think she’s as much a danger to them as you are and this other feller you’re worried about.”

Ben stepped closer to his daughter-in-law and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “We’ll protect her on the Ponderosa. No one will harm her or Andrew.”

“Pa, I’m sorry for dragging all of you into this again.”

“It’s not your fault, Adam. You can’t be responsible for what evil men do.”

“Adam, I’d like to let you out of here, but I can’t see as how I can legally do that with the evidence I have right now. I think a judge has to do it.”

“I understand that, Roy. This might be the best thing anyway.”

Roy and Ben looked surprised at that, but Sarah nodded. “Yes, they think their plan is working. They think they’re using the law to get their way. But Roy is correct too in wondering how they plan to come after me. Why haven’t they tried anything yet?”

All were quiet for a time until Adam spoke softly. “Maybe this is it. Maybe luring you to town with Pa was the plan. You might not be getting home safely. Now that I’m here, they can go after you. They wouldn’t have done anything to you while the deputy was with you, but you and Pa will leave alone. You’ll be vulnerable until you get back home. A distraught father and a distraught wife riding in a carriage at night: anything could happen.”

“Son, sometimes it frightens me the way you can get into the minds of villains like that, but you’re right about that sounding like the kind of thing they might do. We need a better plan.”

“What if I send Clem and another deputy to escort you to the Ponderosa? I don’t think they want to create that kind of trouble, and they won’t be expecting it.” Roy sounded hopeful that his addition could help. The others agreed that his idea was good.

“Pa, we’ll need a few extra men to set night guards too. Why don’t you go ask some of the men who usually do that for us to go with you now? I doubt they’ll attack a party of six or eight. Roy, make sure to give them my rifle and my pistol. If there is trouble, the extra firearms will come in handy.”

“I guess I’ll be sleeping here are the jail tonight too. I don’t want anything to happen to Adam, and now all my deputies are going to be busy.”

Within an hour, Roy had the front and back doors of his office locked and barred. He grabbed a blanket, a shotgun, and an extra pillow and bunked down in the cell next to the one occupied by Adam. The two talked for a short time, and then Roy got up and went to get another pistol, which he gave to Adam.

“I know you won’t use it on me, but I feel better knowing you can defend yourself if anything surprising happens here.”

On the road, five sets of eyes watched the procession heading to the Ponderosa main house and reflected some serious concern about how they were going to tell their boss they had failed in this mission. He had been so happy earlier in the evening. Now they had to give him the bad news. He gave them new orders as soon as they gave him the bad news. They didn’t like the new orders, but the man paid well, and they had no doubt what would happen if they crossed him. They turned around and headed back to the Ponderosa wondering where their other man was. They discussed how long it could take to haul a body out to a desolate spot and bury it so no one would ever find it. Of course they didn’t have much respect for the man who had been sent to do the job so they laughed a bit about what he was probably doing. Then they got serious and talked about how they could accomplish this new goal.

At their planned destination, but hours earlier, Augie had been startled into a near heart attack when a man suddenly appeared in the parlor. The man had a weapon on his hip and looked like the kind who knew how to use a pistol like that and use it well. Augie was sure he had locked every window and he knew he had locked and barred the doors, so he wondered how the man had entered Adam’s home. “How the hell did you get in here?”

“More importantly I would think you would want to know who I am. I know I want to know who you are.”

“I’m Augie Mueller. I’m Sarah’s Pa. Now would you happen to be that Mike that Adam and his friend Zee been waiting for?”

“That answers a number of questions actually. Obviously Adam trusts you or you wouldn’t have had that much information, so yes, I’m Mike. Now, where are Adam and Sarah?”

So Augie told him about what had happened to Adam and that Ben had taken Sarah to town to see him. “I can’t tell you any more because that’s all we were told before Sarah left. Marcella and I stayed here to watch over Andrew. They’re both upstairs.”

“Ever heard of the phrase ‘divide and conquer’ because I think it may apply here.”

“You are a suspicious sort, aren’t you?”

“It’s what’s kept me alive for so long.”

“So you’re thinking they may come here?” Mike nodded. “But why?”

“What better hostage than Adam’s son to get him and Sarah to do exactly what they want? They may be waiting for Sarah to come back too. They may even think that taking the two of you hostage could work against Sarah. We should be ready for anything.” Mike waited briefly for Augie to understand and to agree before he began outlining what they should do including turning down all the oil lamps in the house so that no one outside could see anything on the inside and would probably think they had gone to bed. They got ready for a fight.

As Ben and Sarah and their group reached the main house of the Ponderosa to be greeted by Hoss and Joe who had waited up worried about what had happened, there was the sudden sound of gunfire from Adam’s house. All scrambled for weapons and horses to race to Adam’s house as Ben told Sarah to get inside and lock the house.

“I want to help. It’s my son and my parents.”

“You’ll only be in the way. We have a better chance of protecting them if we don’t have to protect you at the same time.”

Reluctantly, Sarah agreed and went in the house terrified for her son and parents but knowing Ben was right. She locked the door and got a pistol as she watched out the window knowing she would be dying inside for every second until she saw them bring her son and her parents safely back to the main house.

In the fight at Adam’s house, Owen’s two men realized that with so many men there to fight them, there couldn’t be many left at the main house. They left the other three who had been hired locally to fight against the force that was overwhelming and headed toward the main house thinking they might salvage something quite good from the night yet. While the three they left behind kept all those men busy, they hoped they could bring back at least one hostage.

*****

Chapter 7

Before riding to the main house, Owen’s two men grabbed one of the Ponderosa horses. When they neared the house, Ribble asked Gallagher how he planned to get Sarah to let her guard down.

“She don’t know us and ain’t got any reason to trust us. She may shoot us as strangers.”

“Ribble, I got a plan. There’s one way to get a woman to trust you, and I plan to use it. Trust me. This is gonna work.”

They rode into the yard at a fast pace, dismounted, and Gallagher ran up to the door and pounded on it. From the other side of the locked door, he heard Sarah’s voice.

“I don’t know you. Back away or I’ll shoot right through this door.”

“Ma’am, Mister Cartwright sent us. He told us to come get you. Your baby got hurt with some flying glass when a bullet took out a window upstairs at your house. He said to grab a horse, any horse, and come get you.”

“Oh, my God.” She opened the door then to ask a question probably and to accompany them, and Hop Sing’s warning of “Missy, no!” came too late. The shock and fear for her baby was clear in her expression. As soon as she stepped outside the door, Gallagher grabbed her and then Ribble stepped up to help. Hop Sing pointed his shotgun at them and ordered them to release her.

“You shoot and you’ll kill her too. If you don’t, I will. Now we’re taking her with us, and if you try to stop us, I’ll shoot her in the head. You understand that, Chinaman?” Gallagher had Sarah partially shielding his body.

Helpless to do anything without hurting Sarah, Hop Sing could only watch as the two men took Sarah with them. A bandana was used to gag her, and they used another to tie her hands dragging her to the extra horse and forcing her to mount up by placing a pistol against her head.

“You don’t want to make your baby an orphan child, do ya?”

Two hours later, Sarah was roughly pulled from that horse and forced to walk to the house that Clark and Owen were using to lay low. It was on a large one acre lot and ringed with a fence and lots of shrubs and trees. It was almost impossible to see the house until you were halfway up the drive. No one could see them force Sarah into the house, and they had been very careful that no one saw them ride to the house with a gagged woman. Ribble had put his coat on her to disguise that she was a woman, and put his hat on her too ordering her to drop her head down. Anyone seeing them especially at that hour of the predawn morning would likely assume they were bringing home a drunken friend. At the house, once she was inside, the coat and hat were removed showing a defiant Sarah but also a worried one.

“What do we do with her, boss?”

“Tie her up in one of the bedrooms and use something better than that bandana. You don’t have to be gentle with her. We only need her alive until her husband is convicted. Once you get that done, get back here and tell me what happened that you ended up with her instead of the baby. Not that I’m complaining but I need to know what happened.”

Owen smiled one of those feral smiles of his that always left his men wondering if he was pleased or upset because it was so hard to tell. Owen knew it too and enjoyed the look on their faces as they shoved Sarah down the hall toward one of the bedrooms. Within a few minutes, they were back.

“Somehow they knew we were coming. There were two men there and they had the place set up like a fortress. We woulda been able to get them anyway except a small army came over from the other house. We were five against maybe ten times that many, but it was in the dark so it was gonna take ’em some time to finish us off. It was then that I figured Ribble and I might go on over to the other house to see if she was alone and she was.”

“Very good, but how did you ever get close to her. With her experience and with all that shooting going on, I would have thought she would have been very suspicious.”

“Boss, Gallagher told her that her baby got hurt in the fight and Mister Cartwright sent us to get her. She opened up that door right quick when he said that.”

Owen actually laughed out loud at that. He enjoyed it so much that he told the two men to get a drink and sit down with him and Clark. Then he asked what happened to the other three men.

“My guess is that they got shot or arrested, but seeing as how they was gonna be facing murder and the gallows, my guess is that they’re dead. I’m sorry we couldn’t do nothing about them.”

“That’s all right. If they’re alive, they’ll be more afraid of me than anything, and we’ll get a lawyer to go tell them that we’ll take care of them and not to worry. They won’t talk. Now is that Johnson fellow back yet? The one who killed the Zee fellow and the one I sent out to get rid of the body?”

“Not yet, but if he’s doing the job right, he probably won’t be back until dawn at least. Takes a while to dig a deep hole like that and then cover it well. We told him to make sure no one would find it, and we didn’t think we’d need him for anything very soon anyway. He don’t seem so bright, boss.”

“He isn’t, but sometimes it’s good to have a few strong backs like that around to do the heavy lifting just like tonight. None of you wanted that dirty job, did you?” Owen could tell by their looks that they had been happy to let Matt do that particular task.

“Boss, as long as she ain’t gonna live anyway, and she’s real pretty and all, Ribble and I were wondering if it would be all right if we, you know, kinda took turns with her?”

Disgusted by them but understanding the desire, Owen frowned. “Not right now. I want to get some sleep and I don’t want that noise. Later, you can have her all you want. Oh, but one of you needs to get arrested tonight for being drunk and causing a disturbance. I need you to deliver a message to Cartwright in jail before you get out in the morning.”

“What message?”

“That he better stay in that jail and plead guilty or his wife is going to die. That ought to be a good enough message for him.”

“Won’t he know that she’s gonna die anyway?”

“Yes, but he won’t want to rush it by walking out of that jail free. He’ll want that fourth man to find a way to rescue her. Meanwhile, we’ll hold her until he hangs and we’ll wait for the fourth one to show up to try to do just that.”

With that, Owen went to get some sleep. He slept well and woke about five. The house had been quiet so he assumed the others had followed his orders and left Sarah alone. He decided to go out and let them have their fun now as soon as they had some food ready for him. When he opened the bedroom door, he smelled food cooking but also smelled human waste. It was disgusting. As he passed Sarah’s room, he knew what she had done and smiled in appreciation of her resourcefulness even as he objected to the crudeness of it. He pulled the door closed and continued to the kitchen. He complimented the men there on the food as he sat at the table and told them Sarah was all theirs. A minute later he heard swearing and some furniture being kicked about and then all three stormed back into the kitchen.

“Smells like a damn Army latrine in there.”

“Do you know what she did?”

“Yes, I know. She must have overheard our earlier conversation and took defensive measures. Make sure she’s tied securely and then close that door. Let her enjoy the fruits of her labors for the next couple of days. She doesn’t need any food or water to add to what she’s already done.”

“Boss, Ribble and I took a walk. There’s three bodies over to the undertakers. Lots of talk in town of how there was an attack on Adam Cartwright’s house last night by those three. No one seems to have any idea why it happened. The rest of the talk is about Adam shooting Finch. Most seem to think he mighta done it.”

“Good! That’s all good. Now I don’t see Johnson. Hasn’t he come back yet?”

“No, and we got worried too and looked around for him. Kinda asked about him saying we were supposed to play poker with him at the Bucket of Blood and couldn’t find him. Ain’t nobody seen him.”

“I don’t like it. What kind of trouble has he gotten into?”

“Well, Ribble is gonna stand guard and I’m gonna get some drinks in me and cause some trouble. Ribble will bail me out in the morning. I’ll give Cartwright the warning, but I’ll listen too to see if the Sheriff says anything about Matt or about anything else.”

Still a bit worried about Matt’s absence, Owen did approve of the rest of the plan. He didn’t rest easy that night though because Matt still didn’t come back, and he worried about what he knew and could be telling someone. Matt was doing his best to come back but found it difficult trussed as he was and tied to his saddle. He had thought he had killed the man. He had certainly acted as if he was dead and he had bled a lot. He had let Matt tie him over the saddle and then lead him miles into the pines to find a secluded spot to bury him. Matt had dug a nice deep hole too without benefit of lantern light or anything else. It had been a test of his nerves and his skills to manage that. Finally he was ready to put the body in the grave and had gone to untie him from the saddle. He pulled him down and dragged him over to the hole, but as he was ready to push him in, the man had reached out a hand, grabbed him by the throat, and thrown him in his own grave. Before he had a chance to react, the man had drawn a pistol and pressed it against his forehead.

“I may be wounded and weak, but I can still pull this trigger, boy. Drop your pistol into that damn hole now. The climb out the other side and walk slowly over here.”

With a pistol on him the whole time, he had been forced to help the man bandage the knife wound in his side. He was wet with blood down his left side all the way to his knee and across to his right side. Matt had no idea how he was even still awake much less alive. He tried to ask him questions but the man told him to shut up and he had the pistol. Then he tied Matt’s hands behind his back before ordering him to get up on his horse.

“Now how can I do that with my hands behind my back?”

“You better find a way or you’ll be using that grave as your own.”

The man had the voice of death so Matt managed to grab his horse’s reins with his right hand even behind his back and led his horse to a fallen log. Then carefully, he climbed on the log and then managed to get himself in the saddle. He looked back with a smile of triumph that faded rapidly as he saw the pistol aimed at his chest. A rope was looped around him and tied under the belly of the horse effectively tying him to the saddle and the horse.

“Don’t even think about giving that horse a kick.”

The man had taken his horses reins then and led him around to where the other horse was. He stood for a moment leaning against the other horse and then managed to pull himself into that saddle. He rode slowly out leading Matt’s horse. Matt asked where they were going but the man said nothing. After a while, Matt knew they weren’t headed to town. He guessed they were headed toward the Ponderosa, and he was plenty worried about that. The going was slow and he saw the man having trouble keeping his seat. He waited for hours and finally it happened. The man fell from his horse and lay still on the ground. Matt was bound to his saddle with his hands tied behind him. All he could do was lean down and use his knees and his feet to kick the horse to go and try to get him to turn with knee commands. It was slow going. He had told them that he had killed that man, and he guessed that it was finally true or would soon be true, but he worried about what they would say when they found out that he had not buried him. He tried to think of a way to explain it that didn’t make him look like a complete fool. The sun was setting before he saw the buildings of Virginia City. He was actually grateful for that because he had a chance to ride to the house where the boss was without being seen by any one.

While Matt slowly made his way to town, Gallagher was having drinks and getting progressively more belligerent until he got into a fight. As expected, because there were damages, he was asked to pay. He refused and Sheriff Coffee was summoned.

“You can pay the damages now, or you can spend the night in jail, sober up, and pay the damages plus a fine in the morning.”

“I don’t owe nothing. That other moron started the fight. Let him pay damages.”

As expected then, Gallagher was taken to jail and ended up in the other cell. He listened as Adam and Roy talked. Adam was desperately worried about his wife, and apparently his brothers had gone out tracking the men who had taken her and they knew she was being held in town somewhere. Roy and his deputies were investigating and trying to locate where she might be. That had Gallagher worried for he knew his boss had no idea that they had that information. They did confirm that the three local men they had hired had been killed in the assault on Adam’s house. At least with that, there were no loose ends. Finally, all was quiet so Gallagher played the rest of the role of a drunk and slept the night away. In the morning, Ribble was there to pay his fine and the damages. As Gallagher was about to be released because he heard Ribble in the office talking to Roy, he leaned up against the bars to whisper to Adam.

“Plead guilty in that hearing today and say you don’t want a trial or your wife will be delivered in a box to this office tomorrow. Don’t tell this to anyone.”

Gallagher jumped back as Adam stood and lunged toward him. The bars separated them or Gallagher was sure that the man would have killed him. He smiled at him instead as Roy came in to release him.

“Good luck in your hearing today, friend. I hope you get to see your wife again before you hang.”

“Now that ain’t no way to talk to him. You get yourself outta here before I decide to lock you up again for disorderly conduct.”

Gallagher could tell that he had angered the sheriff, but he didn’t mind. The game was almost over, and his side was winning.

*****

Chapter 8

On the Ponderosa, Zee rolled over and felt excruciating pain even as nausea and dizziness assailed him. He pulled himself to a tree and managed to get himself propped up against it as he evaluated his situation. Wounded, weak, without a horse, and not knowing where he was were the negatives. He was alive and had his pistol and those were the only positives. He wished the horse had stuck around. He might have managed to get back on it. He wondered what the man he had tied to the saddle was going to do. He had heard the others call him Matt and Johnson so had to assume that his name was Matt Johnson, and he hoped to have the opportunity to meet him again someday to repay him for what he had done.

Instead though, Matt was meeting Hoss and Candy. Owen had been so angry with him that he had sent him back to find Zee and make sure he was dead. He hadn’t known he was on Ponderosa land. In his defense, he was new to the area and didn’t realize how big the ranch was. However that morning as he searched for Zee, Hoss and Candy had found a saddled horse.

“Hoss, there’s a lot of blood dried on this saddle and you can see it dripped down the side here. Somebody was hurt bad and slung over this saddle.”

“Well, we better find him to see ifn he’s still alive whoever it is.”

Who they found instead though was Matt Johnson as he searched for Zee. Things looked so different in daylight as he struggled to retrace his path from the previous night. When Hoss and Candy saw him, he never saw them as he was trying to follow his own tracks. When they rode up on him, he tried to make up an excuse but there was no point to it once they saw him.

“Mister, how’d you get blood all over your clothes like that?”

“Me and Hoss here found a horse that had blood all over the saddle, and now we find you with blood all over you. Seems a mite on the suspicious side to me.”

About to turn and try to escape, Matt never had a chance as both Hoss and Candy saw the telltale signs of it in his mannerisms and drew down on him before he had a chance to wheel his horse around to flee.

“Now how about you tell me and Candy what you know.”

Matt wouldn’t talk, but both Hoss and Candy soon noticed the path through the pasture grass that they assumed he had been following. They disarmed him and tied his hands. Matt sighed. Based on his expression, he was going to give up this line of work. Hoss decided it was time to encourage him.

“My brother is sitting in jail, and jest maybe you know something could help him. You talk now and we could see our way to putting in a good word with the judge. Cartwrights got some say in what happens ’round here.”

“You’re a Cartwright too?”

“Yeah. You’re on the Ponderosa right now.”

Matt dropped his head in resignation and started talking a moment later. They found Zee soon after and Hoss got him to the main house for medical attention. Then he and Candy took Matt to town to hand him over to Roy. When they got to the jail, they had another big surprise. They had to fish the keys out of one cell where they were laying under the cot. Then they unlocked the cell where an angry Roy was sitting on the cot.

“Your brother has got a lot to answer for.”

“He did this to you?”

“Well, no, but that friend of his, Mike, did. He come in here all friendly like and when I turned my back, he stuck a gun in it. I said he wouldn’t shoot me, but he said he would. He said he’d put one in my foot or my hand just enough to put me out of commission and Adam would get out of my jail either way so did I want to let him out or get shot and watch him get let out.”

“My brother let him do that?”

“Well, he did tell Mike not to do it, but Mike said ifn he pleaded guilty today, they was gonna kill Sarah. That was all it took. Adam never said nothing against it after that. They’re out there looking for Sarah, I guess.”

“Well, Mister Lewis better watch out then.”

“Mister Lewis?”

“Yeah, Roy, we got a guest to take Adam’s place. And he’s gonna tell you a fine story. Now I do wish he knew more of it, but he’ll tell you what he knows. He didn’t see the shooting of Finch if you’re wondering, but he’s got some other information that will help Adam’s case like the two men who left that house after Finch got shot.”

“By rights, I should go after Adam and his friend for jail-breaking.”

“Roy, if a man works for the government and releases an innocent man from jail, is that jail-breaking?”

“Well, um, Hoss, I don’t know if I can just let it go like that.”

“Let’s see what we can do today. Hiram said he was going to get that hearing delayed so maybe he can delay it some more. By the time it’s scheduled, there may be a whole different set of people in there being charged with murdering Finch. You do want the right ones charged, dontcha?”

“All right, but you two are gonna wear deputy badges then. When you catch up to your brother, he’s gonna be in your custody then so I can rightly say he never broke out of jail.”

“You got an extra one there for Joe? He was coming in right behind us with some more men to keep on with the search for Sarah. When we find Adam, we’ll let him know where we already looked and where Matt here told us to look.”

“He told you where Sarah is, didn’t he?”

“He did, but we need to get her out of a house where four armed men are holding her. Trust us, Roy. We’ll do it.”

Once they got out of Roy’s office, both headed to the livery stable where Joe had rented a large freight wagon. He had extra wood installed already on one side up to about three feet. He had just gotten extra long reins from the livery stable so that someone could direct the team from the bed of the freight wagon. A moment later, two men arrived with a small box of dynamite and caps and cord.

“Looks like we’re all set. Now, we got to find Adam and Mike.”

“Find them?”

“Yeah, Joe, Mike broke Adam out of jail last night. They’re looking for Sarah. One way or another, we’re all gonna be heading for the same place. Maybe ifn we all ride toward that house by different ways, they’ll see us and contact us.”

It worked that way too. Adam stepped out to hail Hoss as he drove the wagon. Hoss pulled up and told Adam to get Mike because they were headed to the house where Sarah was being held. “Owen Lewis and a man named Clark have her with two men named Ribble and Gallagher as hired guns. Adam, we got a plan.”

“It better be a good one.”

“It is.” Hoss filled him in on what they planned to do, and Adam told him which part he and Mike would do. Hoss had figured them for that anyway so the plan was intact. At the house, Joe climbed up into a tree and they all waited until he whistled like a bird. It meant that he had a clear rifle shot into the windows of the house and to the front door. Hoss then worked his way into the shrubbery until he had a good firing position to do the same. Once that was accomplished, Candy got ready to drive the wagon with one of the other men in the back with him. They were going to get as close as they could to the house and then start throwing sticks of dynamite at the house trying to blow holes in the front or at the least create a hell of a diversion. Mike and Adam were working their way around to the back of the house, and once the fight began, they would enter the house and find Sarah. Timing was crucial. The men inside would undoubtedly rush to the front with the dynamite blasts, but within seconds, they might realize it was a diversion or decide they needed Sarah as a shield. By that time, Adam and Mike had to be in the house to stop them from harming Sarah. Joe and Hoss hoped to take out two of the men in the house if possible to narrow the odds. Then if the shooting stopped from the front of the house, they would all rush in from the front to help.

The plan worked well. Gallagher was the first image to appear at a window and Joe shot him. The next was Ribble and Hoss got him. That first shot let Clark know that it was an all-out assault and he quickly turned to go get Sarah as the insurance they would need to escape. Adam and Mike shot him as he entered the hallway to the bedrooms at the rear of the house. Knowing it was hopeless, Owen disarmed himself tossing his pistol toward where Ribble lay dying. He then called out to Mike and Adam in the hallway.

“I’m coming out. I’m unarmed. Thank God, you saved me from these outlaws.” His tone and attitude belied his words. Adam and Mike knew he was lying and said so. “You have no evidence against me. Oh, and those men tied Sarah up in that room.”

Owen pointed to the room where Sarah was tied to the bed. Adam opened the door and almost gagged at the smell. He rushed to open the windows and then to free his wife who lay in her own filth on the bed with her wrists and ankles bleeding from being rubbed raw by rough ropes. She cried but no tears came because she was so dehydrated. Mike watched and then walked to Owen and slugged him in the belly doubling the man over. He used his knee to bring Owen’s head back up and knock him flat on the floor on his back before he swung his leg back and connected forcefully with the man’s privates. He left him there moaning as he went to get water, soap, and towels. He brought those back to Adam and asked what else he needed. Adam was holding Sarah and asked if he could find something for her to eat. Mike left and pulled the door closed so that they would have some privacy to get her cleaned up a bit. By then, Hoss and Joe and the others were inside. Roy arrived a moment later. Owen had caught his breath and pointed at Mike.

“I want that man arrested for assault. He attacked me and I was unarmed.”

“Mike, did you do that?”

“I had to subdue him so that I could get the things that Adam needed to help Sarah. She’s been tied up since they took her and even her most basic needs weren’t met. It was a shame the condition she was in.”

Mike didn’t have to say any more than that. People didn’t treat women like that as far as Roy was concerned. In fact, no one in the whole area would have accepted treating any woman that way. He decided he better get Owen locked up before any more people heard about what he had done.

“What are you locking me up for? I was a victim here like any other.”

“Oh, I think not. I’ll tell you more about it at the jail. You boys want to come with me and let Adam and Sarah have some privacy here? We can take these bodies out of here too and take ’em back in that freight wagon ya used. We can send the doc over and he can bring Adam and Sarah back in his carriage. Maybe one of you could see to getting a clean dress at the store and sending it with the doc.”

They all wanted to see Owen’s face when he saw Matt Johnson sitting in a cell at the jail, but Hoss said he’d get a dress and whatever else the ladies at the store might think that Sarah would need. Joe said he’d go get the doctor and they would stop at the store to pick up whatever packages Hoss had ready for them. Everyone else got to see the look of surprise Owen had, but he didn’t give up easily.

“Surely you don’t think the word of someone like that is equal to mine. Reasonable doubt will get me off. My word against his.”

“Oh, we got a bit more than that. You see, we got Sarah and what she’ll say, and we got some from Adam, but the best witness of all is Finch.”

“Finch! But Finch is dead!”

“That he is, but the man should have been a journalist and not a hack writer. He could have been a fine investigator too. You see, he wrote down every darn thing you ever said to him and even put the dates on ’em. He made observations too. He drew sketches and darn good sketches they are too. The undertaker was a going through his things seeing what should be kept and maybe if there was anything to be sent to family and he come across this stuff that he thought I ought to see. I already showed all this to the judge and he says it’s all admissible as evidence in a trial. Now with what else we got, and with this treasure trove of information, I’d say you could be on that gallows in less than a week.”

“But I didn’t kill anyone.”

Roy didn’t have much patience for his excuses and stared at him with those eyes that had seen a lot of men complaining that they were innocent once they were caught. “Conspiracy to commit murder and ordering someone to commit murder is the same charge and the same penalty, and we got you dead to rights on those. Oh, I can pretty much guarantee a jury is gonna see it that way too.”

For the first time in decades, Owen Lewis had no plan, no idea of what to do next. He sat down heavily on the cot in his cell and stared at the floor. Everyone there had thought they might cheer at that point, but they found instead that they only wanted to leave. Being anywhere near Owen Lewis made them feel dirty. Roy knew how they felt. Often he felt that way when he had men locked in his cells for perpetrating some awful offenses. It seemed that even the air was fouled by having them there. It had that kind of feel with Owen there. Once he was gone, the cells would need a complete cleaning and airing out. Hopefully it wouldn’t be long. The judge was in town and said he would stay. The evidence was overwhelming. As soon as Sarah was capable of testifying, the trial would begin. Roy hoped that Adam or his brothers would let him know soon about Sarah.

*****

Chapter 9

After crying for a time, Sarah next had begged Adam to please take her home.

“I can’t take you home yet. You don’t have to worry about Andrew. He’s fine. Hoss and Joe told me that your parents and Pa have been taking great care of him and he’s fine and safe at Pa’s house. I’m sure he’s missing you, but we need to get you cleaned up first. Your wrists and ankles need to be seen by Paul.”

“No, Adam. I don’t want him to see me like this.”

“Then you need to let me help you clean up.”

Logic won out, and Sarah began cooperating with Adam’s efforts to clean her up. He had already stripped the bed and thrown the offending bedding out the window. Now he helped Sarah shed her soiled clothing and he threw that out the window as well. With the windows open and the soiled material gone, the room began to smell much better. Adam had a sheet he had found in an armoire and used that to wrap around Sarah’s shoulders as he gently washed her from the waist down. He dumped that water out and refilled the basin. Then he wrapped the sheet around her lower body and softly sponged her upper body before pulling the sheet back up to wrap around her. Tossing that water, he next had her sit in a chair as he turned his attention to her badly abraded wrists and ankles. He was beginning to bathe those in cool water when there was a knock on the door startling Sarah, but Hoss’ voice immediately reassured them.

“Me and Joe got Doc Martin with us and some clothes for Sarah from the store.”

“Sarah, can I let the doctor in now?” She nodded so Adam went to the door letting in the doctor who went immediately to Sarah’s side. “Hoss, there’s some stuff outside the bedroom window that needs to be burned.”

“We can take care of that for ya. Anything else ya need?”

“More clean water. I emptied both pitchers you brought earlier, and I don’t want to leave her yet to get anything.”

Understanding why without any more details, Hoss went to get some water after Adam gave him the empty pitchers. Then Adam was able to refill the basin with clean water for the doctor who was examining Sarah’s wrists and telling her they were going to need bandages, but he thought her ankles probably would be fine with being kept clean and with wearing soft stockings. He had to ask if there was anywhere else that she had been injured, and Adam answered for her telling the doctor that he had seen nothing to indicate any other injury. Paul knew Adam would have had him check even for the slightest hint of a problem so it saved Sarah the extra pressure of having Paul have to examine her at that point. Once her wrists were treated and bandaged, and her ankles cleaned up, Paul told Adam that rest, good food, and good care were the prescription. Both men smiled those little smiles that said they knew that was exactly what she was going to get and in large measure. Adam helped her dress then, and Sarah had to admit that having new, clean clothing helped banish a great deal of what had happened but walking out of that house into the fresh air did even more. Joe was there with a rented carriage. Adam nodded in appreciation of his brothers’ thoughtfulness.

“Roy had said Doc could give you a ride to his office, but Hoss and me thought you should just go on home. Sarah needs to see Andrew and be at home. She doesn’t need any more pressure today.”

“And Joe and me are riding home with ya too. Ain’t nothing here that we gotta do any more. Mike said he’s taking care of any legal stuff for ya.”

A little chagrined at that point, Adam had to tell Sarah that Mike had broken him out of jail. She wanted to know why, and he told her about Mike’s reasoning that Owen would have killed her as soon as he went to court and pleaded guilty. “And in our defense, we didn’t know that Zee was alive and that they knew about this house.”

“Zee is alive! Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Oh, I guess I thought you knew although now I don’t know why I thought that. I’m sorry. I only found out too that he survived. He’s at Pa’s house too I don’t know all the details. I guess we’ll both learn that story.”

By the time the group reached the main house, Sarah had regained some of her spirit. Adam as amazed at her resilience, but then again, her strength was one of the things that had attracted him to her in the first place. Of course, she wanted Andrew and her parents came out of the house with him with Marcella holding him. Andrew took one look at Sarah and turned his head away from her.

“What’s wrong? Doesn’t he want to see me?”

“My dear, he’s upset with you. He wonders where you’ve been for the last couple of days. He doesn’t understand anything that’s happened, but all he knows is that his mother abandoned him. Now, he’ll get over it. All babies do. Here, you take him. It won’t take him long to remember that you’re the most important person in the world to him, and he won’t even remember that you were gone.”

With a crooked little smile, Ben agreed with her. Adam asked him if he had had the same experience.

“Oh, yes, I remember coming home to children upset with me for being gone. Joseph especially could pout very well about that, but Marcella is absolutely correct that they forget all about it.”

Soon Andrew did find his favorite snuggling position with his head resting on his mother’s left shoulder. She had tears in her eyes and Adam escorted her into the house where they found Zee relaxing in the blue chair by the fireplace.

“Nice place your family has here, Adam. Couldn’t think of a nicer place to spend my recuperation.”

“I was worried there for a while that they were right when they said you were dead, but I should have know better.”

“It was close. Damn kid came out of nowhere with that pig sticker and ran me through before I had a chance to react. I was on the ground and I heard him tell the others that he had killed me. Then I knew the only chance I had was to play along with that and hoped they didn’t do anything to guarantee the kid was right. He threw me over the saddle of my horse and tied me there. I think that may have actually helped me because it put pressure on the wound and probably slowed the bleeding.”

“But how did you get away?”

“Sarah, I waited until he dug my grave. He was tired by then, and I took my only chance. I caught him so off guard, I was able to get the drop on him. Kid never disarmed me because he thought I was dead.”

“I tied him up and to his horse, but then at some point I must have fallen off mine. I don’t remember much after we started riding until I woke up here. Everything that happened is kind of foggy. It’s been so nice here though. Your father gave me the guest bedroom down here to use which is very handy. I know it’s going to be a little crowded now, but I can move to the bunkhouse if you need that room.”

Sarah was curious as to why it would be crowded and Hoss had to explain to both her and Adam. “Yer house kinda got shot up a lot. Most, well, all the windows on the front got shot out, and the door is a mess. We need to do some repair work before you kin go back home. We got a lot of your clothes here already. Your folks did most of that. You spend a week or so here and we should be able to have everything back in order.”

Zee saw the bandages on Sarah’s wrists then and asked how badly she had been hurt. “Not badly at all, Zee. This is from being tied.” Adam asked her then if she was going to tell them what she did. “Oh, I suppose I may as well tell all of you. You’re going to hear it all anyway in court, I suppose. They tied me to the bed and I overheard what they planned to do before they killed me, so I made sure that they wouldn’t like the, ah, smell or the, ah, general condition of the experience.”

“Sarah!” Marcella was shocked, but then Augie began to chuckle a bit and she stared at him.

“My dear, would you rather the other thing had happened? Our daughter certainly is resourceful.”

“I would have retched if I could have. I felt sick but I had nothing in my stomach so that didn’t work.”

Adam took one of Sarah’s hands in his as she held Andrew as she sat on the settee. “You’ve been feeling sick a lot lately.”

Grimacing slightly, Sarah had a suspicion that everyone in the room was going to guess the same thing Adam was going to guess and about the same time. “Yes, I have.”

His eyes got rather wide and then narrowed. “When were you going to tell me?”

“As soon as I was sure. I thought perhaps while my parents were still here and we had a nice peaceful dinner to discuss it, but things kind of got rather wild.”

“I thought Doctor Martin said that at your age we shouldn’t expect a child so soon.”

“I guess if we could, ah, well, we can discuss this later.” Sarah had been going to say that they made a baby with one loving encounter the first time, so she wasn’t surprised she was with child again so soon, but with an audience, she thought better about having that discussion.

“I wondered why you opened that door and let them take you.”

“I didn’t ‘let’ them take me. I fought back.”

“Of course you did, sweetheart. I meant that you’re smarter than that. Hop Sing told Hoss that he tried to warn you but you were already opening the door. But your worry about Andrew and your emotions at a peak because of being with child, and you made a mistake.”

“I know. Almost as soon as that door opened, I knew I shouldn’t have, but it was too late. They were there with guns and that was that. After being out of the business for over a year, my reflexes were off too. I wasn’t thinking like an agent any more. I was thinking like a mother, and I was still upset that you were in jail.”

“I understand. We need to make sure you have more protection in the future.”

“I’m sorry about that, Adam. I never thought of them coming here to the house.” Ben knew too that he should have stayed with Sarah instead of rushing off with the other men. If he had stayed behind, they would never have gotten her to open that door.

“It’s all right, Pa. It all worked out. We know now what we have to do for the future.”

“Maybe I could help with that.” Zee had been listening and had an idea. “I’ve been thinking of retiring too. That kid nearly retired me permanently. I think I’ve served long enough. I wouldn’t mind working for you full time and learning to be a ranch hand. I do know a thing or two about providing security too.”

Sarah looked hopefully at Adam who grinned. It was a win-win for all of them. “Zee, that sounds like a great idea, but you do know that ranch hands make a lot less money than Treasury agents do.”

“Oh, I know, but I have quite a bit of money saved. I never had much need to spend my own money while I was working so I saved and invested. I don’t really need a job, but this will be a great place to retire and live with my friends and keep busy. In fact, I was talking with Augie about a little investment I might make with him. He’s thinking of building a dairy in California and I might finance it for him. I don’t know a thing about dairying, but he does, and I have the money so it would be a fifty-fifty proposition.”

It was a tie as to who was more shocked, Sarah or Adam. They sat there openmouthed as the others smiled and waited for their response. Augie started talking when Sarah said nothing.

“Mama and I wouldn’t mind being closer to our daughter and grandchildren, but the grass here is not so good for dairy cows. Ben said that on the western slopes of the mountains though, the valleys are green with good grass and that grain can be grown. We would like to bring in good dairy cows and make butter and cheese to sell.” Hoss grimaced at the cheese idea but Augie knew how to make him smile. “Maybe we grow some hops and even make some beer. Beer and cheese are good together, and Mama makes good thick bread that makes it all good. We can have a feast.”

“You’re staying then?”

“No, we cannot stay. We have to go back home and sell the farm we bought, but there was a family interested in buying. They recently arrived and have many children to help work the farm so I think they will still want it. Then we need to find cows to bring with us and we must have a farm there in California. Mister Gilbert said he will do the purchasing as he says the people there will sell to him better than to us. I know what he means about that. My accent might make things harder at first for us, but when they taste our products and see us build a business, then they will accept us, I think.”

“And you’ll be close enough to visit.”

“Yes, to visit but not to interfere. I know how independent my daughter is. But one day, Andrew will know that both his grandfathers contributed to building this country.”

“Perhaps if you need plans drawn for the dairy or anything like that or help with construction, I could help.”

“Yes, Adam, we were hoping that you would be willing to help. What of your friend Mike?”

Looking over at Zee, Adam got the look he expected. “Mike is probably already gone. He’s the best at what we did. He’s a natural at it. Nobody among us even knows his last name. He’s a ghost. He’s there and then he’s gone. He’s the quiet one, and lots of time, people can’t even remember that much what he looked like after he leaves. Ask Roy or someone like that to describe him later and see what you get.”

Hoss and Joe looked at each other and frowned. “Joe, he had brown hair, didn’t he?”

“Kinda brown, maybe closer to light brownish. He had brown eyes though.”

“No, his eyes were dark blue.”

“No, they were definitely brown, or maybe hazel.”

“Well, he was your height.”

“He was not. He as at least as tall as Pa. Maybe even as tall as Adam.”

“Well, he was skinny.”

“He was muscular. He probably weighed two hundred pounds.”

“Aw, Joe, he did not!”

The rest of them started laughing then ending that conversation. They never heard from Mike again. There never was a need for him so he was never there again.

Owen’s trial was as swift as Roy had predicted. The defense had almost nothing so it was a full day of presenting evidence and witnesses against Owen Lewis, and then his lawyer trying to argue that he had never actually killed anyone, that the writings of a novelist shouldn’t be trusted, that a distraught woman couldn’t be expected to know who was saying what in another room, that Adam’s testimony was self-serving, and that Matt Johnson was too stupid to actually know what he was talking about. If it had only been one of those things, the jury might have been swayed, but the preponderance of the evidence was overwhelming. The jury never left the room when the judge said they should go deliberate. The front row turned to the back, all heads nodded in agreement, and the foreman asked if they all agreed he was guilty. They raised their hands and said yes. Owen jumped up and screamed that it was a miscarriage of justice. The judge told him to sit down or he would be restrained. Then he sentenced him to hang two days later. The sentence was carried out. Ben and Adam were there. They didn’t like being there, but both felt that they needed to know that justice had been done. When the noose was tightened around Owen’s neck, he began to cry, and when the trap door was about to be dropped, he looked up at the sky and suddenly screamed. The scream was abruptly choked off by the noose tightening around his neck when he dropped through the opening.

“What do you suppose the scream was about, Pa?”

“Men like that who follow the crooked paths through life and ignore God’s will often don’t believe or profess not to believe in the Almighty. I think he may have gotten a vision just before he got his final justice on earth of what his eternal reward was going to be. It must have been a terrifying and horrible sight to see what he will face for the evil that he did.”

***The End***

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